Two decades have lapsed between the current retrospective of Seydou Keïta (1921-2001), at the Moreira Salles Institute (IMS-SP), and two of his important participations in exhibits in Brazil, in 1998. In that year, the Malian photographer – known at the beginning of the 1990s for a valuable production of studio portraits of the period preceding independence in 1960, – was one of the participating artists at the São Paulo Biennial, an historic edition dedicated to anthropophagy, and at the África por ela mesma (Africa Presenting Itself) exhibit, at the Pinacoteca do Estado. Four years prior to that, Keïta had held a major exhibition at the Cartier Foundation, in Paris – a decisive contribution to his late consecration, a process that also echoed throughout the Brazilian institutional circuit.
In spite of the importance of the events and its global recognition at that time, Keïta’s oeuvre did not spark any particular interest in Brazil. Press coverage of the Anthropophagy Biennial, only briefly mentions his name among the artists included in the section Roteiros da África, part of the segment created by curator Paulo Herkenhoff to address a decentralized international production, with seven thematic axes. Although post-colonialism was one of the theoretical aspects of that edition, the discussions about art of African origin and the dialogue with Afro-Brazilian production would only reverberate here many years later.
A report about the collective at the Pinacoteca, published in the Folha de São Paulo magazine at that time, provides intriguing evidence of how the treatment of the subject was still so stigmatized. Titled “Do you know Africa?” and bearing Keïta’s photo, the article appears in a section called “Plural,” next to an “LGBTQ” column. Placing such distinct subjects side by side to assert diversity would already be questionable. More astounding, however, are the erotic advertisements around the page, framing the text about the exhibit – an edition that could have, at the very least, taken into account the history of eroticization and fetishism of African culture and the risk of associating the two themes.
Exactly 20 years later, careless approaches like that may seem unthinkable, especially when debates about racial issues and the origin of African culture in Brazilian art have penetrated institutional discourses. Although Seydou Keïta’s oeuvre does not fit into the discussion associated with a Brazilian context, it is interesting to observe that his retrospective occurs together with MASP’s calendar and extensive annual programming dedicated to Afro-Atlantic exchanges. And at the same time, the CCBB presents the itinerant exhibition Ex Africa, with the production of 18 contemporary artists from the continent and two Afro-Brazilians.