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Black Art in BrazilExpressions of Identity$

Kimberly L. Cleveland

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780813044767

Published to Florida Scholarship Online: September 2013

DOI: 10.5744/florida/9780813044767.001.0001

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(p.xiv) (p.1) INTRODUCTION
Black Art in Brazil

Kimberly L. Cleveland

University Press of Florida

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter outlines the intersections of art, politics, and race in Brazil during the periods 1900–1950, 1950s–1984, and 1985–the present. The chapter traces the growth of both national and U.S.-based interest in black art in Brazil as well as the shift in discourse from black art to Afro-Brazilian art. Following a discussion of some of the implications surrounding race-related artistic labels, the chapter presents a case for the use of the term “black art” instead of “Afro-Brazilian art.” An explanation for the author’s approach is grounded in a summary of her academic training, methodology, and research undertaken in Brazil. The chapter identifies the specific ways in which the book expands upon the scholarship to-date and advances the current understanding of black art in Brazil. It concludes with an overview of the subsequent six chapters.

Keywords:   Afro-Brazilian art, art, black art, Brazil, politics, race, terminology

At a 1997 gallery talk in London, a young Black British woman asked Yinka Shonibare if he had a problem with being black. He replied that he didn’t have a problem with being black, but he did have a problem with other people’s ideas of what being black should mean for his work. (Hynes 2001, 65)

This encounter involving British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare speaks to this book’s core question: What does black art look like? The relationship between race and art is relevant to production from various parts of the world. However, the way that discourse on racially based artistic categories has evolved, as well as the implications surrounding race-related artistic terms, often differs from one country to the next and even between regions. Art institutions, critics, art historians, and curators are highly influential in shaping public understandings of the correlation between race and art. Of particular importance is an audience’s expectations of what black art should look like, which may trump the artist’s attempt, if any, to express blackness in his or her work. The fact that some artists embrace race-related labels while others reject them reflects the diversity of artistic creativity and identity around the world.

With regard to Brazil, the relatively recent interest in black art1 prompted anthropologist and curator Marta Heloísa Leuba Salum, at the turn of the twenty-first century, to state that “Afro-Brazilian art [was] a contemporary phenomenon” (2000, 113) (italics are mine). Her characterization is not wholly surprising given that most black Brazilian art falls into an interstice between studies of Modern and Contemporary Latin American art history and African art history, the latter of which has only gained international momentum and serious academic attention since 1950. One could easily argue that the relatively embryonic state of discourse on black Brazilian art, increasingly discussed as “Afro-Brazilian art” nationally and internationally in the past few decades, is an indication of both its perceived value to national artistic production and Afro-Brazilians’ largely subordinate position in Brazilian society. Regardless, such cursory hypotheses do not begin to address a (p.2) number of much deeper issues. Comprehensive exploration of black Brazilian art reveals that this body of work is innately enmeshed in a highly complex and interwoven series of social, economic, political, and historical factors that extend beyond the purview of a solely racially based discussion. The art cannot be extracted from its polyvalent environment and must be examined against this framework.

Intersections of Art, Politics, and Race: 1900–1950

The twentieth century encompassed numerous significant social and political developments in Brazil. It bridged the 1888 abolition of slavery and the 1988 centenary, which became a time to reflect on the country’s African heritage and the current status of its African descendants. Over the course of the century, the population endured a political rollercoaster that included both democratic administrations and more than one dictatorship. In addition to the disparate types of rule, mid-century, the government relocated the capital from Rio de Janeiro to the recently constructed city of Brasília—a symbol of the “new” Brazil. Of course, throughout the decades, artistic expression was also almost always affected by changes that took place in the social and political arenas.

The surge of cultural nationalism that occurred in the first half of the twentieth century largely molded the national racial ideology that existed well into the second half of the century, and even affected the trajectory of race-related artistic production. In the first decades of the 1900s, Brazil experienced a growth in cultural nationalism due, in part, to social and economic changes brought about by the abolition of slavery in 1888 (Franco 1967, 69–102). Several states had sizeable Afro-Brazilian populations, including the Northeastern region of Bahia, which was the strongest center of African influence due to its sea trade with West Africa and religious exchange with Nigeria, in particular (Barata 1957, 55–56; Matory 2005, 46–47, 118–119; Pierson 1942, 239). Yet, even after the abolition of slavery, the white, European-influenced portion of the population remained dominant socially, culturally, and politically.

This hegemony extended to national artistic production. For example, Brazil’s young white writers, artists, dancers, and musicians were active participants in the move away from European cultural affinities, fusing modern or international styles with decidedly local subjects in the 1920s (Ades 1989, 132–136; Barnitz 2001, 56–57; Mesquita 1996, 202–205). In contrast, black (p.3) art existed as an area of production that intellectuals, rather than the individuals who actually created the art, explored and articulated. Unlike the mainstream artistic producers, most black artists created sacred work within the Afro-Brazilian religious communities, which were concentrated in the Northeast. Social scientists Nina Rodrigues and Artur Ramos included this work in their studies under the label arte negra or “black art” (Ramos 1949, 189–212; Rodrigues 1904/1988). The generic designation did not explicitly relate to the artist’s race, but rather described a body of production that was unskilled, outside the European artistic tradition, and religious in content.

In the 1930s, President Getúlio Vargas made nationalism, including cultural nationalism, a priority in his plan to unify the country. During his dictatorship (1930–1945), he supported cultural activities, but only “as manifestations of state power and a way of promoting nationalism” (Mesquita 1996, 206). Especially for blacks, the African-influenced religious communities were important fonts for cultural manifestations in the 1930s. However, Vargas decided what fell within the parameters of national unity and repressed everyone and everything that he considered outside them and a challenge to his agenda. Under his rule, the police regularly confiscated liturgical objects and artworks from the Afro-Brazilian religious communities, which often ended up in police museums, sometimes jailed practitioners, and required the different groups to apply for a permit through the official Division of Games and Diversions (Brown 1986, 146–147; Carvalho 2005, 42; Lühning 1996). Further, although blacks had formed an organized movement, the Frente Negra Brasileira (Brazilian Black Front), and had gone on to register the Front as a political unit, in 1937 Vargas exercised his power by simply shutting down it and all other opposition parties (Sheriff 2001, 187).

Despite the government’s repressive tactics, a group of intellectuals organized the First and Second Afro-Brazilian Congresses in Recife (1934) and Salvador (1937), respectively, to explore Brazilian society’s African cultural influences. These Congresses largely focused on national issues, but also went beyond solely Afro-Brazilian topics to address questions related to the broader African Diaspora. The intellectuals hoped that by presenting African influences in a positive light, they would change the prevailing negative view of such aspects. However, the police, under Vargas, continued their oppressive practices.

In the 1940s, government-supported artwork made during the dictatorship was characterized by benign nationalistic themes. Subsequently, wealthy white patrons established new spaces to house cultural expression, including the São Paulo Art Museum (1947) and the Museums of Modern Art in São (p.4) Paulo (1948) and Rio de Janeiro (1949). At the same time, Afro-Brazilians remained marginalized from the mainstream arts and culture scene. Instead, they formed their own cultural groups such as the Teatro Experimental do Negro (Black Experimental Theater) or TEN, created in 1944 in Rio de Janeiro, as a means to promote social progress for blacks and involve them in creative expression.

Intersections of Art, Politics, and Race: 1950s–1984

Midway through the twentieth century, Brazil’s urban centers became sites of major political and social changes. There was a largely urban population boom, and economic resources were concentrated in a few cities, especially São Paulo. President Juscelino Kubitschek (1956–1961) moved the capital to Brasília in April 1960. Famed architect Oscar Niemeyer designed the city around the shape of an airplane, a plan that represented the dynamism and boldness associated with the creation of the new center of government in the interior of the country (Barnitz 2001, 184–188).

The same energy that surrounded these key political and social developments also characterized national cultural expression. Brazilian artists in the southern cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro began to participate in Concretismo (Concrete art), which emphasized the scientific and mathematical over realism and nationalism (Mesquita 1996, 212). Around the same time, art critic Clarival do Prado Valladares began to write about a small number of black artists in the Northeast who worked outside the religious communities (Valladares 1963a, 1963b, 1966a). However, individuals in São Paulo’s and Rio’s art circles were not concerned with these regional artists, as their work did not reflect the Concrete aesthetic.

Ironically, events taking place on the African continent in the 1960s prompted the Brazilian government to give greater consideration to the country’s African heritage. Léopold Senghor, the first president of independent Senegal, held the First World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) in 1966. He invited other African countries and also nations with substantial African-descendant populations to showcase their black art that employed aesthetics based on the principles of Négritude, the international black movement that he had helped define in the 1930s (Harney 2002, 19).2 In FESTAC, Brazil saw an opportunity to further expand its historically rooted cultural connections to Africa via the Atlantic slave trade into trade partnerships with newly independent African nations.

(p.5) Even prior to Humberto Castelo Branco’s tumultuous military takeover of the government in 1964, Brazil had been developing cultural, diplomatic, and economic relations with newly independent African nations (Santana 2004, 29–30). The government created the Centro de Estudos Afro Orientais (Center for Afro Oriental Studies) at the Federal University of Bahia at the start of the 1960s in order to promote opportunities for international cultural exchange and a greater awareness of Africa. Also, in 1964, the National Museum of Fine Arts in Rio de Janeiro began to build a Yoruba-oriented collection of African art (Museu Nacional de Belas Artes, 1983). Because FESTAC provided the opportunity to connect with a number of African nations at one time, Brazil accepted the invitation to participate and sent the work of three African-descendant artists to the festival.

Although the Brazilian government embraced Afro-Brazilian art on the international stage, it did not support most forms of artistic expression on the domestic front. The dictatorship hampered the country’s cultural production and employed repressive tactics such as censorship of television and press (Skidmore 1999, 164). Many artists had to limit themselves to expressing their apprehension and discontent through metaphoric works in which they only alluded to pressing social issues, rather than addressed them directly (Mesquita 1996, 222). Around the same time, the government also fostered an economic boom, known as the “Brazilian Miracle,” reducing inflation and foreign debt. However, economic stimulation did not dissuade many elite academics and artists from leaving the country due to the repressive intellectual climate.

In the 1970s, the fissure between what was happening at the national versus the popular level became more pronounced. As part of the government’s diplomatic and economic Program of Cultural Cooperation with African Countries, it created the Museu Afro-Brasileiro (Afro-Brazilian Museum) in 1974, which was linked to the Federal University of Bahia. However, because the institution emphasized historical links between Brazil and Africa rather than contemporary work, it had little positive effect on black Brazilian artistic expression. The country’s participation in the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture in Lagos, Nigeria (1977) also failed to elicit any long-term support for black Brazilian artists. Mainstream artists were experimenting with performance, conceptual, and installation art, worlds away from what black artists were doing and the type of work that was featured in the Afro-Brazilian Museum.

Political and social developments at the popular level had comparatively greater relevancy for the Afro-Brazilian population and their cultural (p.6) traditions by extension. In 1978, blacks organized into the Movimento Negro Unificado (Unified Black Movement), or MNU. Also at the popular level, there was a “re-Africanization” movement, which inspired broader interest in Candomblé in the region of Bahia, and a greater mixture of both whites and blacks participating in Afro-Brazilian religions in general (Matory 2005; Santos 2000). During this decade, Bahia solidified its position as the site of African heritage in Brazil.

Intersections of Art, Politics, and Race: 1985–Present

In 1985, Brazil returned to democratic rule after two decades of a military dictatorship that had earned the country a negative international reputation for its history of human rights abuses. Congress drafted a new Constitution in 1988, which also marked the centenary of the abolition of slavery in Brazil. However, on this anniversary, the vast majority of Afro-Brazilians remained second-class citizens.

In the 1990s, there were increased opportunities for the general population to experience Afro-Brazilian culture, and especially Afro-Brazilian religions. All-black groups with religious associations participated in Carnival and sacred pejis (altars) appeared in museum art exhibitions. Some religious houses held celebrations in public areas and opened up ceremonies and festivals to non-initiates. The government continued to promote Afro-Brazilian culture for the purposes of tourism, especially in Bahia and Rio de Janeiro, which they had been doing since the 1970s. However, by the 1990s, some Afro-Brazilian religious communities became increasingly resistant to exploitation as their members became more public about their faith (Drewal and Mason 1998, 188; Matory 2005, 182; Omari 1984, 25–26; Sansone 1999, 28).

However, the increased exposure to Afro-Brazilian culture and religion, including its artwork, in the past couple of decades has not automatically equaled greater understanding. Because many Brazilians are unfamiliar with their religious tenets, they are likely unaware that the altars in the museum exhibitions are usually available only to upper-rank religious members or that a practitioner’s aesthetically appealing “costume” indicates his or her rank and affiliation within the religious hierarchy (Omari-Tunkara 2005, 46–63). Further, introducing Afro-Brazilian religion into public spaces for touristic purposes has sometimes proved to be controversial. For example, the 1998 installation of large-scale representations of the Candomblé orixás (deities) in (p.7) the middle of Dique de Tororó, a small artificial lake in the city of Salvador, raised questions about who has the right to authorize the creation of such public monuments, and provoked some members of Pentecostal churches to demonstrate their religious intolerance (Sansi 2007, 165–183). Both the Afro-Brazilian religious communities and the government are responsible for the slippage triggered by commercializing what were once private religious elements and injecting them into the public sphere with little contextualization.

In the 1990s, black artists producing for audiences outside the religious communities demonstrated a greater level of agency and control over their work. Mid-decade, President Cardoso had modified artistic initiatives that left funding for the arts primarily in the hands of private sources, which were reluctant to promote exhibitions of what Brazilians considered “marginal art,” including women’s art, black art, and indigenous art (Barbosa 1997, 67; Yúdice 2003, 277). As a result, some Afro-Brazilian groups, including the Rio de Janeiro-based Casa do Artista Plástico Afro-Brasileiro (House of the Afro-Brazilian Artist) or CAPA, created their own Non-Governmental Organizations to promote Afro-Brazilian culture. There were several small, regionally organized shows of black art held in different parts of the country. Although, they were only on view for short periods and did not receive the amount of media attention or visitors as did the large-scale shows curated by Emanoel Araújo around São Paulo.

In 2002, the election of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who, unlike most politicians, was not from the upper class, set the country in a new direction. During his first term, the nation made great strides in combating poverty, hunger, and the lack of educational opportunities. Under Lula, Afro-Brazilian cultural tourism continued to thrive, especially in Bahia, and many aspects of Afro-Brazilian culture were commercialized in increasingly diverse ways. For example, some popular singers recorded albums of the sacred songs of Candomblé, and even contemporary hip-hop artists referenced the religion and its gods in their music (Pardue 2008, 100).

In the first few years of the twenty-first century, several significant artistic and political endeavors reflected greater national recognition and acceptance of Afro-Brazilian cultural production. In 2000, the government supported the Rediscovery Exhibition, a show that was created around the 500th anniversary of the “discovery” of Brazil. The monumental exhibition consisted of thirteen components, including the Afro-Brazilian Art and Black in Body and Soul modules. Second, in 2004, the mayor of São Paulo created the Museu Afro-Brasil (AfroBrazil Museum), an institution dedicated to representing the history of Brazil’s African and Afro-Brazilian populations (Cleveland 2012). (p.8) The museum reflects the government’s efforts to re-examine and recontextualize Africans’ and African descendants’ social and cultural contributions. In spite of these advances, great economic and racial divides within contemporary Brazilian society still exist. However, both at the national and popular levels, more Brazilians are amenable to greater recognition of their country’s social, political, and cultural diversity.

National Interest in Black Brazilian Art

In Brazil, the study of black art is shifting from anthropology to art history and is still a rather young field. Though Africans first came to Brazil in the sixteenth century, any substantial attention to African and African-influenced artwork dates to the middle of the twentieth century. Nina Rodrigues’s 1904 essay As belas artes nos colonos pretos do Brasil (The Fine Arts in the Black Colonies of Brazil) is often referenced as the earliest published study of Afro-Brazilian art. However, it addresses religious art made in Africa but found in Brazil, rather than objects that were actually produced in-country. In the early investigations by Rodrigues and his student Artur Ramos, rarely was it known whether the artist was African or Brazilian (Ramos 1949; Rodrigues 1904/1988; see also Barata 1957, 30). The uncertainly was largely due to the nature of the work, which was produced, stored, and used for sacred purposes in the private spaces of the religious communities. Further, at that time, scholars focused more on collecting objects than details about the artists.

Art critic Clarival do Prado Valladares’s essays on black art from the 1960s provided the most information available on specific Brazilian artists from an artistic point of view up to that point (Valladares 1963a, 1963b, 1966a). As was common at that time, he refrained from delving very deeply into the specifics of the individual artists and frequently used the term “primitive” to describe Hélio de Oliveira, Agnaldo Manoel dos Santos, and their work. Despite his arguably misguided views, the scholarship suggests that Valladares, who was involved in both World Black and African Festivals of Arts and Culture, genuinely respected the art and artists he discussed.

Events surrounding Brazil’s participation in the 1966 FESTAC reveals how controversial placing black art in the national spotlight was in the 1960s. On the international stage, white Brazilian cultural representatives took part in celebrating their country’s African-influenced artistic production. However, in national publications, they criticized the Festival’s exclusion of white artists, characterized Senghor’s Négritude as reverse racism, and defensively (p.9) asserted that “black art” did not exist in Brazil (Flusser 1966; Valladares 1966b). Ironically, in the same essay, Valladares also claimed that Afro-Brazilian sculptor Agnaldo Manoel dos Santos’s work, which was shown at the Festival posthumously, was more “authentic in relation to his cultural and ancestral African link than the Africans themselves” (1966b, 13). Regardless, ultimately FESTAC did not influence the Brazilian government to support Afro-Brazilian artists or to encourage an emerging black art.

Although not Brazilian-born, the French ethnographic photographer Pierre Verger played a key role in the dissemination of information on Afro-Brazilian religion and art during the 1950s, 1960s, and especially the 1970s. Verger, who moved to Brazil in 1946, primarily researched Candomblé in the Northeast and blacks across the African Diaspora. His photographs of adherents of a particular Yoruba deity in West Africa and Brazil served as both art and documentary evidence (Verger, Araújo, and Gariglia 1996). For example, individuals at the Afro-Brazilian Museum included Verger’s photographs of African and Brazilian religious practices alongside the museum’s African and Afro-Brazilian works to provide visual “evidence” of the transfer of African religious practices to Brazil and lend an air of “authenticity” to the artworks (Castro 1983, 9).

From the 1940s to the 1970s, Verger served as a go-between, transporting information and objects between Yoruba religious officials in Nigeria and those in Bahia (Pivin and Saint Léon 1993, 236; Rolim 2002, 106, 110–112, 120). He was also made a babalawo (priest of Ifá divination) while in Africa in 1952 (Rolim 2002, 115, 124). Among his most important publications are Orixás: deuses iorubas na África e no Novo Mundo (Orixás: Yoruba Gods in Africa and the New World, 1981), and Fluxo e refluxo do tráfico de escravos entre o Golfo do Benin e a Bahia de Todos os Santos dos Séculos XVII a XIX (Flux and Reflux of Slave Trafficking between the Gulf of Benin and the Bay of All Saints in the Seventeenth to Nineteenth Centuries, 1987), both of which have become important scholarly references.

Since the 1980s, artist and curator Emanoel Araújo has become the national expert on black art in Brazil. Originally from Santo Amaro, Bahia, outside the city of Salvador, he served as director of the Art Museum of Bahia from 1981–1983. Araújo was responsible for the ground-breaking exhibition A Mão Afro-Brasileira (The Afro-Brazilian Touch), which took place at São Paulo’s Museum of Modern Art in 1988 in conjunction with the centenary of the abolition of slavery. This show was the first major national exhibition of black art from the Baroque to the Contemporary periods, and the corresponding exhibition catalog has become another indispensable reference for scholars.

(p.10) Araújo was the director of the Pinacoteca do Estado Museum in São Paulo from 1992–2002 and curated several more exhibitions of black Brazilian art, including Voices of the Diaspora (1993), The Heirs of the Night (1994–1995), Art and Religiosity in Brazil: African Inheritances (1997), Black in Body and Soul (2000), and Never to Forget: Black Memories/Memories of Blacks (2002). Through the exhibitions Afro-Brazilian Art and Religiosity (1993) held in Frankfurt, Germany, and the Afro-Brazilian segment of the Guggenheim Museum’s 2001 exhibition Brazil: Body and Soul, held in New York City, he has also promoted awareness of black Brazilian art abroad.3 In 2004, he assumed the role of director of the AfroBrazil Museum, and has made it a heuristic tool for teaching about the history of Brazil’s African and African-descendant populations (Cleveland 2012).

Anthropologist Marta Heloísa Leuba Salum is arguably the second leading Brazilian scholar of Afro-Brazilian art. Her study of this subject developed out of her research on African art at the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium (Interview by the author, March 15, 2005). She cocu-rated the Afro-Brazilian Art module of the Rediscovery Exhibition with fellow anthropologist Kabengele Munanga in 2000 and subsequently authored two essays on Afro-Brazilian art (Salum 2001, 2004). In her research, she focuses on a small group of twentieth-century Afro-Brazilian artists who create secular and sacred-themed work.

Other individuals in Brazil, including art historian Roberto Conduru, curator Solange Farkas, art critic Paulo Herkenhoff, and anthropologists Raul Lody, Maria Lúcia Montes, Carlos Eugênio Marcondes de Moura, and Kabengele Munanga, have been involved in the discussion of black art to varying degrees, ranging from authoring essays to at least touching on the subject in their writing and curating exhibitions (Conduru 2003, 2007; Farkas 2005; Herkenhoff 2003; Lody 1983, 2004; Montes 2001; Moura 1994; Munanga 2000). Their work forms part of the growing corpus of national writing on black art from a variety of angles. Lody, Montes, and Moura focus primarily on Afro-Brazilian religion, art, and popular expression, whereas Farkas has tried to shift the focus away from historical artistic connections between Africa and Brazil by juxtaposing contemporary Afro-Brazilian art with other contemporary art from across the Diaspora in her Contemporary Pan-African Art Exhibition, held at the Museum of Modern Art in Salvador (2005).

Since the 1970s, Brazilian curators and scholars have used their work on black Brazilian art to empower national artists. They often engage the history of police confiscation of sacred objects and repression of Afro-Brazilian religions in their discourse (Carvalho 2005; Lühning 1996; Salum 2004, 339). (p.11) National curators and scholars underscore how the history of discrimination against the Afro-Brazilian population and the longstanding emphasis on a unified cultural nationalism hindered recognition and acceptance of black Brazilian art. Even the Afro-Brazilian Art and Black in Body and Soul modules of the Rediscovery Exhibition were still considered unusual in the year 2000 in a country where both important curators and critics characterize artistic categories based on gender, ethnicity, or race as “artistic ghettos” (Herkenhoff 1994, 42–43; Mesquita 1994, 3). Thus, many of the Brazilian scholars tend to draw comparisons between black Brazilian art and broader national trends, especially with more contemporary art, in order to underscore the role of this work in the larger picture of national production.

United States–Based Interest in Black Brazilian Art

In the twentieth century, American scholars who were interested in examining African influences across the Diaspora looked to Brazil, the country with the largest African-descendant population outside the African continent. Both prior to and after the Civil Rights movement, American and European intellectuals, including Melville Herskovits, Donald Pierson, and Roger Bas-tide, studied Brazil’s African-influenced food, music, language, and especially its religion (Bastide 1978; Herskovits 1941; Pierson 1942). U.S.-based art historians began to research the country’s African-influenced art in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

In the 1960s, many African-American and white artists and academics emphasized Africa as the cultural and artistic root of the majority of artwork created by black artists across the Diaspora. Robert Farris Thompson and Henry Drewal were among the scholars of African art history who identified connections between African and African-American art in the 1960s and 1970s, which helped to legitimize the study of African-American art in academia (Drewal 1975; Thompson 1969).

Africanist art historians from and based in the United States have produced the majority of the literature on black Brazilian art in the past quarter century, with much of their scholarship published in the 1990s. Robert Farris Thompson first included Afro-Brazilian art in his research on trans-Atlantic Yoruba connections (1975). He subsequently expanded his investigations to include West-Central African Kongo influences in Brazil, devoting some of his discussion of religious altars to the lesser-studied African-influenced religion of Umbanda (Thompson 1983, 1993, 1994). Henry Drewal includes (p.12) Afro-Brazilian art in his international examinations of Yoruba and Yoruba-related arts (1998, 1999, 2000). He explores topics of identity and agency and has included some secular art in his research as well (Drewal 1975, 1996, 1999; Drewal and Driskell 1998). Of the U.S.-based scholars, he has given the most consideration to the role of the individual artist and artistic identity. He has also compared secular art by African descendants in Brazil to that produced by African-American artists. Mikelle Smith Omari-Tunkara primarily investigates sacred art and agency within West African Yoruba religion and Yoruba-influenced religious practice in Bahia (Omari 1984, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1994; Omari-Tunkara 2005). Her in-depth exploration of Candomblé and gender makes her research unique from the other scholarship. While each of these art historians has their own interests, they overlap in the examination of religious art. Anthropologist Daniel Crowley and art historians Doran Ross and Michael Harris have also made minor but noteworthy contributions to the discourse (Crowley and Ross 1981; Harris 2008).

Shifts in Terminology: Black Art Becomes Afro-Brazilian Art

The Brazilian art world reached a turning point in 1988 when Emanoel Araújo became the first national curator to explicitly use the term “Afro-Brazilian” in the title of a major exhibition. In keeping with the kind of historical reexamination that events surrounding the centenary of the abolition of slavery were supposed to encourage, The Afro-Brazilian Touch exhibition included a wide range of production spanning three centuries. Significantly, the curator used the term “Afro-Brazilian” in this particular instance to describe the artists rather than a particular type of art, as there was no common theme or aesthetic. Araújo’s exhibition was groundbreaking in two ways: first, it departed from the category or label arte negra, with its “primitive” aesthetic and largely religious subject matter that fell outside the mainstream canon; and second, the large-scale show only featured the work of black artists.

Of course, some Brazilians did not approve of Araújo’s innovative approach. In a magazine article (Veja, September 7, 1988), journalist Wagner Barreira criticized the curator’s choice of artists, claiming that Araújo made his selections based “on the color of the researchers” who organized the show, rather than on “aesthetic concerns,” which would reflect a shared African ancestry. Indeed, The Afro-Brazilian Touch was unparalleled not only in its terminology and scope, but also because it was curated by a black Brazilian. The journalist essentially accused Araújo of reverse racism and suggested (p.13) that his “Afro-Brazilian” exhibition was a thinly veiled demonstration of racial autonomy.

Taking their cues from The Afro-Brazilian Touch, in the past two decades Brazilian art historians and curators have largely shifted their terminology from black art to Afro-Brazilian art.4 They have used the Afro-Brazilian label in two ways: foremost, to designate most artwork with identifiable African influences; and secondarily, to include the majority of artwork produced by black Brazilian artists. Intellectuals have shifted from a discussion of black art, meaning work that was “primitive” and in some cases of profane production, to discourse on Afro-Brazilian art, connoting work that is mainly religious in nature and with strong aesthetic and thematic links to African art.

In his 1983 essay on Afro-Brazilian art, which also stands as the earliest attempt at a definition of Afro-Brazilian art, anthropologist Mariano Carneiro da Cunha linked Afro-Brazilian art to Afro-Brazilian religion.5 Marrying the two was likely a reflection of the nature of studies on black art since the early twentieth century, but also the more recent growth in awareness of Afro-Brazilian religions and the “re-Africanization” movement at the popular level in the 1970s. There was no room for secular expression in this definition of Afro-Brazilian art, however. What was once black art and now Afro-Brazilian art had passed from one stereotype to another.

Because the narrow definition of Afro-Brazilian art excluded any nonreligious production, it had already become problematic at the beginning of the 1990s. As Araújo and a few other curators organized subsequent exhibitions of Afro-Brazilian art following The Afro-Brazilian Touch and more secular black artists and artworks made their way onto the arts scene, art historians, critics, and academics had to modify the meaning of Afro-Brazilian art. In order to accommodate secular artwork, they began to use it as a blanket term they could apply to most artwork produced by African-descendant artists. This development was not reflective of the racial ideology held in U.S. art circles, but rather acknowledgement that the term “Afro-Brazilian” was increasingly making its way into formal discourse at the national level in Brazil.

Some Implications for Race-Related Artistic Terminology

To date, there is no commonly accepted set definition for Afro-Brazilian art among national art historians and critics. Brazil-based scholar and curator Kabengele Munanga clarifies that it is not the artist’s race, but the “sources of inspiration and information and the message contained within a work” that (p.14) make it Afro-Brazilian art (Interview by the author, April 18, 2005). The visual characteristics that suggest a piece is Afro-Brazilian art are not quantifiable and lend themselves to a high amount of leeway for curators and artists.

Beyond an artwork’s visual aspects, sometimes the artist’s racial or ethnic association is sufficient to merit inclusion in the Afro-Brazilian art category. This is the case with Ronaldo Rego, a white artist and pai de santo (priest or literally “father of the saint”) in the African-influenced religion of Umbanda (plates 9–13).6 In addition to Rego, there are a handful of white artists whom curators and academics have associated with Afro-Brazilian art and culture, though not necessarily categorized or referred to as Afro-Brazilian artists, including Pierre Verger, Carybé (Hector Bernabo), Mario Cravo, Mario Cravo Neto, and Niobe Xandó. National and international exhibitions of Afro-Brazilian art curated by Solange Farkas, Emanoel Araújo, Marta Heloísa Leuba Salum, and Kabengele Munanga have included the work of white artists. The permanent collections of the Afro-Brazilian Museum in Salvador and the recently created AfroBrazil Museum in São Paulo also include pieces by white artists.

Scholars in Brazil have not applied the same racially based line to Afro-Brazilian art that American academics have. U.S.-based art historians use the term “Afro-Brazilian art” to designate a racially defined category of work by African-descendant artists.7 This model, of course, mirrors the discourse on African-American art in the United States and excludes white Brazilian artists from studies of Afro-Brazilian art. Due to the longstanding Brazilian theory that mixture was favorable to difference, applying a strict racial line to artistic categories is difficult for national scholars and art historians to understand and embrace. According to art critic Ivo Mesquita, an American-style definition of race and racial categorizations would simply not work in Brazil because it “has no reality” (1994, 3). Until recently, his argument was also applicable to the national tendency toward artistic production.

Some national scholars, who are aware of the difference in the way that Brazilian and U.S.-based intellectuals approach racially based artistic categories, are in favor of continuing to privilege mixture and self-identification when dealing with artwork. For example, in a newspaper article about an exhibition of Afro-Brazilian art (Folha de São Paulo, August 12, 2000), anthropologist Lília Moritz Schwarcz commended the curators for not “biologizing the cut” in their choice of artists and demonstrating that the “artistic universe consists of individuals who, independent of their ethnic origin, participate in a group as a political, religious or aesthetic choice.” Schwarcz stresses the role of prerogative for both curator and artist. In the twentieth century, it was (p.15) almost exclusively white artists such as Pierre Verger, Mario Cravo, Mario Cravo Neto, and Ronaldo Rego, however, who were in a position to choose to affiliate themselves with Afro-Brazilian art and religion. The same cannot be said of most African-descendant artists who wanted to participate in Brazil’s “mainstream” art circles.

From Afro-Brazilian Art to Black Art?

Though at the end of the twentieth century most scholars seemed to have come to a collective understanding of what constituted Afro-Brazilian art in a general sense, the differences between popular and scholarly attitudes toward race still in existence have continued to influence art historical discourse. In just the past few years, Marta Heloísa Leuba Salum and Solange Farkas have problematized the Afro-Brazilian artistic category and scholarly use of the label “Afro-Brazilian art” (Farkas 2005; Salum 2004). For example, when Solange Farkas included work by the white photographer Mario Cravo Neto in her 2005 Pan-African Show of Contemporary Art, she cited his profound involvement in the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé (Interview by the author, October 31, 2005). Both Salum and Farkas have contemplated a “black” Brazilian, versus “Afro-Brazilian,” artistic identity and style of expression. Their scholarship does not signal a return to the earlier stereotype of “black art” with its negative connotations. Rather, these two consider the comparatively more common term negro (black) used to describe people and things of African descent or influence in Brazil, versus the more formal, academic “Afro-Brazilian.” In exploring the term “Afro-Brazilian art,” Salum and Farkas recognize that not all Brazilian artists and their work can be easily and strongly associated with African artistic styles, concepts, and themes.

Independent of the socio-historical developments and political trends in Brazil, “Afro-Brazilian art” is a problematic topic because “Afro-Brazilian” is not truly an art historical term. Historically, Brazilian scholars have categorized artists by artistic movements. This again sets Brazil apart from other countries where scholars have tended to group artists and works in regional, gender, racial, or ethnic categories, in addition to artistic tendencies, in later twentieth-century art. For example, art critic Tadeu Chiarelli points out that in Brazil, female artists and their work were “never thought of as pertaining to a specific group like U.S. ‘Feminist Art’” (1999, 20). Further, art historian Ana Mae Barbosa asserts that the majority of female artists who achieve an equal level of visibility with male artists “refuse to see themselves as women (p.16) artists … and acknowledge gender difference” (1997, 66). Female artists view an emphasis on gender as a technique relied upon by those whose work would not otherwise merit examination and visibility. Similar to European and U.S. artistic movements, in the Brazilian art movements of Modernism, Concretism, and Neo-Concretism, for example, the artists have strong common goals, interests, and styles. The same cannot necessarily be said of much secular black artistic production. The history of visual unity characteristic of other groups does help to explain, however, why ever since the first explicitly “Afro-Brazilian art” exhibition in 1988, many Brazilians have looked for some visual attributes that would make Afro-Brazilian works cohesive and visually identifiable.

Afro-Brazilian art may also soon turn into a point of contention as some academics have increasingly called attention to the term’s association with foreign socio-political developments, especially those related to intellectual circles. Although debatable, both some national and international intellectuals have claimed that scholars from the United States have imported the American biracial black versus white, or in this case Afro-Brazilian versus white, dichotomy into Brazil (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1999, 41, 44–48; Risério 2005, 165–191). When U.S.-based art historians began to use the term “Afro-Brazilian” art, even shortly prior to 1988, their aim was twofold: to give emphasis to the “Africanness” of the work as part of their larger examinations of arts from across the African Diaspora, and to use a term parallel to African-American art. So, when contemporary Brazilian artist Rosana Paulino asserts that Afro-Brazilian art is a topic “principally imported from the United States,” she echoes wider claims that American intellectuals introduced their racial politics into Brazil based on their own history of segregation, the Civil Rights movement, and the development of African-American art (Interview by the author, August 2, 2003). Although Brazil and the United States share a history of racial inequality, the two countries are so vastly different that mapping an American approach onto examinations of Brazilian art and society is problematic.

In Brazil, there is no historic or contemporary parallel to the American-defined black aesthetic. Further, the concept of a “post-black” aesthetic is irrelevant since scholars and artists are still ironing out a set definition for “Afro-Brazilian art” for that matter. There are black artists such as the photographer Eustáquio Neves, for example, who repeatedly take the marginalized black Brazilian as their subject. This artist uses his work to convey discontent with the majority of the black Brazilian population’s present situation without employing “traditional” African styles, subjects, or influences. The white (p.17) artist and Umbanda priest Ronaldo Rego creates religious-themed prints and sculptures for the secular audience, in addition to the works he creates for the religious community. Multimedia artist Ayrson Heráclito incorporates gastronomic elements used in Candomblé and Brazil’s Northeastern region in his work to discuss the history of slavery and current social inequalities. The wide-ranging production even these few examples illustrate does seem to constitute its own body of work apart from the more generic title of Brazilian art.

In a move to distinguish some production from the homogenous label “Brazilian,” without failing to recognize the risks inherent in reaching for another term replete of oversimplification, I propose a category of production that is most appropriately and accurately referred to as “black art.” In offering this term as a preferable alternative and in applying this label primarily to the works I discuss in this study, I do not intend a recovery of its original, negative undertones. Rather, I follow the Brazilian pattern of privileging subject matter over race. I believe that the question of influence forms the core of this distinction. Whether in the theme or approach, this production reveals itself to be profoundly rooted in the popular. Its nature speaks to the national racial ideology and the formulation of racial signifiers within the popular realm, rather than the artist’s training.

Withstanding the test of time and despite its once-negative connotations, arte negra was and continues to be an art historical term in Brazil. Although “Afro-Brazilian art” remains the scholarly term of choice for U.S.-based academics, I offer “black art” as an alternative. While Brazilian curators and academics have also increasingly employed the term “Afro-Brazilian art” in an innocuous attempt to accommodate both the term’s frequent inclusion in national discourse since 1988 and more black secular production, the term has not yet pervaded popular thought or speech to a large degree. In this publication, I look at how select artists identify with the Afro-Brazilian art label, as it is the vocabulary of academic discourse. I also, however, examine the significance of these individuals’ secular production with regard to the popular realm and how the works convey ideas of blackness.

Engaging Black Art

I experienced the daunting endeavor of exploring black art in Brazil early in my graduate studies. The absence of black Brazilian artistic production in survey texts on Modern and Contemporary Latin American art left a gaping hole. Later, I discovered the work of Robert Farris Thompson, Henry (p.18) Drewal, and Mikelle Smith Omari-Tunkara, scholarship that outlined numerous connections between black Brazilian production and African art. With their greater African Diasporic focus, their examinations did not necessarily contextualize the black art within wider national production. In this book, I add to this existing body of scholarship by viewing black Brazilian art through the lens of twentieth- and twenty-first-century Brazilian art and culture. Such an approach is essential to understanding how contemporary artists reflect their lived experiences in their production and how they use their art to convey blackness.

In particular, this book analyzes how some modern and contemporary Brazilian art conveys “blackness” through its visual vocabulary. Starting from the basic concept that art is often a product of one’s environment, this book investigates how developments in the national discourse on race, ethnicity, and black art in the last decades of the twentieth century produced a shift in the body of visual signs from primarily Afro-Brazilian sacred symbols to references to blacks’ experiences in contemporary Brazilian society. The investigation of this change reveals contemporary artists’ focus on calling attention to secular, race-related social challenges and how black art production has continued to diversify. By adopting such an approach, this book advances the current body of scholarship on black Brazilian art by shedding light on the following five areas: art beyond the religious sphere; new artists and media; art and identity; modern (post-1920) versus contemporary (post-1985) art; and art as a representation of blackness.8

The material for this book is drawn from a number of sources. Primary investigations were conducted over a period of twenty months from 2003– 2009. My research included interviews with artists, scholars, and curators. Of the different materials I employed in producing this book, the conversations with the five artists that I feature in the book were the most insightful and, thus, I have tried to include the views expressed by these individuals, in their own words, whenever possible. Those discussions revealed each person’s perspective based on their own opinions, experiences, and point at which they entered the discourse on black art.

The Chapters That Follow

Following chapter 1, which lays the foundation for the discussion of race in Brazil and an artwork’s ability to convey “blackness” through its visual vocabulary, the ensuing chapters are case studies of two modern and three (p.19) contemporary artists and their production. The artworks I discuss in this book were created for a secular audience, even though some of the subject matter is religious in nature. I have not restricted the media to that which is germane to religious forms of expression, but instead have included painting, print work, photography, installation art, and performance art. Such diverse secular production raises questions about religious content and artistic liberty in the commercial art world. The book also underscores the variability of artistic identities, as exemplified by the different ways the artists respond to the term “Afro-Brazilian art.” Their individual tendencies may be understood as a reflection of broader differences between modern artists’ greater association with cultural and social pasts, versus contemporary artists’ focus on the present. Finally, in this book, I highlight how for the better part of the twentieth century, the same visual markers that conveyed “blackness” in the informal realm appeared in artwork as signifiers of black art. However, black art is far from static. Following a pivotal increase in awareness of black art and culture in the 1970s and on into the twenty-first century, the markers of black art and culture have continued to diversify.

Chapter 1 addresses questions of race, identity, and the concept of cultural literacy. I draw heavily on constructions and discussions of race in Brazilian society in the twentieth century as outlined in the works of Skidmore (1974), Fiola (1990), Sansone (2003), Telles (2004), and Pinho (2010). The chapter investigates how some Afro-Brazilians, who are often resistant to the idea of strict racial categories, have nevertheless asserted a black ethnic identity, especially from the 1970s onward, and how some white Brazilians also participate in that ethnic identity. Because racial constructions in Brazil are strongly based on visual signifiers, some of the same concepts extend to Brazilian artistic production. Therefore, works of art can also be broken down into identifiable signifiers of blackness and “read,” thereby creating a sense of cultural literacy. However, this chapter also stresses issues of underlying meaning and variations between geographical regions and audiences, which stem from this idea of communicating “blackness” through art.

Chapter 2 examines the work of Abdias Nascimento (b. 1914–d. 2011), an actor, activist, national politician, and self-taught artist from Rio de Janeiro. Nascimento used his paintings to pay homage to everyday black Brazilians, as well as the gods of Candomblé, although he was never formally initiated into this Afro-Brazilian religion. At the time that he began to paint in the late 1960s, art that exemplified visual connections with Afro-Brazilian religion was synonymous with black culture, and therefore “blackness” in Brazil. However, upon going into self-imposed exile in the United States in 1968, Nascimento (p.20) found that the majority of his American viewers were not well versed in Candomblé’s symbolic language and had to be told that his works reflected African influences, as they could not read the signs he included in his art. This demonstration of cultural illiteracy illuminates differences in racially related concepts and meanings across the African Diaspora. Via Nascimento’s focus on honoring Brazil’s African cultural traditions and his self-identification with Africans from the continent and across the Diaspora, he exemplified the group mentality characteristic of modern black artistic production.

Chapter 3 explores the work of Rio de Janeiro-based Ronaldo Rego (b. 1935), an informally trained multimedia artist and priest in Umbanda. His diverse artistic influences mirror the syncretic nature of his faith, which draws on African, Amerindian, and European Kardicist practices. Rego focuses on a collective past and identity, which emphasizes historical connections between Brazil and West Africa. The prints and sculptures he creates for his secular audiences reveal a complex relationship between religious expression and artistic liberty. Examination of his work also highlights differences between Brazilian and American approaches to race-related artistic categories. Although Rego is white, Brazilian curators include his pieces in their exhibitions of black art due to the level of African influence present in his work. This case study demonstrates how a white artist’s choice of subject matter and religious involvement can lead him or her to identify with Brazil’s black population both ethnically and artistically. Such an association is a demonstration of personal prerogative and agency, but is not without its own set of social and artistic issues.

Chapter 4 is the first of the book’s three chapters on contemporary artists. Eustáquio Neves (b. 1955) is a self-taught photographer who lives in the interior state of Minas Gerais. In contrast to the modern artists discussed in chapters 2 and 3, Neves exemplifies how some contemporary artists are turning to subjects outside the religious realm and using a new set of signifiers of blackness to call attention to contemporary social challenges in Brazil. Through his visually complex series of images, this photographer provides rare insight into regional and personal interpretations of the resonances of slavery and often draws his subjects from the African-descendant population of his home region. At the same time that Neves is secure in his own identity as a black Brazilian, he resists the Afro-Brazilian art label, lest this imply that his production is aligned with any organized black movement and its politics.

Chapter 5’s subject is Ayrson Heráclito (b. 1968), a university-trained multimedia artist from Bahia. He primarily works with gastronomic elements that have regional historic, economic, and cultural significance. He uses dendê (p.21) (palm oil), sugar, and carne de charque (sundried beef) as both the subjects and primary materials for his installations and performances to investigate the historical roots of contemporary social problems, including poverty and racism. Although an ardent practitioner of Candomblé and a self-proclaimed militant communist since the age of eleven, Heráclito is rather ambivalent about the Afro-Brazilian art label. The child of an interracial marriage, he grounds himself and his art in a strongly regional, rather than racial, identity. Heráclito links many of his works to African cultures and practices, but not through the ubiquitous regional signifiers of “blackness” that have come to represent black art and culture in Bahia. Instead of alluding to religious concepts and deities through symbolic visual language, he incorporates actual materials from the sacred realm into his secular production in an attempt to approximate art and religion.

Chapter 6 examines the work of Rosana Paulino (b. 1967), a university-trained multimedia artist from São Paulo. Her production provides a rare window into the black Brazilian female experience, as she engages the urban environment in her prints, sculptures, and installations. Paulino incorporates both erudite and popular forms of expression in her work and often creates personal narratives through her use of family photographs. This case study is an example of an artist who has participated in most of the national exhibitions of Afro-Brazilian art, but who does not identify as an Afro-Brazilian artist. Her works that contain gender-related visual signifiers of blackness, such as the black female nude and the image of the wet nurse, reveal the weight these seemingly innocuous markers carry when represented to Brazilian society in a different setting.

I conclude the book with an epilogue that briefly highlights several connections and conclusions regarding the proceeding chapters and also outlines the most relevant artistic and social developments from the past few years with regard to black art. For example, since opening in 2004, the AfroBrazil Museum has faced both economic and political challenges, which caused it to close temporarily (Cleveland 2012). This type of incident signals the growth, albeit tentative, of the place of black art in Brazil in the twenty-first century.


(1.) Throughout this book, I have consciously chosen to frame my discussion around “black art” in Brazil rather than “Afro-Brazilian art” unless specifically referencing use of the latter term elsewhere. I elaborate on my reasons for doing so later in this chapter.

(2.) Négritude philosophy was developed by Francophone African and Caribbean writers and intellectuals, including Léopold Senghor, living in Paris in the 1930s. Their theory was predicated on the belief that all black Africans and their descendants were linked by a series of essential characteristics, which pervaded their emotional, physical, and intellectual existence. As President of Senegal (1960–1980), Léopold Senghor established a National Arts Curriculum based on the principles of Négritude. He implemented this cultural policy to encourage production of a specifically Senegalese “national art” in the newly independent country (Kasfir 2000, 168–172).

(3.) Afro-Brazilian Art and Religiosity (1993), held in Frankfurt, Germany was distinct from the later Art and Religiosity in Brazil: African Inheritances (1997), held at the Pinacoteca do Estado Museum in São Paulo. For a brief description of each see Araújo 2001, 318, 321.

(4.) There is, however, one prominent exception in the move from black art to Afro-Brazilian art in the interior state of Minas Gerais. Belo Horizonte’s Secretary of Culture has sponsored a Festival de Arte Negra (Festival of Black Art) biannually since 1995. The festival takes place during National Black Consciousness Week and has featured a variety of art forms.

(5.) Mariano Carneiro da Cunha’s essay on Afro-Brazilian art was published following his death in 1980.

(6.) As per Stefania Capone, the term pai de santo refers to a “ritual kinship: the initiator is the father (pai) or mother (mãe) of sons and daughters-of-saint, initiates to the gods” (2010, 267).

(7.) Thompson has researched Umbanda, an African-influenced religion with a significant number of white participants, in addition to Candomblé. Though he does not specifically designate the Umbanda-related artwork or (p.154) artists “Afro-Brazilian,” he includes this subject matter in his wider studies of Afro-Atlantic altars and the African Americas (Thompson 1993).

(8.) I use the terms “modern” and “contemporary” to distinguish a general timeframe and not in reference to Brazilian Modernism as a movement, which started in 1922 with the Week of Modern Art in São Paulo (Ades 1989, 132–136; Barnitz 2001, 56–57; Mesquita 1996, 202–205).