Liberation Through Art: Afro-Brazilian Artists Relegated to Ostracism
Note from BW of Brazil: In the past few decades, I’ve made a number trips to the Museu Afro-Brasil (Afro-Brazil Museum) in São Paulo. It is treasure, but also so very symbolic of the space of invisibility of which Afro-Brazilians are placed in the Brazil’s history and culture. In some ways similar to numerous important streets and avenues throughout Brazil that most Brazilians have no idea were named after black people, if one wants to know anything about black Brazilian artists, you must be willing to spend a little time and do the research yourself. One blog post can’t even begin to scratch the surface of the impressive paintings and sculptures created by Brazil’s African descendants, but hopefully after this brief introduction, those of you who have more than a surface interest in art may be inspired to learn more about these little known geniuses. Some of the stories of these artists deserve an entire blog post and in some cases, a book or dissertation on their lives and works. In future posts, I’ll try to shine a spotlight on a few of these people, but for now, enjoy the article below.
Liberation through art: Relegated to ostracism, Afro-Brazilian artists deserve recognition for their contribution to the construction of Brazilian culture
From the colonial period to the present day, a large number of blacks and mestiço Brazilians found in the arts not only a means of survival, but also expression to free themselves from the shackles of contempt and racism
By Oswaldo Faustino
Even when obeying the dogmas of classicism dictated by the traditional and conservative, it cannot be denied that, in making art, the artist exposes what resides in the depths of his mind and soul. From colonial Brazil until the imperial period, several African slaves or those born here used their artisan skills to dedicate themselves to the art of sculpture, acording to the Dicionário da Escravidão Negra no Brasil (Dictionary of Black Slavery in Brazil), by the sociologist and historian Clóvis Moura, when visiting Rio de Janeiro, in 1846, the English traveler living in the USA, Thomas Ewbank reported: “Stone sculptures and images of saints on wood are often made by slaves and free blacks.” He identified as an “excellent sculptor” and “consecrated artist” an old African man who lived in Catete, known as João Vermelho, who impressed him both for the quality of the saints he sculpted and for the ex-vows displayed in the Church of Nossa Senhora do Rosário.
THE GREATEST MASTER OF THE BAROQUE
More than a century before this trip, however, the mestiço Antonio Francisco Lisboa was born in Vila Rica – today Ouro Preto – who became known as “Aleijadinho”, considered the greatest Baroque sculptor in the Americas. Son of the Portuguese architect Manuel Francisco Lisboa with his female slave Izabel, Aleijadinho was born a slave – a condition conferred on all the children of female slaves – but he was freed by his father. In addition to exercising his talent in the arts, he joined the infantry of the Homens Pardos de Ouro Preto, attended popular dances and enjoyed alcohol. In middle age, he was affected by leprosy, which deformed his entire body, and also by another disease called podida. Until he died at the age of 76 – or 84, according to other sources – he became so weak that, in order to sculpt, his helpers tied the tools to what remained of his arms eaten away by the disease. In spite of these evils, he produced with intensity in soapstone and made carvings in cedar, leaving an invaluable legacy in the churches of Vila Rica and in other mining towns in Minas Gerais such as São João Del Rei, Congonhas do Campo, Sabará and Mariana, among others.
He also received praiseworthy mentions from foreign travelers such as the French botanist and naturalist Auguste Saint-Hilaire and the German geologist Baron de Eschwege. In addition to images of prophets, saints and sacred roads, there are beautiful portals, churchyards, monumental frontispieces, imposing altars and fountains. Black painters like Jesuíno Francisco de Paula Gusmão (1764-1819), José Teófilo de Jesus (1758-1847), Mestre Valentim (1745-1813) and Veríssimo de Souza Freitas (without birth and death records), whose carvings, sculptures, paintings and frescoes can be seen in churches and some old buildings.
BLACK AND CLASSIC HANDS
Were it not for the almost obsessive dedication of the sculptor, museologist and curator of the Museu Afro-Brasil (Afro-Brazil Museum), Emanoel Araújo, to research and also build a very rich collection of art produced by the Afro-Brazilian hand, we would never have heard of a few dozen names of Afro-Brazilian artists who produced art in all languages and techniques, some of which even had some recognition without, however, appearing on the lists of those who deserved further study in the schools of Fine Arts.
Works by these artists are among the gems of the museum’s collection, which is curated by Emanoel, who, in turn, not only organized specific exhibitions but also elaborated and published the richly illustrated book A Mão Afro-Brasileira (The Afro-Brazilian Hand), already in its second edition, with two volumes, totaling 868 pages. Between the second half of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th century, for example, Afro-Brazilian artists stood out in classical production, but were never studied or mentioned by historians who dedicate themselves to plastic arts.
In the presentation of an exhibition of his works, Emanuel Araújo was emphatic: “Mistreatment, ignorance and insensitivity with which, in Brazil, history and iconographic memory” are responsible for the ostracism to which these personalities were relegated, whose lives “were an endless battle, a great personal effort, of unimaginable tenacity, for the affirmation and recognition of their works.” The same society that stigmatizes a people, based on prejudices built through de factoids, should rescue them for their socio-cultural values. And Emanoel concluded: “The fact that their names remain already accredits the black race to the recognition of the nation for their contribution to the construction of Brazilian culture.” Thus we learn that in those decades of centuries passing, black and mestiço painters studied at the Casa da Moeda do Rio de Janeiro, in the Liceu de Artes e Ofícios and at the Academia Imperial de Belas Artes, traveled to Europe and most continued their studies in Paris.
Names like the brothers Arthur Timótheo (1882 -1922) and João Timótheo (1879 -1932), who died in an asylum; Benedito José Tobias (1894-1963); Benedito José de Andrade (1906-1979); Emmanuel Zamor (1840 -1917), a surname inherited from his adoptive parents; Estevão Silva (1845-1891); Firmino Monteiro (1855 – 1888); Horácio Hora (1853-1890); Rafael Pinto Bandeira (1863-1896) and Wilson Tibério (1923-2005). The latter, from Rio Grande do Sul, became involved in a revolutionary movement in Senegal, was expelled from that country and returned to France, where he lived for years and remained until he died.
NEGRITUDE, A RECURRING THEME
Whatever the artistic language chosen to express itself, a large number of artists placed and put on canvas and in sculptures, models or installations, figuratively or not, images, signs, colors and shapes that register their experiences, their feelings, their beliefs, the cultural manifestations of their peoples. Black or mestiço, male or female, straight or homosexual, Christian or devotee of some religion of African origin, his artistic productions are usually impregnated with information that reveals them. Therefore, the possibility of mentioning “arte negra” (black art), even if syncretic.
Our popular manifestations were recorded, for example, in the naïve canvases of the composer Heitor dos Prazeres (1898-1965), many of them acquired by Queen Elizabeth. The candomblé signs are in bright colors in the paintings by Abdias do Nascimento (1914-2011), the maximum expression of the black Brazilian militancy of the 20th and 21st centuries, as well as in the African-inspired masks and sculptures by Agnaldo Manoel dos Santos (1926-1962) and in the emblematic art of the candomblé priest Mestre Didi (Deoscóredes Maximiliano dos Santos), son of Maria Bibiana do Espírito Santo, Mãe Senhora, a famous iyalorixá of Ilê Opô Afonjá, exalted by poets and intellectuals.
It is impossible not to mention black plastic artists of more recent generations who keep alive the African pictorial heritage, such as Sidnei Lizardo, known as Lizar (1939), whose greatest inspiration is capoeira, praised by the New York Times; Yêdamaria (1936), who in her work expresses ancestry and femininity; Octávio Ferreira de Araújo (1926), who was an assistant to Cândido Portinari and studied in France, China and Russia; the award-winning Jorge dos Anjos (1957), author of works such as the Monumento Zumbi Liberdade e Resistência – 300 anos, installed at Avenida Brasil, in Belo Horizonte; Samuel Santiago (1951), author of masks and works inspired by black bodies, who taught art to Febem interns, among many others.
We also cannot forget the artists who use the language of photography to reveal themselves and reveal themselves, such as Walter Firmo, Bauer Sá, Wagner Celestino, Januário Garcia, Luiz Paulo Lima, Mario Espinosa and many others. Anyway, with talent recognized or not, thousands of black hands, minds and souls were and are fundamental in the construction of this monument that is constituted in the so acclaimed, but also so little known, Brazilian plastic arts.
Sérgio Soarez: RELIGIOSITY IN THE ARTS
Candomblé entities have always been sources of inspiration in the design of sculptures, paintings and illustrations by the artist and researcher, Sérgio Soarez. “I am of the candomblé and guided by the deities Oxossi and Ogum, who help me spiritually and condition my works.” The Bahian’s first steps in the art world were taken around the age of 17 to 18, in Salvador, when he decided to take a course in wood sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art (MAM), in Bahia.
Other courses came and helped to complement his training. In 2010, he was quoted by the director of the Afro Brasil Museum, Emanoel Araújo, in the second volume of the book A Mão Afro-Brasileira, edited by the Museum: “His assemblies, dedicated to the mythology of the gods of the Afro-Brazilian religion, are one, among others, of the aesthetic elaborations already experienced by the artist. In them, he combines his knowledge and his religious practice in a well-designed, well-articulated aesthetic experiment, in the union of different materials, such as fragments in wood, already experimented in other objects of different uses in which he works the sacred with the devotion of his knowledge.”
The elements that represent the two deities, Oxossi and Ogum, wood and iron, respectively, are the main materials that the artist uses in his sculptures. “It’s a way to revere these two orixás”, explains Sérgio. These two materials have often been used in the manufacture of other objects, therefore, they served other purposes. But when they are reused by the artist as recycled material, they gain other uses and, mainly, meanings. Sérgio Soarez fights hard to bring his art to people. Many times he was unable to do a work due to lack of money, as he needed to pay the basic bills and eat. “The black artist cannot live on art. Often he doesn’t have the money to buy material to do his works. He is unable to qualify. Either eat or buy a tool to do your work, which precedes its creation”, he laments.
In the duality between making art and touching life, Sérgio goes on touching his craft, producing his art and improving himself. The artist, who lives in Salvador, Bahia, goes from time to time to São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro to visit exhibitions, buy catalogs, take a course. When he can’t travel to the southeast, he finds himself searching the internet, according to him, an excellent tool for those who don’t have the money to travel. “Being black and an artist is a constant job, but I didn’t want to have another life, to be someone else, I love what I do and what I am”, he summarizes.