Act Three: Spell | Abdias Nascimento
View of the exhibition "Terceiro Ato: Sortilégio" in Inhotim, with works by Abdias Nascimento. Photo: Tiago Nunes

Abdias Nascimento's relationship with painting, a form of expression that he adopted more intensely from 1968 and during the 13 years he lived in exile, constitutes the central core of the third act of the cycle organized by Inhotim around him in the two-year period 2021-2023. With more than 180 works and documents, the exhibition, inaugurated on the last March 18th, brings to the public the power of Abdias' plastic expression, explains personal and poetic connections with different interlocutors in Brazil, the United States and Africa and reaffirms his permanent appreciation of black culture as a form of struggle. This web that binds militancy and expression appropriates a wide range of references associated with beliefs, symbols and ideograms of African origin, with special interest in the orixás, a frequent theme in his canvases. 

“Sortilégio”, the title chosen for the exhibition, derives from a homonymous play written by Nascimento in 1951 and withheld by censorship until 1957, whose plot deals with racism and cultural appropriation, elaborating a series of discussions around Candomblé. The text indicates the process through which Abdias reverses the prejudiced view in relation to belief, starting to use these elements of great identity power no longer as a form of exclusion, but as a weapon of cultural reaffirmation and criticism of the myth of racial equality that raged in Brazil. For him, it's as if the orixás were alive. They are at the same time cosmology, psychology, theology, as he states in a 1975 text for an exhibition he held in Philadelphia (USA). He represents them in canvases of intense color and full of diverse iconographic elements – ranging from clothing and attributes associated with entities to everyday elements such as cars and the American flag. They are like “the heroes and martyrs of the fight against racism”, recalls Douglas de Freitas, curator of Inhotim and responsible for carrying out this great dive into Nascimento’s legacy, in partnership with the team from the Institute of Research and Afro-Brazilian Studies (Ipeafro ), an organization created in 1981, when he returned from exile, and which preserves its collection and mission. 

Elisa Larkin Nascimento, widow of Abdias and president of Ipeafro, recalls that the visual arts were not a new field in the activist's trajectory. He only started to paint in the second half of the 1950s, encouraged by Sebastião Januário, who was also present with works at the exhibition. Still in 1950, he founded the Museu de Arte Negra, in the wake of the work he had already been developing at the Teatro Experimental do Negro, and in 1960 he launched the controversial competition in search of a representation of a black Christ. “He never considers art for art's sake. It's not just the white cube that he challenges, as he seeks an art concept that goes beyond the museum condition,” she warns. And in this context, Afro-Brazilian theogony plays a fundamental role.

“An exu, son of Oxum”, sums up Douglas de Freitas to talk about his intense relationship with the orixás and their symbolic, transforming and affirmative powers. Like Exu, Abdias opens paths. It serves as a guide for anti-racist actions that have gained great reverberation in recent years. But he does so under the sign of Oxum, the orixá of love and prosperity, represented in one of his best-known paintings. To illuminate this relationship, the exhibition space itself is designed to emphasize these chromatic and architectural references, such as the large wall of intense yellow in the background.

“Sortilégio” reverberates in time and space. It presents a continuity solution in relation to the other exhibitions of the cycle: the first highlighting his relationship with Tunga, an artist with a great presence in Inhotim and whose father was a great friend of Abdias; the second, more documental, approaching the experiences of Teatro Experimental and Museu do Negro; and the fourth, to be opened next semester, which will provide an overview of the trajectory of the politician, activist and Pan-Africanist thinker. But it also spills over into other initiatives implemented by the Minas Gerais institution, directly reverberating in initiatives such as the shows “The World is the Theater of Man” and “Quilombo: life, problems and aspirations of the black”, on display until July. 

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