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Photos: Tiago Nunes

Abdias Nascimento and the Black Art Museum


Abdias Nascimento was a poet, writer, playwright, visual artist, curator, professor, and Pan-African activist.  His multiple contributions were framed by his activism and the struggle against racism. Among his many accomplishments, Nascimento spearheaded two important initiatives: The Teatro Experimental do Negro (Black Experimental Theater) and the Museu de Arte Negra (Black Art Museum) (1950). The Theater was devoted to staging Black dramaturgy and using drama as a means to influence a whole new generation of Black citizens by creating racial awareness through resistance to European ethnocentrism and the valorization of the African cultural heritage. The Museu de Arte Negra had in turn the mission of promoting the African influence on Western modern art and representing the plurality of artistic output of the Black diaspora. A pioneering initiative at the time, the Museu gathered works by local and international artists. In 2021, the year marking the tenth anniversary of Abdias Nascimento’s passing in 2011, Inhotim invited Ipeafro - Institute for Afro-Brazilian Research and Studies, responsible for Nascimento’s Collection, for a joint initiative to occupy the Mata Gallery until March 2024. 


The collaboration between Inhotim and Ipeafro aims to address the manifold legacy of Abdias Nascimento and important issues approached by his work and thought. By showing another museum within itself, Inhotim puts in perspective ideas such as museums and collections, as well as the networks of coexistence in which these ideas are entangled. The exhibition cycle Abdias Nascimento and the Black Art Museum highlights the permanence of this legacy. The project breaks down into four acts, presenting the Museu de Arte Negra collection and Ipeafro’s archives. 


In his work, Nascimento articulated an unparalleled dialogue with the orisha tradition, using its epistemological coordinates to build a new vision of ‘being in the world’: "Candomble is based on a certain psychological idea of life and philosophy of the universe. It has its own cosmology, theology, and psychology. In order for chaos not to prevail after the disruption of the original unity, the cosmos was divided into compartments. In this cosmic hierarchy, orishas occupy the most eminent and illustrious position."[1]. Nascimento’s work as a painter also has a political side: "African culture is taken for its picturesqueness and folkloric value. This has occurred even to the most profound manifestation of the African soul—its religion. Candomblé practices have always been persecuted by the political establishment. The African deities have been regarded as witches and hobgoblins and their priests as sorcerers."[2] 


Therefore, the orishas are the axes based on which the four acts are divided as a concept, expography, and graphical design:


Act 1 – Abdias Nascimento, Tunga, and the Museu de Arte Negra

(Oxum, the orisha of love, also Nascimento’s orisha)


Act 1 sets the foundation to show the relationships of affection and contact networks that Abdias Nascimento created in his career, and how the Museu de Arte Negra collection was built from such networks. Tunga, one of the crucial artists for the creation of Inhotim, grew up close to Nascimento and his ideas. This Act presents an overview of Nascimento’s paintings alongside a selection of Tunga’s works from the Instituto Inhotim collection. The exhibition also has a space with a cutout of the Museu de Arte Negra depicting works from various periods since the museum’s foundation.


Act 2 – Dramas for the black, prologue for the white[3]  

(Oshosi, the orisha of knowledge)


Act 2 shows how, since the creation of the Black Experimental Theater, Nascimento develops a series of educational and racial awareness policies that unfold into other initiatives. These include the Quilombo Review, the 1st Brazilian Black Congress (1950), and the Museu de Arte Negra (Black Art Museum), which was created during the 1950 Congress but would only hold its opening exhibit in 1968. The exhibition presents a plethora of documents from the time and paintings where fellow theater artists are remembered[4], in addition to works from the Museu de Arte Negra that were part of the opening exhibition.


Act 3 – Sortilege[5]

(Eshu, the orisha of communication and protector of ways) 

Act 3 concentrates on Nascimento’s exile in the US (1968-1981). He started painting in 1968 while still in Brazil, however most of his production was make during this exile. The exhibition focuses on Nascimento’s studies about African religions in the black diaspora, a core motto in his production as a painter. Also in the exhibit are works collected by Nascimento in New York and Buffalo for the Museu de Arte Negra, where he became a Professor of Black Cultures in the Center of Puerto Rican Studies of the Department of American Studies of the State University of New York.


Act 4 – The Quilombo movement: Documents of a Pan-African activism[6]

(Shango, the orisha of justice)


Act 4, the last act, presents cutouts from previous acts. Nevertheless, it is focused on the Nascimento’s return to Brazil, his trips to Africa, and the consolidation of his career as a politician and a Pan-African thinker. The exhibition shows documents on the FESTAC – World Black Art and Culture Negra Festivals (FESTAC), works by Abdias Nascimento, works of the MAN collected by Nascimento throughout his life, and a space with works by artists Nascimento got to know in his trips to Africa.


[1] NASCIMENTO, Abdias. Introduction.  SYMBOLS BEYOND BLACKNESS (Exhibition catalog), ILE-IFE MUSEUM OF AFRO-AMERICAN CULTURE, Philadelphia, 1975

[2] Idem

[3] The exhibit is named after the anthology of plays edited by Abdias Nascimento and published by TEN in 1961, Dramas para negros e prólogo para brancos (Dramas for the black and a prologue for the white). The book shows Nascimento’ precursory thinking regarding a theater grounded on African roots.

[4] Nascimento builds a complex theogony showing the orishas not as entities “frozen in time and space”, but as “forces of the present”. Therefore, many of his paintings are named after people close to the artist, a tribute to the "heroes and martyrs” whose sacrifice was based on the permanent struggle for resistance and freedom. 

[5] Sortilégio (Sortilege),  written in 1951, was censored twice before its first performance in 1957, for presenting a plot that challenged the hegemonic vision of Brazilian ‘racial democracy.’ Starred by Nascimento, Sortilégio presents elements from the candomble as its protagonist, Emanuel, faces dilemmas evidencing the violence of the cultural assimilation process experienced by black populations in Brazil.

[6] O Quilombismo: Documentos de uma Militância Pan-Africanista (The Quilombo movement: Documents of a Pan-African activism) is an anthology of texts by Abdias Nascimento. It is “an action program prepared from an Afro-descendant perspective that revives the communal experience in the quilombos to base a proposal for mobilization and socio-political transformation against the diffuse prejudice atmosphere suffocating their existence”(Luiz Henrique Soares).

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