Abdias Nascimento: An Enduring Legacy

This year, two institutions in Brazil are celebrating more than seven decades of the Afro-Brazilian artist’s international artistic contributions.

The two current exhibits entered for the set of Nascimento’s 41 individual and 11 collective shows, which have already been held at major national and international museums and in institutions connected to Black communities, primarily in the countries in which he has lived. At the international level, we can highlight exhibits at The Harlem Art Gallery, in New York in 1969; at the Howard University Gallery in Washington DC in 1975; at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1973; at Yale University in 1969; at the Kongi’s Harvest Gallery Museum in Lagos, Nigéria in 2013; among several others.

In Brazil, his first exhibits were in 1975. The same year, he was at the Galeria do Banco Nacional in São Paulo, and at the Galeria Morada in Rio de Janeiro. In 1982, he occupied the Galeria Sérgio Milliet in Rio de Janeiro; in 1988, on the centennial of the Abolition of Slavery in Brazil, he exhibited at the Palácio da Cultura, in the Gustavo Capanema Building, former headquarters of the Ministry of Culture in Rio de Janeiro. “That exhibit was rather large. A series of paintings related to the orishas was presented, occupying all the space of the mezzanine, using only natural light, with light shining on Abdias’s paintings,” Larkin Nascimento comments. “With this exhibition, he sought to reaffirm the Black population’s political position and place in that year, connecting both the abolition of slavery and the Constituent Assembly. However, the repercussion of this in the art world was very minor.”

For Larkin, the national exhibits demanded tremendous efforts from IPEAFRO. According to her, it was only recently that the country’s museums and cultural institutions became interested in Nascimento’s artistic legacy, which, previously, was primarily recognized through his militant trajectory and political career, which the museums considered far from their interests. She comments that “the first time that a museum sought us out was in 2019. The Niterói Contemporary Art Museum sought us out to organize an exhibit and a seminar, which was carried out with black artists and curators. It was the first time we had an invitation like that, showing serious interest and with great respect. And I highlight Niterói with pride.”

Despite the two initiatives, both at Inhotim and MASP, we must mention that both institutions have an ambiguous relationship as far as Afro-Brazilian history is concerned, and it is not by chance that the presence of Afro-Brazilian arts in their programs are shown to be recent interests. The incoming movement of such productions have left doubts with respect to the permanence and the real interest in change of those institutions, which still seem to be skeptical about their solidified responsibilities for the future.

Both Larkin and Menezes Silva came to the Histórias Afro-atlânticas (Afro-Atlantic Histories) exhibit, held at MASP at the Tomie Ohtake Institute in 2018, as a marker of change in the presentation of Black artistic production and, of Abdias Nascimento in particular, in the field of the arts. Menezes Silva says, “with Afro-Atlantic Histories, we saw museums and curators getting to know Abdias’s artistic side, making his name a central focus.” Larkin adds: “we also saw things change with the Black Lives Matter Movement. We hope we are really establishing those spaces, and that it is not just market interest.”

During that exhibit, IPEAFRO dedicated the work Okê Oxóssi, from 1970, to MASP, which since then is on permanent exhibit at the Museum, also figuring prominently at the artist’s current individual show. For curator Amanda Carneiro, that canvas represents the artist’s growth within the institution, which “transformed into an iconic work on the second floor of the museum, opening opportunities for the project Acervo em transformação (Collection in Transformation),” an initiative that MASP has maintained since 2018 with the intention of presenting new acquisitions and reorganizing the exhibitions in line with current projects. Carneiro comments as well that Abdias the individual integrates the Histórias Brasileiras (Brazilian Histories) project, scheduled for 2022 at the Museum, which anticipates a central exhibit, divided in dense sections that will address topics connected to arts narratives in Brazil. Along with that, there will be individual shows, like that of Abdias Nascimento, to develop the themes, trajectories and visual aspects of the participating artists.

For Nascimento the individual, the focus was on the artist’s relationship with two intellectual- political fields: Pan-Africanism, which the author cites in several of his texts and paintings, and his dialogues with Latin America, which here were captured by the term “Améfrica,” coined by Lélia Gonzalez. According to Carneiro, the proposal was based on the relationship between the two, who were even political party colleagues and candidates on the same ticket during the 1986 elections. For her, resorting to the neologism of “Pan-Amefrican” “was a way to integrate both ‘Pan-Africanism,’ a political movement that Abdias adopted and disseminated throughout Brazil, and Lélia González’s ‘Amefricanism.’ Thereby recovering that which is Latin American not only in Abdias and Lélia, but also in our Afro-Diasporic conception.”

Abdias Nascimento was active in Latin American movements. To cite a mere few examples of his involvement in the region, he participated in the First and Second Congresses of Black Culture in the Americas, held in the city of Cali, Colombia, and in Panama, respectively. He was elected vice-president and coordinator of the Third Congress of Black Culture in the Americas, held at IPEAFRO at PUC-SP in 1982; he was a trustee of the Black Continental Congress in the Americas; he was honored by UNESCO during the International Year of Celebration of the Struggle against Slavery and its Abolition; he was recognized as a contributor to the prevention of racial discrimination in Latin America by the National Council for the Prevention of Discrimination of the Federal Government of Mexico, among others.

According to researcher and specialist in Latin America, Danielle Almeida, Abdias Nascimento was in contact with people involved in the region’s artistic movements since the 1950s. This includes the Companhia Teatro Cumanana (Black Theater and Dance Company) of Peru, the group founded by Nicomedes Santa Cruz, brother of singer, playwright and dancer Victoria Santa Cruz. According to Almeida, in a conversation with their nephew, Octavio Santa Cruz Urquieta, the latter stated that Nascimento kept in touch with his uncle, Nicomedes Santa Cruz, to exchange artistic as well as political experiences in the struggle against racism in Peru and Brazil. Nascimento was concerned with establishing a theater whose thought stemmed from the Black experience not only in Brazil, but also throughout Latin America.

According to Douglas de Freitas and Deri Andrade, curators at Inhotim involved in the project, understanding the relationships Nascimento established through TEN will be the subject of the Second Act organized by Inhotim and scheduled to open in June. “TEN will be presented as a network of articulations to think other processes in which Abdias was involved, which emerge as media Abdias navigates to overcome ‘gaps,’ as far as Black representation is concerned, in the artistic media of the period,” Andrade explains. “It was TEN that triggered a series of actions which Abdias would bring with him throughout his career, like pan-Africanism itself and quilombismo, which was always in dialogue with Latin America.”

Jointly curated by Inhotim and IPEAFRO, the program’s curators are Elisa Larkin Nascimento and Júlio Menezes Silva, representatives of IPEAFRO, and Deri Andrade and Douglas Freitas, on behalf of Inhotim, who are supported by Julieta González, who has been the Institute’s Artistic Director since January 2022. According to González, “Inhotim already has a well-defined position in the area of Afro-Latin American production, and it has grown a lot over the past months with respect to Afro-Brazilian art as well as Afro-American and Afro-diaspora art.” She also highlights: “we are extending the projects to 2023, preparing books, temporary exhibitions, and debates. And the project does not only talk about a ‘post,’ it also talks about a during. The ‘during’ that we are living now.” On that, Freitas adds that, “an important step too was Inhotim’s acquisition of four of Abdias Nascimento’s works which were on the private market and were recuperated for an institutional collection,” affirming, to a certain extent, the commitment to safeguard the artist’s legacy.

Institutions in Brazil took decades to begin to appreciate Abdias Nascimento’s legacy in the art world both within and outside of the country. Nevertheless, the contributions of the artist, who passed away in 2011 aged 97, are a strong indication that Afro-Brazilian artists are going to keep believing in their visions and creating artistic worlds where all voices are heard.

Luciara Ribeiro is an educator, researcher, and curator. She holds a master’s degree in Art History from the University of Salamanca (USAL, Spain, 2018) and the Postgraduate Program in Art History at the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP, 2019). She is a content contributor for the Diaspora Galeria and a lecturer in the Department of Visual Arts at Faculdade Santa Marcelina.

Translation: Sara Hanaburgh