As I have studied the question of the national identity of art produced in Brazil since the beginning of my career as a researcher, the position of the artist of African descent within the hegemonic segment of the country's art has been of interest and concern to me for years. Thus, in 2015, when I was the general director of the Pinacoteca de São Paulo, when I saw myself responsible for the tribute to be paid to Emanoel Araújo – one of the main professionals who preceded me in the direction of that museum – instead of choosing to praise his importance in the renovation of the Pina Luz building, or his pioneering spirit in bringing large international exhibitions to the Pinacoteca, I preferred to emphasize his position as the first director to initiate a policy of acquiring works by artists of African descent for the collection. The result was the show Territories: Afro-descendant artists in the Pinacoteca collection, in which I presented a series of works by young black artists, recently acquired by the institution, alongside works by artists of the same origin already present in the collection.
When trying to detect what could unite the new works that arrived in the collection with those already existing, I realized that only the common origin of their producers united them. I am aware that this perception was linked to the characteristics of the works of artists of African origin belonging to the Pinacoteca, not being a characteristic of all art produced by Afro-descendants. In any case, on that occasion it seemed impossible to reflect on Afro-Brazilian art as a single and complete territory. That's why I called the show “Territories”, in the plural, and not “Territory”. And this is because the most I could do with Pina's collection of works by black artists was to articulate them in small groups, formed by works that dialogued with each other and not among all the works chosen for the show. Thus, I ended up dividing the exhibition into three “territories”: one that brought together works that used African matrices; another that brought together works linked to European matrices and, finally, more recent works, guided by contemporary matrices..
With the exhibition set up and inaugurated, I began to be suspicious of those “territories”, conceived to group the three sets of works. In the end, I considered the impression that they were not dialoguing with each other to be false and that I had made a mistake when I started my curatorship based on a strategy prior to the reality of the works I exhibited. In other words, the concept of an “Afro-Brazilian” or “Afro-descendant” art had colonized my gaze, making me use previous typological categories to group those works, which had ended up preventing me, for example, from associating the work of Sidney Amaral not to the production of Firmino Monteiro, but to that of Rosana Paulino.
Continuing with these thoughts, I concluded that for a more complex understanding of the art produced in Brazil, perhaps it would be more productive to reflect on the work of Emanoel Araújo in relation, for example, to that of Amílcar de Castro than only in relation to that of Rubem Valentim. Such thoughts led me to ask about the real importance that the notion of Afro-Brazilian art could have for us to think about the art produced in Brazil in a really productive way.
The issues raised by me in 2015 and recorded in the paragraph above were not developed, remaining dormant until, a few weeks ago, digging through my file, I came across an article that I published in 2010 in New Cebrap Studies, on the artistic historiography in Brazil. There, at one point, he compared the book Brazilian art, by Gonzaga-Duque, published in 1888 com General History of Art in Brazil, coordinated by Walter Zanini and released in 1983.
For some, these two books are incomparable. After all, the first is an essay on the art produced in Brazil – a mix of historical narrative (from the colonial period) and brief profiles of some artists mentioned in that narrative – written by a single author. The book coordinated by Zanini, on the other hand, also had as its backbone the art produced in Brazil, from the period before Cabral until the 1970s. But this second narrative was written by eight specialists specially invited. However, despite the shared authorship and being richly illustrated (which was not the case of the book by Gonzaga-Duque, without any illustration), both brought narratives about Brazilian art. If the first ranged from colonial art to the last decades of the 1970th century, the second expanded this line, adding, at the beginning, the period before colonization and, at the end, “bringing” the narrative to the XNUMXs.
However, around this great axis that also characterized the work coordinated by Zanini, there were still other essays that were not part of that main line..
I call attention to the following fact: if Darcy Ribeiro’s text, completely focused on the analysis of “pure” indigenous production, was edited to remain at the beginning of that backbone – thus recognizing the legitimacy of this production –, art produced by artists of African origin did not have the same fate, remaining in the set of satellite essays, alongside topics such as photography, art education, etc.
Today it may seem inconceivable to many that the book's editors have left all these subjects out of the main narrative of Brazilian art. In fact, it is not possible to think about art in Brazil without taking into account, for example, the role that photography and the photographic image played in local art from the mid-XNUMXth century onwards.
However, even more serious seems to have been to propose a reflection on art in Brazil that did not take into account the fundamental dimension of the presence of the black artist within it, relegating this phenomenon to a text that, although with qualities, was still a satellite in the general economy of publication.
Compared to the book by Gonzaga-Duque, the one coordinated by Zanini meant a change in mentality regarding the way artists of African origin were seen. Although treated outside the main axis, Carneiro da Cunha’s text thinks about that production with expertise, including understanding that studying it closed in on itself was to respect its integrity and specificity – an attitude different from that perceived in Gonzaga-Duque’s text, in which the figure of the black person was almost always described with prejudice.
However, almost forty years after its launch, General History of Art in Brazil demonstrates to lose breath in the face of the new complexity assumed by the current Brazilian artistic debate, now impregnated by the urgency of rethinking what, five or ten years ago, was only intuited or perceived as a problem to be solved.
Mariano Carneiro da Cunha, in the text “The Afro-Brazilian Art”, published in General History of Art in Brazil, studies the supposed specificities of this manifestation and, after so many years, is still a reference for more recent authors . In it, the author creates four divisions for what an Afro-Brazilian artist could or could not be: 1- One who only uses black themes incidentally; 2 – what it does in a systematic and conscious way; 3 – which uses not only themes but also spontaneous and often unconscious black solutions; 4 – the artist decidedly linked to ancestral religious traditions.
Within the first division, Cunha claims that calling Tarsila, Segall, Guignard and Portinari “Afro-Brazilians” just because they eventually portrayed black people would be like calling Picasso Afro-French or Afro-Spanish for having done the same. In the second team, Cunha places artists such as Carybé, Mario Cravo Jr., Hansen Bahia and Di Cavalcanti who could not be understood as Afro-Brazilians, because they would use signs from the Afro-Brazilian experience to develop their individual aesthetic discourses..
In this same context, he places artists such as Agnaldo Manuel dos Santos and Rubem Valentim because, even black people, they used signs linked to ancestral African visuality to carry out purely individual plastic solutions.
For Carneiro da Cunha, artists commonly classified as “primitive” or “popular” would be in the third group. In these, not only the theme, but also the plastic conventions would tend to be African, within various approaches. In the room would be found artists dedicated to ritual art, who would have assumed not only an individual bond with African ancestry, but a more totalizing commitment. In it, Mestre Didi (Deoscóredes M. dos Santos) would be highlighted.
According to the description proposed by the researcher, the art produced in Brazil, in its relations with the African heritage, would go, from a tenuous and insignificant use of representations linked to blackness, to those producers who would continue, in Brazil, an innate religiosity of the African art and culture. Therefore, to study Afro-Brazilian art was to detect in each artist what was specific, and not merely casual, he could use from the African tradition.
If, then, Carneiro da Cunha’s text proposed this incessant search for specificity for Afro-Brazilian art, the presence of artists of African descent in the text “Contemporary Art”, published by Walter Zanini in General History of Art in Brazil, was diluted. This is because for Zanini, modern and contemporary art developed from international artistic and aesthetic assumptions, without any ethnic or national concern. As an example, it is worth remembering how he cites the presence of Rubem Valentim's production in the Brazilian scene. There, it is noted that the relationship with the artist's production with signs of African origin no longer seems fundamental to the critic, as the artist's “Parisian influences”:
[…] Rubem Valentim (1922) had participated in the artistic renewal movement in Bahia in 1945, and his painting reveals Parisian influences in the first half of the 50s, before he decided, by ideological inclination, for signs rooted in Afro-Brazilian popular culture. . He makes use of emblematic forms, of studied and rigid geometric ordering, for his paintings, reliefs and three-dimensional objects […]
If for Carneiro da Cunha Afro-Brazilian art needed to be seen in its specificity, for Zanini this question seemed more like an “ideological” idiosyncrasy of Valentim's, nothing that deserved special attention. Result: established in a niche, or diluted as one more characteristic among many, the art produced by artists of African descent seems to have lost significance in Brazilian artistic historiography because it is not seen for what it in fact is: a constitutive manifestation of Brazilian art. that it will never be hegemonic, that is, that it will never be predominant until we recognize that it is also explicit in its complexity, insofar as it absorbs this fundamental characteristic of the Brazilian experience: the fact that it is also of African origin.
From Carneiro da Cunha's proposal, I tend to recognize his claim to the “purity” of the fourth type of artistic production, the one most viscerally linked to religiosity and African traditions. However, this does not mean that you consider it more important than the other stages of your division. The fundamentally religious artists are great in the results they achieve in their struggle to continue developing in Brazil the traditions coming from Africa. However, observing those belonging to the other groups proposed by the scholar expands the interest of the problem of the artist of African origin in Brazil, not only because of having such a heritage, but also because of living with it in a racist society such as the Brazilian one.
Clarival do Prado Valladares, in another seminal text on Afro-Brazilian art, at one point compares a black artist from the interior of Brazil in the XNUMXth century and his colleague who lived in metropolises or coastal cities:
[…] And, in this way, through the pastoralist countryside of Goiás, the mestizo culture, the Brazilian baroque of European typology and black expressiveness, were maintained for another century. This is a chapter to be studied in terms of confrontation, analysis and reassessment, in our opinion sufficient for a review of the universal baroque, for its aspects of transculturation.
On the other side of the country, in the metropolises and cities on the coast and in the nearby interior, the mestizo culture was progressively diluted and alienated. Numerous black and mestizo artists were educated and asserted themselves in the traditional professions and styles of contemporary, white civilization, without commitments and without connotation to black culture. No one will be able to identify genuineness or remnants of black culture in the works of Rosalvo Ribeiro, Firmino Monteiro, […] Arthur Timotheo da Costa, Horácio Hora […], or in the Negroid descendants who produce today, in the identity of international art, commanded by the civilization from outside […]
Today it seems difficult to understand how Valladares noticed the quality of the XNUMXth century Goiás production – for him a clear manifestation of transcultural originality – at the same time that he did not perceive the same potency in the productions of artists from the “coast”. Repeating the thousand times used cliché that the “truth” of Brazilian art and culture would be in the interior of the country, he goes unnoticed, for example, the strength of Arthur Timótheo da Costa, present in his self-portrait belonging to the Pinacoteca de Sao Paulo.
This painting is interesting not only for the expression of deep concentration expressed in the artist's gaze, or even for the mastery with which he performs the work. What is moving here is the effort by Arthur Timótheo da Costa to adapt all his sensitivity and subjectivity to the domains of representation, or rather, the codes of representation of the real and the “I”, structured for centuries in Europe by white artists. There, in that painting, the conscious need of the artist to allow himself to be “colonized” is visible, to create conditions to absorb all the white paradigms of representation, a kind of test (crowned with success) to see if it was possible to express himself, as a black subject, through the molds of white representation.
This is Arthur Timótheo da Costa's trump card: someone whose family members had been enslaved, that is, deprived of the domain of their bodies and minds, becomes capable of appropriating the representation schemes of the oppressor, valid at the time, to document / express their own subjectivity, the one that had been denied to theirs.
Perhaps due to the historical moment in which he lived, still trapped in the idealization of a “pure” Afro-Brazilian art, it was impossible for Valladares to understand what could be at stake in the production of Arthur Timótheo da Costa, in his struggle to appropriate the modes of representation of those who subjugated them in order to restore them to a truncated subjectivity, perhaps uprooted, but no less powerful and valid.
At a certain point in the text that Claudinei Roberto da Silva also wrote for the exhibition catalog territories, from Pina Estação, he quotes the same passage from the text by Clarival do Prado Valladares, which I have just quoted, and takes a stand on it, bearing in mind, however, the work of Estevão Silva, another black artist, contemporary of Arthur T. da Coast. This is how he pronounces it:
[…] Despite being written in 1968, Valladares' argument is current and deserves to be the object of reflection. The critic states […] that the technique used to produce some works does not show the ethnic origin of the artists. However, we observe subtle but significant differences between the work of Estevão Silva and that of his contemporaries, such as Pedro Alexandrino.
We necessarily converge here on a history of art that, without neglecting “stylistic-formal” aspects, values the author's biography in the analysis of the work […]. But the question remains: to what extent are personal experiences, of an extra-artistic nature, decisive in the construction of a work of art?
From there, Claudinei Silva analyzes the differences between Estevão Silva's still lifes and those painted by Pedro Alexandrino. For the author, unlike the almost always sumptuous still lifes of Alexandrino, in those of Estevão Silva what we see are:
[…] fruits and vegetables harvested in the modesty of home gardens. The fruits presented sometimes still have their stems and branches broken, indicating proximity to the place where they were harvested. Not infrequently, they are in an advanced stage of maturation. Added to this is the scale of the works, which, in the case of Estevão Silva, are of very modest proportions, mostly […]
For the researcher, the tiny format of the artist's paintings would be indicative of both his social origin and the destination of those works: more modest rooms than those where Pedro Alexandrino's paintings followed. The author continues in his reflections and, after quoting Gonzaga-Duque and José Roberto Teixeira Leite, who, at different times, also called attention to the modest (but not a little less) character of Estevão Silva’s paintings, he concludes:
[…] In this way, the assimilation of European technique is not, in principle, denial of a primeval value or capitulation and submissive adherence to foreign culture. Rather, it consists of artifices necessary for survival in a hostile environment and, in some cases, subversive strategies pregnant with irony or haughtiness […]
After citing the same self-portrait by Arthur Timótheo da Costa, analyzed above, Claudinei Roberto Silva moves to the conclusion of her text, calling attention to a significant aspect for us to understand the complexity of what is conventionally called “Afro-Brazilian art”:
There is a consensus that popular cultural phenomena, such as samba and maracatu, are genuine manifestations of black African sensibility in Brazil. Once the codes of these languages had been settled, the controversies about their origins and regional differences and style had been settled, they were absorbed and are practiced by anyone and everyone in the country, regardless of the player's ethnic origin. The art of Afro-descendants also has an origin, a past to be better researched, and a present committed to the complexity of the moment. The future will be a consequence of what we can do today to absorb this production and present it with the dignity that its authors have long earned. .
And what could it mean to “present it with the dignity that its authors have long earned”? I am sure that the author is not referring only to the limitation of the same to good exhibitions in which the production of artists of African origin can be seen with dignity, within the protocols required for a good exhibition of works of art. “To present them with dignity” is to grant this production recognition of the fundamental role it plays in the experience of art in Brazil.
Especially for art produced in Brazil from the mid-XNUMXth century onwards, the contribution of the artist of African descent must be analyzed in terms of what he denies the white idealization of Western art, in what he destroys and/or adds to this tradition. Only when we understand that, in order to think about Brazilian art and society from the turn of the XNUMXth to the XNUMXth century, it is as important to study Eliseu Visconti's self-portraits as that of Arthur Timótheo da Costa or the still lifes of Pedro Alexandrino in relation to those of Estevão Silva; only when we understand that, in order to think about Brazilian art and society in the first decades of the XNUMXst century, it is as important to study the production of Sidney Amaral as that of Bruno Dunley, as well as the performance of Lia Chaia, as well as those of Moisés Patrício and Renata Felinto, that is when we will have a history of art in Brazil that is less prejudiced and more aware of its complexity.