Afro-Atlantic Histories

Artist and researcher Juliana Dos Santos reviews the visibility of Afro-descendant art in Brazil and then talks with Adriano Pedrosa, curator-in-chief of the São Paulo Museum of Art, about the integration of the Afro-Atlantic diaspora into the program of the most important museum in the country.

Maria Auxiliadora da Silva, Velório da noiva, 1974. Óleo y pasta de poliéster sobre tela. 50 x 100 cm. Fotografía por Eduardo Ortega​. Imagen cortesía del Museo de Arte de São Paulo.

Today, the São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP), under the direction of Adriano Pedrosa—whom I interview briefly in this article—stands out for its role in promoting discussions related to gender, sexuality, race, and ethnicity in Brazil through its exhibition programming and permanent collection. As the most important museological institution in the country, the MASP has established itself as a diverse, layered museum and a counterpoint to the Eurocentric perspective from which its collection was developed. This year the exhibition Histórias afro-atlânticas will focus on black experiences throughout African diasporic communities. It is important to note that there is a major process underway today in Brazil to acknowledge African influence in the country’s artistic and cultural histories, to recognize black artistic and intellectual production that responds to the historic erasure and invisibility of this population segment.
The conquest of public policies resulting from black social movements, unleashed at the beginning of this century, has led to increasing awareness of structural racism in Brazilian society. Over the course of three centuries of slavery, Brazil was one of the countries that received the largest number of African slaves and it participated intensely in the trafficking and distribution of enslaved people throughout Latin America. In the post-abolition era, no social reintegration policy was established for this population at a global level, and European immigration was incentivized in the country through policies that promoted the whitening (branqueamento) of the population.
In the field of art, theories of scientific racism based on the eugenics movement[1] were disseminated widely. Such is the case, for example, in Modesto Broco’s (1852-1936) painting La Redención de Cam (1895). In 1911, the doctor João Baptista de Lacerda used this painting to defended an argument for the whitening of the Brazilian population by means of mestizaje.[2] This work shows how the racial debate in Brazil was established by the State and elites with the objective of denying the black population’s fundamental place in society. However, resistance to these racial theories from the early-twentieth century grew quickly due to the work of black associations, brotherhoods, and presses, which published newspapers written by black unions and associations to denounce racism and valorize black cultures in the country.

It is important to note that black artists, intellectuals, and activists have been documenting and historicizing Afro-Brazilian artistic production for nearly 200 years. Pioneering studies like Manuel Raymundo Querino’s—written at the turn of the twentieth century were produced due to renowned black artists in Bahía. Decades later in 1955, the Teatro Experimental do Negro (TEN) promoted a competition in visual arts whose theme was the Black Christ. In 1988 Emanuel Araújo’s exhibition Mão Afro-brasileira at the MAM de São Paulo marked a milestone in Brazilian art history that led to an eponymous catalogue for the centenary of abolition. In 2000, the show Redescobrimento was also important in increasing the visibility of Afro-Brazilian art and Black artists in Brazil and could be viewed as a precursor to what the Afro-Brazil Museum, founded by Araújo, became.
In the twenty-first century, visual art and cultural institutions have been sharply criticized by black artist and intellectual collectives for the low levels of representation of black and Afro-descendant artists in their collections, programming and publications, as well as for the undervaluation and lack of recognition of African contributions and heritage in Brazilian art. The process of decolonization has been released by black collective on the periphery who have won space and representation in independent artistic production, while problematizing the Eurocentric and racist perspective of artistic and cultural institutions. Museums, institutes, and foundations, both public and private, have faced serious criticism for contributing to the whitewashed status quo of art spaces in the country. Intervention[3] and performances have been done that call attention to white supremacy in galleries, museums, and other art institutions in São Paulo. At the same time, we are seeing the valorization and return of independent spaces, the rethinking of narratives about negritude in the city, and discussions of the contradictions and reconfigurations of black identity outside of the initial Atlantic diaspora, but which have opened up over time and been reconfigured from within contemporary African, Afro-Latino, and Caribbean diasporas.

New institutions and editorials addressed to black artists and producers also play a significant role in facilitating access to the production and diffusion of black culture while increasing visibility for artist collectives working from the periphery. These processes instigated a series of debates about the role of black artists in the Brazilian art scene. As Nilma Lino Gomes has stated, art is beginning to recognize the centrality of tense ethnic relations at the heart of Brazilian culture and social formation. This fact has become clear with the increasing number of exhibitions that explore the country’s racial history. It is worth considering to what extent these changes represent a structural reorganization of curatorial and institutional thought, or if these issues were just being treated as a temporary topic during the International Decade for People of African Descent, initiated by the UN in 2015.
This issue, discussed largely by black artists and curators, has always been part of their daily life as they rethink their practices from within an exclusive art system. However, there is still much that can be done in terms of recognizing black artistic and intellectual production. This is not an isolated situation, but rather a global debate in which Brazil plays an important role due to its historical constitution. Black artists have been ignored throughout the history of Brazilian art; in this sense, curatorial practices and the positioning of museums and cultural institutions has come to play a central role in efforts to overcome the Eurocentric paradigms upon which they were built.
Thinking about all this, I sat down with Adriano Pedrosa to talk about his curatorial project and recent acquisitions for the Acervo en Transformación at the MASP.

Maria Auxiliadora da Silva, Capoeira, 1970. Técnica mixta sobre tela. 69.5 x 75 x 1.5 cm. Imagen cortesía del Museo de Arte de São Paulo.

Juliana Dos Santos: In your curatorial work, the exhibition programming proposes critical perspectives that until now were not present in the MASP. We also know that the discussion of the rupture of Eurocentric, masculine, sexist, and heteronormative perspectives is the result of a global political shift. Could you tell us a bit about how you have perceived these discussions and what challenges you and your team have had to overcome in relation to them?
Adriano Pedrosa: It’s true that the MASP is known for its European collection, it is considered the most important in the Southern Hemisphere, and much of the museum’s program as we know it (conceptual and architectural) was initially developed by two Italians—Pietro Maria Bardi (1900-1999) and Lina Bo (1914-1992). However, there has always been an interest in artists working outside the European canon, expressed as keen interests ranging from arte popular (with the landmark exhibition A Mão do Povo Brasileiro, which we restaged in 2016 that inaugurated our Avenida Paulista building in 1968, as well as self-taught artists such Agostinho Batista de Freitas and Maria Auxiliadora) to exhibitions and acquisitions devoting themselves to Amerindian art, African art, as well art made by patients of psychiatric hospitals (such as Albino Braz) and art made by children. The radical exhibition display system of the glass easels (which was introduced by Lina Bo at the museum in 1968 yet was taken down in 1996 and then brought back by us in 2015), despite its origins in mid-century Italian exhibition displays (such as Franco Albini) could itself be understood as a decolonizing tool. As the glass easel display takes the pictures off the wall and place them on free standing easels, it allows visitors a closer rapport with the artworks, which are somehow “desacralized”, in Lina’s own terms. In this sense, much of the decolonizing strategies that we have been developing take up some of these early, and I would say foundational, efforts and interests from the museum. Fortunately, we encountered these extraordinary moments in the museum’s history, which we could turn to, in order to unfold and develop our program over the last three years. This translates concretely in our efforts to bring self-taught artists, African art, Pre-Columbian art and Cuzco school paintings to the collection and the display, in dialog with the European paintings. Additionally, there has been a decisive effort to bring more women artists into the collection. The current exhibition devoted to the Guerrilla Girls, which called attention to the small presence of women artists in our collection display, is also quite intentional.
In terms of challenges, there are always those who believe that MASP should concentrate on its European collections, and therefore build a program focused on that, stating that we should leave African and Amerindian concerns to the Museu Afro Brasil or the Museu de Etnologia da USP. My argument has been that we need to bring these works to the most important museum in Brazil, to establish dialogues between the European, the African, the Amerindian, as well as the self-taught and the formally educated artists. MASP can perform quite a singular role, precisely because of its formidable European holdings, giving us a unique position outside Euroamerica, from which we can, in fact, “decolonize” the European canon—we have the Goyas, the Van Goghs, and the Cézannes, to do that.

JDS: When and how did these issues become present in your curatorial practice?
AP: All these issues have informed my practice because they were present in my formation—I studied in the US in the 1990s, when identity politics and multiculturalism were so prevalent, and where I myself as a gay man was considered a Latino if not Hispanic, and as such, as a non-white person in the US, which is of course different from the position of privilege that I have in the Brazilian context. This evidently informed my engagement with all these issues in MASP’s program, which can be summarized in the yearly program around different histories that we develop: Histories of Sexuality in 2017, Afro-Atlantic Histories in 2018, Feminist Histories and Histories of Women in 2019, and Indigenous Histories in 2020.

JDS: Should we consider the MASP’s 2018 project on Afro-Atlantic histories a continuation of the Histórias Mestiças project carried out at the Instituto Tomie Ohtake (SP) in 2014?
AP: Yes, Afro-Atlantic Histories now at MASP in 2018 is an unfolding of Histórias Mestiças, in 2014 at Instituto Tomie Ohtake. In 2014, the outlook was Brazilian, though there were some non-Brazilian artists as well. Now the scope is much more ambitious. The exhibition encompasses works from 16th through 21st centuries, from all the Americas, as well as Europe and Africa, divided in different sections—maps and margins, daily life, festivities and religion, portraits, Afro-Atlantic modernisms, slaveries and liberties, activism and resistance, rafastarism, with some 400 works.

Although the scope is quite ambitious, the project is quite speculative, and the exhibition does not aim to be all encompassing, definitive; there will inescapably be gaps, omissions, contradictions even.

This is reflected in the particular notion of the plural term histórias, in the Portuguese language (much like in Spanish)—as may encompass both history and fiction, the personal, political, cultural and even the mythological narrative, and therefore has a provisional, processual, and open quality, as opposed to the more monolithic, single master narrative of the traditional term History. The group exhibition itself is understood as one effort among many that we organize around these histories, which include two international seminars held in 2017 and 2018, as a series of one-person exhibitions along the year (from Aleijadinho and Maria Auxiliadora to Rubem Valentim and Melvin Edwards), as well as a talks, a film and video screenings, an ambitious program to introduce all these topics into discussion with teachers from the city’s public school program. The publication program is also quite ambitious, with some 14 books, including exhibition catalog as well as an Anthology that publishes the talks given in the conferences as well as translations of key texts. In addition, there is an interesting audio program where we invite Afro-Brazilian colleagues to record tracks commenting on works of their choice in the collection, something that will be later made available in our guide, as yet another voice of a particular work. The authorship of these Afro-Atlantic histories thus become quite extensive, it becomes a polyphonic project, and although there are a number of curators working in all these projects, the idea is to offer a museum as a platform where many contributors can bring their own voice—as an artwork, a film, a talk, a conference, a text, or a conversation.

Arthur Timótheo da Costa, O menino, 1917. Óleo sobre tela. 47 x 36 cm. Imagen cortesía del Museo de Arte de São Paulo.

JDS: In the opening remarks for one of the MASP’s seminars, I perceived in your words recognition of the low representation of black artists in the museum’s collection and team. How do you understand this issue? Is there a policy in place to increase the number of black professionals at the institution? Is the number of black artists included in the collection increasing?
AP: Yes, there are indeed very few works in the collection by black artists as well as women artists, and almost none by Amerindian artists, be them Brazilian or foreign, yet we have been making a decisive effort (despite a lack of an acquisitions budget, as I have said) to acquire works in that sense. In the last three years we have brought works by Afro-Brazilian artists such Rubem Valentim and Maria Auxiliadora, of which we are organizing monographic exhibitions this year, as well as Heitor dos Prazeres, Arthur Timotheo da Costa, and Agnaldo Manoel dos Santos. It is still quite insufficient, yet we must start somewhere, but all these works have always been on display. Things cannot turn around so quickly, particularly without an acquisitions budget. There is another issue, which is finding artists in our collection in deep storage that had not been exhibited, and this is the case of another Afro-Brazilian, Rafael Borges de Oliveira. In terms of our staff, it is also quite insufficient, but we have brought two Afro-Brazilian curators to work with us in Histórias afro-atlânticas—Helio Menezes and Ayrson Heraclito, who is in fact an artist. But indeed, with a few exceptions, we lack black curators on our team, as well as directors and board members at MASP. Hopefully it will change in the near future.

Rubem Valentim, Composição 12, 1962. Óleo sobre tela. 100 x 70 cm. Imagen cortesía del Museo de Arte de São Paulo.


  1. Lilian Schwarzcz. The Spectacle of the Races: Scientists, Institutions, and the Race Question in Brazil, 1870-1930. 1999. “In Brazil these theories were developed with the goal of establishing a political ideal, an assessment of the possibility of the submission or the possible elimination of “inferior races” that became an advanced practice of social Darwinism: eugenics, whose goal was to intervene in population reproduction. The term eugenicseu: good, well; genos: birth—was created in 1883 by the British scientist Francis Galton.” 78.

  2. Transator’s note: Mestizaje is a complex aspect of colonial and nationalist ideology (influenced by scientific racism and theology) throughout Latin American that advocated for racial mixing to make nations whiter and simultaneously justified a racially stratified class system with Europeans at the top.

  3. (Español) A Presença Negra is one example of this. Conceived of by the artists Peter de Brito and Moisés Patrício in Sao Paulo, this action incorporated a series of visual art vernissages and events in the most important galleries and art institutions in the city. With significant action in 2015, A Presença Negra had the objective of bringing a larger number of black people into these spaces that are mostly frequented by white people. Increasing the number of black people in vernissages generated so much annoyance that it was written about in the cultural editorial of one of the most-circulated newspapers in the country, which referred to it as something abnormal. In some sense, the presence of these people destablized the normativity of the anticipated “profile” of the public: white and elite.

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