A new batch of Afro-Brazilian artists breaks with the “colonial and racist” past

In a nearly empty Museum of Contemporary Art in São Paulo at the end of last year, Tarsila do Amaral's iconic painting The Black Woman did not attract the audience that its centenary deserves.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
30 March 2024 Saturday 10:37
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A new batch of Afro-Brazilian artists breaks with the “colonial and racist” past

In a nearly empty Museum of Contemporary Art in São Paulo at the end of last year, Tarsila do Amaral's iconic painting The Black Woman did not attract the audience that its centenary deserves. Painted in 1923 in Paris, but with the young artist's heart already back in Brazil, The Black Woman is considered the catalyst of two avant-garde movements in Brazilian art: the so-called Pau Brasil (1924) and Anthropophagy (1928). Both incorporated ideas from the revolutions in plastic art and poetry already underway in Europe, but used in Do Amaral's work to forge a new Brazilian cultural identity rooted in a mestizo, syncretic and multicultural people.

Together with her husband, the poet Oswald de Andrade, and a group of artists and writers -Mario de Andrade, Anita Malfatti and the Frenchman Blaise Cendrars, among others-, Do Amaral led the new São Paulo movement. Of course, the modernists were anything but of the people. She, the daughter of a rich coffee planter, he, a high bohemian poet, Tarsila and Oswald “formed the sexiest couple of the 1920s,” comments Carlos Granés, in his book American Delirium.

Both dedicated followers of Parisian fashion – Tarsila wore simultaneous dresses designed by Sonia Delauney – the couple were known as Tarsiwald. As Do Amaral herself explained in Veja magazine in 1972, The Black Woman represents a slave on her family's estate: "I have memories of having met one of those old slaves with sagging lips and enormous breasts who lived on our estate." .

It was considered the first Brazilian work of the so-called “primitive modernism”, the controversial search for authenticity and liberation from bourgeois conventions in the precolonial art of Africa, Asia or Latin America, already undertaken by diverse artists, from Gauguin to Klee. “A new repertoire of forms was extracted from black or primitive art. “Mexico and Brazil were beginning to enter the radar of exoticism,” writes Mary del Priore in her biography Tarsila, a sweet-bitter life (2022).

Expressionism and Cubism – Léger was the main source of inspiration for Do Amaral – armed their revolutions with masks brought from the new African colonies. But “Latin American artists, and especially Brazilians, realized that everything that fascinated Europeans was already found in the indigenous and black culture of their own country,” explains Granés.

More than Picasso or Kirchner, Tarsila and Oswald “were those truly authorized to express the sensuality, freedom and spontaneity of the primitive,” he adds. “I feel more and more Brazilian,” Tarsila wrote from Paris before returning to São Paulo in December 1923. Three months later, in March 1924, she helped found the Pau Brasil movement.

Little by little, Brazilian modernism – painters such as Candido Portinari and Emiliano Di Cavalcanti – turned the “mulatto” into the symbol of what would later be called “racial democracy” with its national hero, elbom mestiço, the good mestizo. , according to the term coined by Gilberto Freyre, the anthropologist and author of Casa Grande (1933), who criticized ideas about racist hierarchy and segregation imported from Europe and the United States.

This, in turn, would inspire iconic President Getulio Vargas' vision of a new Brazilian identity a decade later. Paintings such as The Cane Cutter (1927), by Lazar Segall; and The Mestizo, by Portinari (1934), both in the Pinacoteca de São Paulo, pay homage to the Mestizo champions.

Tarsila had gone further. With his other iconic painting El Abaporu (1928), already as surrealist as it was cubist, he reinforced the thesis of Oswald Andrade's Anthropophagy Manifesto: that Brazil, the country of miscegenation, would overcome colonialism through the "devourment" of other cultures just as The Tupi indigenous people devoured the dead to assimilate their knowledge.

But, if indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples were incorporated as raw material into modern art and the official Brazilian identity, the artists themselves were all white, members of an elite whose wealth was largely due to slavery. Apart from Wilson Tibério, born in Porto Alegre in 1920, it is difficult to find paintings by black painters in art museums from the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century.

“In the 1920s, painting was an elite thing; Blackness was represented in literature and pictorial art with somewhat exotic portraits, but there were very few black painters,” says Renato Rezende, an art curator from São Paulo based in Paris.

One hundred years after The Black Girl, all this has changed. A series of important exhibitions by black artists in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro corroborate the enormous advances made by Afro-Brazilians and indigenous people as protagonists of their own art.

Thanks to the policies of public support for the arts and university affirmative discrimination implemented by the Lula governments, the number of artists has skyrocketed. These “are doing an important re-reading of Brazilian history and art; and that happens throughout the circuit: artists, curators, historians,” says Rezende.

80% of the artists at the last São Paulo Biennial, which closed at the end of December, are black and indigenous artists. With decolonization as its central theme, the exhibition is already heading to Angola, Argentina and Bolivia. Now, in the exhibition Two Brazils: black art and thought, at the SESC cultural center in Belenzinho, São Paulo, until the end of March, more than 200 works have been included in the largest exhibition of black artists in history. These include Rosana Paulino, who explores the relationship between medical sciences and slavery; Tiago Sant'Ana, who subverts the colonialist portrait of the 19th century with nods to the Afro-Brazilian candomblé cult; and Paulo Nazareth, whose work My image of exotic man for sale with the Kombi Volkswagen (My image of exotic man for sale with the Volkswagen combi) ironizes exoticism in modern art of the 19th century.

But the most iconoclastic work is Túmulo anthropofágico (2019), by Yhuri Cruz, a granite funerary slab on which he has engraved the silhouette of La negra, by Tarsila do Amaral. ”As an artist, she had an interest in killing Tarsila's work La Negra because, despite its historical importance, it is openly racist,” Cruz said in an interview. “The shapes that Tarsila uses create a distorted and monstrous image of the black female figure,” she continues. “The language and iconography are violent.”

Cruz makes a devastating criticism of the Anthropophagy movement and its purpose of devouring cultures. “It was not a Brazilian movement but a European-Brazilian movement led by white people from a financial-agrarian elite.”

In a country that feels reverence for the great icons of the modern movement – ​​from Portinari to Niemeyer – this frontal attack against La negra like that of Cruz's work cannot help but raise blisters. But, as Tarsila do Amaral would have recognized, that is exactly what art is meant to do.