Africa, back in focus

Times Staff Writer

Among the many chilling and beautiful objects at the Afro-Brasil Museum -- a rusty slave collar, a striking photo of actress Ruth de Souza, kaleidoscopic Bahian ceremonial clothes -- there are several artworks that harmonize the rich, tortuous heritage of black Brazilians.

One is Emanoel Araujo’s abstract black steel sculpture “Baobab,” named for the gnarly tree that grows in parts of Africa. According to legend, black captives sold into slavery would walk around the tree renouncing their names, their parents, their ancestors and their culture before boarding ships to their grim future lives on New World plantations.

An estimated 3 million to 5 million Africans were brought to Brazil between the beginning of Portuguese colonization in the 1500s and 1888, when the South American giant became the world’s last country to officially abolish slavery. That’s roughly six to eight times as many as came to the United States. About half of Brazil’s current population is classified as black, compared with around 12% of the United States’.


As director and founder of the ambitious 3-year-old museum, Araujo hopes that his institution will encourage Brazilians of all colors as well as foreigners to recognize how those slaves and their tens of millions of descendants have indelibly stamped their country’s culture.

“The museum has as its beginning principle to include the blacks in the history of Brazil, in a way that [they] will not be only the slave but also one of the colonizers that contributed to the art, to technology, to design and to all the periods of richness,” says Araujo, who assembled the museum’s holdings from his personal collection of 4,000 artworks and artifacts, which he amassed over several decades and formerly stored in three private houses.

An ambiguous past

Since Brazil’s inception, the place of blacks and black culture always has been “ambiguous and perverse,” says Araujo, a native of the very African-influenced city of Amaro da Purificacao, Bahia, where the legendary Tropicalia singer-songwriter Caetano Veloso also grew up. Araujo says that in his hometown, formerly a wealthy colonial center of sugar cane production, social standing was based more on affluence than skin color.

Unlike their Anglo-Saxon counterparts in North America, the Portuguese colonizers accepted miscegenation, the intermixing and intermarrying of different ethnic groups. While this hardly prevented ethnic discrimination, Araujo says, it created a more ambiguous notion of “race” in Brazil that persists to this day. Part of the difficulty demographers have in assessing the size of Brazil’s black population is coming up with a workable definition of what “black” means in such an ethnic stew of a country.

That richness is reflected in the museum’s collection, which varies from Catholic baroque religious paintings, sculptures and other art of the colonial era -- all of it made by and/or depicting black Brazilians -- including African statues of orixas (deities) and 20th century toys, tchotchkes and other pop-culture ephemera similar to the Aunt Jemima racial caricatures prevalent in the United States during the same era.

There are ceremonial masks from Cameroon, Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast; displays of clothing worn during African-based religious ceremonies in the Brazilian coastal state of Bahia; paintings by Emmanuel Zamor and other European-trained 19th century and early 20th century black and mulatto artists; and works by contemporary painters and sculptors such as Washington Silvera and Ronaldo Rego.

Several gallery-like spaces are filled with photographs and brief biographies of illustrious, sometimes controversial black or mixed-race Brazilians, including the soccer star Pele, the musician Milton Nascimento, the pioneering psychiatrist Juliano Moreira, and Carlos Marighella, a Marxist guerrilla and writer who was shot to death by the Sao Paulo police in November 1969.

Perhaps the museum’s single most compelling object is a replica of a slave-ship frame, which occupies a dramatically lighted room that projects a video and slide show about the slave trade.

The museum, which has received 600,000 visitors since it opened, also houses a theater and a 3,000-volume library.

Located in a historic three-story concrete building and funded in part by city government and the Petrobras oil company, the museum is one of several cultural attractions bunched in the metropolis’ sprawling Ibirapuera Park.

Many of these structures, including the large igloo-shaped Expositions Palace, were designed by architect Oscar Niemeyer, with landscaping by Roberto Burle Marx.

Araujo says he doesn’t know of any other museum in Latin America devoted to Afro-Latino culture and certainly none on such a large scale with a comparable variety of objects. “It’s not an ethnological or anthropological museum,” he emphasizes in Portuguese. “It’s a museum that researches to strengthen these descendants who were and are very important for Brazilian memory.”

It’s a gift to Sao Paulo

Gevanilda Santos, a retired professor of African history at the Universidade da Cidade in Sao Paulo, calls the museum “a gift” to the city that serves as a counterweight to “a culture of stereotype” in the Brazilian mass media, in which “Negro culture serves as a joke, shown as grotesque for being different.” Indeed, although many Brazilians across all social classes insist that their country is colorblind, the country’s attitudes, and prejudices, toward blacks have deep historic roots.

Araujo says that the Catholic church in Latin America was better than the Protestant church in North America at assimilating the animistic religions of African and indigenous peoples, such as Brazilian Candomble and Caribbean Santeria. This helped enable nonwhites to find a place in colonial and post-colonial society while preserving their connections to their own ethnic roots and identities.

Many black Brazilians during the colonial era also found support from fraternal organizations called irmandades and took refuge in quilombos, fugitive slave settlements, whose populations sometimes numbered in the tens of thousands.

But this modicum of social and religious tolerance often masked deeper tensions. Brazilian blacks and mulattos mounted numerous insurrections and separatist movements. Most were brutally quashed, including the so-called Palmares Republic, led by the mythic slave leader Zumbi, as well as the Canudos settlement in Bahia, the majority of whose 30,000 black and mixed-race inhabitants were slaughtered by federal troops in 1897.

Even blacks who had served in the Brazilian army, including many who fought in the disastrous 1864-70 War of the Triple Alliance, were subsequently denied equality in white-dominated society. Many of these desperate black veterans were driven into shantytowns, which have since metastasized into the favela mega-slums surrounding Sao Paulo, Rio de Janiero and other cities.

Although Araujo thinks that daily black-white relations in today’s Brazil are less “angry” than those in the United States, he stresses that that “doesn’t mean the social issues of prejudice are solved. Brazil still has a big problem with poverty.”

Learning about their roots

Federal law now requires schools to teach about the country’s African and slave heritage, but Brazil lacks sufficient trained instructors and textbooks, says Marcos Benedito, coordinator of the National Commission Against Racial Discrimination at the Central Unica dos Trabalhadores in Sao Paulo. A recent study showed that unemployment is higher among blacks than among whites (18% versus 13.2%) and that only a small proportion of Brazilians of predominantly African descent hold upper-management jobs.

Blacks also are proportionately underrepresented in public office, and Brazil is only now beginning to consider implementing affirmative action goals similar to those applied in the United States decades ago. “Brazilian society took too long to wake up to the contribution Negroes have given to the formation of this country,” Benedito says.

The Afro-Brasil Museum may be helping to advance that awakening. “I think it is necessary and good,” says Glecy Pimentel Loyola, a retired teacher visiting the museum recently with a group of friends from the northeastern state of Espirito Santo.

Yet Loyola adds that she’s still not sure whether it’s preferable to use “Negro” or “Preto” when referring to Afro-Brazilians. “Preto,” a word commonly used in Renaissance Portugal to refer to the quality of “blackness” in inanimate objects, is today considered by some to be demeaning when applied to people.

Araujo says that the museum still is struggling to raise its profile in a vast city of more than 10 million. Some radical black groups wish the museum would pursue a more political agenda, he says, while the influential and fast-growing Universal Church of the Kingdom of God discourages its black parishioners from taking an interest in traditional African religions, which the church associates with satanic worship.

Like Brazil’s African-descended population as a whole, the museum is searching for new ways to realize its potential. “That’s the issue,” Araujo says. “Everything’s possible and nothing’s possible.”


Special correspondent Marcelo Soares in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.