In Conversation with Deri Andrade

“The Afro Project Emerges in a Context of Historical Violence”

The Brazilian scholar, founder of the Afro Project, talks about how the platform came about, the challenges involved in launching a site in a pandemic year and the importance of research on Afro-Brazilian art in the country.

C&AL: The site was launched in the middle of a pandemic. How was the launch done and what is the importance of the Birico Action, in partnership with the artist Rafael Escobar, who is blowing up the internet?

DA: At the beginning of 2020, I set a June deadline for the launch date. At that time, despite the first bits of news about the novel coronavirus in the media, we had no idea of the magnitude of this disease and its reach. I planned the launch for June 21st in homage to the birth of abolitionist lawyer, journalist and writer Luís Gama (1830-1882), who played a fundamental role in the struggle to end slavery. Associated with an agenda that I usually call a “new” uprising in the struggle against racism, which took on larger proportions across the whole world with the death of the American, George Floyd, resulting in protests also in Brazil, in major mobilizations on digital channels and greater attention in the media to the subject, the Afro Project emerges in a context of historical violence that is also recurrent in the arts, a space of symbolic dispute, as the curator Hélio Menezes explains.

The launch happened online and the page of the site had 5,588 views over the first 24 hours that the content was up. Like other subjects we have addressed on the Afro Project site, Birico was a collective action proposed by various artists, some of whom were present while we were mapping the Project. The action was articulated by the artist Raphael Escobar and others, who joined forces to help social projects in Cracolândia (Crack Town), a highly vulnerable region socially in downtown São Paulo.

C&AL: In addition to entries about artists from the past and the present from all over Brazil, what else can we find on the Afro Project site?

DA: In addition to the 148 artists published up to now, anyone who visits the site can navigate through different aspects of this production. The artists are presented alphabetically, by technique, or by year or place of birth. There are also editorials, opinion and reflective pieces, interviews and articles that focus on various questions of my own interests or those of other scholars who’ve collaborated with the Project.

Clicking on publications provides access to some academic research. On the calendar, people can see and participate in events selected by the Project, like courses, exhibitions or debates, as well as access calls for competitions. Every week, the Artist of the Week section highlights a name on the site’s homepage. The Afro Project maintains actions that go beyond the virtual environment, such as its partnership with MAM São Paulo when they held the debate The Afro-Brazilian Hand: 30 years later, in 2019, which included Hélio Menezes, Márcio Farias and Juliana dos Santos’s participation. The Project also supported the round of meetings Black Resistance in Movement: discussions about art and society, at Sesc Santana in São Paulo, in which Leonardo Fabri, Wallesandra Souza Rodrigues and I participated.

C&AL: Do you see any difference between the concept of Afro-Brazilian art and black arts?

DA: A dynamic concept still under constant discussion, Afro-Brazilian art entered the academy as a topic of masters and doctoral theses and is already an official field of research across the whole country. I tend to agree with scholars, Dilma de Melo Silva and Maria Cecília Felix Calaça, for whom these terms are synonymous. The first discussions about the topic arose with the coroner and racist anthropologist, Nina Rodrigues, at the beginning of the 20th century, followed by other thinkers like Arthur Ramos and Clarival do Prado Valladares. Despite the polemics around the author, in 1904 Rodrigues submitted an article titled, As bellas-artes nos colonos pretos no Brazil (The Fine Arts in the Black Settlements of Brazil). Above all with this text, the author became known as one of the pioneers to record the term Afro-Brazilian art, relating it to the dimension of the sacred.

C&AL: How would you explain the emergence of so many young black contemporary artists?

DA: Black artists have always existed in Brazil, what is lacking are more studies that allow for new discoveries. In the field of research, various names are references and their writings serve as a theoretical basis for the Afro Project. I’ll cite a few here: Alexandre Araújo Bispo, Luciara Ribeiro, Hélio Menezes, Roberto Conduru, Igor Simões, Janaína Barros, Diane Lima, Renato Araújo, Alecsandra Matias de Oliveira etc.

With 148 artists in the Afro Project up to now, it is difficult not to notice all the potential of this production of black authorship in the country, which was propelled over the past years through shows, events and courses offered by cultural institutions. These, on the one hand, carry out the most diverse research on themes, utilize varied support and multiply narrative possibilities. It’s an intense, vibrant artist-driven production, among whom some names are represented by commercial galleries. On the other hand, emerging artists are achieving success, building a new independent scene, organizing collectively, researching and producing. They are new agents that are constructing another history of Brazilian art, showing their creative force, which is original and distinctive.

Alexandre Araujo Bispo is an anthropologist, critic, independent curator and educator.

Translation: Sara Hanaburgh