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Ouro Preto: A Colonial City's Lessons

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Ouro Preto's Santa Efigenia Church

ON THE SECOND day of my Brazilian art collector tour we visited Ouro Preto, a Brazilian colonial town nestled in a mountainous region in the center of the state of Minas Gerais, 423 miles northeast of the city of São Paulo.

The discovery of gold in the 18th century led to Ouro Preto's becoming the focus of a gold rush, as Europeans flocked there to pan for gold in the nearby streams -- and eventually this to the development of extensive mining in the area's mountains. At its peak, Ouro Preto boasted a population of 100,000, making it then the most populous city in South America. Successive generations built charming homes on winding cobble-stone streets, a spacious town square and numerous Baroque churches and four chapels. The town was declared a UNESCO World Monument site in 1980.

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A highlight of the visit to the Church of São Francisco (St. Francis), which features a magnificent painted ceiling by Manuel da Costa Ataíde. As I viewed the ceiling painting I was powerfully struck by the colonial influence has informed some of Brazil's greatest artists. And in particular I recalled the visit the day before to Inhotim's Adriana Verajão pavilion and MAM-São Paulo's stunning Verajão retrospective last year. Verajão's work employs multiple colonial references -- from the sensual intimacy of Portuguese tiles to the bravura splendor of church murals -- and a visit to Ouro Preto taught me not just about the colonial references but also informed the politics of her work. As I walked the streets and learned the history I learned how churches were segregated by race: black, mulatto and white. And I learned of the slave history that is embedded in the region's mining. All this gave an historical insight to the blood-like, bodily oozing found in the painted interstices of some of Verajão's paintings.

In and of itself, Ouro Preto is a stunning 18th-century town and well worth repeated visits. It is also a living history that illuminates important contemporary art-making practices.

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Interior of the church of St. Francis of Assisi, the most famous of Ouro Preto's churches and one of the most magnificent pieces of Minas Gerais Baroque; the wooden ceiling displays a beautiful painting by Manuel da Costa Ataíde.