Undated Photo of Abdias do Nascimento and one of his paintings; Image courtesy of the Burchfield Penney Art Center Archives

Undated Photo of Abdias do Nascimento and one of his paintings; Image courtesy of the Burchfield Penney Art Center Archives

Abdias do Nascimento: Art, Politics and Social Justice

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Abdias do Nascimento
b. Franca, San Paulo, Brazil

For marginalized communities whose histories are rooted in overcoming racism and oppression, art can be an important visual tool for interpreting social conditions, culture, and the ongoing fight for liberation. The work of Brazilian artist Abdias do Nascimento formed crucial intersections between art, politics and social justice that continue to serve as commentary to much larger societal questions today.

Nascimento, who spent his life working as a painter, poet, politician, scholar and civil rights leader, advocated for the rights of Afro-Brazilians. He was incredibly vocal about racial discrimination in Brazil through both his art and activism. Brazil was a major importer of African slaves during the slave trade and did not abolish slavery until 1888. Even after its elimination, the lasting implications and implicit racial hierarchy that existed in the country prevailed for decades.

As the grandson of slaves, Nascimento observed this hierarchy from an early age, one of few to courageously address racism in Brazil publicly and unapologetically. He became involved in the civil rights movement as a teenager and utilized the arts as a tool of resistance. In 1944, he founded the Black Experimental Theater in Rio De Janeiro to celebrate African influences in Brazilian culture. It also trained black actors as a form of resistance against the use of white actors in blackface and sponsored various civil rights events. The next year, Nascimento helped found and organize the Afro-Brazilian Democratic Committee, which fought for the release of political prisoners.

He established the Museum of Black Arts in 1968 shortly before going into self-imposed exile following a military coup d’état, during which he lived in the United States and Nigeria. While living in the United States Nascimento began to paint. His works encompassed various Afro-Brazilian religious and cultural themes, using varied shapes and forms to express ideas of freedom, expression, transcendence. His work Adam and Eve: Oxunmaré, 1971, featured in In the Fullness of Time, references biblical characters Adam and Eve, but here they are reimagined as stylized, brown figures.

Nascimento’s work has been exhibited throughout the United States and in Brazil. He also worked as a professor, lecturing at universities throughout the United States including the University at Buffalo, where he founded the African Cultures in the Puerto Rican Studies program. He remained active in Pan-African affairs and helped found the Democratic Labor Party of Brazil while still in exile. Upon his return to Brazil in the 1980s, he was elected to serve as a congressman and senator under the party in the 1980s and 1990s. Nascimento remained politically active and outspoken until his death in 2011, at the age of 97. His vast contributions to the arts, politics and the civil rights movement in Brazil have cemented his legacy worldwide as a powerful, artistic voice of resistance.