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Africa, back in focus

A 3-year-old museum is part of a movement to put the 'Afro' back in 'Afro-Brasil.'

December 03, 2007|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

SAO PAULO — 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.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, December 06, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Afro-Brasil Museum: An article in Monday's Calendar section about the Afro-Brasil Museum in Sao Paulo, Brazil, said that Brazil was the world's last country to officially abolish slavery. It should have said it was the last country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery.

"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."

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