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Black Art in Brazil: Expressions of Identity by Kimberly L. Cleveland (review)

From: The Americas
Volume 70, Number 3, January 2014
pp. 568-570 | 10.1353/tam.2014.0022

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In 2000, “Black in Body and Soul,” curated by scholar-artist Emanoel Araújo formed part of the series of mega-exhibitions organized by the city of São Paulo to commemorate the 500 years of contact between Brazil and Europe. The (New York) Guggenheim Museum’s “Brazil: Body and Soul” show in the following year included abundant material tracing the significance of painting, sculpture, photography and other arts by or representing the country’s black population. In 2004 the opening of the Museu Afro Brasil in São Paulo’s Ibirapuera Park, coordinated by founding director Araújo, marked a high point in the recognition of the immense contribution to the nation’s artistic patrimony made by artists of color. Kimberly L. Cleveland traces the importance of these events and adumbrates a prior history of engagement on the part of both Brazilian and U.S. scholars and artists in what she terms “black arts” (as opposed to the more common “Afro-Brazilian” arts). Her book offers a valuable analysis of the myriad sociopolitical and aesthetic phenomena that have served to shape our understanding of this factor within the history of Brazilian visual culture.

Cleveland’s book is fairly short but packed with interesting ideas. In the first two, very significant chapters (“Introduction” and “Race, Identity, and Cultural Literacy”), she successfully outlines the criteria that she will follow in the next five sections, each devoted to a single contemporary artist (Abdias Nascimento, Ronaldo Rego, Eustáquio Neves, Ayrson Heráclito, and Rosana Paulino). She articulates a category of “black art” instead of “Afro-Brazilian” art “[following] the Brazilian pattern of privileging subject matter over race … [i]ts nature speaks to the national racial ideology and the formulation of racial signifiers within the popular realm, rather than the artist’s training.”

Cleveland acknowledges the impact of the work of Araújo, whose books and exhibitions have gone a long way to make this art accessible to the public, but she also looks to the scholarship of non-Brazilian art historians such as Robert Farris Thompson and Henry Drewal who have been toiling (in the case of Thompson) since the 1960s to integrate the study of “black arts” from many parts of the diaspora into the larger scope of art history’s purview. I do wish that Cleveland had given herself a somewhat broader latitude in order to analyze more fully the pathbreaking impact of the use of black subjects by some of the participants in Brazil’s modernist artistic revolution in the 1920s. While she mentions the work of Tarsila do Amaral, a more satisfying examination of Afro-Brazilian subjects in the art of Cândido Portinari, Emiliano di Cavalcanti, and the émigré artist Lasar Segall would have served as an insightful foil to the discussion of the contemporary artists she chooses to highlight in the main part of her book.

I would also have been happier to see a more integrated discussion of the widely diverse arts of older practitioners associated with “Afro-Brazilian” or “black arts” of Brazil, namely Araújo himself (whose abstract sculptures bear no overt signs of blackness), Mestre Didi, and the best-known black Brazilian artist Rubem Valentim, all of whom had considerable success inside and outside Brazil before the turn of the twenty-first century. Nonetheless the author’s strategy of focusing on five artists working now in various parts of the country serves her discussion well, and the reader gains some valuable and original insights into the role black art plays in the country. Cleveland’s insistence on geographic diversity is a definite asset. In the minds of most people who think about art and race in Brazil, the Northeast, especially the city of Salvador da Bahia, is the heartland for artistic creation that references the African heritage of the nation. Cleveland astutely points out that while many practitioners of black art in Brazil do indeed include elements that derive from the syncretistic religion of Candomblé, whose adherents are most numerous in the Northeast, artists working in Rio, São Paulo, the state of Minas Gerais, and elsewhere are equally significant as creators of work that seeks to evoke the past and present...


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