In conversation with Hélio Menezes

Representativeness beyond representation

Anthropologist Hélio Menezes, one of the curators of the Afro-Atlantic Histories exhibition (MASP/Instituto Tomie Ohtake), talks about the understanding of Afro-Brazilian art, a topic of his research since 2011, and how the concept was addressed in this and other exhibitions in recent years.

C&AL: How was the curation process with five people and what was your participation?

HM: This is an exhibition with many voices. Lilia Schwarcz and Adriano Pedrosa started out as the primary names, and Tomás Toledo as assistant curator, and then Ayrson Heráclito and I were invited. Lilia and I have been working together for a long time, she was my advisor for my Masters degree. I had one room with the largest share of the Activism and Resistance area, I was invited with that proposal. But from the beginning, the idea was that it should be an exhibition with large and explicit differences, both between the Tomie Ohtake and MASP shows, and among the areas. You can sense a significant polyphony. Our intention was to take histories, in the plural, to heart, which was reached by many acts of consensus. And when there were disagreements, we concluded that they shouldn’t be held back, on the contrary.

C&AL: What was your main motivation for researching the various understandings of Afro-Brazilian art?

HM: It’s always struck me the way, in Brazil, particularly as someone from Bahia, these categories were built (Afro-Brazilian art, Black art, Diaspora art…) and how they’ve changed over time. My dissertation has a fairly long scope, going from the late 19th to the 21st century, I cover the 20th century of intellectual and institutional production of these terms. Here in Brazil, I was struck by the fact that the authorship component was not always evident when talking about Afro-Brazilian art. But, in this case, this isn’t an exhibition made up entirely of black artists. For example, I’ve been asked a few times why Andy Warhol was in a show like this, if we were trying to include quotas for whites. It’s not about that. Authorship was one of the guiding aspects of this exhibition, but not the only one. In the overall balance, the majority of the works are by black artists – up to 55%, although it’s a small majority.

C&AL: And what weight and importance was given to that criterion in this exhibition?

HM: For me, this is a fundamental question. It’s impossible for me to think of an exhibition like this, in the current political moment, without massive participation by black artists. On the other hand, non-black artists were not excluded. But if it were an exhibition with 100% black authorship, even if this idea was not on our horizon, it would have its own aesthetic, artistic and political importance. You can’t talk about an exhibition like this without taking authorship into consideration. We can think about the black presence in Brazilian art in various ways. If we look at the issue of the representation of black bodies, for example, in this aspect, this is abundantly present. As well as in the works that represent topics of the black world – cooking, religiousness, etc. That same presence does not appear when we talk about black production, not only as representation, but as authorship. We have to discuss representativeness, beyond representation.

C&AL: The layout of the rooms at Instituto Tomie Ohtake seems to place greater emphasis on the comparison of events and views of different periods. How important is this parallelism?

HM: At Tomie, particularly for those images by European voyagers, with a colonial gaze that’s very present in our daily lives – they’re in school books, in café decor, in our movies and soap operas – it was important to display them with this interchange. On the one hand, we had to denaturalize the perverse relationship with these images; politicize them, they shouldn’t be decorating hotel rooms, or in history books as if they were documentary illustrations of a period in time. But also because a significant part of the work produced by contemporary Brazilian black artists has adopted this strategy of taking images from the past in order to broach issues of the present day – often using images of themselves, as in the case of Paulo Nazareth, or historical photographs of their own family, such as Rosana Paulino.


Nathalia Lavigne is a journalist, curator and researcher with a Masters in Critical Theory and Cultural Studies from Birkbeck, University of London, and a doctoral candidate at the School of Architecture and Urbanism at the Universidade de São Paulo. She is a member of the Aesthetics of Memory in the 21st Century research group and is working on a project on digital collections and pictures of artwork on Instagram.

Translated from Portuguese by Zoë Perry​