Nearly every one of its 60-plus images, all of black subjects, is mesmerizing. Some sitters appear trapped in European conventions. Don Miguel de Castro, a black envoy from the African kingdom of Kongo to the Dutch court, looks forbearingly out at us from under his absurd Rembrandtesque hat. Four oil studies of black men by Theodore Gericault are, by any formal standards, gorgeous. But they’re also disturbing. All but one of the sitters have been cast as emoting bit players in a French Romantic drama.
A large 19th century painting titled “Woman From Bahia” stands in contrast to all this. We don’t know who the subject is, or who painted her, or when (the guess is around 1850). But, wearing white gloves, a midnight-blue gown, and ropes of gold beads, she’s a self-contained presence. She has a life and thoughts all her own. She may be an ex-slave; she’s also a queen.
In the context of this racially fraught moment in Brazil, she reads as political statement. Many images in the show do. And some were intended to. One picture is of João de Deus Nascimento who, in 1798, led a predominantly black rebellion demanding the end of slavery and Portuguese rule. The other is of a woman known only as Zeferina who, brought to Brazil from Angola, established a runaway slave community in Bahia and plotted an armed rising against the white population.
For Afro-Brazilians both are martyr-heroes, though official history books barely mention them. They represent a long tradition of resistance to the racism that is hardwired into the social and political structure of that country, as it is to the rest of the Afro-Atlantic world. And the exhibition is fundamentally about resistance, and black sovereignty. It’s about change, not chains.
Told from different but overlapping perspectives, we see that dynamic in images of everyday Afro-Atlantic life, urban and rural, by artists like Castera Bazile in Haiti, Gerard Sekoto in South Africa, and Benny Andrews in the United States.
And, at the Tomie Ohtake Institute, in work by a short-lived São Paulo artist Sidney Amaral (1973-2017), who promoted Black Power outright.
Not all of the eight sections have equal force. One called “Afro-Atlantic Modernisms” is small and tame, but even that delivers surprises by including African-born painters — Alexander “Skunder” Boghossian, Ibrahim El-Salahi, Ernest Mancoba — rarely encountered in Western-style museums, which MASP basically is.
Or was. Since Mr. Pedrosa came on as artistic director in 2014, he has transformed an institution that advertises itself as having the most significant collection of old master European art in the Southern Hemisphere into a cultural laboratory. He sounded the call by restoring the original 1968 permanent collection design by the radical architect Lina Bo Bardi, which had objects from Classical Greek to the present displayed, as if floating, on transparent easels down the length of a single open gallery.
He has since initiated an ambitious series of issue-driven surveys: “Histories of Sexuality” in 2017; “Afro-Atlantic Histories” now; “Feminist Histories” to come in 2019; “Indigenous Histories” in 2020. With them, he is setting a benchmark for other globally-minded art institutions in North America and Europe, many of which are working with far greater financial resources than he is.
And his resources could be severely cut depending in how the Oct. 28 election goes. The very premise of “Afro-Atlantic Histories” — that all culture is at some level immigrant culture — is anathema to Mr. Bolsonaro and his supporters. And at least one work in the show, by the New York City-based African-American artist Hank Willis Thomas, could confirm their deepest fears. Titled “A Place to Call Home,” it’s a wall-size black silhouette map of the Western Hemisphere, with the South American continent replaced by Africa.
Credit: The New York Times