Up until October 21, on view at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP) was Afro-Atlantic Histories, a selection of 450 works by over 200 artists, spanning the 16th century to the present day. The exhibit centers on the experience of the African Diaspora from the African continent, to the Caribbean, the Americas, Europe and back, through the lens of both their individual experiences and the gaze of outsiders. The collection pieces together the story of, what Paul Gilroy terms, the “Black Atlantic,” a geography of diaspora, where the lack of precise geographical boundaries reveals parallelism of lived experiences, shared trauma, the inheritance of a lifeblood steering our cultural compass on a global scale.
Our historical canon shows that all women were deprived of individual agency and political power. Black women, specifically, were subjugated to an additional social hierarchy, one enforced by white and white-passing women, informed by the dynamics of power and sexuality (and power wielded through sexuality), and constructed by the colonial male. Brazilian anthropologist Gilberto Freyre noted a popular saying in his time that dictated the hierarchy that divided women in society: Branca para casar, mulata para fornicar, negra para trabalhar, or, “White women for marrying, a mulata for sex, a black woman for work.” Although attributed to the nation Freyre called home, the sentiment by no means unique to Brazil, can be found canonized in much of the “classic” literature of the Atlantic region. The characterization of women many times revolved around their roles as wife, mistress, or mammy and the relative proximity of each to a man. This was both advanced and subverted by the artists in the exhibition.
What immediately draws one to Araujo’s painting (above) is how pretty it is: the warm Earth tones of green, brown, orange and red, the elegant simplicity of a composition made of a girl, flowers, the gentle tilt of a head. While the Mulata from Cartagena occupies the center of the frame, her chest is just about at the midpoint of the canvas and the low-cut top, exposed nipples- while not inherently sexual- become the work’s focal point, described by MASP curators as “abundant and opulent”, but is as adequately described as gratuitous. In the image, she looks to the side, her interest piqued in someone other than the painter, the bouquet of flowers she might have been holding as part of the portrait are now placed hastily, perhaps distractedly, on her lower stomach all reinforcing an underlying narrative of fertility and promiscuity.
Though Araujo is Colombian, the Mulata from Cartagena painting from the country’s Afro-Colombian capital, Cartagena, the image was reminiscent of namesake character Gabriela in Jorge Amado’s Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon.
Gabriela is extolled for her abilities to cook, clean, and perform well in bed. Her servitude to her lover/employer and later husband “Mr. Nacib” (who she calls by this title even after being married) is a domestic fantasy that echoes in Araujo’s painting with his subject holding a water pot to be heated. She is frequently described having flowers in her hair or hand when visiting Nacib at his bar, the object of affection of all the men in the bar, the literal recipient of the male gaze.
Gilberto Hernandez Ortega was a Dominican poet and writer who first studied under Celeste Woss y Gil (1890–1985) at her private academy. He eventually graduated from the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes, again studying with Woss y Gil, a painter known for her nude portraits of the female form. Ortega is classified primarily as a Surrealist, but he also included elements of expressionism in his work. The convergence of his surrealist style with the influence of Woss y Gil’s gaze on the feminine form likely contributed to his stunning depiction of a black woman in Merchanta, 1976.
The most initially striking element is the dark skin of the stunning merchanta, so dark that she duly occupies both the foreground and the nighttime scene occurring in the background. Her long neck is reminiscent of the Modigliani portraiture included in the permanent collection on the floor above, but the addition, and then, manipulation, of a prominent clavicle region (the collarbone and cleavage, in this case), while emphasized, does not eroticize her or her body. Ortega infuses regality into the gaze of the working-class, dark-skinned woman, subverting the Negra Para Trabalhar of Freyre’s reality. If the wicker basket with vegetables and florals on her head are her wares, she suffers no loss of dignity from peddling or carrying them.
This painting immediately recalled Rihanna’s recent September 2018 British Vogue cover. It’s well-documented that Robyn “Rihanna” Fenty does (and can be) whatever the fuck she wants, but recently she’s creative-directed a litany of unorthodox cover concepts for herself (DAZED, Allure), putting her natural beauty on display, largely unmanipulated by contoured-makeup or hair extensions, a departure from Robyn “Rihanna” “The Essence of Fuck” Fenty, as decreed by Esquire magazine in 2013 when voted Sexiest Woman of the Year.
The Vogue cover is a depiction of her and her body as art, just as is the merchanta, in both cases, a floral arrangement-turned-crown is used to emphasize the beauty and elegance of the subject beyond her capacity for sexuality.
Maria Auxiliadora was a self-taught artist who started painting with a group of artists in São Paulo. Her paintings are vibrant depictions of everyday life, often ones with inverted traditional colonial iconography (servitude, “mammyism”, etc.) that instead make black people, women and children, those often underrepresented in art, her main focus. Her vibrant use of color and embroidery depict Candomble rituals, children at playgrounds and couples dancing at a balada. On view at MASP is her work Lunchtime, undated.
In Lunchtime, no one woman is emphasized but all of them are part of the scene in a natural way. Contributing to its realism is that all the women look different: one snatched at the waist in Fran Drescher-esque pin-up, another in simple dress pants. The expression of the dimensionality of their womanhood is juxtaposed by the traditional domestic setting that of the kitchen. At the side, the children emulate the dynamics of the older women, the passing down of the communal tradition.
What is refreshing about all these, is the centrality of the women in the art, and specifically in Auxiliadora’s piece, their existence apart from men. In Ortega’s piece, the black woman as the object of desire was, admittedly, refreshing. Amado’s strength as a damn good storyteller aside, Gabriela, Clove & Cinnamon was a difficult read; for most of the novel, all women are auxiliary characters, who are centered in their punishment for exercising agency against the wishes of men. The character Gabriela is not even the subject of the central narrative of the novel titled with her namesake.
In much of chosen school literature, black female characters are either not represented at all (see: any Jane Austen, Bronte sisters, Edith Wharton, etc…) or, if they are, represented not for beauty, but for strength and loyalty, often to an ain’t-shit man (see: Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun, August Wilson’s Fences, et. al.). The difficulty of capturing female characters and female characters interacting with male characters is mapped by the tension of depicting the various forms of womanhood, without falling into the trap of sexual objectification. A history of perverting the definition of womanhood erased the complexities which allowed women to be subjects and agents, to be sexual beings without sexual objectification, intelligent without intimidation, beautiful without vanity. The best artistic works, visual or literary, strike the balance of all three.