A conversation around Afro Brazil

Adriano Pedrosa talks to Emanoel Araujo

São Paulo, August 16th, 2013
Adriano Pedrosa

The numbers alone are undeniable: with sixty percent of its population comprised of blacks and pardos, Brazil is the second most populous African country, after Nigeria. According to the most updated research on slavevoyages.org, a total of 3,800,000 Africans were brought to Brazil, which is more than ten times the number of arrivals to the United States (350,000), and which is even greater than the number of Portuguese who set foot in the country to colonize it (2,256,000, according to IBGE, Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística). Brazil became home to about forty percent of the Africans in almost four centuries of slave trade to the Americas, the largest dislocation of people in the modern era. With a different type of colonization than the United States, where the colonizer would move with his family to occupy the territory and there was little mixed breeding, Brazil’s male Portuguese colonizer often came on his own, and thus our mestizo histories began in the sixteenth century, with the blending of African, Amerindian and European ethnic groups.

The presence of Africa in popular Brazilian culture is immense if not dominating, and all things typically Brazilian have deep African roots: from carnival to samba, from candomblé (Afro Brazilian religion) to feijoada (the national dish), from capoeira to football (which was imported by whites but only became masterfully Brazilian when blacks were allowed to play it), from the figure of the Baiana to Iemanjá. Underlying the powerful, sprawling and polyphonic African presence lies what is arguably the most important process in Brazilian history—slavery (Brazil was the last country to abolish it in the Americas, in 1888). Yet such profound, long lasting histories cannot veil the prejudices of color that still pervade much of Brazil, not so much through a loud, vocal racism, but through a silent one—one that ignores, forgets, puts aside and silences more than outspokenly rejects, refuses or repudiates. Again the numbers are undeniable, and as criminality, violence, poverty, exclusion and invisibility in the media and in government increase, our mestizo skin darkens.

In this context, the professional trajectory of artist, curator and museum director Emanoel Araújo is a pioneering and solitary one. For more than four decades, Araújo, who was born in 1940 in Santo Amaro da Purificação in the northeastern state of Bahia, near Salvador, the capital of Afro Brazil, has researched, written, collected, exhibited and produced artworks around Afro Brazil. Araújo’s deep knowledge and experience with our African histories would perhaps not have been so forceful if it weren’t for his vociferous and at times polemic character. A maverick, he was director of Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo for ten years, rescuing it from a deplorable state, guiding it through an award-winning renovation made by Paulo Mendes da Rocha (who won the Pritzker and the Mies thereafter), and pushing it to become what is today the country’s most successful museum. Araújo’s groundbreaking exhibitions A Mão Afro Brasileira (The Afro Brazilian Hand, Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo, 1987) and Negro de Corpo e Alma (Black in Body and Soul, Mostra do Redescobrimento, 2000) gathered a colossal amount of material, much of which has been extended or has found its way into the collections of Museu Afro Brasil, in São Paulo. The museum is a dense fabric woven with loaded threads of material culture of diverse sorts: from modern to contemporary art, from colonial to nineteenth century objects, Brazilian, African or foreign, photographs and documents, costumes and jewelry, religious objects of different beliefs, all abundantly exhibited and accompanied by explanatory and contextual texts. None of this would be there if were not for Araújo.

FESTAC 77, 1977. Photo: Adriano Pedrosa, courtesy of Emanoel Araújo.

Adriano Pedrosa: Tell us how your experience and practice as an artist brought you to curating exhibitions, collections and museums.

Emanoel Araújo: I first worked at the Museu Regional de Feira de Santana (Regional Museum of Feira de Santana) in Bahia, created by the Brazilian media mogul, Assis Chateaubriand (1892–1968) as part of his regional museum project, which opened in 1967. The museum was mounted by Chateaubriand’s media conglomerate, Diários Associados. It held the “leather civilisation”1 artefacts from Feira de Santana, which is the gateway to the hinterland. There was also a collection of Brazilian art, assembled by Odorico Tavares (1912–1980), who was the director of Diários Associados in Bahia, as well as by Chateaubriand himself, through his friendship with artists such as Djanira (1914–1979) and Emiliano Di Cavalcanti (1897–1976). I was setting the museum up, working on the museography with the architects, whilst simultaneously working as an artist.

A.P.: What is your educational background?

E.A.: I studied Fine Art at the Federal University at Bahia in Salvador, the state capital. But I didn’t finish my degree because I started working professionally. In 1965 I exhibited at the Bonino Gallery in Rio de Janeiro and the Astreia Gallery in São Paulo, which were the most important galleries in Brazil at the time. In 1963, I worked with Lina Bo, the Italian-born Brazilian modernist architect, on the Civilização do Nordeste (Civilization of the Northeast) exhibition at the Museu de Arte Moderna of Bahia (MAM-BA). In 1972, I went to the United States at the invitation of the US State Department, and visited art museums from coast to coast—American, Chinese, European and African American art—and I had the good fortune to meet curators who showed me the museums and their storage spaces.

A.P.: Were you invited there as an artist or as a museum professional?

E.A.: As an artist. There were no museum professionals in Brazil then. In 1981 I was appointed director of the Museu de Arte da Bahia (Bahia Museum of Art, MAB), in Salvador, where I stayed until 1983.

A.P.: Is that how your curating career got started?

E.A.: Yes. I was also involved in remodelling and transforming the museum, because that was one of the conditions I’d set with the then-Governor of Bahia, Antônio Carlos Magalhães (1927–2007) for returning to Bahia from São Paulo. It was hard, but I formed a team to restore paintings, porcelain and furnishings, and created a museum in the current building in Vitória Palace, based on the perspective of design and decorative art. It was an eclectic museum—with paintings, porcelain, furnishings, religious images, jewellery—like the museums found in several Brazilian states, such as Bahia, Pernambuco, and Ceará. The remodelling process took a year, and when it was finished, I left. During that period, I organised some major exhibitions: the 400th anniversary of the Benedictine Monastery, the Bahia School of Painting, and in 1982, the África Bahia África exhibition.

A.P.: What was that exhibition like?

E.A.: I included performances in the opening programme, such as Filhos de Gandhy, the biggest afoxé (street Candomblé group) in Bahia’s Carnival, and an Afro-Brazilian dance group. Fifteen hundred people were at the opening, viewing photographs by the Franco-Brazilian photographer and ethnologist, Pierre Verger (1902–1996) and items from Candomblé among others. It was only later, in 1987, that I developed the theme in the A Mão Afro Brasileira, Significado da Contribuição Artística e Histórica (The Afro-Brazilian Hand: The Significance of its Artistic and Historic Contribution) at the Museu de Arte Moderna of São Paulo (MAM-SP), along with its director, Aparício Basílio da Silva (1936–1992).

Negro de Corpo e Alma (Black in Body and Soul), 2000. Photo: Adriano Pedrosa, courtesy of Emanoel Araújo.

A.P.: Tell us about the project at the MAM-SP, and about some of your first trips to Africa.

E.A.: The project began in Senegal. The first time I went to Africa was in 1976, with the art critic and historian from Pernambuco, Brazil, Roberto Pontual (1939–1992), as part of the Black Arts Festival in Nigeria. Then at the Second FESTAC (World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture) in Lagos, in 1977, I showed some enormous reliefs in an exhibition organised by Clarival Prado Valadares, the Bahian art critic (1918–1983). It was pandemonium getting them there. Pontual wrote an essay about them, “A raiz localizadora” (“The Localising Root”)2—it was under those circumstances that I met a Brazilian called Mister da Silva, who lived there.

A.P.: A descendant of Brazilians, of the formerly enslaved people who returned from Nigeria in the nineteenth century?

E.A.: That’s right. But he didn’t speak Portuguese and he didn’t know anything about Brazil. For him, Brazil was an abstraction. He owned a travel agency, Da Silva Travel. We became friends and I arranged a trip to Osogbo, the land of Osun, with a group—the Bahian writer Gumercindo da Rocha Dorea, Roberto Pontual, and Cleusa (d. 1997, later Iyalorisa of Gantois), the daughter of Menininha do Gantois, one of Brazil’s most famous Iyalorisa and an Omolosun (Maria Escolástica da Conceição Nazaré, 1894–1986). We went to see the Osun River in Osogbo, travelling through Ife and Ibadan, and there I had the great surprise of meeting Susanne Wenger (1915–2009).

A.P.: Yes, the Austrian artist. I saw her work recently in the catalogue for The Short Century by Okwui Enwezor.3 Was she an interesting person?

E.A.: Extremely. I wrote an article about that trip. In the middle of the forest, some large terracotta sculptures came into view. She produced a highly European version of the cult of Osun. They were large monuments, five to six meters high, completely surrealist.

A.P.: Did you go there with the expectation of reconnecting with Africa?

E.A.: No. In fact, I got into an argument with Gilberto Gil, the Bahian singer / songwriter and former Minister of Culture of Brazil, who was there with Caetano Veloso, another Bahian singer / songwriter. He asked me what I was doing in Africa. I said: “I’ve come to see Africa.” And he said, “I’ve come to find my roots.” So then I replied, “You’re wrong, your roots are in Bahia, not here.” But what I meant to say was that Bahia was closest. We didn’t know anything about Africa, just as the Africans didn’t know anything about us. Take the travel agent Da Silva, who didn’t have the faintest idea of what Brazil was about. He knew about his ancestry, and that was it.

A.P.: Had you visited Europe by that time?

E.A.: Yes. In 1972 I went to Italy and Austria, and then I went to the United States and England. Although I was a son of Santo Amaro da Purificação, a town of sugar plantations where there had been many African slaves, my idea of Africa was of a very remote thing. I returned there in 1987, sent to a conference in Dakar by the Brazilian President José Sarney. It was there that the idea of A Mão Afro Brasileira was born. Whilst visiting the Island of Gorée, the Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire Museum (IFAN), a chaperone from a school saw us and told the students, “Look, they are our cousins from the other side of the Atlantic.”

A.P.: What was the research for that exhibition like?

E.A.: It was all done in six months. It was insane.

A.P.: But there was a vast amount of material; it must have required a great deal of research, a lot of time.

E.A.: Six months. Luckily there were things I already knew about, and had kept, collected. The research for África Bahia África was also very helpful to me.

A.P.: The book is impressive—a truly pioneering study. I was looking at the sections you established in it: “Baroque and Rococo,” “Nineteenth Century,” “African Heritage in Popular Art,” “Modern and Contemporary Art,” and then “Multiple Contributions,” which are music, literature, cuisine.

E.A.: I started out with the Baroque because that is the period with the greatest emphasis on that issue, involving Mestre Valentim (a sculptor from Minas Gerais, 1745–1813), Aleijadinho (Antônio Francisco Lisboa, a sculptor from Minas Gerais, 1730 or 1738–1814), Francisco de Paula Brito (a writer from Rio de Janeiro, 1809–1861), and José Teófilo de Jesus (a painter from Bahia, 1758–1847). The arts in eighteenth-century Brazil were completely Black because Black people created them, although the standard is European, Portuguese. There was also Thebas (Joaquim Pinto de Oliveira, 1733–?), for example, who was a slave and then became a master builder here in São Paulo, who built the Sé cathedral.

A.P.: What got you interested in this subject?

E.A.: I had studied Manuel Querino, the Bahian art historian, ethnographer, and Black vindicationist (1851–1923), who was a pioneer when it came to Black and Bahian artists. He wrote about religious art, food, and Africans as colonisers. Another important scholar on the subject was Marieta Alves, one of the few historians who provided information about the person’s background and colour. Although I refused to mention skin colour, I still think about it as the basis and starting point. When I curated the exhibition on the Timóteo brothers, for example, that was what interested me.4 That, and the discovery of these extraordinary nineteenth-century painters from Rio de Janeiro, Estevão Silva (1844–1891), Antônio Rafael Pinto Bandeira (1863–1896), and Firmino Monteiro (1855–1888).

A.P.: Then there is the issue of the pardo—the Brazilian term for “mixed-race” or “brown”, used in the census, which can refer to African or Amerindian ancestry. If there is something African about every mixed-race or pardo person, then they also have an African hand. But tell me, if all Brazilians are mixed-race, could the museum also be a Museu do Brasil?

E.A.: It is indeed called the Museu Afro Brasil. It isn’t the Museu Afro Brasileiro (Afro-Brazilian Museum), because I created the concept so we could discuss African, mestizo, Brazilian issues, including other peoples who are also Brazilian—people of Italian and Japanese descent. Sometimes people call it the Museu Afro Brasileiro, but that changes the concept completely, because this is not a ghetto museum.

A.P.: What about Negro de Corpo e Alma (Black in Body and Soul, which was one of the twelve exhibitions in the Brasil 500 anos: Mostra do redescobrimento (Brazil 500 years: Rediscovery Exhibit) in 2000, and whose catalogue is the largest?

E.A.: I wanted to take a look at the imagery of Johann Moritz Rugendas (1802–1858), of Jean-Baptiste Debret (1758–1848), and others, to include it in the process. Lasar Segall (1891–1957), José Pancetti (1902–1958), and Cândido Portinari (1903–1962) were also included. Then I organised an exhibition at the Museu Afro Brasil in 2007 called Imagens Inocentes e Perversas (“Innocent and Perverse Images”), which is about the type of portrayal that reinforces prejudice. A mão afro brasileira is the exhibition that includes the imagery that is not perverse but portrays Black people, and shows Black people portraying themselves. These are intersecting points that create new fields of study.

A.P.: Alberto da Costa e Silva, the Brazilian diplomat and scholar of African history, writes in Um rio chamado Atlântico (A River Called the Atlantic, 2003), that something of the slave has remained in all of us Brazilians; a comment that the anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro (1922–1997) has also made to some extent, in his 1995 book, O povo brasileiro, a formação e o sentido do Brasil (The Brazilian People: The Formation and Direction of Brazil).

E.A.: Costa e Silva would like that to be so, but it is not true. Or I should say, I think it is true, but people won’t admit it. Otherwise Brazil wouldn’t be the prejudiced country that it is. When you watch Brazilian TV, it looks like we’re in Sweden, with no Black people. The main television network in Brazil, Rede Globo, only puts Blacks in the worst roles, and actors accept that because they have no alternative.

Fragmentos Do Imaginário Negro, 1995. Photo: Adriano Pedrosa, courtesy of Emanoel Araújo.

A.P.: Do you think that is changing? Isn’t the Museu Afro playing a role in that regard?

E.A.: No. The museum is just nine years old, and Brazil moves very slowly. The Brazilian art world is prejudiced. When I was appointed director of the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo in 1992, people said, “What, a Black, a Bahian?” And I’d say, “Not just Black but homosexual, too.”

A.P.: But today everyone knows that Paulo Mendes da Rocha’s remodelling of Pinacoteca is a turning point in the museum’s history. Don’t you think things have improved in the last thirty to forty years?

E.A.: They’re worse. There is still a great deal of prejudice, but it is a silent thing. Brazil is silent. It’s perverse. For Brazil, Africa does not exist.

A.P.: But the fact that this museum exists is important. Even if it is just nine years old.

E.A.: When I arrived at the Pinacoteca in 1992, I started out my administration with a project to remodel the museum, making the São Paulo public aware that the museum was in a disgraceful state. For me, this museum is an investment in the future, a tribute to my past.

A.P.: To the Africa that is within us! Did you organise Afro-Brazilian exhibitions at the Pinacoteca?

E.A.: In 1993 I organised Vozes da diáspora (Voices of the Diaspora), and then in 1994, Herdeiros da noite: Fragmentos do imaginário negro (Heirs of the Night: Fragments of the Black Imaginary), and in 2001 a retrospective of Rubem Valentim (1922–1991), called O artista da luz (The Artist of Light), curated by Bené Fonteles. I also brought works by Black artists into the collection, and acquired works Hélio Oiticica and Willys de Castro and expanded the museum’s sculpture collection.

A.P.: What was it like to create the Museu Afro Brasil in 2003, occupying this large building in Ibirapuera Park in São Paulo?

E.A.: Marta Suplicy, who was the mayor of São Paulo from 2001–2005, and who is currently the Minister of Culture, had thought about setting up an Afro-Brazilian museum but she didn’t know how to get started or with which collection. The secretary of culture asked me if I would put my collection on loan. So then a group was formed to develop that concept; they debated the museum—anthropologists, sociologists, and I don’t know what else. I said, I’m not falling into your trap. I applied the idea of the Afro-Brazilian hand.

A.P.: There are Amerindian objects here as well.

E.A.: It is a matter of indigenous art, because the Africans always saw the Amerindians as the gods of the land. So much so that every Candomblé temple in Bahia has its Caboclo.5 It is the Caboclos that make the orixás (the Afro-Brazilian divinities) of that land, it is the Caboclo that gives them significance. Almost every Candomblé temple—though Ilê Axé Opo Afonjá is a notable exception—every mãe de santo, the high priestess, worships the Caboclos, which is a way of honouring that heritage. That is why, here at the Museu Afro, our exhibition begins with the Caboclo, with the Amerindian. That history is very complex, but it is also very clear: it is possible to read it, but you must want to do so.

A.P.: Do you think Brazil is a Western country?

E.A.: Yes and no. There is so much here that has yet to be discovered.

(The Hand of the Afro-Brazilian), Volume I. Photo: Adriano Pedrosa, courtesy of Emanoel Araújo.

A.P.: It seems to me that anthropophagy as was promoted in the 1928 Manifesto Antropófago by Oswald de Andrade (1890–1954), is an incomplete project, because it was too focused on the cannibalisation of European references—on Léger, on constructivism—and could have devoured other ancestries, the African and Amerindian, which would replenish its energy.

E.A.: That was the mistake of the 1924 Manifesto da Poesia, Pau Brasil,6 and the 1922 Semana de Arte Moderna (the Modern Art Week, São Paulo). That Week was organised by elitists, and just one individual, the writer and critic from São Paulo Mario de Andrade (1893–1945), who had a Brazilian outlook.

A.P.: Tarsila do Amaral, the painter from São Paulo (1886–1973), came from an elite family, but her paintings… Do you think A negra (The Black Woman, 1923) is perverse?

E.A.: I think it is extremely perverse. She transfigures the image of the Black woman with prototypes of perversity, accentuating features, the breasts, the mouth. Portinari is perverse too. The only one who escapes that somewhat is Segall.

A.P.: Segall, a Lithuanian immigrant, paints himself as a Black man, a mestizo.

E.A.: Indeed. The illustrations he did for Jorge de Lima (1895–1953), for the 1947 Poemas Negros (Black Poems), show that he understands Brazil, even better than the Brazilians. Indeed, to understand Brazil, you need to be a foreigner. During Brazil’s first 500 years, ever since Caramuru Diogo Álvares Correia (1475–1557) and his wife Catarina Paraguaçu (a Tupinambá Indian, Bahia, 1495–1583), Pernambuco and the Dutch, there has been a long, complex history, a mélange. We held the exhibition of the Bijago of Guinea Bissau (A arte dos povos da Guiné Bissau, The Art of the Peoples of Guinea Bissau, Museu Afro Brasil, 2008) and discovered that the first Africans who arrived in what is now the northern Brazilian state of Maranhão were the Bijago, who planted rice in Maranhão, because they grew that crop in their homelands. But no one knows that.

A.P.: There is tremendous ignorance. Do you think Portinari’s O mestiço (The Mestizo, 1934) is perverse too?

E.A.: No, I don’t.

A.P.: O mestiço is a dignified portrayal.

E.A.: Yes, it is. But Portinari is much better than Tarsila in that regard.

A.P.: What about Christiano Júnior, the Portuguese photographer (1832–1902)? He treats slaves with dignity.

E.A.: He portrays them naturally, although those are studio photos, and we don’t know if he added something to them. The fact is that they are important. Militão Augusto de Azevedo, the photographer from Rio de Janeiro (1837–1905) is even more important, because he shows that there was a Black society in the late nineteenth century whose members had the power to have themselves photographed.7 There is a great deal that is still hidden. Both of them are important, as records of Brazil…

A.P.: We need to know more.

E.A.: But there is no money for research. The universities are not investigating that area.

A.P.: But that gap between academia and the general public, it seems to me that museums could bridge that, particularly when it comes to visual history.

E.A.: It is unlikely. The Museu de Arqueologia e Etnologia of the Universidade de São Paulo doesn’t do it. There is a dichotomy between traditional African art and contemporary African art, which does not reach these shores.

A.P.: But one day it will.

E.A.: One day we’ll no longer be alive! And Brazil will become white, following that theory of whitening.8 The university could play a fundamental role if it weren’t so eugenic. As you will see, dealing with this issue in Brazil is a complex matter. I’m not discouraged because I committed to my skin colour, and I have to move forward. But I think it is all extremely difficult. And I’m an optimist, I’m stubborn, I go all the way.

A.P.: Do you think there could be exchanges and residencies, for example, between Brazilian and African artists? Rosângela Rennó and Paulo Nazaré have been to Africa. I tell people that there is nineteenth-century Brazilian architecture there and they don’t believe me.

E.A.: We are doing that. They also hold a Carnival in Porto Novo, the Brazilian community there. Except that they are entirely neglected. I want to give them money so they can keep that association going. They have a lovely Roman Catholic mass, which is given in Portuguese. The extraordinary thing is that there is still a Brazilian community there after 200 years. There are Brazilian families there in Benin, there are lots of Regos, Sousas, Oliveiras. It’s incredible that all that is still in existence, alive. That connection is what is missing. It seems very remote, but it is not. It is very close. The level of ignorance in Brazil is astounding.

  • 1. Translator’s note: “Leather civilization” refers to the leather clothing worn by Brazilian cowboys in the northeastern hinterland, and to hides and tanning in general, which were an integral part of the cattle herding economy and culture.
  • 2. Roberto Pontual, “A raiz localizadora” (“The Localising Root”), in Izabela Pucu, Jacquelina Medeiros, and Roberto Pontual, Obra crítica (Rio de Janeiro: Azougue, 2013).
  • 3. Okwui Enwezor, ed. The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa 1945–1994 (Munich: Prestel, 2001).
  • 4. Artur Timóteo da Costa (1882–1922) and João Timóteo da Costa (1879–1932), both painters from Rio de Janeiro.
  • 5. Amerindian divinity, but also the word for a person of mixed Amerindian and European descent.
  • 6. Oswald de Andrade, The Brazil Wood Poetry Manifesto, 1924.
  • 7. Translator’s note: Militão produced business cards for well-off Black individuals and families.
  • 8. Racialist ideologies of “whitening” emerged in Brazil in the nineteenth century, arguing that over time, the mixed-race Brazilian population would become whiter by encouraging European reproduction and immigration and better living conditions for their descendants in that country.