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Contracultura: Alternative Arts and Social Transformation in Authoritarian Brazil  
Author(s) Christopher Dunn
Publisher University of North Carolina Press
Publication date 2016
Pages 272
ISBN 1469628511

During the period known as the “Long Sixties,” clusters of disillusioned youth began to separate themselves from a prevailing culture of capitalism, imperialism, and authoritarianism. These groups, collectively known as the counterculture, searched for what they felt was a more authentic and fulling life. While “the Movement” was a global phenomenon, countries where countercultures formed and were under the most oppressive governments have been the most under analyzed, or at least under published, studies. Continuing where he left off in his first book, Brutality Garden, Christopher Dunn examines the counterculture of Brazil that flourished during the nation’s military dictatorship in his 2016 book Contracultura: Alternative Arts and Social Transformation in Authoritarian Brazil. In this book, Dunn, a Tulane University professor of Luso-Brazilian cultural studies, presents a detailed history of how art and music reflected various social and political movements of the 1960s and 1970s.

Obscuring the boundaries between narrative and argumentative, Dunn challenges scholars who believe that the hippies were not a “real” protest movement and that they only served to distract from legitimate movements. To dissuade these historians, Dunn argues that while they may not have had an instantaneous effect on Brazil’s Fifth Republic, the counterculture created an atmosphere through which human rights movements could thrive and become more assertive. This is not a novel argument—actor and 1960s activist, Peter Coyote, often makes the same point in his interviews—what is unique about Contracultura is the use of Brazil as a case study to advance this argument, as well as to place the argument on a global stage.

To prove the counterculture’s influence on social and political movements, Contracultura is divided into two sections. The first chapter details the history and many facets of the desbunde, the Brazilian equivalent of the Hippie Movement, including aspects of their lifestyles, the alternative press, and the early emergence of “hip consumerism.” Chapter two is concerned with the art and relationship between the desbunde and the cultura marginal, an avant-garde art scene that emerged in Brazil circa 1970—this chapter demonstrates the influence of the desbunde on other groups. The third chapter introduces cooptation and examines the migration of several hippies to the Brazilian state of Bahia for cheaper rent and a more “authentic” way of life and discusses how the region was adopted by travel agencies to become a popular tourist destination—an extreme example of “hip consumerism.” Moving away from the Hippie Movement, the final two chapters examine the atmosphere established by the desbunde and cultura marginal and continues with the theme of cooptation by showing how human rights movements utilized traits of the counterculture to reflect their own messages in art and music, forming their own countercultures. This begins with the Black Rio movement in Chapter 4 and ends with the emergence of various gay and feminist movements in Chapter 5.

Contracultura coheres with an ever-growing, albeit small, literature about the development of countercultures under Latin American dictatorships and military rule. These books include Eric Zolov’s Refried Elvis; Patrick Barr-Melej’s Psychedelic Chile; Valeria Manzano’s The Age of Youth in Argentina; and Dunn’s first book, Brutality Garden. While Brazil is of course the focus of Contracultura, readers are able to see the broad themes and trends of the counterculture exhibited internationally. In viewing the book in this manner, as a case study of Brazil about the ubiquity of these trends, Contracultura is then placed within the wider literature on the counterculture. Thus, Dunn incorporates the arguments of books that are not location-specific including Theodore Roszak’s The Making of a Counter Culture and Thomas Frank’s The Conquest of Cool. Roszak’s book is used to explain that “the counterculture was a product of affluence and overindulgence” (65), whereas Frank’s inspired Dunn’s emphasis on co-optation and “hip consumerism.”

Despite hinting at oral histories in his acknowledgements by thanking “those Brazilin artists and intellectuals who shared with me their recollections and thoughts about culture, politics, and everyday life during the period of authoritarian rule” (xii), Dunn relies heavily on a synthesis of secondary sources to build Contracultura. Poetry, song lyrics, and excerpts of memoirs written by many of the people and groups mentioned throughout the book are incorporated, however limited. Had Dunn utilized fewer secondary sources and featured more of his conversations or interviews with the people he spoke with while researching this book, Contracultura would have proved to be a far more revealing and intimate work.

A major weakness that historians may find while reading Contracultura is Dunn’s neglect to convey the paranoia and oppression of life in Brazil under the military dictatorship. This may however reflect his training in cultural studies rather than history, as his examination of artists and activists are incredibly meticulous—although often to the extent that their details overshadow Dunn’s broader implications of their accomplishments. Despite this, Contracultura remains an excellent cultural and social history that will make an excellent companion to be read alongside political histories of the era, such as Thomas E. Skidmore’s The Politics of Military Rule in Brazil, 1964-1985 or Herbert S. Klein and Francisco Vidal Luna’s Brazil, 1964-1985: The Military Regimes of Latin America in the Cold War.