Museu de Arte Negra – MAN (Black Art Museum): A Museum Looking to the Future
My decision to organize the Black Art Museum took place during the 1st Congresso do Negro Brasileiro [Congress of Brazilian Blacks] which the Teatro Experimental do Negro – TEN [Black Experimental Theater ] held in Rio in 1950, while discussing Mário Barata’s presentation A escultura de origem africana no Brasil [Sculpture of African Origin in Brazil]. Recognizing that ‘Blacks have accomplished in Africa and in parts of Oceania one of the most impressive bodies of human artwork’, the author delved into the geographical and cultural areas of Africa from which enslaved people came to build this country of ours. He mentions the differences that particularized the plastic conception respective to each area of the Black continent and points out three predominant tendencies: one realistic, another geometric, and a more recent one: expressionist. According to Barata, the latter is perhaps only a secondary form, resulting from the contact between the first two. The author concluded by lamenting the inexistence of a museum for the study and examination of the ‘function that the original pieces exercise in the life of the “racial” group or of the whole society’.
Nobody could foresee, at the beginning of the twentieth century, that the predatory action of the European colonizer on Africa—on Africans and their culture—would open up a new artistic universe to the protagonism of white art and European artists. Those despised fetishes—the work of [what were seen as] savage, primitive sorcerers—when exhibited in Brussels in 1897, caused a sensation. Immediately many of the statuettes, masks, sculptures, came to inhabit important and established salons such as the Trocadero in Paris, the British Museum and/or the Berlin Museum. They became a magnet for the promising artists of the time: [Maurice de] Vlamink, [André] Derain, [Georges] Braque, [Pablo] Picasso, [Henri] Matisse. . . Almost all of them acquired African pieces and lived with them—like Matisse, who owned twenty or so. These are facts recorded by the history of art, but let us cite Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon  as the illustrious example of Cubism born under the generous and affective influence of African sculpture. Fauves and Cubists were immersed in that ‘vivifying sperm’ (Paul Guillaume) expressed in the absolute and unexpected creative freedom of Black African artists.
Let us recall 1898 as the date of the appearance of the first study on African masks, published by Leo Frobenius [Die Masken und Geheimbünde Afrikas], whose The Black Decameron (1910) revealed to the world all the complexity and profound richness of African culture. Have the values of that culture run out of steam? Have its artistic styles lost their vitality over time? A quick glance answers no. Quite the contrary is true: the aesthetic significance, formal styles, transcendent substance and other attributes involved in Black African cultural phenomena remain as valid today as they did yesterday. They are called upon to play an increasingly important role in the ecumenical concert of culture, if we consider that its compass daily extends further toward the independent nations of Africa.
This awareness of the process and historical situation of Black culture confers a non-transferable responsibility on all those committed to the production of a Brazilian culture free of ideological distortions, of domesticating pressures or of racist, whitewashing acculturations-assimilations. Artists and intellectuals, between January and February of this year, testified in the columns of the [Rio de Janeiro daily] Correio da Manhã, analysing the creation of the Black Art Museum and pointing out possible paths forward. Sociologist Diegues Júnior, for example, noted that ‘about free Blacks, black artists, little is known’, while painter Loio Pérsio, in the same line of argument, stated that ‘a Black art museum would, in fact, satisfy a centuries-old need: knowledge of the arts and of Brazilian civilization, from a strictly rational perspective (...) within the modern concept of museum, that is, not only the collection of documents and monuments, but the home of parallel technical and scientific activities; it can bring a great contribution to the field of research, inventory, classification, information, and dissemination of these (black) arts.’
Proposing educational action and reflection, aimed at promoting Black people’s art—and the art of other peoples influenced by them—the Museu de Arte Negra – MAN (Black Art Museum) emerges as a process of ethnic and aesthetic integration. In the direction of that ‘civilization of the universal’ of which [Léopold] Senghor speaks.
Implicit in MAN’s theoretical foundations is the commitment to a simultaneous revaluation of pristine sources and their power to bring life to the artistic manifestation of the Brazilian people. And Eduardo Portela pointed out that ‘. . .a museum dedicated to the collection and permanent exhibition of black people’s contribution to our culture cannot but be enthusiastically received by those who know the importance of this fundamental part of our ethno-cultural composition’. Critic Teixeira Leite recalled that MAN ‘. . .is a long-standing need, even among students, for it can become, if it has official support, a research laboratory capable of opening up new horizons in Brazilian plastic arts’.
In Brasília, I recently visited Rubem Valentim. In his studio at the university, a world of reliefs, sculptures and paintings comes alive in his hands, a graphic world of inherited forces that he nevertheless contains, disciplines and expresses in a transfigured and conscious erudite language. Folk and popular references, black Afro-Bahian ritual signs and rhythms, are dialectically inserted into the European artistic canon through his work. He achieves one of the purposes of MAN indicated by Ambassador [Raimundo] Souza Dantas, namely, to become a ‘cultural bridge between Brazil and Black Africa’.
While Valentim expounds refined styles, José Heitor [da Silva] represents the self-taught and magical creator; he seems like an artist lost in Além Paraíba (Minas Gerais). Each piece he carves is dedicated as a liturgical act and serves a community function. And usually made in monumental proportions, on a truck, during Carnival, his sculptures parade in procession through the streets of the little town, as an integral part of the samba schools. And in the parade, to the artist’s sweat, to the piece, are added the dust, the light, the heat, the smell and the joy of his group. Heitor’s ‘dreams’ are backed by a rigorous sense of volume and maintain the crossed rhythm—polymetry and polyrhythm—that scholars of African art tell us about.
Heitor works cedar, vinhático, and other woods that his friends—his tribe—forage for him. He has never visited Africa, never attended art schools or artistic circles. He confirms another phrase by Mário Barata: ‘...of the entire American continent, only in our country have African plastic techniques and conceptions been preserved in an evident way’.
The absence of freedom and of support for such work, derived from the reinforcement of repression at the end of 1968, led me to [exile in] the United States from then on, and with that the Black Art Museum, as well as the Black Experimental Theater, ceased to exist as visible institutions. But, seen in another light, the activities of TEN and MAN continued in a different context, in the broader struggle of Pan-Africanism. More than ten years have passed since I wrote that article. If I were to write it today, I would make some adjustments, the main one being that I would not express so much hope in a possible understanding and support from official circles and from the more progressive members of the ruling class. Even so-called progressives in ‘white’ Brazilian society, either are affected by the escravocrata [enslaver] mentality of the latifundia still in force, or are involved, as beneficiaries, in the exploitation of our growing capitalism, which maintains Afro-Brazilian people as its army of unskilled labour and as a growing marginal mass at its disposal and subject to more intensive exploitation than that suffered by workers in general. Another adjustment would be to refrain from quoting Senghor. We believe that a “civilization of the universal” can never be achieved as long as the action of colonialism or neocolonialism continues to erode the economic and political bases of peoples and countries, and the pure, empty cultural declamation, as President Senghor’s Négritude has become, has shown in practice its lack of effectiveness. Civilization of the universal, to me, means a universe without multinationals or transnationals, that is, free of monopoly capital, imperialism, and war. A universe where cultures do not predominate over each other; where there is no religion superior to the others, nor a privileged race, since they all originate from the same God or the same nature. But also where there is no colonization by one class over the others, under any ideological or ‘scientific’ guises. Even if historical progress leads (will it lead?) us to this radical universalization, I want to keep on loving myself, too, and to assert my blackness, which is in itself a value of the universal. It is not offered, my skin colour, as an object that I want to get rid of, as if it were a static and/or random characteristic. My blackness is an integral part of my historical and spiritual being, and if the western world continues to oppress and humiliate Black people and usurp our humanity, it is up to the offended to rescue our humanity, and this rescue begins with the recomposition of our integrity. This does not mean that Black people are trying to prove to whites that they are different; much less that Blacks are playing the game of white racists, who see them as ‘different’. I am speaking of self-esteem and self-respect, because only as a whole and total being will I have the dignity to stand shoulder to shoulder with other human beings who are also whole in the identity of their spirit and historical composition. These human beings and this humanity do not exist without a face that marks their origin. Only for utopians and romantics. And if as Blacks we cannot live as humans, let us at least die as humans, rather than stoop, in order to live, to trading our identity for… a plate of ideological lentils!
These days, the imposition of a certain Marxism is that Black people, to be accepted as human, must trade their black face for a ‘colorless’ oppressed class face. Yesterday they made Black artists empty their images of Black African culture and paint, in Catholic churches, ‘universal’ saints and angels, that is, non-black. And while receiving the ideological lash of ‘civilization’ on their backs, some Africans created and bequeathed to us important works. Francisco Chagas, for example, created valuable paintings in the Church of Carmo, in Bahia, during the eighteenth century. In Rio de Janeiro, the enslaved artist Sebastião, who painted in oil, left works worthy of respect in several churches. Master Valentim da Fonseca (1750–1813), born in Minas Gerais, developed prolific and diversified work in Rio de Janeiro: he sculpted wood, cast iron, and gold, and produced many works. Oséias dos Santos is another Black painter born in Bahia in 1865.
The Black community in Brazil, just as it has produced so many creators, must also count on its own analysts and theoreticians to elaborate a critical judgment of the heritage that Africans have left us. I took on this modest task of recording some names and transmitting them to my Black sisters and brothers who are not familiar with the history of the arts in Brazil, so that this part of Afro-Brazilian creativity would not be kept out of our community’s memory. The achievements in painting and sculpture by artists of African origin should not remain an esoteric subject, known only to art specialists, generally white scholars. The work of Antonio Francisco Lisboa, born of an African mother in Sabará [Minas Gerais] in 1730, is Afro-Brazilian community heritage, no matter that he expressed himself in the European language of the Baroque. Sculpting almost without his hands, which leprosy devoured, Aleijadinho—sculptor, painter and architect—is the brilliant inventor of the Prophets that stand in front of the church of Congonhas do Campo, forever witnessing, beneath the Catholic veneer, the creative impulse infused by African blood into the Brazilian people and culture. There, in the stone and/or wood of his works, is the overflowing force of talent that floods over canonical measures, in the disciplined and harmonious use of indiscipline and freedom. Density and weight, polyrhythm and ritual chants combine to produce the magical African communicativity of Aleijadinho’s work.
In 1801, the Black painter Estevão Silva died in Rio de Janeiro. He became famous for his portrayal of enslavement in a painting entitled Caridade. Pedro Américo, a mixed-race person from Paraíba, painted historical scenes in large paintings. One of the goals of the Black Art Museum was to carry out a survey of Africans and their creations in Brazil. This urgently needs to be done.
This text was published in Abdias Nascimento, O Quilombismo, 3rd ed. (São Paulo: Perspectiva/Ipeafro, 2019), 162–69. It was originally written in 1979 as an updated version of the essay ‘A Museum Looking to the Future’, written for the journal GAM – galeria de arte moderna, no. 15 (Rio de Janeiro, 1968), see: http://www.abdias.com.br/museu_arte_negra/abdias_man.htm.
Translation from the Portuguese by Paz Guevara. Kindly revised by Elisa Larkin Nascimento, who we gratefully thank for her engagement.