black art
"Bahia de Sangue (Luanda)", by Abdias Nascimento, exhibited in "Abdias Nascimento: a Panamanian artist", at MASP. Photo: Ipeafro Collection/ Courtesy MASP

I dedicate this text to João Pedro Mattos[1] 

“Slavery was the real body of modernity, its flesh, its energy, a technology. Its heritage certainly defines much of our actuality, an effective dialectic of colonization. […] But in my Creole flesh there are horrors embedded. And these horrors I cannot share. And, I know, horrors are not relativized.”

José Fernando Peixoto de Azevedo, 2018, p. 17, 23.


NThere is no physical violence that is not accompanied by symbolic violence. Studying the history of Afro-Brazilian art implies becoming entangled in centuries-old continuities of histories of symbolic and physical violence. It also implies the possibility of clearly envisioning not only the “dialectic of colonization”, which the playwright and theater director from São Paulo José Fernando Peixoto de Azevedo tells us in the epigraph, but the very “dialectic of enlightenment”, which Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer sought to describe how Europe went up in flames in the first half of the 1940s (Adorno & Horkheimer 1986). The history of Afro-descendant Brazilian art is a history that involves traumatic repetitions of violence that are often concealed as “conquests of civilization”. In this history, science, academia and the entire cultural field are presented as structuring parts of the colonial system.

The slavery system penetrated so deeply into this culture that its victims to this day are largely subjected to a series of violence that gives continuity to the slavery violence. Enslavement as a movement of submission of the “other” did not end in 1888 and, on the contrary, today gains a new strength, from new or not so new biopolitics. From within this moment of brutal return of colonial policies in Brazil, with the reduction of the economic system to the export of commodities, with the suspension of labor rights, with the imposition of blatant and official racism, with the policy of destruction of forests and their original populations, with the dismantling of the educational system that, finally, in this century had been opened to black populations, the current government of Brazil imposes a review of Brazilian history and, specifically in our case, a review of the history of Afro-descendant art. After all, one of the touchstones of the campaign and the current government is the sweetening of colonial history and the period of the dictatorship of 1964-1985.

"Bahia de Sangue (Luanda)", by Abdias Nascimento, on display at MASP. Photo: Ipeafro Collection/ Courtesy MASP
“Baía de Sangue (Luanda)”, by Abdias Nascimento, on display at MASP. Photo: Ipeafro Collection/ Courtesy MASP

In no other country in Latin America has it occurred that politicians nostalgic for slavery and torture managed to climb the highest rungs of the state hierarchy through voting. What is currently happening in Brazil is a kind of proving ground for a radical fascist policy that aims to return the country to the pre-Republic era. Never has the cult of the pioneers gone so far along with the contempt and violence by police and politicians against black and indigenous populations. Poverty, along with these ethnic groups, is criminalized and a black genocide is produced every day in the cities and in the countryside. It is in this context that we perceive the history of Brazil now. The history of black art must be reviewed within this macro history, as part of a long colonial struggle that did not end, quite the contrary.

Black, Afro-descendant or Afro-Brazilian art and the aesthetic device 

It is good to start with the question of the concepts of “black art”, Afro-descendant or Afro-Brazilian. I consider these three concepts to be legitimate, and they are used by art historians often almost interchangeably. But this nominalist debate has an aspect that we cannot lose sight of. There existed for a long time throughout the 20th century and until quite recently, as we shall see, a tendency to treat Afro-descendant and non-Afro-descendant artists in an undifferentiated way as part of an “Afro-Brazilian art”. It was only at the end of the last century that this procedure began to be questioned.

At this moment, which will be at the center of this article, a new “body art” appears, with strong testimonial content (Seligmann-Silva 2016), which made it impossible to separate the artists, the construction of their subjectivity and their works. These artists work on what I call “subject”, the subject that, instead of trying to idealistically “represent” an outside world, shapes the world from its subjectivity constituted in the context of class and race conflicts. We cannot forget that this “subjective turn” was also an ethnic turn and, as art theorists such as Hal Foster detected as early as the 1990s, an ethnological turn (Foster 1996). In this new context of the arts, the relationship between artistic production and racial ethnic identity became necessary, especially when it came to an artist with an Afro origin. For Afro identities are established within and in combat episteme and the colonial system, “provincializing Europe”, in the already classic expression of Dipesh Chakrabarty (2007).[2] They, therefore, could not or can no longer accept the idea of ​​a “universality of art”, as formulated by a Platonism in antiquity (with its doctrine of hey, the transcendent ideals) and reformulated by Kant in modernity (with his idea of ​​art as “interestless” pleasure, devoid of involvement and volition). As much as Kant has always emphasized that the universal in art is always subjective (Criticism of judgment §8), he submits his aesthetics to an Enlightenment and Eurocentric epistemology as well as to a classical standard of beauty.[3]

This umbilical relationship between the doctrine of universalism in the arts and the colonial project is fundamental and has often been left aside by art theorists and historians, even in relation to Afro art, which is unacceptable. For Kant, the artist is a means of constructing the beautiful (or the sublime), but his subjectivity is in fact erased, as is any political context: “Every interest vitiates the judgment of taste and takes away its impartiality. ” (Criticism of judgment, §13; 1959 p. 62). With Kant, the modern discourse of the universality of art was established, which is inseparable from its, only apparent, “apoliticity”. I say only apparent, because behind universality there is a powerful policy of erasing the “other” and differences. Only “great European art” is accepted as art, from Greece to modernity.

Classicism, which underpins the birth of art history with Winckelmann, and also supports Kant's aesthetic theory of art, imposes itself as a powerful machine. ontotypological (Lacoue-Labarthe & Nancy, 1991). This classic model generates the “own” by eliminating the “other” that is produced in the same gesture of annihilation. We are in front of a device, the aesthetic device, perhaps the most violent that modernity has created, since it is from it that the dividing line is produced between those worthy of rights and compassion and those who are the “flesh” of the colonial machine (Seligmann-Silva, 2019). The aesthetic device is an ally of the colonial device, both produce and annihilate their “others”. The “own” (European) in order to exist, needs its non-self, the “other”, whether Africa or the East, as authors such as Frantz Fanon (1952), Abdias Birth ([1976] 2016), Edward Said (1978), and Stuart Hall (2003) found it in the 20th century and, more recently, a whole series of post-colonial authors developed in their works, such as Achille Mbembe (2017), Walter Mignolo (2011), Grada Kilomba (2019) or Bell Hooks (2014).

We can say that the struggle that takes place in the field of Afro-descendant arts in Brazil is the struggle for the recognition of the violent, ideological element, of erasure of blacks and a myriad of cultures, in the midst of this “universal” and universalizing aesthetic ideology, above all white, Eurocentric and racist. Therefore, when we speak here of “black art”, Afro-descendant or Afro-Brazilian, I am referring to the art produced by artists who understand themselves as part of a continuity of those populations subjected to the history of violence and their resistance to it. But it is worth insisting: it is, for these artists, a conquest of that continuity. It is about overcoming an erasure imposed by powerful oblivion policies who, in Brazil, ambiguously seek to glamorize our history to the same extent that they deny any continuity between the violence of the slave system and the biopolitical and racial violence of today.

Bridges over Abysses #17
“Bridges over Abyss #17”, Aline Motta, Photo: Courtesy of the artist

The history of black art is the history of the construction of put on quality communication shafts with the past (a traumatic past that does not pass, that is in abeyance), is the story of rupture of the layer of concrete with which white colonial ideology sought to bury the history of class and racial violence in that country, as well as the history of of struggles and resistances. Just look at our black cemeteries, literally under the concrete of our cities, whether in Valongo, in Rio de Janeiro, or in the neighborhood of Liberdade.[4] in Sao Paulo. As the magma of this history of violence gushed forth, the turn in the history of black art also led to a radical break with the ideology of the aesthetic: the new black art that was born from this bath in the amniotic liquid of horror but also of the resistant struggle, is eminently political and critical of the discourse of amnesiac universalism, assimilating and destroying black identity, in the same way that it seeks to establish the foundations of a culture Afro-Atlantic.

The black struggle also institutes new calendars and establishes new connections with pasts that institute new presents. Black Brazilian art manifests this irruption of the repressed past that is released in the course of its construction. It breaks with the false narrative of colonial historiography that relegates black history to the labor camp or pillory. I will deal later with these images that function as true covering images (Deckerinerungen, another Freudian concept, precious here, as we will see).

A history of peacemaking art

However, it is essential, before approaching some examples of this new black Brazilian art, that we go through the history of its history, that is: how the builders of narratives in the history of Afro-Brazilian art are located in this political-epistemological clash between the history of so-called “central”, Eurocentric art, and the construction of the specificity of black art, whether seen as Brazilian or occupying its place in the Afro-Atlantic space as a place multi-topic from the diaspora. It is not surprising that much of this history has reaffirmed an exceptional, that is, marginal, location in this history of black art, reproducing a series of patterns from the colonial model of historical narrative. The monstrous force of the aesthetic device in its colonial version cannot be overlooked. This device is also reinforced by much of the history that narrates black Brazilian art.

The Afro-Brazilian hand

Thus, even in a fundamental work in the process of self-affirmation of black Brazilian art, as was the volume The Afro-Brazilian hand. Meaning of Artistic and Historical Contribution, organized by none other than the artist, collector and founder of the Museu Afro Brasil, Emanoel Araújo (1988), we can detect this fact. This catalog came to light together with the exhibition at MAM with the same name and which, in 1988, at 100 years of the Abolition Law, intended to rescue the role of blacks in the history of national art. But already in the title we can see that the dominant vision in the exhibition and in the catalog reproduced the idea that we have a unique art history, like a great river that flows, with its secondary tributaries feeding it, one of them being the “contribution” of the Afro hand. -Brazilian. Here we have the powerful historicist model of a organic formation composed of parts, and it would now be appropriate to recognize this specific “contribution” until now little highlighted. The organizer of the volume recalls the long process of research for the construction of this important volume and exhibition aiming to recover “at least partially, the participation of black and mestizo men in the formation of national culture” (1988, p. 9) The idea of ​​a “ national culture” in formation reproduces a colonial model of nation formation based on the contributions of different ethnicities or races.

It is important that Araújo highlights in the title of the book the issue of Afro-descendants and not Afro-Brazilian art, but the texts will not maintain this fidelity to the title, since, for the most part, they mix analyzes of contributions by Afro-descendant artists or not, but that they would all be valuing the contribution of a certain African origin, which until then had been undervalued. Araújo writes: “There is no legitimately Brazilian art today without the creative and powerful influence of black people”. Nor will I discuss here the issue of gender that permeates these statements, since the “black” is always mentioned, in the masculine, namely, the erasure of those Afro-Brazilian hands that would not be men’s, but I emphasize again the idea of a main vein of a legitimately Brazilian art (what would that be?) that in its formation receives “influences” from the “black”. Araújo also praises in his presentation the contribution of the psychiatrist and eugenicist Nina Rodrigues: “A pioneer of anthropological studies in Brazil, he was the one who first called attention to the art of African settlers” (1988, p. 10), referring to the essay by 1904 by Rodrigues, which is also part of the 1988 collection.

Art, document, testimony: the crisis of the aesthetic

The notion of art as an ethnographic document, put forward by Nina Rodrigues, has caused a lot of confusion in the aesthetic debate in recent years and it is good not to miss the opportunity to try to shed light on this issue. As I mentioned above when mentioning Hal Foster, he had detected an ethnological turn in artistic production at the end of the 20th century. This turn has to do with what I called the testimonial turn in cultural production. (Seligmann-Silva, 2019, p. 28) This movement towards the “documentary” (hence, by the way, the high appreciation in this genre since then and which has only increased in prestige until today) led to an increasingly close relationship between production and the reception of works of art with the field of ethnology.

To return to Benjamin, we can see his theses written in the middle of the war as a milestone in the construction of this sensitivity of the documentary reading of works of art. In his seventh thesis he wrote tersely: “There is no document of culture that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” (2020, p. 74; “Es ist niemals ein Dokument der Kultur, ohne zugleich ein solches der Barbarei zu sein”, 2010, p. 86). It is, therefore, a matter of learning that implies perceiving, behind any cultural work, a structural violence that sustained society and allowed its cultural documents to be produced in it. This breaks with the aforementioned supposedly harmless aestheticism (which is so bad) that intended to cut the ties of works of art with history and politics. There is, therefore, something critical and emancipatory both in the subjective-ethnological turn of the arts at the end of the 20th century and in this Benjaminian theory of culture as document. Learning to read the testimonial content of the arts implies opening oneself to this reading against the grain of history, whose traditional narrative has always sought, in its great teleological and triumphal constructions, to hide this element of barbarism.

That is, to make it clear, when talking about the testimonial content of a work, one is not “reducing” it to its “mere” historical and ethnological element. Rather, it is breaking with the hegemony of the aesthetic-colonial ideology that concealed this testimonial element of the cultural inscription.

“There is no black art in contemporary Brazilian art…”

But let us return to the historical construction of black Brazilian art. Aracy Amaral, still in the 1988 collection, one of the most prominent art critics in the country, proposes to reflect in his essay The search for a form of expression in contemporary art about this search “in contemporary art by artists who are epidermically not so white” (1988: 247). In other words, in a somewhat crossed way, she places the issue of Afro-descendants as important in her proposal, but ends up, throughout her work, also mentioning artists who dealt only “thematically” with issues associated with Afro-Brazilian culture. . She rightly recalls that:

If in the colonial period most of our artistic treasures came from slave or free hands - mestizos of Indians, blacks or mulattos - due to an evident prejudiced tradition on the part of the white Portuguese, very recessive in dedicating themselves to manual activities, and if above all to the artists and craftsmen of African origin, for the same reason, owe our artistic heritage to a large part of the country, we see that the situation seems to change in the 19th century (Id., 1988).

With Imperial Academy of Fine Arts during the first and second empires, with the painting of landscapes and still lifes and especially from indigenism (the romantic cult of the original populations of America), the black and the caipira were also introduced as themes in the canvases. of academic painters such as Almeida Junior, Abigail de Andrade and even the Spaniard Modesto Brocos, who with his canvas “A Maldição de Cã” (1895) commemorates the whitening of the Brazilian population, a theme dear to the aforementioned doctor Nina Rodrigues. Amaral recalls two academics who were discriminated against because of their ethnic origin, Estevão Roberto da Silva and Antônio Rafael Pinto Bandeira, the latter being driven to suicide because of this embarrassment. It is not appropriate here to retrace the course of this essay, but to point out how it is even before the aforementioned testimonial turn in the conception of the works of artists that, in the context of the history of Afro-descendant art production, is also equivalent to the decolonial turn. That's right Aracy Amaral highlighting the violence to which blacks were subjected in the 19th century and recalling the relationship between the policies of whitening, erasure and oblivion. After presenting in a quick sequence the names of artists such as Antônio Bandeira, Rubem Valentim, Almir Mavignier, Edival Ramosa, Genilson Soares, Maria Lidia Magliani, Octávio Araújo, among others, Amaral writes: “In the appreciation of the work of these artists, as well as of their paths, it can be said that, with few exceptions, there is no black art in contemporary Brazilian art, with a concern for affirmation as such, since the most diverse trends are marked in these artists of color or in those that not even this characteristic was defining. in their careers.” (1988, 248). 

So far, therefore, we are a long way from what would soon happen to the tree of black art at the beginning of the next century. The author even finds it questionable to have an “exhibition of the plastic production of artists for the sole reason that their skin color is darker”. One would just be pointing to something forgotten, that is, the origin of these artists, since “the advanced […] stage of whitening means that in Brazil we do not even pay attention to their origin”. (1988, 272) From this point of view, the eugenics project of whitening would have triumphed and there would be no place to think about black art in Brazil. But Aracy Amaral adds something to her reasoning that hints at a turning point, even though she still does not distinguish between Afro-descendant artists and those inspired by Afro culture:

The exceptions, for this very reason of the greatest interest, are artists who allow the ancestry of the Afro-Brazilian rite to transpire in their creations, in an affirmation of the search for identity, as in the case of Rubem Valentim, or in the generous Baroque style in its cumulative construction of a Emanoel Araújo, in the mysticism of engraving by Hélio Oliveira, and in ceramics and painting by Miguel dos Santos (1988, 248).

Let's look at the intellectual contribution of Rubem Valentim, who in the 1970s clearly formulated a proposal to review the aesthetic field and coloniality based on black art.

"Brasilia", 1970, by Rubem Valentim. Photo: Sergio Guerini | Courtesy Almeida and Dale Art Gallery.
“Brasilia”, 1970, by Rubem Valentim. Photo: Sergio Guerini | Courtesy Almeida and Dale Art Gallery.

O Late Manifesto by Rubem Valentim: the struggle “against cultural colonialism”

In Emanoel Araújo's 1988 collection, the small and forceful Late Manifesto which came precisely from the pen of Rubem Valentim, one of the exceptions highlighted by Aracy Amaral, as one of the few representatives of black art. This 1976 manifesto is described as “late” by its author, and in fact it is, if we consider the long history of black artistic production in the country. We cannot forget that time, when we are in the field of trauma, is the time of “too late”, of “late” awakening, afterwards. But it also anticipates in many ways the ethnic turn that would take place only after 1988, with the new post-dictatorship constitution and its provisions for the recognition of indigenous and quilombola cultures, including the right to demarcate their lands. These clauses, it is always important to highlight, conquered due to a lot of struggle on the part of indigenous people and black movements. Valentim opens his manifesto stating:

My plastic-visual-signographic language is linked to the deep mythical values ​​of an Afro-Brazilian culture (mestizo-animist-fetishist). With the weight of Bahia on me – the lived culture; with black blood in the veins - atavism; with eyes open to what is being done in the world – contemporaneity; creating my symbol-signs I seek to transform into visual language the enchanted, magical, probably mystical world that flows continuously within me (1988, 294).

In dialogue with the concretists from São Paulo, his contemporaries, Valentim seeks to make this language the aforementioned bridge between the repressed world of Africanity and its present. He sees a political struggle in his project: “Art is both a poetic weapon to fight violence and an exercise in freedom against repressive forces: the true creator is a being who lives dialectically between repression and freedom.” (Id., 1988) These words, written amid the repression of the military dictatorship, and under the sign of the struggle “against cultural colonialism” (Id., 1988), echo again in the struggles that are organized today, in 2020, when this field of black resistance, armed by the arts and which has developed over the last 20 years, is once again being besieged by powerful annihilating forces. Note in passing that the fact that Valentine's words are no longer reproduced and remembered is a symptom that these annihilating forces are winning the battle.

Finally, I cannot fail to highlight in Araújo's 1988 catalog the chapter by photographer and art critic Stefania Bril on the Photographic look in black and white, which takes up the work of photographers such as José Medeiros (1921-1990), Januário Garcia (1943), and Walter Firmo (1937). These photographers also give evidence of a new black art made by black artists and aimed at redrawing geopolitics, allowing one to imagine other constellations of life in common. The black artists highlighted by Aracy Amaral and these photographers raised by Stefania Bril are proof that, throughout the 20th century, a black art made by blacks in Brazil was constituted, focused on a politics of blackness, which emancipated Afro-descendant artists from academic models. and they also freed the black body from the role of objects of representation. 

Abdias Birth

A key author in this process was Abdias Nascimento. In 1944 he created the Teatro Experimental do Negro, which marked generations of artists, produced an important work as a visual artist and was one of the first to clearly formulate the importance of black resistance, against necropolitics, through art. Your book The Brazilian black genocide: Process of a masked racism was published in 1976 in English, therefore close to Rubem Valentim's manifesto. As with the latter, Nascimento also recognizes his “place of speech” as a constituent of his knowledge, as happened with Frantz Fanon in his first and revolutionary book, Black skin, white masks. Writes Abdias Nascimento: 

As for me, I consider myself part of the investigated matter. Only from my own experience and situation It is in the ethnic-cultural group to which I belong, interacting in the global context of Brazilian society, that I can surprise the reality that conditions and defines my being. Situation that envelops me like a historical belt from which I cannot consciously escape without practicing lying, betrayal, or the distortion of my personality. (Birth 2016, p. 47)

"Brasilia", 1970, by Rubem Valentim. Photo: Sergio Guerini | Courtesy Almeida and Dale Art Gallery.
“Creation no. 2: Obatalá and Exu”, 1973, by Abdias Nascimento. Black Art Museum Collection | IPEAFRO. Photo: Fabio Souza / MAM Rio.

This fundamental step allowed him to reimagine the history of Brazil from the point of view of “genocide”, a term created by Rafael Lemkin in 1944 in the context of the discoveries of what was happening with the Jewish population in Nazi Europe, but which was gradually used for other ethnic mass murders, such as that of Armenians during World War I. Nascimento's book opens with two definitions of genocide taken from dictionaries, one in English, the other in Portuguese. He, in the chapter “Cultural embranquecimento: another strategy of genocide”, critically analyzed the myth of “racial democracy” in Brazil, highlighting the commitment between racism e capitalism: “The password of this imperialism of whiteness, and of the capitalism that is inherent to it, responds to bastard nicknames such as assimilation, acculturation, miscegenation; but we know that beneath the theoretical surface the belief in the inferiority of the African and his descendants remains untouched.” (2016, p.111)[5] In this same line of thought, he recalls the creation of ethnographic museums throughout the 19th century as part of the colonial project: “These institutions joined together with scientists, theorists of all kinds, and scholars in the kabbalistic manipulation of theorems based on the supposed exoticism and picturesqueness of the savage, primitive and inferior peoples who inhabited Africa.” (2016, p.197) The sciences and among them also colonial ethnology, as I stated above, and museums initially went hand in hand with the genocidal colonial project. Abdias do Nascimento in the 1970s also denounced the strategy of controlling the black population through the “reduction of African culture to the condition of empty folklore” (the aforementioned “popular culture”), which would reveal both contempt and avarice, as from the stereotype he moved on to the commercialization of pieces of culture devoid of vital force and fossilized, a practice he correctly described as ethnocide. Hence the next step that was taken at the end of the 20th century, as we have seen, in the sense of criticizing the very ideology and biopolitical machine of aesthetics.

Despite not using the psychoanalytic concept of unheimlich (the strange, familiar and unfamiliar at the same time), Abdias do Nascimento perceives the need to address this psychic concept and uses terms that translate this Freudian concept to address the situation of black people: “Black people and their culture had always been kept as strangers within the current Brazilian society, whose sole purpose, like that of [Waldir Freitas] Oliveira himself, is for the Afro-Brazilian populations to disappear, without leaving a trace, from the demographic map of the country.” (2016, p.115; my emphasis) He also cites the entry “black” from an English-Portuguese dictionary by A. Houaiss and C. Avery from 1967: “black, -gra (black, -gra). I.a., black (also fig.); dark; (anthropol.) Black; somber, gloomy, funeral; shadowy, tenebrous; sinister, threatening; cloudy, obscure, stormy; ominous, [emphasis added] portentous; horrible, frightening; adverse, hostile; wretched, odious, detestable.” (Houaiss and Avery apud Nascimento, 2016, p.55). The “black” appears as the repressed proto-element of modern colonial culture, which is still our culture. As “horrible” it represents the opposite of the classical body that classicizing fine arts are dedicated to giving form. We will come back to this theme later.

His book also deals specifically with black Brazilian art. In a passage full of meaning, we read:

In the conception of my colleague Olabiyi Babalola Yai, from the University of Ifé, Candomblé, whose message in Brazil is essentially the same as in Africa, means: “A religion in which neither hell nor the devil has a place and that does not afflict the man's life with an original sin that must be purified, but that invites man to overcome his imperfections thanks to his effort, to the efforts of the community of orixás.” Constituting the source and main trench of the cultural resistance of the African, as well as the generating womb of Afro-Brazilian art,[6] Candomblé had to seek refuge in hidden places, difficult to access, in order to alleviate its long history of suffering at the hands of the police (2016, p. 125).

He also already formulated strong slogans regarding the theme of black art stolen by police institutions and also kept in institutions of psychiatry, history and ethnography. His idea was to create a Museum of Black Art to value Afro-Brazilian culture. (2016, p. 173) In the chapter “Afro-Brazilian Art: A Liberating Spirit” he thinks about this art from the point of view of the genocide of Africans in the three Americas, breaking, therefore, with national borders and with the traditional narrative of the formation of art. Brazilian art that reserved for Afro-Brazilian art only a secondary role as a source of influence.

It is true that Abdias sometimes (2016, p. 197) shows that he is still linked to a project of aesthetic appreciation of afro artistic production, not realizing the collapse of this aesthetic tradition, the compromise between the aesthetic and the colonial, and that in fact it is aestheticized art that is addressing the bed of Afro, LGBTQIA+, feminist, etc. “represent” more external, pacified worlds, with geographies always seen through Eurocentric instruments, starting with the technique of perspective and passing through the classic genres that dominated the history of art from the 15th to the 19th century. that breaks with the division between the subject and its object, generating a fusion, as I stated at the beginning, a “subject”, with pardon for the neologism. But Abdias also sought to break with the “elitist definition of 'fine arts' that exclusively involves white-western art” (2016, p. 201) in which he was right, as it was and is about “de-humanizing” the arts. and cultures that tend to be “outrified” by the West (Ndikung 2019; Seligmann-Silva 2019). Breaking with this elitist definition of fine arts means unmasking the complicity between the aesthetic and the colonial device.

Therefore, his words are extremely valid even today in the context of contemporary black artistic movements, not only in Brazil. His conception, like that of Rubem Valentim, is of art as part of a fighting technique. Going further, he formulates a black art of the diaspora:

For African art is precisely the practice of black liberation – reflection and action/action and reflection – at all levels and moments of human existence. […] The art of black peoples in the diaspora objectifies the world around them, providing them with a critical image of that world. And so this art fulfills a need of total relevance: that of critically historicizing the structures of domination, violence and oppression, characteristic of western-capitalist civilization. Our black art is committed to the struggle for the humanization of human existence, as we assume with Paulo Freire that this is “the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed – to free themselves and the oppressors” (2016, p. 203-204) .

Not by chance, at the beginning of the aforementioned staging of the play Black Brecht – What if Brecht were black, the bold letters read on a banner with drawings of obás and geometric shapes inspired by an Afro imagination: “RE-EXISTENCE NEGRX”.

“Ritual Quartet nº6”, by Abdias Nascimento, exhibited in “Abdias Nascimento a Panamanian artist” at MASP. Photo: Ipeafro Collection Courtesy MASP

This struggle is also based on the deconstruction of what Abdias calls the “myth of the 'free African'” (2016, 79):

After seven years of work, the old, the sick, the crippled and the maimed, those who had survived the horrors of slavery and could not continue to maintain satisfactory productive capacity – were thrown out onto the street, to their own devices, like unwanted human garbage; these were called “free Africans.” (Id.)

In other words, this liberation was a genocidal gesture, the last step in the process: and so was the so-called abolition or Golden Law of 1888: “It was nothing more than a mass murder, that is, the multiplication of crime, on a smaller scale. , of 'free Africans.'” (Id.) The Afro-Brazilian arts gradually understood themselves as this space of struggle for effective freedom, reversing this genocidal gesture whose consequences unfold more than a hundred years after that symptomatically acclaimed theater of liberation still today by our bandeirantes politicians, namely, the edition of the Lei Áurea.

Muse Michelle Mattiuzzi: Inhabiting the Ruins of Coloniality

It is impossible to present here other attempts to build a narrative about the history of black art in Brazil. In terms of conceptualization, none in the 20th century were as radical as the formulations of Abdias Nascimento, although sometimes his treatment of the subject fell into a kind of condescending hagiography of artists. I mention only two other works.

The art historian Roberto Conduru has an introductory book aimed at school, but no less interesting and full of information, his Afro-Brazilian art, 2007. It is not limited to Afro-descendant artists, nor does it align itself with a decolonial reading of the issue, contenting itself with making a more scholarly history of art. Kimberly L. Cleveland's 2013 book, Black art in Brazil. Expressions of Identity, despite not breaking with the Brazilian tradition, which has its origins in the ideology of “racial democracy”, of dealing under the concept of black and Afro-Brazilian art with artists who are not Afro-descendants, discusses this theme with great care, bringing the enormous contribution of this discussion in the United States. His work is an important contribution and should be translated in Brazil in order to enrich the debate on this topic. The author explicitly deals in chapters with the works of the following artists: Abdias Nascimento, Ronaldo Rego, Eustáquio Neves, Ayrson Heráclito and Rosana Paulino.

In turn, the volume of critical texts resulting from the exhibition held in São Paulo in 2018, Afro-Atlantic Stories, in the introductory chapters by Adriano Pedrosa, Heitor Martins, Amanda Carneiro and André Mesquita locate the task of rethinking Brazilian art from a decolonial perspective. Furthermore, the catalog contains texts by Achille Mbembe (p. 125-144) and the contribution of Okwui Enwezor (p.145-158), which are also born within the current debate of post-colonial reconstruction of the aesthetic field. But not all the texts in the catalog follow this perspective, as the intention was also to show an overview of the debate on Afro-Atlantic histories in Brazil. The anthropologist Kabengele Munanga, in Afro-Brazilian art: what is it anyway?, even locates his reading of Afro-Brazilian art in the key of the beautiful, the “universal and necessary” (2018, p. 113, 120) and celebrates the “pioneering work of Nina Rodrigues” in the foundation of the history of Afro-Brazilian art (2018, p. 118). He distances himself from the expression “black art in Brazil” because he suspects that there is a “certain biologism” there and argues that it would be from a “broader, non-biologized, non-ethnicized and non-politicized notion that one can operate to identify the Africanity hidden in a work” (2018, 122). Why would Africanity hide in a work? We are miles away from Rubem Valentim's manifesto and from the combative and openly political stance also defended by Abdias Nascimento. In this lineage of these two authors, the short text by the performance artist Musa Michelle Mattiuzzi, at the end of the catalogue, has an almost decolonial manifesto character. She writes:

In the story told by whiteness – which even today presents facets of a colonial Brazil – the compulsory notion of the “other” is what I call a white folkloric gaze on aspects of black and indigenous aesthetics. It is a look and a practice built from the use of signs that engender necropolitics as a possibility of inclusion and representation, in a perverse game of white language of capture and visibility. I think this when I investigate the narratives that are part of this supremacist imaginary. I think that of Tarsila do Amaral (1886-1973), artist who painted the work to black which, if analyzed coldly, is racist, although it has managed to make itself credited with a false narrative that representation matters and has long sustained the myth of racial and cultural diversity in that country. There is a political technology of the heir settlers to create burials. […] The “art” of these lands that never ceased to be a colony, an “art” instituted here with the violent process of insertion into western modernity. “Art” as the privileged medium through which written ideas and visual creation circulated by heir settlers, who are part of a wealthy social class, who operate signs in the wave of appropriation and treat the its ideas as universal. In the representation of the discourse that we are all the same, they expropriate us. I see ethnography as part and as an example of the agency of the power of these elites applied through a scientific method. […] If we are not going to change anything, let us at least inhabit the ruins of coloniality and survive from a few encounters. […] Darken with my blackness. […] Knowing how to inhabit and relive the ruins of this Afro-Atlantic plurality (2018, 607-609).

We can think of these final words of Mattiuzzi's text as a follow-up and epistemic trail of the works of Afro-descendants that have been made in the last 20 years in the Afro-Atlantic context, Brazilian or not. Her courage to deconstruct Tarsila's famous work is a gesture that fortunately we find in other artists. In the art of this century in Brazil, artists and agents of the art world are becoming increasingly aware of the relationship between modernity, modernism and colonialism. The modernist “white cube” is a hygienist prison that corresponds to the model of the vaunted “autonomy” of the arts. I only remember here the works of the artists Clara Ianni and Lais Myhrra, who have shown the violence of the Brazilian modernist project in some of their works in recent years: the endless moment (2015) and Gameleira Project, 1971 (2014), by Myhrra and free form (2013) and From figurativism to abstractionism (2017), by Ianni. To be clear, these two artists are not part of the production of Afro-descendant art, but their works critically focus on the colonial device. The decolonial political turn is by no means restricted to Afro-descendant artists.

Decolonial Afro-descendant artists

The aforementioned exhibition that took place at MASP and Instituto Tomie Ohtake in São Paulo in 2018,  Afro-Atlantic Stories, curated by Adriano Pedrosa, Ayrson Heráclito, Hélio Menezes, Lilia Schwarcz and Tomás Toledo, was one of the most important works on the subject of blackness ever made in Brazil, but it is important to see how it forms part of a path that can be traced from the exhibition The Afro-Brazilian hand, 1988, passing through many other essential ones. Inspired by the survey carried out by Hélio Menezes for his text in the catalog of Afro-Atlantic Stories I highlight the following exhibitions: Incorporations – Contemporary Afro-Brazilian Art (2011/2012), at the International Arts Festival Europalia, Brussels, curated by Roberto Conduru; Afro as ancestry, art as origin (2013-2014), at Sesc Pinheiros, São Paulo, curated by Alexandre Araújo Bispo; Mestizo Stories (2014), at Instituto Tomie Ohtake, curated by Adriano Pedrosa and Lilia Schwarcz; Territories: Afro-descendant artists in the Pinacoteca collection (2015-2016), at the Pinacoteca de São Paulo, curated by Tadeu Chiarelli; the color of Brazil (2016-2017), at the Museu de Arte do Rio, curated by Paulo Herkenhoff and Marcelo Campos; Missing dialogues (2016-2017), at Instituto Itaú Cultural, São Paulo, curated by Rosana Paulino and Diane Lima; Are we all Negrxs now? (2017), at Galpão VideoBrasil, curated by Daniel Lima; BlackAttitude (2018), at Sesc Ribeirão Preto, curated by Claudinei Roberto (Menezes 2018, p.591-592); and I add the most recent exhibition by Rosana Paulino, the sewing of memory (2018-2019), held at the Pinacoteca de São Paulo, curated by Valéria Piccoli and Pedro Nery. I would also include in this exhibition hall the Videobrasil Biennials, curated by Solange Farkas, and the exhibition the colonial company (2015-2016). Farkas is the general curator of the Videobrasil Contemporary Art Festival, which has been taking place since 1983. Her perspective focused on the south-south axis has played a very important role in the affirmation of an art more committed to the themes of decoloniality. In 2000 she curated, alongside the South African critic Clive Kellner, the exhibition African contemporary art show, which took place at Sesc Pompeia, in São Paulo. The exposure the colonial company, which took place at Caixa Cultural São Paulo, curated by Tomás Toledo, despite not being an exhibition with an ethnic curatorial proposal, dealt with the theme of the continuity of colonial power in contemporary Brazil with great propriety.

"República (racial democracy)", 2015, by Jaime Lauriano. Photo: Disclosure
“República (racial democracy)”, 2015, by Jaime Lauriano. Photo: Disclosure

Jaime Lauriano, one of the most important black artists in Brazil today, uses in one of his works from this last exhibition a “white pemba”, chalk used in Umbanda rituals, on “black cotton”. With this material, Lauriano retraced the map of Brazil, this political line, as part of a politics of the body and self-affirmation. Usurping the mapping power of cartographic agents at the service of power, he inscribes resignified limits with white pemba: the white of the pemba becomes an agent of inscription of historically oppressed populations. Its title is written in an ironic tone: Republic (racial democracy) (2015). And, tensioning the image with a text, Lauriano inscribes at the foot of the map of Brazil a stanza of the “Hymn to the Proclamation of the Republic”, a true monument to oblivion, since his words (authored by Medeiros de Albuquerque) perpetrate: “We nor do we believe that slaves formerly / There were in such a noble Country... / Today the red flash of dawn / Finds brothers, not hostile tyrants”. This text was written in 1889, just one year, therefore, after the official “abolition” of the slavery system. Abolition reveals itself, as we read with Abdias Nascimento (2016), a mode of annihilation, death and a policy of oblivion. Lauriano has other important works made with pemba on a black background that trace the contours of the map of Brazil to rethink these limits from a decolonial point of view. I remember here your impressive Invasion, ethnocide, racial democracy and cultural appropriation, 2017, which was in the aforementioned exhibition Are we all Negrxs now?

What is happening in these exhibitions, curatorships and with this multiplication of black artists? Before anything else, the rupture of the complicity between the aesthetic and the colonial device. One can no longer speak innocently of “racial democracy” or celebrate our “syncretistic” culture and “miscegenation” without realizing the trauma that is at the origin of this hybridization. With the profound changes that took place in the field of the arts in the last decades of the XNUMXth century, there was an ascension, as we have seen, of the subject, the agent of art, who was previously still partially submitted to the field of representation. A series of Afro-descendant artists, almost all trained in visual arts, and artistic collectives began to interact in the Brazilian cultural scene from this point of view of the decolonial turn. They will imagine blackness in diaspora spaces. Imagine in the sense of creating images, but also of creating a playful and political field of action.[7] With the enthronement of the subject and the displacement of the aesthetic field towards politics and micropolitics, this repoliticization of art implied new memory seams, to play with the title of Rosana Paulino's exhibition at the Pinacoteca. The testimonial element becomes central. At the same time, in Brazil, in the first decade of this century, there was an increase in support for the arts, with more awards, scholarships and options for exhibition spaces, the result of an economic expansion accompanied by a democratization that was also reflected in Universities and in culture as a all. This movement began to oscillate back towards the economic and political crisis from 2013 onwards. But that didn't stop the exhibitions from happening: the aesthetic field was already too busy for these new policies and ways of imagining and sewing memory. The current government's program (2020) aims, via censorship and deep cuts in investment in the cultural area, to asphyxiate this critical art boom in which black art has entered. We will have to keep track of what kind of effect these policies of oppression will have.

To conclude this reflective panel on contemporary black art in Brazil, I will focus on the production of two artists, albeit briefly, to indicate the strength of this production.

Rosana Paulino: anarching the coloniality archive

Rosana Paulino is recognized as a pioneer in the new black Brazilian art. your work memory wall, from 1994, is a reference within this production. This work consists of 11 photographs of his family that are repeated reaching different numbers, reaching 1500 of these photos, which are printed on fabric in a size of about 8x8x3cm each, forming patuás, that is, an element of Afro religiosity that has an amulet value in Candomblé. Each patuá has specific colors, associated with Orixás that will then protect the one who wears the talisman. Let us remember what Abdias Nascimento wrote about Candomblé as “the generative womb of Afro-Brazilian art”. It is important to think that Rosana Paulino herself narrates her career from this emblematic work that was also present in her recent exhibition at the Pinacoteca de São Paulo from 2018-2019.

memory wall, in its apparently simple presentation, it actually synthesizes the meeting of several gestures: the photographic, the sewing, the remembrance of both the family and an afro origin. The work also alludes to the universes of religiosity, game (memory game) and montage, since it is an arrangement that is always in motion, being reassembled, without ever ceasing to be the Memory Wall. This wall with a series of patuás, is still a contemporary Afro version of the memory loci, the memory places of mnemonics. In this tradition, the rerum memory, memory of things, with the verborum memory, memory of words. You imagine agents, that is, memory agents, are placed in certain places to narrate stories in images. (Yates 1966). There is a movement in this work by Paulino de appropriation of elements of memory, of a close, familiar, but also distant memory, associated with a rupture, a drift, of a knowledge and a way of being in the world which, in a way, the artist recognizes as hers. As in the words of Musa Michelle Mattiuzzi, Rosana Paulino actually seems to “inhabit the ruins of coloniality”, she presents herself as someone who knows how to “inhabit and relive the ruins of this Afro-Atlantic plurality”.

“Memory Wall”, 1994, by Rosana Paulino. Photo: Isabella Matheus/ Pinacoteca do Estado Collection


Photography has become a fundamental metaphor in contemporary art and in Brazil it has been at the base of the production of artists who deal with memory and, even more, with oblivion. I remember Hélio Oiticica, with his Bólide Box 18 “Homage to Face and Horse, from 1966 or his famous be hero, be marginal of 1968.[8] Photography, especially analogue photography, has a moment of “impression” (it is worth remembering that Rosana Paulino is a graduate and specialist in engraving; Lopes 2018, p. 171). Photography re-updates other metaphors of memory, such as writing, a metaphor that is also fundamental in the aforementioned tradition of the art of memory with its idea of ​​mnemonic inscriptions. After all, photography is literally a light writing. But it also refers to the psychoanalytic conception of our memory as layers, some more and others less conscious. Trauma inscription has also been compared to photographic flash. Photography as a portrait also has a corporeal and phantasmatic element: the photographic portrait ambiguously literalizes the appearing and disappearing, the presence and absence, the desire to see and the evanescence of the image. Paulino also becomes in this work/game the one who calls the shots in the scene of the presentation of black bodies. Like Eustáquio Neves and his portraits, she asserts herself as the agent of her images and no longer as a represented object with no speech of her own. The work manages to be at the same time extremely contemporary and cite more or less close pasts. It is a hole in time, it creates a meta-spatiality and other chronotopoi. Photography is treated as a fragment, debris, survival of a shipwreck and it is around appropriate photographs, their copies, clippings and inversions, that much of Paulino's work is built. This without, however, romanticizing some lost origin, or establishing any identity ontology. Rather, the technical reproduction of photographs deconstructs any essentialist vision. It is about opening space to imagine alternative origins and narratives to those constructed by colonial discourses.

In his 1997 series of Stretched, she sews the eyes, throat, mouth and forehead from photographic portraits of black women she collected in her family albums. As in many works by the aforementioned Rosangela Rennó, these photographs are precarious, to indicate erasures, losses, subtractions, but also to indicate that these women are both a singular individual and all those who identify with them. The artist's act is always twofold: to sew the mouth and the neck it assumes itself as speech agent, unraveling your mouth and that of someone who admires your work. By stitching her eyes together, she institutes herself as an agent in the construction of images and the counter-colonial imaginary, tearing apart their eyes and the eyes of those who see their work. By sewing her forehead, she assumes herself as a thinking agent and not as a thought object, dissected by science and crushed by servile work, unraveling your brain and your viewer's. In a word, she says: I own my body, the black woman rules her body, this in a still colonial, phallocentric and racist society that oppresses both black and female bodies or that do not correspond to the cisgender standard. By naming your work Stretched she plays with the multiple meaning of the term: on the one hand, she explains the backstage of this society with her gesture of sewing on the faces of these portraits. But backstage also refers here to the weaving support that is where these photographs were printed. Instead of sewing “behavely” and making her weavings fulfilling the “feminine” role that society imposes on women, Paulino moves the backstage, breaks with her role as an instrument of gender control and transforms it into a device of her eminently art. policy.

More recently, the artist has been working with the sewing of fabric fragments, which I will call “patchwork” to emphasize their element of fragmentation and precariousness, in which some of the most iconic photographs and prints made by photographers and artists can be seen in print. mostly travelers or emigrants, made in Brazil in the 19th century. In some of these “patchworks” are printed images of tiles, representing architecture and the Portuguese colonial city (as also occur in many works by another important Brazilian artist who thematizes colonial violence , Adriana Varejao). Paulino's work paradise muse, 2018, reproduces three times the same photograph by Marc Ferrez (“the most important of the photographers working in Brazil in the 19th century”; Lago, 2001, p.14), known as “A banana seller” (Ermakoff 2004, p. 116), alongside reproductions of three “scientific” representations of botanical themes, an X-ray of a basin and a white patch with inscriptions in red capital letters, of different sizes, citing the well-known carnival march “YES, NÓS WE HAVE BANANA”. Here we see an ironic trait in Paulino's work. Ironic, but also sarcastic, in relation to the clichés that constitute “Brazilianness”. By sewing these “patchwork”, pieces of history assembled by the artist, she again unravels the structures of the colonial imaginary, realizing what I would like to call a colonial archiving. The photographs and colonial images of blacks frame them in an imaginary that seeks to reproduce oppression. These images are screen images, Deckerinerungen, in Freud's terms. This anonymous woman photographed by Marc Ferrez around 1885 was also framed by him in a double frame, next to another black woman dressed as a “baiana”. We are, therefore, from the Bahian to the “mulata do samba”, at the birth of a powerful construction of the image of the black Brazilian woman, her body and her behavior. This cliché (photographic and social paper) is blown up with the montage stitched by Paulino.

Another work with similar resources is Is Science Light of Truth 3?, 2016. It consists of three “patchwork” sewn next to each other. The two at the end reproduce with the same red letters of the previously commented work the phrase that gives the title to this work: Is science the light of truth? In the center we see a photomontage that superimposes two skulls, one above the other, on a tile image. The theme of science is recurrent in Paulino's work and largely refers to eugenicist doctrines (defended by Nina Rodrigues, as well as by some of the photographers and artists who circulated in Brazil in the 19th century). So your work red atlantic, from 2017, assembles 11 pieces of fabric, and in the upper left corner we have one of the famous anthropometric photographs taken by August Stahl.

Stahl was a photographer of German origin who arrived in Recife in 1853, having settled in Rio de Janeiro in 1870. In 1865, the Thayer Expedition arrived in Brazil, financed by an American millionaire Nathaniel Thayer, whose function was to photograph black, indigenous and Asian people in order to feed the research of the Swiss naturalized American professor Louis Agassiz. Later, Agassiz will refer to this photographic work by Stahl in his book where he presents his anthropometric view of the human races and which should reveal Darwin's theory on the origin of species as false, but without printing the photographs taken by Stahl in the book. This book, written together with his wife, was called Permanence of characteristics in Different Human Species. As Sérgio Burgi tells us in his presentation of Stahl’s photographs, as Agassiz had asked Stahl for the photos in the year of the abolition of slavery in the United States, these images could not be used later, because after the American Civil War “they did not allow further speculation anthropometrics that had a discretionary character, as shown by the comparative images found in the albums [with Stahl's photographs], probably inserted by Agassiz, comparing classical Greco-Roman statuary with the portraits produced by Stahl, for the purpose of race comparisons.” (Lago 2001, p. 11) D. Pedro II, the Emperor of Brazil at the time, enthusiastically supported this expedition by Agassiz.

Returning to red atlantic by Paulino, in addition to the aforementioned photo of Stahl for Agassiz, with a black man with a naked profile, we also see in this work a photograph of João Gaston (a photographer from Bahia), black woman posing in studio, from 1870 (Ermakoff, 2004, p. 158), which features a black woman with a barrel on her head. And we still have three tiles printed on fabric, one of them with the title of the work inscribed in red, a “patch” with the image of a human femur, two with images of vessels that resemble caravels and a last one with slaves working in the sugarcane field. Gaston's photographs are developed one in a standard, positive way, the other with the luminosity of a negative, inverting the black and white, the same happening with the images of the “caravels”. The faces of one of the photos of the black woman with a barrel on her head and that of the woman in the image in the sugar cane plantation are hollow.

This procedure of removing the faces from the appropriate images happens in other of his works from the relatively vast collection of photography of enslaved and “freed blacks” from the 19th century. This happens with photography, also by August Stahl, Ondo Mine, from 1885 (Ermakoff 2004, p. 240), central part of the board the people, from the workbook Natural history?, 2016. On the same plate, Paulino reproduces, flanking the Ondo Mine, the famous image of the indigenous Muxuruna from the 1823 volume, Reise in Brasilien, by Johann Spix and Carl Friedrich Philipp von Martius. The native is also faceless. The same happens in the series Tropical paradise, from 2017, with photographs by Marc Ferrez, with the same banana seller that we saw above; also occurs with a photo by Albert Henschel, from 1870, of a “black woman posing in a studio” (Ermakoff 2004, p. 117) and another by August Stahl de Mine Bari, from 1865, of a mother with her child on her back (Ermakoff 2004, p. 233), among others. In Tropical paradise these images are associated with skulls and images of a “scientific” botanical representation of the travelers. These absent faces can be read both as a metaphor of the void, as Juliana Ribeiro da Silva Bevilaqua does in the catalog of the exhibition at the 2018 Pinacoteca, as well as they can refer to the process of dehumanization through which these photographed people went, of which they were part and the photographic device itself was an accomplice. This device was allied to colonial and aesthetic devices. Photography has always been, like any technical device, riddled with ambiguities; it served art, memory, but also police agencies, eugenics and genocide projects, as in Nazi Germany, in Pol Pot's Cambodia and in the prisons of Latin American dictatorships, as in the well-known ESMA photographs in Buenos Aires. Aires. Paulino explores this ambiguity of photography, as, for example, Harun Farocki did in many of his works, pointing out the complicity between photography and war, destruction. Thus, as we read in the catalog of Stahl's anthropometric photographs, these images were placed by the scientist Agassiz in an album alongside representations of classical beauty. Faces should be confronted, to prove the supposed superiority of one race over the others. We are in the midst of not only eugenics, but genocide, as Abdias Nascimento put it.

This absence of a face also means the anonymous becoming of these people objectified by a work that killed them and by a photograph that reduced them to pieces of a macabre theater of science. The face, for the philosopher Lèvinas, it is worth remembering, is our most exposed and most fragile part and also the bearer of our being for the other. “Face epiphany is ethical,” he wrote. (1988, p. 178) And yet: “The face where the Other presents itself – absolutely other – does not deny the Same, it does not violate it […]. It depends on whoever welcomes it, it remains terrestrial. This presentation is non-violence par excellence, because instead of hurting my freedom, it calls it to responsibility and implants it.” (1988, p. 181) Slave labor, the violence of being reduced to an instrument-body, a burden-bearing body, a tortured body, a photographed body, deprives the individual of this otherness that institutes ethics from the absolute otherness of the face. By removing the face of these women or the indigenous, Paulino erases the face to show that these groups of people had their faces annulled. Instead of the infinity that every face keeps, they were reduced to facades of beings without otherness and without ipseity. Paulino again calls us to responsibility in front of faces as she erases them in order to restore them.

The scene depicted in red atlantic is a powerful synthesis of contemporary Brazilian Afro-descendant art narratives. Red threads still hang from this work, which overflow the “tiles” and run down the wall like blood. These faceless bodies that bleed also refer to Paulino's previous work, in ink on paper, Self portrait with mask for earth eaters, from 1997. In it, a woman “poses” like the slaves photographed in the 19th century, wearing that mask so emblematic of colonial violence. Debret, among other artists who passed through Brazil in that century, recorded images of the use of these masks. Eating dirt was a means of committing suicide, seeking freedom from slavery in death. The aforementioned artist from Minas Gerais Paulo Nazareth, in his series For sale, made a profile self-portrait wearing a bovine skull that sometimes serves as a mask for an earth eater (2011). In this performance by Paulo Nazareth, he puts on the mask so that we can finally see what seems to be beyond the visible and blinds us to the violence that these coldly descriptive images by Debret present.

A série Settlement, 2013, by Paulino, takes up one of Stahl’s 1865 photographic groups for Agassiz’s project, which is now in the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology at Harvard (in a Cambridge neighborhood, by the way, called Agassiz). (Ermakoff 2004, p. 252) The three photographs, in natural size, recovering their human dimension, were each cut into five strips and stitched irregularly. In the frontal photograph of the naked woman, Paulino inserts a painted heart, like an external organ, from which red threads “of blood” flow again. In the profile picture, she introduces an engraving of a baby in the womb, but again as something external, transparent. In the photograph of the same character, always naked, on her back, the artist does not mend the lower part of the photograph, corresponding to the end of the leg and the feet, and instead sews a fabric that has a seam of veins that resemble roots that branch out, as if the portrayed were taking root. These three photographs constitute an installation which also includes pieces of wood piled up, as if for a bonfire. On the ground, next to the two “fires”, two small monitors show waves in an ocean breaking on the beach. It is also important to remember here the double meaning of the title of the work: settlement, among other things, is the act of laying tiles or tiles, an act of construction, therefore, that refers to the body of those who build in Brazil since the 16th century - which they laid, among others, the tiles to which some of Paulino's works refer. On the other hand, a settlement can also be a place that receives the landless, a category of many blacks expelled from the workforce in Brazil, heirs of the burden of the “liberation” of the enslaved in 1888. In Candomblé, finally, settlement is a set of objects placed in a specific place to honor an Orisha. In this place is based the strength of the Orisha. We can think about how Settlement these meanings circulate. This work explicitly deals with the traumas, the wounds opened by slavery. Wounds that do not close. Trauma comes from the Greek and means wound. There is no possible suturing for four centuries of slavery or for the violence of the slave trade. Paulino tells us about this violence, however, not reproducing the famous images by Rugendas and Debret that portrayed the torture gestures of the colonizers and their tormentors on black bodies, which populate textbooks in Brazil (producing an association that naturalizes the relationship between “black body” and “violated body”). Rather, she opts for inexact stitching, for showing the fragility of this body of people who were objectified by slavery, photography, science and voyeurism.[9] The images of “enslaved bodies” in the 19th century place us only in these two places: work or suffering. Rosana Paulino chooses to make a settlement, a ritual of homage, of reconnection, impossible but necessary, with the past that does not pass. Heart, uterus and roots do not restore life or heal wounds, but serve to displace our way of approaching these ghostly images of the past, allow us to start a dialogue with the dead, open a balcony over the ocean, contextualizing slavery in the Afro world. -Atlantic. Restoring roots to those cut off from them, giving them offspring and life, even if a survival, is a delicate work to which Paulino's art has been dedicated in an original and powerful way. 

Scene from "(Outros) Fundamentos #1", by Aline Motta. Photo: Courtesy of the artist
Scene from “(Other) Fundamentals #1”, by Aline Motta. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Aline Motta: reflections of a (mis)encounter

Establishing a chain of memory that, at the same time, sews together the Brazilian territory in its long history of slavery and never achieved liberation and, at the same time, opens a balcony over the ocean are parts of the same more or less explicit project within the production of Afro-descendant art. In the case of the artist from Niteroi, Aline Motta, for example, with her trilogy of video installations, this is evident. Your works Bridges over Abysses (2017) If the sea had balconies (2017) and (Others) Fundamentals (2017-2019) present, based on an off-screen narrative by the author, with images captured in Sierra Leone, Nigeria and in several places of her origin in Brazil, the story of a search for fragments of the past aiming to establish a “settlement”. ” (to return to Paulino's image) in the present. His works are born from a moment of rupture, from the breaking of a “secret”, from a layer of hard silence that kept its origin in the shadows, still in the 19th century, in the practice of an aristocrat’s son who violated his great-grandmother. . Her grandmother has only her mother's name and the qualification of “natural daughter” on her birth certificate. From this discovery, from the repressed violence, from this negative origin, Aline's work unfolds like a huge river that gushes, also full of family photographs that, in their videos, literally navigate floating through the waters of the Atlantic Ocean and rivers. from Brazil and Africa. In these works full of transparency, water and mirrors, surfaces that (themselves) reflect for us to reflect on, the artist seeks the paths that can reconnect the broken threads of her family history and those that also connect the continents of two shores of the South Atlantic.

At the end of your work (Others) Fundamentals we watched scenes in the city of Lagos with people on canoes and on the banks of the river carrying small mirrors in their hands. The narrator says: “If belonging is a fiction, can I point a mirror at Nigeria and see Brazil? Is the reverse also possible? Beyond the ocean, one points the finger at the other and asks: is it really you? Why did it take so long?”

Final words

As in Late Manifesto, by Rubem Valentim, Aline Motta also punctuates this temporality of “delay”, the afterwards which, as we have seen, is nothing more than the temporality of trauma, with its characteristic delay. The time of trauma is a time that crosses us, that makes the slave trade, the violence of almost four centuries of slavery and the eugenics and genocidal policies against black people that exist until today part of the same present. It is a past that does not pass. Contemporary black Brazilian art, which I tried to present here from its difficult birth, which rose up against so many erasures, repressions and so many deaths and violence, this art in a way blackberry in that "to delay” that Aline tells us about. Inhabiting the delay always implies an urgency to speak, to inscribe infinite stories not symbolized, not imagined, not yet translated into images. The works of so many artists mentioned here and those not mentioned are true hybrid constructions, marked by assembly, sewing, as they are collections of shards and debris, as installations, graphic or photographic prints, performances and theatrical scenes. The strength of these artistic devices consists in being works of memory that launch and open up new territories before us, help to build new houses for us to inhabit beyond homelessness and discomfort. These devices break through walls of oblivion and forced silencing like pickaxes. As I stated at the opening of this text, the impressive strength and originality of contemporary black Brazilian art also responds to the terrible rise of neo-fascisms that today repeat their genocidal designs.

Black art exists only in a becoming, in a construction that is parallel to the black becoming. For it to exist, artists, critics and curators had to break free from centuries of a historiography whitecentric that makes black art invisible. Curators needed to get rid of their colonial blindness to realize that black art is not just an tributary of “Brazilian art”, but constitutes a cultural and symbolic field that, on the contrary, must be read in the context of the black diaspora, beyond the nationality device differences crusher machine. Thinking about an Afro-Brazilian art only makes sense if the term “Brazilian” serves to locate the space of the diaspora, its context, and not to impose national limits in the sense of building an illusory great “Brazilian art”. Black art transcends the borders of coloniality, it explodes the usual code of art history with its national, linear and ascending histories, punctuated by its “great figures”. By building its memory theaters that allow the imagination of other spaces of playful action, this black art discussed here encourages us to rethink the very meaning of art and its borders.


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[1] 14-year-old teenager shot by police forces in the midst of an action carried out, against any reason, during quarantine due to the covid-19 pandemic. The crime committed by state forces took place on 18/05/2020 in the municipality of São Gonçalo, metropolitan region of Rio de Janeiro, when João Pedro was playing inside his house with other children. 
[2] In the context of subaltern studies, Chakrabarty rethought history from the point of view of subaltern groups, seeking to redeem it from the colonial vision. With it, agents began to be recognized in these subaltern groups. This point of view finds a predecessor in Walter Benjamin, who in his 1940 theses “On the Concept of History” stated: “The subject of historical knowledge is the fighting oppressed class itself. In Marx, it appears as the last enslaved class, as the one that takes revenge, that will consummate the work of liberation in the name of [whole] generations of the massacred.” (2020, p. 46) But beyond this Copernican turn of historical knowledge and action, Chakrabarty critically thinks about the structure of domination in modern India, with its layers of national political dominance associated with the use of British codes and institutions. He proposes to deconstruct the teleology of historicism (also present in Marx and Marxisms) and the idea of ​​Modernism as a universal model. His proposal takes place in the context not only of the epistemological turn from the subaltern point of view, but also from the post-colonial point of view. He proposes to brush history against the grain, restoring empowering elements of collective memories that are heterogeneous to the European model, starting to value subaltern pasts. It is a vehement refusal of the colonizing model of the Enlightenment, universalizing episteme, which is considered the only one capable of carrying “objectivity”. It is also a denunciation of the violence of colonial practices, both in terms of physical and symbolic violence. His call for a plural, non-monolingual world is critical in our day of supremacist fundamentalism.
[3] Of course, this is not about criticizing Kant for being “Eurocentric”, since there was no other possibility in his 18th century Königsberg, but, rather, we must criticize the unreflective and uncritical use of his aesthetic work today.
[4] It is a central district of São Paulo, but which until the mid-19th century was still peripheral and where the terror to which slaves from Africa were subjected was concentrated: the pillory and the gallows. The neighborhood's name is apparently a tribute to the abolition of slavery officially taking place in 1888.
[5] In her article from the catalog of the 1988 exhibition, Aracy Amaral still wrote in a non-critical way regarding the complicity between aesthetic and colonial devices: “the new countries of America present themselves as a real source of miscegenation and a new reality. Identity becomes based, therefore, from our environment, or rather, from our tumultuous processes of deculturation, or acculturation according to the models of the hegemonic centers of Western art.” (1988, 272) This is how the colonial machine asserts itself with its work of destroying the “other”. The author also emphasizes the myth of the “absence of memory” (1988, 272) of Brazilians, when it is actually a question of recognizing a struggle for memories, in which the histories of violence against blacks and black resistance are systematically suffocated.
[6] Regarding this origin of black Brazilian art in Candomblé, it is essential to remember the figure of Arthur Bispo do Rosário (1909 – 1989), one of the most acclaimed black Brazilian artists, with works exhibited at the São Paulo and Veneza Biennials. His work, marked by collecting, editing, sewing, narrative construction and serialization used many codes clearly derived from Afro-Brazilian cults. In the fusion of religiosity and artistic work, he created an original and incomparable path in the country's art scene that at the same time forced and deconstructed the aesthetic device. (Hidalgo, 1996) The performances of the artist Ayrson Heráclito, which unite religiosity, rite and the displaced aesthetic field, unfold this path opened by Bispo do Rosário.
[7] In addition to the artists mentioned here, we could remember Sidney Amaral, Charlene Bicalho, Dalton Paula, Janaína Barros, Antônio Obá, Juliana Santos, Priscila Rezende, Lídia Lisboa, Renata Felinto, the curator and artist Daniel Lima, Tiago Gualberto, Janaina Barros, Moisés Patrício, Marcio Marianno, Peter de Brito, Ana Lira, Ayrson Heráclito, Jota Mombaça, dancer and performer Luiz de Abreu, comic artist Marcelo D'Salete and Frente 3 de Fevereiro.
[8] I also remember Eustáquio Neves, another important precursor of contemporary black art, I remember Paulo Nazareth, a key figure in contemporary black art as well, and the photographs of Ayrson Heráclito. Photography is equally fundamental in the works of Rosângela Rennó, Claudia Andujar, Paula Trope, Miguel Rio Branco, among many other contemporary artists not directly related to Afro-descendant art. (Diegues & Ortega 2013)
[9] It is important to compare this work by Paulino with the striking work of the American artist Carrie Mae Weems, From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, 1995-6, which is also made from the appropriation of photographs of black people from the XNUMXth century, submitted by scientific, photographic, sexist devices, to the army, as a wet nurse, etc. This shows how Afro-Atlantic histories are repeated across national borders. The colonial system was and is global.

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