In 1882, when he wrote about the painting A fundação da cidade do Rio de Janeiro (The Founding of the City of Rio de Janeiro) by Antônio Firmino Monteiro (1855–1888), Machado de Assis (1839-1908) would describe the work as a “public archive” of the history of the empire’s capital; Firmino, as a “serious artist” and a “national painter.” These three aspects, which provide glimpses into the work and its creator, stimulate my thoughts on the exhibition Territórios: artistas afrodescendentes no acervo da Pinacoteca (Territories: Artists of African Descent in the Pinacoteca’s Collection), curated by Tadeu Chiarelli, that marks the presence of such artists in the institution’s history, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary (1905-2015) and honors Emanoel Araújo, the museum’s first black director (1992-2002).
Firmino’s painting took two years to complete and, in Machado’s appraisal, his draftsmanship, use of color, and composition give an “excellent overall impression.” The artist is featured in Territórios together with his contemporary Estevão Roberto da Silva (1845?-1891), who in 1879 declined the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts’ second prize in the still-life genre, given by His Majesty the Emperor D. Pedro II, who had supported the exhibition of Firmino Monteiro’s work. The fact that Silva took only second place points to the historically secondary position of black artists in Brazilian art historiography, despite the unquestionable quality of many of the works that have been created, or that are being produced. Yet, Silva’s theme, according to the scale of values established by the academy, was minor compared to that of Firmino, whose moral and pedagogical content was aligned with academic technique, and was broadly popular.(1) Their presence in Territórios illustrates this exhibition’s potential to cover two centuries of African-oriented artistic work motivated by the black social experiences of its creators, demonstrating that contemporary Brazilian artists are situated within an historical context, although the exhibit does not intend to be chronological.