Searching for Iemanjá: On the Move in Brazil
Part one of a curator’s journey to discover traditional and new spaces for art making in Brazil
Thomas Jean Lax
Aug 7, 2020
The second essay in this two-part “Searching for Iemanjá” project was published on August 14.
Over six weeks at the beginning of 2020, I traveled across Brazil, where I met artists and cultural leaders who told me how ingrained political dynamics appeared in their everyday lives. A former slavocracy with a large population and a tradition of ingesting other cultures into its own, Brazil bears an uncanny resemblance to my own place of origin. Writing today from New York City, where I was born and continue to stay, the stakes of comparative thinking about how history reappears in the art of the present feel increasingly urgent.
The US and Brazil have reported the highest case rates and deaths from COVID-19 in the world, an expression of the forms of governance that make Black people vulnerable to premature death in both countries. Against this backdrop of loss and grief, protests have followed the state-sponsored extrajudicial killings of Black folks whose commonalities transcend national boundaries: João Pedro Matos Pinto, George Floyd, Lucas Eduardo Martins dos Santos, Breonna Taylor, Allyson do Nascimento, Tony McDade, and others.
What we are witnessing is the end of one order and the possibility of a new one. The following two essays, dedicated to the Afro-Brazilian spirit Iemanjá and those who offered me a path to seek Her out, are my attempts to account for the reservoir of cultural resources available for transitioning from one world to another.
1970s depiction of Iemanjá at the Museo Casa do Pontal by an unidentified maker
A tribute to Marielle Franco facing the entrance of Aparelha Luiza in São Paulo
Artists across the country use the expression quilombo urbano, or urban maroon communities, to describe their spaces of work. Erica Malunguinho—an artist and Black feminist state congressperson in São Paulo—uses the term for the cultural space she made in 2016 from her studio, Aparelha Luiza. Aparelha is many things: an art gallery; a rehearsal room for dancers and drummers in the weeks leading up to Carnival; a dance party filled with ’90s throwbacks from Congo, Brazil, and the Black US; and a center for political education. The stakes of the space are made clear by a large-scale artwork by Raylander Mártis Dos Anjos that greets you upon arrival: VOCÊ TEM QUE PARAR DE ACHAR QUE ESTÁ NO LUGAR ERRADO (“YOU HAVE TO STOP THINKING YOU’RE IN THE WRONG PLACE”). You’re once again reminded of why you are here when you leave or go out to chat with a friend. A mural on the facing building features a photographic reproduction of Marielle Franco, the Black queer activist and politician who in 2018 was gunned down in Rio de Janeiro by President Jair Bolsonaro’s extrajudicial militar. Next to her smiling face, which has become a rallying cry for anti-fascist activists across the country, are the silkscreened words be inspired; get mobilized; don’t forget.
On the first night I went to Aparelha, Malunguinho got on the mic to describe the historical necessity of creating space explicitly for Black and Indigenous people. (Malunguinho's Chief-of-Staff, Sandra Silva, generously translated for me.) Her message, a compelling stump speech that yielded to poetry, starts as far back as Palmares, a quilombo that developed in the early 17th century and may have included up to 20,000 inhabitants at its height. The urgency for this kind of space continues today under Bolsonaro’s tenure. (Malunguinho and Bolsonaro were elected on the same day.) Malunguinho was raised in the country’s northeast and often makes references to the place she grew up. At one recent public talk titled “How to Overcome This Crossroads,” she began her remarks by invoking a specific terreiro in her neighborhood of Água Fria dedicated to Iemanjá.
Dalton Paula. Comunhão. 2009. Oil and silver leaf on canvas
Today, other attempts to write a history of art from inside the circle of Black life proliferate. These efforts have significantly shifted the stakes for art made by Black people. In the past five years, the country’s most resourced museums have organized landmark exhibitions, including the 2015 Territories: Artists of African Descent in the Collection of the Pinacoteca and MASP’s 2018 exhibition Histórias afro-atlânticas (Afro-Atlantic Histories). Meanwhile, São Paulo galleries like Mendes Woods and Sé Galeria have demonstrably increased the representation of Black artists in commercial venues. This is not unlike the shift in museum and commercial discourse occurring in the country’s North American neighbor, and as I spoke to Black curators working inside and across institutions, I began to understand the nuanced contexts they are creating.
If Blackness is a layered category whose meanings change across time and place, Black curatorial work is equally shaped through specificity and collaboration. A handful of the curators doing this work whom I had a chance to meet include: Hélio Menezes, Curator at the Centro Cultural of São Paulo, who co-organized Histórias afro-atlânticas and whose thesis on the emergence of the category of “Afro-Brazilian art” is a key reference; Amanda Carneiro, assistant curator at MASP, who, in addition to running their public programs, is working on a research project about the history of Black Brazilian artists working in abstraction in the 1960s and ’70s; Uriel Bezerra, who co-organized the Ecos do Atlântico Sul about the Afro-Luso-Brazilian triangle; Diane Lima, who, with artist Rosana Paulino, organized the 2016–17 Diálogos Ausentes (Absent Dialogues) exhibition at Itaú Cultural, in 2018 created AfroTranscendence, a radical education program for artists, curates the Valongo Festival Internacional da Imagem, and is co-organizing the Third Frestas Triennial with Beatriz Lemos and Thiago de Paula Souza; and de Paula Souza, whose exhibition Tony Cokes: To Live as Equals recently opened at BAK in Utrecht and who, with Gabi Ngcobo, was co-organizer of the 10th Berlin Biennial, titled We Don’t Need Another Hero, and the trans-disciplinary platform I’ve seen your face before, models of collaborative curatorial practice.
Black artists are also creating their own models for supporting one another’s work through organizations such as Trovoa, a collective started by four women artists in March 2019 that has since greatly expanded. In cities across the country, its various chapters respond to the needs of their contexts while organizing across sites through a WhatsApp group and shared Google Docs. Technology as a means of bringing people together in real space is also important for 0101 Art Platform, a residency program and social media network that includes Moises Patricio, Ana Beatriz Almeida, and Keyna Eleison, among others. It is hard to overstate the range and depth of Black-feminist approaches to curatorial work in Brazil today. Tiago Sant’Ana’s 2013 six-part photo series Composições simples para ouvir ancestrais (Simple Compositions to Listen to the Ancestors), which opens this essay, provides an inadvertent portrait of this richness: In this dedication to Iemanjá, the artist, scholar, and curator, currently pursuing his PhD at the Federal University of Bahia, depicts himself being steadily drowned by seashells, a symbol of Her prosperity.
These curators and organizers are not only showing and collecting Black artists’ work; they are creating Black spaces, meaningful augmentations and redefinitions to the museum as a cultural institution. This other kind of Black space, like the itinerant Batekoo party I went to with Thiago, requires material support to sustain itself, as well as brick-and-mortar space in which to gather. Nevertheless, it remains on the move.
This essay was realized thanks to a Research Grant for MoMA Curators given by the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Research Institute for the Study of the Art from Latin America.
Thumbnail: Pierre Verger’s photograph of the Iemanjá festival in Brazil's Salvador. Courtesy the Fundação Pierre Verger
Thank you to Hélio Menezes and Oluremi C. Onabanjo for reading earlier drafts of this essay and for sharing their invaluable knowledge and generous feedback with me. In addition, I would like to acknowledge the artists and culture folk whose work, scholarship, and friendship informed my time, including Augusto Albuquerque, Ana Beatriz Almeida, Jonathas de Andrade, Sérgio Andrade, Olivia Ardui, Emanoel Araujo, Gersoney Azevedo, Alex Baradel, Ricardo Basbaum, Jonathan Berger, Uriel Bezerra, Everson Brussel, Julia Bryan-Wilson, Rebeca Carapiá, Maria Del Carmen Carrion, Amanda Carneiro, Solange Carybé, Kimberly L. Cleveland, Kat Cosby, Haroldo Costa, Vivian Crockett, Yhuri Cruz, J. Cunha, Thias Darze, Mauricio Dias, Fory Dias do Nascimento, Deborá Didonê, Solange Farkas, Renata Felinto, Ricardo Duarte Filho, Marina Fokidis, Karen Grimson, Sônia Gomes, Adenor Gondim, Jô Guimarães, Tali Ha, Marcio Harum, Jessica Harris, Ayrson Heráclito, Leonel Henckes, Patricia Hoffbauer and her family Evany, Daniela and Graciela, Inés Katzenstein, Pablo Lafuente, Pablo León De La Barra, Daniel Lima, Diane Lima, Mitch Loch, Erica Malunguinho, Marepe, Pedro Marighella, Pedro Marin, Mary Marinho, Jordan Martins, Tiona Nekkia McClodden, Flavia Meireles, Denise Milfont, Sean Mitchell, Aline Motta, Maria Montero, Rodrigo Moura, Marilyn Nance, Roberta Nascimento, Paulo Nazareth, Ligia Nobre, Edgar Oliva, Moises Patricio, Dalton Paula, Thiago de Paula Souza, Rosana Paulino, Lanussi Pasquali, Vera Passos, Adriano Pedrosa, Iagor Peres, Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, Susana Pilar, Hariel Revignet, Margarita Rosa, Anthony Rosado, Roger Sansi, Tiago Sant'Ana, Ana Rita Santiago, Artur Santoro, Joceval Santos, Valmir Santos, Lilia Moritz Schwarcz, Sandra Silva, Gersonice Equede Sinha, Alex Simões, Manfred Stoffl, Nadia Taquary, Antonio Tarsis, Brittany Ayana Thomas, Ana Clara Tito, Felix Toro, Lucio Tranchesi, Taylor Van Horne, Leno Veras, Jochen Volz, Saya Woolfolk, Clarissa Ximenes, and Matheus Yehudi.