Amid the tropical hues, pulsing compositions, and high spirits in “Samba Spirit: Modern Afro Brazilian Art,” a small gem of an exhibition now up at the Museum of Fine Arts, course veins of melancholy, darkness, and oppression.
“Samba Spirit” spotlights 20th-century art, mostly by self-taught Brazilian artists of African descent. Slavery in Brazil ended in 1888, nearly a quarter century after it was abolished in the United States. Afro-Brazilian artists of the modern era, like their African-American colleagues, didn’t tend to follow the siren call of abstraction. They stuck to storytelling. Too many stories needed to be told.
The show, organized by Karen Quinn, curator of paintings in the museum’s Art of the Americas Department, comprises 15 paintings, a drawing, and two sculptures, all from a gift of objects by artists of African descent collector John Axelrod made to the MFA in 2011. It represents a dynamic pocket of the art world that has never before graced this museum’s walls with focused attention.
The paintings thrum and pop. Former seamstress and maid Maria Auxiliadora da Silva painted three of them. Illiterate most of her life, she is said to have avidly made drawings from a young age, but only took up painting a few years before she died of cancer in her 30s.
Auxiliadora da Silva painted sparkling, muscular tableaus. “Chuva Sobre São Paulo (Rain Over São Paulo)” depicts a lively street scene, and “Plantação (Plantation)” shows farm laborers stooped among slanted furrows and picking fruit in an orchard. Her seamstress’s eye is evident in her brushwork, which resembles stitchery. The paintings have the flat, expansive quality of narrative embroidered tapestries.
With no formal training, Auxiliadora da Silva devised her own techniques. She added paste to her paint, and sometimes hair, to thicken it and build out certain features: Window awnings jut off the buildings in the street scene, and in “Plantação” sun hats, trees, and even the rounded buttocks of some of the farm workers make the piece nearly sculptural.
The characters in Auxiliadora da Silva’s stories buzz in their sunny-toned, patterned clothing, each involved in his or her own little drama. In “Chuva Sobre São Paulo,” a man hails a cab, which whizzes by him, and a woman passes an umbrella through the window to a friend as the skies open up over the city.
Heitor dos Prazeres’s two dance paintings likewise burble with vitality. They depict samba, which has its roots in 19th-century Brazilian slave culture, and frevo, linked to capoeira, the martial art. Both are performed at Carnival.
Dos Prazeres depicts lantern-jawed revelers kicking up their heels. In “Frevo da Casa Verde,” the women’s skirts billow out in brilliant primary colors; men wear crisp stripes. Patterns on the pavement and on the building behind them pick up the rhythm. Two fellows pump umbrellas in the air. The festive umbrellas are typical frevo props, which replaced knives after too many fights broke out among competing capoeiristas.
Most of the paintings depict a spectrum of skin tones. But there’s an exception: José Antonio da Silva’s “Campo de Arroz (Rice Field).” Of all the unschooled artists here, da Silva’s work is the simplest. This one may burn itself into your brain: a row of black-skinned laborers toils at the bottom of a roughly drawn field. White tears stand on their cheeks. One man at the end has lighter skin: He carries a whip. Above them looms a dead tree. Vultures lurk in the branches.
Waldemiro de Deus’s riveting “Boizebú” might be even darker. The Portuguese title can translate as “devil.” In it, a demon dominates the canvas: A winged, hairy figure (male or female? It’s hard to say), with legs splayed, squats over a much smaller figure, as if having just given birth. But that smaller figure is no baby: He is proportioned like a man, and has hooves and fetlocks.
The in-your-face frontality of the demon echoes medieval and Byzantine Christian iconography. Quinn speculates, in wall text, that the narrative has something to do with a transition from one existence to another, such as reincarnation in the Afro-Brazilian religion Umbanda. Whatever it depicts, it’s brash and haunting — a painting I might return to again and again, but would never want to hang in my home.
“Samba Spirit” captures the melting pot of Afro-Brazilian cultures, blending elements of Christianity with religions that have roots in Africa. Sculptor Agnaldo Manoel Dos Santos might cite Exú, the messenger god of Candomblé, another Afro-Brazilian faith, in his bold wood sculpture, “Homem com Cachimbo e
Chapéu (Man With a Pipe and Hat).”
Exú, legend has it, smokes a pipe. The pronounced pipe here is almost defiant in its size. In its elongated, masklike face, the piece recalls elements of African wood-carving. We don’t know if this depicts Exú, or just a man in a cap enjoying a smoke. Either way, the figure has a relaxed majesty and confident authority — common man as king.
“Samba Spirit” exhilarates, and not just with its ebullient palette. The keen-eyed work, with all its celebrations and sorrows, feels as if it comes straight from the artists’ own lives.