Black Cultures Matter

Exhibition Corrects Black Gap in Brazilian Art History

Dos Brasis: Art and Black Thought is an outstanding exhibition on the Brazilian art scene, bringing together works by 240 Black artists from across the country. Divided into seven central themes, the exhibition tackles issues such as historical revision and female representation, highlighting stories such as that of Judith Bacci, who went from janitor to artist.

With 240 artists and over 400 works, Dos Brasis: Black Art and Thought has been heralded as the show with the largest number of Black artists ever held in Brazil. Works are on display starting at the entrance to SESC Belenzinho, in São Paulo, overtaking the entire courtyard, and sprinkled around the playground and sports facilities (we’ll come back to this point), before congregating in two exhibition areas and a lobby. This is an exhibition of superlatives. If art were a sprint race, Dos Brasis would be sure of a place at the top of the podium. Not only does it feature a record number of Black artists, but there are also names from every Brazilian state, as well as a wide variety of genres, from the 18th century to today. The work of many of these artists, like Judith Bacci, is as rich as it is ignored. But Dos Brasis is more than a one-time exhibition. This is a long-term project, expected to travel around the country over the next decade. In addition to selections from the exhibition currently on display, there’s an educational program and a schedule of discussions. In ten years, it’s expected that the success of the project will make it no longer necessary. Clearly, the project’s bounty shows the scale of art produced by Black Brazilian artists. It becomes increasingly uncomfortable for a racist curator or critic to say there are no Black artists—not only do they exist, they’ve always been here. “The silence of Black artists never existed. What existed was a selective listening to Black artists,” said curator Igor Simões. It’s this kind of erasure that is in the process of being reversed. For that reason, it is especially important that the launch pad for Dos Brasis is SESC Belenzinho.

Some context: SESC is a private entity, sustained by compulsory collections from company payrolls. This resource subsidizes everything from healthcare services and dentists to leisure activities, sports, and food at affordable prices. Cultural spending corresponds to a small part of SESC’s budget. Visual arts have an even smaller share of funding. Most of the people who access the SESC centers around São Paulo are looking for things other than art. When you enter SESC Belenzinho specifically, next to the administrative department, there are sports facilities and courts, a restaurant, a stage for shows and a swimming pool complex. On hot days, the pool is crowded, and there are classes that mix water aerobics and dance performance, with colorful pool noodles waved around by participants. More than half of São Paulo’s SESC centers are located in the central region of the city—a megalopolis with a high concentration of cultural facilities. Some of São Paulo’s cultural elite jokingly refer to SESC Belenzinho with the pun “SESC Bem Longinho” in Portuguese, or “Far Away SESC”. In light of Dos Brasis, it’s fitting to ask: far away from where? And from whom? The city’s complex road network does make it difficult to access the center by car, although from downtown it’s no more than a 20-minute metro ride. On the other hand, SESC Belenzinho is located in area that connects the city center with the East Zone of São Paulo—where the city outskirts, a predominantly Black and poor region, extends beyond the city limits, bleeding into a series of other municipalities in the greater metropolitan region.

SESC Belenzinho may be far away for more privileged parts of town, but it sits at the entrance to the city center. It is also within this context that Dos Brasis is put on display, and this is far from irrelevant. The impact of representation goes beyond the closed world of visual arts and opens itself up to anyone who passes through—this is no small feat, and the exhibition’s future travel around the country should only serve to amplify this effect exponentially.

If Dos Brasis is didactic and exhaustive for the world of visual arts (insistently reaffirming “the Blacks are here”), it is also generous for a wider audience. The curatorship of Igor Simões, with deputy curators Lorraine Mendes and Marcelo Campos (in addition to Hélio Menezes, who left the project when he became co-curator of this year’s São Paulo Bienal), seems to understand this potential of SESC by not restricting the show to just the exhibition spaces. Visitors are greeted at the center’s entrance by the steel sculpture Exu, by Jorge dos Anjos from Minas Gerais. Then, the installations by Rommulo Conceição and Agrade Camíz are sprinkled in with the playground equipment, and the goal posts of O Jogo! by Augusto Leal, sit among the playing fields. Leal has another piece that unifies the center’s spaces: a series of signs that imitate traffic signs. They mingle with floor signs produced by Charlene Bicalho, based on conversations with workers at the exhibition. If the act of going to an exhibition still sounds elitist in Brazil in 2023, Dos Brasis tears down the walls of the white cube (!) and spreads itself around wherever people pass as they go to the pool or the dentist… and that is saying something.

The exhibition is divided into seven themes, which attempt to define an exhibition plan that blurs boundaries, that transforms saturation into a value, that occupies spaces instead of delimiting them. Legítima Defesa, for example, brings together works that directly confront racism and its consequences. Amefricanas comes from the term coined by Lélia Gonzalez to give protagonism to women. Romper has works that call into question what the official discourse has understood, until now, as art and Brazil. Organização Já talks about collectives, encounters, and quilombos. Baobá brings together artists who take root and bear fruit with totemic pieces. Negro-Vida are works that defy any notion of classification of artists. Finally, Branco Tema shows white people as the theme of the works—an inversion of their traditional role in Brazilian art, which usually places Black people (and often only the fetishized figure of the Black woman) as the theme of white artists.

Ambitious, abundant, almost encyclopedic, Dos Brasis is a project with a long path ahead of it, which positions itself as a central piece not only against the erasure of Black and Black artists, but also as the starting point of a history of Brazilian art that is more Black, more realistic and complete—an exuberant art, close and playing a lead role.

Eduardo Nasi is a journalist.