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By Felicity Clarke, Contributing Reporter

RIO DE JANEIRO – With such an abundance of visual pleasures in Rio’s cityscape and on its beaches, it’s easy to overlook the city’s cultural offerings. However the collection of historic buildings in Centro given over to become blockbuster cultural centers provide alternative delights in the form of innovative contemporary exhibitions and architectural decadence.

The domed glass ceiling at Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil, photo by Anna Carol/Flickr Creative Commons License.
The domed glass ceiling at Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil, photo by Anna Carol/Flickr Creative Commons License.

Leader of the pack is Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil on the corner of Rua Primeiro de Março and Avenida Presidente Vargas. Built in 1880 and designed by the Imperial House architect Francisco Joaquim Bethencourt da Silva, the maginificent neoclassical building has been one of Brazil’s leading cultural centers for twenty years with a changing program of theater, music, art and debates set over five floors.

The grandeur of the building, with its domed ceiling central hall and extravagant antique elevator, is an impressive exhibit in itself. Add to this a roster of diverse exhibitions that have recently included 20th century Russian art, the vibrant work of São Paulo street artists Os Gêmeos and a presentation of contemporary Argentinian art. The current main exhibition Linha de Sombra presents the work of Brazilian artist Regina Silveira whose monotone distortions of household objects appear like bold optical illusions in an exploration of the image and representation.

In the immediate vicinity of Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil are two more venues worthy of a visit: on Rua Primeiro de Março there’s the Centro Cultural Justiça Eleitoral, an imposing building with impressive decorative features that hosts photography exhibitions with an often social theme; and on Rua Visconde de Itaboraí the Centro Cultural Correios hosts diverse exhibitions in the eclectic early 20th century post office building.

The central stairway at CAIXA Cultural, photo by Flor A/Flickr Creative Commons License.
The central stairway at CAIXA Cultural, photo by Flor A/Flickr Creative Commons License.

Another big hitter on the scene is CAIXA Cultural on Avenida Almirante Barroso. The slightly drab 1970s structure lacks the architectural wow factor of the others, but the breezy space houses a innovative program of contemporary work (both performance and exhibitions) with a predominantly national focus. The current exhibitions include shows of surrealist Cuban illustrator Wilfredo Lam, Carioca artist Bandeira de Mello who´s moody modern painting explores aspects of Brazilian life, and a show of photography from Rio Grande do Norte. There is also a relaxing resource area with floor to ceiling windows and free internet access.

Heading along Avenida Rio Branco to Cinelândia, there’s Centro Cultural Justiça Federal. Constructed in 1905, this is another of Rio´s extravagant buildings with beautiful tiling and a dramatic staircase dominating the center of the building. As well as theater and music events, the grand high-ceiling rooms house vibrant photography and fine art exhibitions often with local and national themes such as the current Urbepoesia photography exhibition presenting the character of the Cinelândia area of Rio and Carnaval de Sonhos in which artist Luzia Veloso shows textured mixed media works that recall the fanciful costumes of the samba schools.

While the instant visual impact of Rio, with its stunning setting, lush nature and beautiful people, is seductive enough to overshadow the art scene, to miss out on the cultural centres would be a mistake. Supporting and presenting contemporary work in settings which tell the history of the city, the cultural centres offer intelligent, comprehensive and engaging interpretations of Brazil and beyond from unique artistic perspectives.

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