The ideals of the military dictatorship that lasted for over 20 years in Brazil flowed through the promotion of art as diplomacy. As Brazil built bridges with African countries, its political strategy to reinforce the country’s supposed racial democracy became clear.
Abdias de Nascimento (right) in the play "Otelo", 1946. Arquivo Nacional Collection, Brazil. Photo: unknown authorship, public domain. | Teatro Experimental do Negro rehearsing "Sortilégio" (left), with Abdias do Nascimento and Léa Garcia, 1957. Arquivo Nacional Collection, Brazil. Photo: unknown authorship, public domain.
The 1960s and 1970s were marked by compelling interactions between Brazilian diplomacy and African countries. While Brazil was under a dictatorial military regime sustained by the business community and supported by members of the elite, many African countries were gaining their independence and positioning themselves as players in international geopolitics. With these new partners, Brazil intended to expand its business and political ties, and the arts was one of those avenues.
Arqueologia da Criação: uma imersão no acervo-ateliê de Rossini Perez (Archeology of Creation: An Immersion into the Studio Collection of Rossini Perez), an exhibition curated by Sabrina Moura, presented virtually by the Lasar Segall Museum until June 2021, has put the entire collection of artist Rossini Perez on display as a work in itself. One of the highlights in its virtual galleries is the artist’s experience as a printmaking professor at the National School of Arts in Dakar, capital of Senegal. Between 1974 and 1975, in addition to teaching, he developed a series of works characterized by visualities that made reference to the region’s clothing and adornments.
Rossini Perez and his etching students at the studio of the School of Fine Arts in Dakar (Senegal), 1977. Photo: The artist's personal archive.
According to Moura, he made many trips back and forth between Senegal and Brazil during this time, and his stay was made possible by Brazil’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in bilateral cooperation with the Senegalese government, with Brazil supplying equipment and materials and the Senegalese government providing Rossini’s accommodation during his visits.
New Format for Thinking About and Making Art
The École de Dakar, founded in 1960, was part of the cultural policy of Léopold Sédar Senghor, Senegal’s first president. Encouraged by the cooperation and strengthening of exchanges between African and Diaspora countries, Senegal’s first art school did not aim simply to reproduce the European model of art and art education, but to create a new format for thinking about and making art, with the participation of foreigners as part of this project of learning for reimagining. Senghor’s school proposal was harshly criticized by artists of the following generation, who saw it as a sort of colonial pedagogy.
The formation of Africa’s first art schools expressed disputing narratives and raised concern around the world on the impacts they would bring about. From that, we can’t help but notice that these foreigners’ racialities and ethnic origins were generally marked by whiteness and Europeanness—a tactic that, in most cases, reinforced Western art discourses. And it’s possible that the presence of Rossini Perez, a Euro-Brazilian artist, characterized by his whiteness, was also permeated by this tension. According to Sabrina Moura, Rossini’s presence was interpreted from his position as a white, francophone artist, since he had spent some time in France, but he stood out from the colonial education promoted by the French coopérants, which stereotyped African artistic production. According to the curator, Rossini emphasized horizontalism and cooperation between students and teacher, an approach that set him apart.
Diplomacy Through the Arts
According to researcher Gabrielle Nascimento Batista, who studies Brazilian diplomacy with Africa through the arts, as far as relations brokered by the Brazilian government during this period, there were two points of contention: one in the international arena and another in the domestic sphere. While Africa was emerging as a new territory for the trade and circulation of art in the western world, in Brazil, in addition to its quest to fit in with the international agenda, aspects of so-called Afro-Brazilian art were also discussed. And, to a certain extent, the diplomatic actions of the period were marked by political strategy meant to control and reinforce a supposed racial democracy in Brazil.
Batista points out that academic exchange was not the only path for diplomacy in the arts, and we could also add exhibitions, loans, collections, etc. In her dissertation O que dizer sobre a política africana do Brasil e as artes? Reflexões sobre a Coleção Africana do Museu Nacional de Belas Artes (1961-1964) (What About Brazil’s African Policy and the Arts? Reflections on the African Collection of the National Museum of Fine Arts [1961-1964]), the author investigates the establishment of the Brazilian embassy in Accra, capital of Ghana, where the journalist Raymundo Souza Dantas was sent as ambassador. Dantas was the only Black diplomat of that time and the first in Republican-era Brazil, and his role there made him an intermediary in the process of organizing the African collection at the National Museum of Fine Arts, in Rio de Janeiro.
Senghor arriving at the opening of the Festival mondial des nègres, Dakar, 1966. Courtesy of PANAFEST archive.
The fact that Dantas was the only Black diplomat alone made it clear that there was no racial democracy in Brazil, and that, in the same way that whiteness marked the bodies that made up Brazilian international politics, it also defined the choices made by them. The selection of who would represent Brazil abroad also passed through this filter, and this is made explicit in the formation of the Brazilian delegation for the first two World Black Art Festivals, in 1966, in the city of Dakar, and in 1977, in the city of Lagos, capital of Nigeria.
White People as Mediators of Afro-Brazilian Art
Brazil, the only South American country to participate in the event, sent a delegation to the 1st World Festival of Black Arts that included Rubem Valentim, Heitor dos Prazeres, Vicente Pastinha, and others. The festival was part of Léopold Sédar Senghor’s government policy as well as the ideals of the Négritude movement, and aimed to bring together agents of different countries through African and Afro-Diaspora arts and cultures. We can see that the group was made up of Black and white artists, who, probably from the point of view of the Brazilian government, helped to build the image of a nation of racial democracy.
According to playwright and artist Abdias Nascimento, in his well-known Carta a Dacar (Letter to Dakar), published in 1966, this committee was set without prior consultation with the Afro-Brazilian artistic class and excluded some artists whose work contained political content that was linked with confronting social and racial inequalities, as was the case of Teatro Experimental do Negro (TEN), where Nascimento was coordinator. It is important to remember that the criticism made by Abdias does not fall on the artists, but on the curatorship of the Ministry, which reaffirmed the position of white people as mediators of Afro-Brazilian arts, in addition to reinforcing a political discourse contradictory to those of Black movements.
Nascimento’s open letter revealed that, despite the growing diplomatic relationship between Brazil and African countries in that period, on the Brazilian side, the discourses of the Black Movement were not the ones guiding them. In addition to international suppression, TEN suffered from internal ideological and political persecution, ultimately ceasing its activities in 1968, when Abdias Nascimento went into exile.
Ties with Afro-Diaspora Countries
Abroad, the playwright undertook a professorship at the University of Lagos, capital of Nigeria, where he contributed to the teaching of the Performing and Visual Arts and where he was able, without intermediation by Brazilian diplomacy, to witness the 2nd World Festival of Black Arts, in 1977. Titled the Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture, and with its new host Nigeria, the event sought to establish ties with Afro-Diaspora countries, as well as strengthen support for African countries that were still grappling with the independence process, as was the case of the former Portuguese colonies.
Cover of a magazine. FESTAC 77, Lagos, 1977. Courtesy of PANAFEST archive
The event sought to establish ties with Afro-Diaspora countries, as well as strengthen support for African countries that were still grappling with the independence process, as was the case of the former Portuguese colonies.
For this edition, the list of Brazilian artists included Emanoel Araújo, Francisco Guarany, Geraldo Telles de Araújo, José de Dome, Maurino de Araújo, Miguel dos Santos, Octávio Araújo, Waldeloir Rego, among others. According to researcher Hélio Menezes, in his master’s thesis Entre o visível e o oculto: a construção do conceito de arte afro-brasileira (Between the Seen and the Unseen: The Construction of the Concept of Afro-Brazilian Art), this was “a delegation that, at least according to its terms, endorsed the idea of a country influenced by African cultures, but that tried to invent something of its own, distinct and properly de-Africanized”. This proves that the ideals of the military dictatorship in promoting the arts through diplomacy were to control the political and racial discourse. Even in building bridges with African countries, these intentions were clear.
With these connections, we can see that the transit of Brazilian artists in African countries in the 1960s and 1970s was part of a plan to defend certain narratives, authorship, and bodies. Obviously, the skills and contributions that such artists brought to the arts and their teaching are indisputable, however, it cannot be ignored that their movements were permeated by questionable powers and interests. Accepting the revisionism of this period, taking these factors into account, is important for building a solid critique.
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: Zoë Perry