I am writing this post from inner Bahia’s historic town of Cachoeira, where earlier today, King Daagbo Hounon Houamenou and Queen Acakpo Kpessi Ko’ndodo of Benin attended a series of lectures on the genocide of the African diaspora. This town and others in the Bahian Reconcavo used to be the main points of arrival of the slaves traded by Europeans for centuries. These days, thousands of kilometres from here, at MoMA, a high profile exhibition titled ‘Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art In Brazil’ is another chapter of that institution’s attempt to establish itself as the foremost authority of Western modernism. This colourful show includes images of a mainly black, hybrid tropical subcontinent which main spokepersons have been the members of the so called ‘Anthropofagist’ movement after de Amaral’s husband published in 1928 its Manifesto Antropófago. Its argument was that Brazil’s history of ‘cannibalising’ other cultures is its greatest strenth, while playing on the modernists’ primitivist interetest in cannibalism as an alleged tribal rite that fascinated Parisian intelectuals at the time.
The narrative told by co-curator Venezuela-born, Luis Perez-Obamas, whom I am trying to interview on video for this blog sticks to the traditional modernist belief that cannibalism is a way for Brazil to assert itself against European postcolonial cultural domination. It seems to have done this deploying a European visual language (Orphic Cubism) and also a European obsession (Cannibalism). According to Perez Obamas, the reasons for refusing to historise the conditions of production of these paintings are that: ‘Racial tensions exist in Brazil but the way the culture deals with it, the way the society deals with it is totally different than the way the Americans deal with it. That’s why I am very careful not to racialize a reading of Tarsilia because that would be unfair. That would be a colonial take on Tarsilia do Amaral’. In the view of the Venezuela co-curator there are two options: either stick to the traditionally sanitised view of Latinamerican modernism as a continuation of its European precedent mixed with some ‘folk’ features or radicalise (politicise?) its reading byasking the obvious question of ‘how the majority of black population relates to this view?’
The problem with Perez Obama’s decision to exclude ‘race’ from the narrative of the country that took the longest to abolish slavery is not a minor one and cannot be brushed under the carpet as ‘political’. Neglecting the way Tarsilia do Amaral hides Afro-Brazilian culture under a veil of alleged hybridity might be the reason why Perez Obamas finds it counter-productive to historicise Brazilian avant-garde as ‘something too radical’. The question that emerges from this decision is whether this view of Brazilian art constitute another white attempt to translate tropical features into a visual language that emulates the European avant-garde embodied by the style of Ferdinand Leger’s Orphic Cubism. A further historisation on Tarsilia and her husband, poet Oswalde de Andrade, might have allowed Perez Orama to disclose that both of them came from coffee plantation owners whose wealth was structured on the belated decision to end slavery. The funds tha tallowed Tarsilia do Amaral to be educated in Paris (at the Academie Julian) with Andre Lhote, Albert Gleizes and Ferdinand Leger, came from coffee plantation wealth.
Is it too extreme to hypothesise that Tarsilia do Amaral might have give post slavery Brazil a series of images of hibridation that ultimately help them avoid the difficult task of facing the race issue? By deploying an exoticised and pseudo-Cubistic image of Brazil, the same groups that have profited from human traffic came about with a fresh look that almost a hundred years later the MoMA doesn’t even bother to question. Is this the kind of modernity that we are talking about? J A T