Lilia Schwarcz on Afro-Atlantic Histories

Thursday, Mar 28, 2019

The anthropologist and historian Lilia M. Schwarcz gave a talk on February 26, 2019, about art and the history of slavery, emancipation, and circulations among Africa, the Americas, the Caribbean, and Europe. A leading Brazilian public intellectual, Schwarcz teaches at at the University of São Paulo and at Princeton, and is a curator at the São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP). 

In 2018, coinciding with the 130th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Brazil, Schwarcz, along with the director of Masp Adriano Pedrosa and a team of curators, organized the exhibition “Afro-Atlantic Histories.” With 450 works by 214 artists ranging from the 16th century to the present, the exhibition was listed among the world's ten best in 2018 by the New York Times, which called it “a hemispheric treasure chest.” 

Speaking to a standing room only, Schwarcz stressed Brazil’s role in the Afro-Atlantic history: the country received (and profited from) about 47 percent of 12 million Africans taken to the Americas during the 300 years of the slave system. According to her, the exhibition also aimed at decolonizing MASP, which holds the largest and “very colonized” collection of European artworks in Latin America. Schwarcz focused on four of the eight sections that comprise the show: Maps and Margins; Emancipations; Portraits; and Resistance and Activisms.

By putting together different temporalities and geographies, the project reconsiders colonial and Eurocentric images and classifications disseminated all over the Afro-Atlantic diaspora. For instance, the slave ship appears idealized in paintings by German naturalist Johann Moritz Rugendas (1802-1858), while a document depicting the plan and sections of the vessel reveals the cramped conditions aboard. Many contemporary artists revisit the slave ship and its political and aesthetic potentialities, such as Brazilians Paulo Nazareth, Emanuel Araujo, and José Alves de Olinda, as well as Cuban Gilberto de la Nuez. A portrait gallery of 60-plus images of black men and women contests the primacy of white men in portraiture and evoke the fight for freedom in different contexts.

Anthropologist Carlos Fausto responded to the talk and the exhibition by making Amazonian and Afro-Atlantic images resonate. Taking Hank Willis Thomas’ 2009 “A Place to Call Home (Africa-America)” as an example of “topological inversion,” he contested the clichés of remoteness and isolation associated with Amazonia, showing maps and images made by indigenous artist Denilson Baniwa that suggest instead a world of communications, flows, traveling, and networks. Irene Small, Assistant professor in the Department of Art and Archeology at Princeton, pointed out the paradox involved in questions of representation in museums and asked what would be the next step of institutional work in terms of decolonization, topics that were further discussed in the lively Q&A. 

Schwarcz announced that MASP was working on two more shows: Feminist Histories (2019) and Indigenous Histories (2020), the latter entirely curated by indigenous peoples from different countries. Fausto, who teaches at the National Museum—the institution was destroyed by a fire last year—added that they were prepared for indigenous peoples to “take over the museum that doesn't exist as it did in the past.”

Lilia Schwarcz

João Biehl introduces Lilia Schwarcz.

João Biehl introduces Lilia Schwarcz.

Lilia Schwarcz and João Biehl.

Lilia Schwarcz.

The BrazilLab audience.

Irene Small, Assistant Professor of Art and Archeology

Anthropologist Carlos Fausto.

Anthropologist Carlos Fausto.

Lilia Schwarcz, João Biehl, Carlos Fausto and Irene Small.

Anthropologist Carlos Fausto.

Lilia Schwarcz, João Biehl and Carlos Fausto.

Historian Lilia Schwarcz.

The BrazilLab audience.

An audience member.

Audience members.

Irene Small, Assistant Professor of Art and Archeology.

Audience members.

An audience member.

An audience member.

Audience members.

Professor Emeritus Stanley Stein.

Irene Small, Assistant Professor of Art and Archeology.

Audience members.

History lecturer Benedito Machava responds.

An audience member.