Is Brazil’s Most Famous Art Movement Built on Racial Inequality? A New Generation Argues ‘Yes’

MoMA's "Tarsila do Amaral" show puts a fresh spotlight on how Afro-Brazilians have been sidelined in the country's art history.

Tarsila do Amaral's The Moon (A Lua) (1928) is one recent acquisition at the museum. Photo courtesy Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images.

Slowly, the tectonic plates of the Brazilian art world are shifting. While established curators, critics, and artists in Brazil have long resisted viewing art or art history through the lens of race, a small but increasingly influential group is beginning to build a platform for that conversation. Scholars are re-examining Brazil’s most influential movements from a new perspective, while artists are creating work that confronts the country’s racial complexities and the ways they have manifested in the art world head on.

Thanks to this coterie of artists and scholars, topics that have long been taboo are now being addressed in public. This marks a major change. Even the most high-profile exhibition of Brazilian art on view anywhere in the world right now, “Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, consciously (and glaringly) avoids the subject of race in the artist’s work. It’s a dated position for the museum to take, considering the fact that Tarsila’s most famous series of paintings deal directly with race—whether she intended them to or not.

Installation view of "Tarsila Do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil" at the Museum of Modern Art. © 2018 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Robert Gerhardt

Installation view of “Tarsila Do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil” at the Museum of Modern Art. © 2018 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Robert Gerhardt.

The Shifting View on Anthropofagia

Tarsila is closely associated with the establishment of the Brazilian art movement known as cultural “cannibalism,” or “Anthropofagia”: the then-radical idea that a truly Brazilian art would emerge by ingesting all the different cultures that intermingled within the country, rather than simply copying European styles.

But most scholarship on the movement to date has avoided its complex relationship to race. In a conversation with this reporter, the MoMA exhibition’s co-curator, the Venezuelan-born Luis Pérez-Oramas, said: “Racial tensions exist in Brazil, but the way the culture deals with it, the way the society deals with it is totally different than the way the Americans deal with it. That’s why I am very careful to not racialize a reading of Tarsila because that would be unfair. That would be a colonial take on Tarsila do Amaral.”

Gualberto Tiago's The End of Asfalt (2016). Courtesy of the artist.

Gualberto Tiago’s The End of Asfalt (2016). Courtesy of the artist.

Some contemporary Brazilian scholars and artists, however, disagree with Pérez-Oramas.

“One way to actualize the idea of Anthropofagia would be to reflect on the widely accepted understanding of it as it is associated with Brazilian national identity and the myth of Brazilian racial democracy,” says artist Tiago Gualberto. “The lack of criticism of Tarsila do Amaral’s A Negra painting from Afro-Brazilian artists is symptomatic of ways in which black Brazilians are viewed as a theme, or an object, without a voice.” (The meaning of A Negra, one of the artist’s most famous works, is discussed in my review of the MoMA show: “Why MoMA’s Exhibition of Towering Brazilian Modernist Tarsila do Amaral Misses the Mark.“)

Tarsila do Amaral's A Negra (1923). Museo de Arte Contemporânea de Universidade de São Paulo. © Tarsila do Amaral Licenciamentos.

Tarsila do Amaral’s A Negra (1923). Museo de Arte Contemporânea de Universidade de São Paulo. © Tarsila do Amaral Licenciamentos.

A Changing Cultural Landscape

Historically, Afro-Brazilians have been neglected by both museums and galleries. Few institutions dedicated to these artists exist in the country. In 2004, artist and curator Emanoel Araújo founded the Museu Afro Brasil. Since then, the institution has become an important center for research on and presentation of works by black artists in Brazil.

Recently, more projects related to the work of Afro-Brazilian artists have begun to emerge. The nonprofit organization Social Service of Commerce (SESC), which operates public galleries throughout the country, has hosted exhibitions such as “Afro Como Ascendência, Arte como procedência” (“Afro as Ancestry, Art as Origin”), curated by Alexandre Bispo in 2013, and “PretAtitude: Insurgências, Emergências e Afirmações na Arte Contemporânea Afro-Brasileira” (“BlackAtitute: Insurgencies, Emergencies and Affirmations in Afro-Brazilian Contemporary Art”), curated by Claudinei Roberto da Silva and on view through May.

Yet Brazil didn’t select an Afro-Brazilian artist to represent the country at the Venice Biennial until 2015, when Paulo Nazareth received the invitation. This is particularly notable considering that, according to the most recent census in 2010, Brazil was home to the most people of African descent outside of Africa. And to date, the São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP), widely considered to be the most important museum in Brazil, has not hosted a solo exhibition by any Afro-Brazilian female artist. That will change in November of this year when the museum presents an exhibition of the work of Sonia Gomes.

Both Nazareth and Gomes are represented by Mendes Wood DM, which has galleries in São Paulo, Brussels, and New York, and stands out as having the most diverse roster of any contemporary Brazilian gallery.

The evolution within the art world reflects larger developments in Brazilian culture that have taken place since the early 2000s, spurred by the progressive policies of former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who held office from 2003 until 2010. Known as Lula, the former factory worker was the first Brazilian president to implement policies that explicitly address racial inequality, including the establishment of affirmative action within higher education and compulsory classes on the history of Africa.

One Step Forward…

Much has changed since Lula’s departure from office, however. The country has been embroiled in a massive corruption scandal; the right has gained considerable power; and in mid-February, current right-wing president Michel Temer ordered a federal military takeover of Rio de Janeiro’s police and prison systems, sending troops to patrol poor, mostly black neighborhoods—a move with grave implications for a city whose police force killed 1,124 civilians in 2017.

Elections are scheduled for October of this year. Some see Temer’s move as a means of silencing the city’s poor, black population before the polarizing vote.

Brazilian president Michael Temer has been hostile towards the arts since he took power. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images.

Brazilian president Michael Temer has been hostile towards the arts since he took power. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images.

Against this highly charged background, artists and curators have been newly addressing historical ideas of Anthropofagia and Brazil’s racial inequality. Bispo, who was involved with the Museu Afro Brasil but now works independently, describes the institutional tendency to focus on the formal aspects of Tarsila’s famous painting A Negra. However, he adds, there are people starting to challenge that reading.

“Many intellectuals who have written about modern art in Brazil have resisted certain contradictions of modernism,” Bispo says. “But the younger generation, especially black intellectuals, are beginning to show different understandings of the problem. People are beginning question what it means that Tarsila painted this black figure, an employee of her family. But there is still a resistance to looking at A Negra as an exploited figure because Brazil is still very conservative.”

Censorship in Brazil is threatening the art scene. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images.

Protest in Brazil. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images.

Da Silva, the freelance curator who organized “BlackAtitute” at SESC, explains the changing attitudes towards the legacy of “cannibalism.” “Anthropofagia proposes to absorb and transform foreign culture into something specifically Brazilian,” he explains. “But the contributions of African and indigenous cultures are not considered with the same dignity as European culture—which is its own form of colonialism.”

Artists Speak

Artist and educator Rosana Paulino deals with issues of identity and gender in her work and acknowledges that when she was younger, Anthropofagia was interesting to her. With time and greater knowledge of Brazilian society, however, the idea has lost its appeal.

“The problem with Anthropofagia in relation to black individuals is that it devours other cultures, including ours, and does not give us back something useful or even the real recognition of this swallowed black culture. We are only devoured.” she says. “Afro-Brazilian art, up until now, has been at the margin of a hegemonic system, while Anthropofagia is one of the narratives created by an urban elite in São Paulo. The place of blacks in this narrative is that of object of study, not that of partners in the construction of a common narrative.”

Rosana Paulino's Sem Título, Coração. © Rosana Paulino.

Rosana Paulino’s Sem Título, Coração. © Rosana Paulino.

Fabiana Lopes, a Brazilian curator and PhD student at New York University whose research focuses on building a critical context for the artistic production by black Brazilian artists, explains that when she first started her research, “people from the art world would say there’s no such thing as contemporary black Brazilian artists.” It was this denial that made Lopes realize how much work there was to do.

Since then she has seen a slow evolution. “Around 2015, there was a shift in contemporary art and in contemporary life in Brazil. I started to see more young activists trying to find a way to participate in certain conversations—mostly conversations about race,” she says. “Two years ago, when a black artist would do something that dealt with the issue of race, people would say, art isn’t about race, it’s not part of the discussion. I don’t know if I would hear that now.”

Elia Alba, a New York-based multimedia artist who recently had a solo exhibition at the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation, addressed the idea of Anthropofagia in her 2003 video, Eat, which features artist Clifford Owens attempting—and failing—to consume a white doll head.

Elia Alba, <em>The Thespian (Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz)</em> (2014). image courtesy Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation.

Elia Alba, The Thespian (Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz) (2014). Image courtesy Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation.

“At the time I was thinking a lot about the consumption of otherness and I discovered the Manifesto Anthropofagia,” Alba recalls. “I started to think about what that means for the cultures that they’re absorbing. Do those cultures get that same power? How do those dynamics play back in the same way when you still have people who are incredibly marginalized? The idea of Anthropofagia, for me, is really done in the service of power, of the few.”

Questioning the Status Quo

In 2012, Renata Felinto presented the performance and video, White Face and Blonde Hair, for which she dressed up like a wealthy white Brazilian woman and went for walks in the upscale districts of São Paulo. “The project was a response to three Brazilian television shows that were using blackface,” Felinto says. “I thought it was time to make fun of these people who consume black bodies in so many ways, massacring our history, culture, and identity.”

Renata Felinto's "White Face and Blonde Hair Project" (2012). Photo: Crioulla Oliveira © Renata Felinto.

Renata Felinto’s “White Face and Blonde Hair Project” (2012). Photo: Crioulla Oliveira © Renata Felinto.

“The objective of Anthropofagia was to produce a Brazilian art conscious of the European aesthetics and attuned to the historical, cultural, and social issues of the Brazilian people,” explains Felinto. “The problem is that the Brazilian people were not protagonists of this wonderful project. The artistic production of those outside of the São Paulo elite was considered ‘folk art’ which was the designation used [for Afro-Brazilian art] until the last few decades.”

Tiago Gualberto’s 2017 intervention, Lembrança de Nhô Tim (Souvenirs of Massa Tim), comments on the history of mining and labor in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, where he is from, while playing on the name of Inhotim, the 5,000-acre contemporary art garden largely funded by mining magnate Bernardo Paz. Based in São Paulo and formerly a researcher at the Museu Afro Brasil, Gualberto is cautious about the recent attention being paid to Afro-Brazilian artists.

Gualberto Tiago's The Souvenir of Massa Tim (2016). Courtesy of the artist.

Gualberto Tiago’s The Souvenir of Massa Tim (2016). Courtesy of the artist.

“Art institutions in Brazil, as well as curators and critics, seem incapable of dealing with alterity and cultural differences—especially when the artistic production questions aspects of the status quo—which is particularly ironic considering how these same institutions make use of the idea of Anthropofagia,” he says.

“A Special Type of Cannibals”

The ways in which artists are addressing issues of racial inequality are as complex and layered as Brazil’s history itself.

Conceptual artist Moisés Patrício works in photography, video, performance, and ritual. One of his most well-known projects is an Instagram series in which he posts a photograph of his hand every day holding objects he encounters throughout the city of São Paulo.

“There are many places that are symbolically and culturally banned to black people,” Patrício explains. “I’m interested in questioning the identity given to the blacks in Brazil, an identity of labor and manufacturing and how that impacts my life as a young artist who also uses his hands as a working tool.”

For Patricio, the absence of attention to race in the interpretation of Brazil’s art history has real-world effects on artists working today. “It is very unusual to find Afro-descendant artists represented in commercial galleries, or in most visual arts exhibitions in Brazil,” he says. “The black presence is circumscribed and limited to very specific cultural contexts.”

Patrício goes on to list dozens of historical black figures integral to Brazilian cultural history, including sculptor Aleijadinho, writer Machado de Assis, and poet João da Cruz e Sousa. “I think maybe black people are a special type of cannibals,” he says. “We devour and digest this country with the same hunger by which a bee devours the pollen of a flower. Almost everything this country has done, in the deepest terms of its uniqueness, is of black origin. Do we, then, really have to disappear, enabling our transfiguration in a tropical Europe?”

The only way out, Patrício says, is to press the meaning of Anthropofagia in a whole new direction. “Let’s get down to business. The time is already urgent for the blacks to devour Brazil!”

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