SÃO PAULO, Brazil — It’s worth going a distance for greatness. And great is what the exhibition “Histórias Afro-Atlânticas” (“Afro-Atlantic Histories”) is. With 450 works by more than 200 artists spread over two museums, it’s a hemispheric treasure chest, a redrafting of known narratives, and piece for piece one of the most enthralling shows I’ve seen in years, with one visual detonation after another.
Its timing, for better or worse, is apt. In national elections scheduled for late this month, a right-wing populist candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, has a strong chance of becoming Brazil’s next president. He’s been vocal in his hostility to the nation’s Afro-Brazilian community, calling current immigrants from Haiti, Africa and the Middle East “the scum of humanity.” The exhibition, which focuses on the dynamic African-influenced New World cultures that emerged from three centuries of European slavery, takes precisely the opposite view.
The story of the westward African diaspora has been told many times, but never, in my experience, with this breadth or geographic balance. The European trade in black bodies hit South America early in the 16th century, and lingered late. By the time slavery was officially abolished in Brazil in 1888 — the show coincides with the 130th anniversary of that event — the country had absorbed well over 40 percent of some 11 million displaced Africans. Today it is home to the world’s largest black population outside of Nigeria.
Installed at the São Paulo Museum of Art, known to everyone as MASP, and the smaller Tomie Ohtake Institute, the exhibition is divided into eight thematic sections. Afro-Brazilian material dominates — which is fine; we hardly ever see what’s here in New York and much of it will be new to many museumgoers in Brazil. And it’s generously interspersed with work, old and new, from other parts of South America, the Caribbean, North America, Europe and Africa itself.
In the opening section, we find ourselves literally at sea in a clip from Brazilian filmmaker Glauber Rocha’s 1967 “Entranced Earth,” showing, in aerial view, a swelling, glittering, apparently horizonless Atlantic Ocean. This is the “Black Atlantic,” as defined by the historian Paul Gilroy, an alchemical terrain in which Africa, America, and Europe met, merged and generated new hybrid identities.
Images of boats recur. A contemporary São Paulo artist, Rosana Paulino, incorporates 18th century diagrams of slave ship interiors into a quilt-like fabric hanging. In a wood wall piece, a veteran local artist, Emanoel Araújo, gives a ship a half-abstract shape suggesting both a chained man and an African god. (Mr. Araújo is the founding director of São Paulo’s extraordinary and eccentric Afro Brasil Museum.)
And in a haunting piece by José Alves de Olinda, at the Tomie Ohtake Institute, the gods have taken charge. Figures of two dozen Yoruban divinities, grave, armed and alert, line the deck of a miniature slave ship. They are now its guiding crew.
Are they heading back to Africa or on a rescue mission to the Americas? The show encourages creative readings. Its organizers — Adriano Pedrosa, the director of MASP, leading a team that includes Lilia Scharcz, Ayrson Heráclito, Hélio Menezes and Tomás Toledo — note that the Portuguese word “historias” has a more complicated meaning than “history” in English. “Historias” can be fact or fiction, reality or fantasy, and in art such binaries are often confused, sometimes purposefully.
The first European known to have painted the South American landscape was the 17th century Dutchman, Frans Post. . His “Landscape with Anteater” in the show is a mild-mannered thing; block out the coconut palms and you’re in Claude Lorrain’s Italy. And a Peaceable Kingdom effect is enhanced by the inclusion of what look to be a group of mixed-race neighbors — white, black and Amerindian — having a chat. No hint that, at the time Post confected this idyll, African slaves were working 20-hour days on plantations and indigenous peoples were being exterminated.