The State of the World: The Museum of the South Atlantic

Marcelo Rezende

I — Introduction

In a three page, typewritten document elaborated in Bahia’s capital in 1965 (Salvador, situated in the northeast of the Brazilian territory), the Portuguese philosopher, educator and publisher Agostinho da Silva introduces the idea of establishing a new museological institution in a colonial fortress on the shores of the city: “Featuring elements for an exhibition that does not interrupt, but rather emphasises the architectural value of the fortress; elements of absolute didactic clarity, but without refusing their complexity or rigour of science, including objects that, although of minimal intrinsic value, excel due to their high quality and appearance as a whole; this new museological institution will comprise the Museum of the South Atlantic, installed in the fortress of São Marcelo, covering the entire area stretching from the heights of Venezuela to the Antarctica.”

On the last page of the document Agostinho da Silva outlines all the nations which should be represented in the spaces of the future Museum of the South Atlantic: “Guinea-Bissau, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, Central Africa Republic, Congo, South Africa, Benin, Ivory Coast, Togo, Cameroon, European Overseas Ultramarine Territories, Angola, Mozambique, São Tomé and Príncipe, Cape Verde, Venezuela, Guyana, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Falklands, Suriname, USA (Antarctica), Soviet Union (to be defined)”.

The Brazilian nation, in the eyes of Agostinho, would take a central position in this new geographic group, articulating all the possibilities of a museum dedicated to a specific region of the globe: “If we add to this brief sketch of what the museum will be, it’s within its scope to encourage higher studies in the region and to organise an editorial policy of works that contains information about areas of knowledge which otherwise would not obtain financial support. We believe that specialists in economics, education, science and philosophy will gather around the museum; even if we are mentioning that this will be the first museum in the world dedicated to a region, we cannot help but feel proud that such an initiative is located among us […] finally, the most relevant is to be aware that the museum is ours, and that such an offer comes from us to the brothers in Africa and America, and that we all have a duty to contribute, so that it can, ever better, ever more efficiently, fulfil its glorious mission”. The museum mission aims to deny any “interest in power”, because the museum is supported by the “flexibility of our norms of coexistence, our fraternal capacity to intertwine the diverse”.

The man who had conceived such museum, Agostinho da Silva, arrived in Brazil in the 1940s, fleeing from Portugal’s Salazar regime. He lived and worked in the states of Paraíba, Pernambuco and Bahia, and in the cities of São Paulo, Florianópolis and Brasília, where he contributed to the founding of the universities of UFPB (Federal University of Paraiba), UFSC (Federal University of Santa Catarina) and UnB (the National University of Brasilia). In Salvador, he was the mastermind behind the foundation of the Centre for Afro-Oriental Studies, the CEAO [abbreviation for Centro de Estudos Afro-Orientais, in Portuguese], in 1959. He arrived in Bahia the same year, as a participant of the Second Colloquium of Portuguese-Brazilian Studies. It was on this occasion that he made a proposal to the dean of the University of Bahia: to organise a research centre for political and cultural connections and links that exist in the South Atlantic region.

In fact, the Museum of the South Atlantic, as a project, belongs to a set of different political efforts made by Agostinho da Silva during his period in Brazilian exile (1944–1969). During these years, his plans and positions were led by a profound reflection on the “Portuguese Presence” (the past and the present of the colonial dynamic) and a critical speculation regarding the reorganisation of the power structures on a global scale. Within the historical context of the debate on non-aligned countries and its policies, Agostinho took the perspective of the Portuguese colonial presence and its consequences as a starting point to investigate what he foresees as another process of submission to come: a moment in which the capitalist and the socialist systems in the West would find in time an agreement, an entente, in which new forms of imperialism and exploitation will determine the global rules.

As Pedro Agostinho outlines “he said that the main political opposition during that period (1960–61) was along an east-west axis, which has generated two hemispheres — which was obvious —, but this would have more or less a short duration — which was no longer so obvious. Making no illusions about the opposing forces and the imperial tendencies of both sides, he affirmed that the Soviet Union, the United States and Western Europe would come closer and closer, with their respective areas of influence. This movement would most likely result in a deal, in which the richest, industrialised, and, in a certain sense, “white” countries, would be united or at least share an understanding to exploit the poor, predominantly agricultural workers, and of a variety of “colours”. At that moment, the situation would turn ninety degrees and the opposition would be North-South, with the corresponding hemispheres imposing on those below the New Equator (more than geographical, an economic and socio-political region) the need to be united in its own defence, in the name of the transformations that Agostinho wanted to see happening in the world.”

The political developments in Brazil during the 1960s, and the period of the Cold War and its effects, made it impossible for the Museum of the South Atlantic to progress. Politically speaking, this new museological institution was something quite difficult to digest. In the political and cultural context where it was elaborated, it sought for a radical and critical position concerning the spheres of power and the role of a museological institution.

Although many of the views proposed by Agostinho da Silva were considered progressive, many of the issues raised in the project for the Museum of the South Atlantic can and should also be problematized. In the entire museum “white paper”, there is no mention of the asymmetric power regulating the dynamics between the partners in the “region” to which the museum is dedicated; the social and cultural discourse elaborated by the author is under a strong influence of his Catholicism, and the intercultural dialogue proposed by Agostinho has the esprit de charité as quite a present expectation. His optimism seems to ignore, in an attempt to reconcile all differences, the historical processes of exploitation, violence and abuse suffered by the same groups that now have been offered the interweaving of diversity. What he is not asserting is precisely what cannot be reconciled.

The original program of the Museum of the South Atlantic has never been critically scrutinised, since the project was not, even for a moment, effectively materialising. Agostinho was in the process of trying to organise the MSA collection, using his contacts with Brazilian diplomats to mediate requests for works. During this period further countries were integrated into the original list; for instance, Japan sent a fishing boat to Bahia as a donation for the collection. However, all the collected pieces, just like the museum as an idea, vanished over time and in unidentified depots following the increased repression initiated after the Brazilian military coup in 1964.

However, all the rightfully critical positions concerning the original program of the museum cannot obliterate its powerful mission. It is precisely its historical context that makes the Museum of the South Atlantic an institution led by a potential still waiting to be fulfilled. The Museum of the South Atlantic was announcing in the past a contemporary conflict, informing that the post-colonial order could be configured by a rearrangement of the social, economic and cultural conditions led by racial, social and political hierarchies, besides all the discourses in the name of a supposedly good will.

In the progressive critical position taken by the Museum of the South Atlantic, the peripheral needs to turn into a centre. Thus, the Museum of the South Atlantic should be the space where such debate can take place, due to its main mission: being an institution oriented towards the future and the conflicts to come.


II — Imagining the Museum of the South Atlantic

Since the foundation of the Centre for Afro-Oriental Studies, the CEAO, Agostinho da Silva starts to understand the exhibition as a necessary tool to materialise his process of research. This forced him to analyse the positions of a museological institution concerning its missions and goals: the exhibition as a medium for transmission. During the year of 1959, and from Salvador da Bahia, Agostinho initiates an intense international dialogue via mail, asking for books, magazines or documents to support the work of the CEAO. In the archive of that institution, in a letter dated 12.09.1959, received from the Companhia de Diamantes de Angola [Diamond Company of Angola], the company manager comments on the idea of a permanent room in the CEAO exhibiting the Museum of Dundo: an ethnographic museum created in Angola in 1936 by the Companhia de Diamantes de Angola — dedicated to the diamond mining business, and founded in 1917 with Portuguese, Belgian, French and North American (Ryan-Guggenheim) investment. “The given objects came from our site in Lisbon, since the ones in the Museu do Dundo should never leave the institution. Even so, they are authentic and historical, and at least one vitrine could be organised”, the letter registers.

Another moment where the exhibition is on focus can be found in a letter from 06.09.1959 addressed to the Spanish Embassy in Brazil: “I would be delighted to have all the information about the aforementioned Spanish territories, and perhaps we could also obtain material for a small didactic exhibition on the subject […] photographs, statistical production tables, regional costumes, any kind of popular art, stamps, coins, cooking recipes, etc.”. On 12.09.1959, writing to the Brazilian Consul in Mozambique, Agostinho affirms that Mozambique will have a room: “We would dedicate a room to Mozambique. I believe it could be of major relevance to feature recipes for typical dishes from Mozambique that could be prepared with Brazilian ingredients”. The idea of a museum grows in Agostinho. In 1961, he works alongside the Brazilian government to create what he defined as a cultural centre in a transatlantic ship from the Brazilian Navy, navigating through the African coast: a school ship, in the form of a museum.

During this period, he enlists the Italian-Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi (1914–1992) in the project, who was also in Salvador da Bahia and in the process of establishing the local Museum of Modern Art. It was a very particular moment in the history of the progressive museology in Brazil, indeed. The idea of a museum questioning the present time — refusing exhausted institutional models —emerged in places such as São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Bahia. The Museum of the South Atlantic was part of this conversation, as correspondence of Agostinho da Silva shows.

The Museum of the South Atlantic was to represent the underrepresented, challenging cultural hierarchies in an endless process of transmitting the convolution of diversity. Imagining the Museum of the South Atlantic implies to believe in its original political ambition. How then could this institution take form, finding its position in dialogue with our historical moment?

The present curatorial project proposes to materialise the Museum of the South Atlantic (MSA) in the format of a series of exhibitions. In each one, a department of the museum will be on display, setting the guidelines for the discourse established at each exhibition venue. Even if the historical aspects of the MSA are present, these exhibitions are not narrated from a historical perspective. They are not exhibitions on the history of the museum per se. The MSA, as an unfinished process, should actually exist during the period of an exhibition.

The activities of the MAS inaugurate at the time of the bicentennial of Brazil’s independence (1822), and in a context of extreme turmoil on a global scale that put two orders of representation into crisis — the political and the aesthetic ones. Thus, the departments of the MSA are organised from a general understanding: the political struggle creates aesthetic forms, which are unfolding artistically. Those forms are persisting in time, always in process, searching for different ways of active representation.

In articulating those forms, the department of the State of the World places the Museum of the South Atlantic towards a reflection of its own absence, as its first movement. The museum in process has to inquire about the new context where it finds itself, observing how a discursive apparatus in the name of a postcolonial order was established. This apparatus is ranging from Agostinho’s idea of a New Equator to the South as a political and cultural concept — and questions how to problematize this same apparatus when it is confronted with:

a. Ambivalence: individuals in the context of modern art history and representatives of cultures developed outside the Western art history narrative

b. The ideological criteria along aesthetic criteria in the process of displaying an object

c. The necessary contextualisation of the ideological function of the object

d. The meaning of the unconscious in the collective practices

e. The persistence of the West as a unity

f. The construct of the South

g. Cultural marginality, hidden diversity, and fluidity of identity

h. The postcolonial as a project

i. The museum as a space of creative survival


III — The State of the World: organisation of space

The museum as a Western category seems limited to a series of contradictions concerning its capacity to articulate transcultural entanglements without static orders, categorisations and hierarchies defining an object as art and non-art, modern, primitive or contemporary, artistic or ethnographic, just to mention a few examples of the normative discourse of the museum. Having the exhibition as a noble transmission tool for its discourse, the museum’s contradictions often materialise when the exhibition is conceived: as an apparatus reaffirming the canonical, tending to place the audience as passive observer of established cultural identities.

The Museum of the South Atlantic since its conception places the exhibition as casually encyclopaedic, able to anthologise the discourses, formally and thematically, and to reach a rapid turnover of styles and forms. The department of the State of the World aims to realise this Museum of South Atlantic’s perspective, conceiving the exhibition as a mental space where the correlations between the pieces on display (artworks, archives or museological material) are happening by intermittent connections, even confrontational ones, and where the aesthetic forms arisen from the political brawl can be observed as haunted forms culminating in new positions in the present moment.

The Israeli artist Assaf Gruber and his “Movement 6” could be seen as an exemplary case. Gruber juxtaposes two moments in the European history: the political protests in West-Berlin during the 1970s and 1980s, shadowed by a ghostly unanimated figure, a precious red coral found in the collection of the Grünes Gewölbe in the city of Dresden, in Germany. Created as a “hall of treasures”, the Grünes Gewölbe was imagined by Frederick Augustus I in the 18th century as a public museum, displaying the economic dynamism of the monarchy through objects which could translate, by gold, emeralds and other precious stones, the magnificent ambiance for the trade among European centres of power. In this museum, the red corals are also representing the heads of the King and the Queen.

The politics of the object can be observed within the entire exhibition proposed by the department of the State of the World, for example, in the sculptures from Mário Teixeira’s collection (the hunter, the mother, the seated one). They are allegorical figures of power and transcendence. Similarly, the Karajá dolls from the Bananal Island in the north of Brazil — loaned from José Carlos Santana Pinto’s collection — produced by Karajá women. These ceramic dolls register the experience of the interethnic contact between the Karajás and the colonisers. They are a document of resilience.

The Bananal Island is located in the Amazon region, surrounded by the Araguaia River. From 1967 to 1974, this was a place where the Araguaia Guerrilla found a shelter. Organised by the Communist Party of Brazil (PCdoB) and rallying around 60 combatants (students, workers, activists), the Araguaia Guerrilla intended to be an armed opposition against the Brazilian dictatorship of the period, but the forces of the army by means of point-blank executions and systematic torture eliminated it. The Araguaia Guerrilla was imagined as a counterpoint to the failure of the urban guerrilla in the Brazilian cities and as a strategy against the regime. The repressive forces murdered the architect of the urban guerrilla, Carlos Marighella, in 1969, the same year he wrote and distributed his “Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla”. The manual was translated in Germany the following year (and adopted by the Red Army Faction, a West German far-left militant organisation) as a means for insurrection in German society. This is precisely the age of turmoil referred to in Assaf Gruber’s “Movement 6”.

This circular pace of the exhibition has its roots in the original project for the Museum of South Atlantic, which should be established in the fortress of São Marcelo (built in 1623), assuming the circular architecture of the place, created in the name of vigilance and protection. In the State of the World, a “circular reading” takes place. However, the correlations in the exhibition space are not limited to it and are unfolding in other directions.

The artist Márcio Carvalho (with “Memória para 14 Bustos” and “12 placas”) is asking for profound reflection on the political questions involved in the idea of a monument as a document of History, challenging how and who represents such memory. In certain moments, this same displacement of memory as collective and personal experience can be engraved in the body itself. The work of American-Tibetan Tenzin Phuntsog (“My Skins”) depicts the process of a skin changing during prolonged sun exposure. Tibetans have evolved to thrive at higher elevations, living closer to the sun and under intense UVB rays, resulting in a rare genetic anomaly called the “high-altitude” gene: “My skin soaks in the sun it does not burn very easily. This image of ‘sun-beaten’ skin connects me to my uncle in Tibet who I never had an opportunity to meet due to political restrictions of entering Tibet”, says Tenzin.

In the geographical layers of historical anomalies, but also in the immaterial, aesthetic forms develop their politics. Being born amidst the Lebanese conflict, the work of Charbel-joseph H. Boutros traces how a political context is shaping a sensibility during moments of everyday life. In his “Dead Drawing”, he makes use of Conceptual Art as a language to translate a personal and cultural experience. His piece documents an action that happened in the past, the motion of a hand, as an invisible gesture animating the present.

The same conceptual language is also found in “Somewhere Soon” by the British artist Jonathan Monk, a work that announces the future where an encounter will take place in an undefined moment. For the Brazilian artist Tuti Minervino and his conceptual sentence present in this exhibition, the language is a problem in itself. Employing a phrase written in Brazilian Portuguese, defying its translation to other Portuguese languages, the meeting in the future has already taken place. What’s the meaning of a cultural misunderstanding?

Juraci Dórea, from Bahia, had worked for more than four decades on his project “Terra”. While travelling the countryside of Bahia, Dórea researched the unique archaeology of small communities, where colonial mythologies are part of the social fabric. As a way to represent the bonding between the artist and the local population, a sculpture is made with wood and leather only to disappear over time, surviving only in the memory or photographic documents such as the one exhibited in the State of the World — originally prepared by Dórea for his participation in the 43rd Venice Biennale in 1988. Maxim Malhado, also from Bahia, is an artist who came from a similar community. At the beginning of the 21st century, he developed an art gallery in his village, where everyone could be an artist: a gallery imagined by Maxim as three wood houses. As in Charbel-joseph H. Boutros’ work presented here, the motion of a hand in the past creates a new possibility in the present.

The hand’s gesture continues to resonate in the tapestry of Marcelino Santos, from Cape Verde. Santos was taught at the local National Centre for Art, Crafts and Design, created in 1976 as a Cooperative of Resistance, aiming to collect, protect and transmit the knowledge of craft as a cultural identity following the independence of the country. In Cape Verde, cotton is a fibre with a relation to the past, when enslaved people turned cotton into handicrafts. This knowledge migrated to Brazil due to slave trade. During the 19th century, a group of black women from there, weavers, bought some land (thanks to the commerce of products they made by hand) in the state of Pernambuco, in the Brazilian northeast, founding a quilombo (a space for resistance): Conceição das Crioulas. Here the aesthetic form performs its politics.

For Jacira da Conceição, also from Cape Verde, the Brazilian quilombo in her experience is located in Itamatatiua, in the state of Maranhão. During a trip through Latin America Jacira witnessed the 300 year-old tradition in pottery preserved by the women of the local community. She has since learned the techniques of pottery in her country, with the community of Trás di Munti, in Tarrafal. The sculptural forms exhibited in the State of the World are contrasting two representations: a group made of four pieces evokes the elements of nature (air, water, earth, fire), facing an isolated piece, named “O Umbigo (centro) do Mundo”. Jacira is suggesting how to observe the immaterial.

In the work of the Portuguese artist Luisa Mota, the immaterial has a cosmic meaning, it is never neutral in its movements, because it encloses power, a spiritual energy transfigured in an object or a performative act. The series “Macumbinhas” (2014) are not representational, because they are active objects of healing, “a powerful tool to heal and transmute negative energy into positive energy”, says Mota. The “Macumbinhas” can dissipate the feelings of angst.

In the meantime, we ask, what could happen when the energetic power is neutralised?

The Ashanti Dolls (from José Carlos Santana Pinto’s Collection) depict the wish for motherhood and the fear of infertility, and bear their own history as an object of desire. The Ashanti Empire was one of the few African States to succeed in the resistance against the European colonisation, and between 1823 and 1896, fought four wars against the British Empire, being defeated only in 1903. Since then, the dolls became an “African souvenir” and an ethnographic fétiche in the West. What was priceless became a cultural trophy, and an entire mythology was lost.

The souvenir (of what, precisely?) is discussed by artists Gisela Casimiro and ROD in an installation (“Priceless”), which makes use of one element from the “grammar” of the museological institutions — the gift shop. The installation comments on the trade of images, which follows the trade of bodies. Forms are migrating from one continent to another, and the political meaning embedded in it should be de-repressed to regain its meanings and complexities: it’s a revelation to memory.

At the moment that the Museum of the South Atlantic initiates its activities, the institution would like to express its gratitude to all the artists, collections, centres of research and the Galerias Municipais de Lisboa for the supportive institutional dialogue.

Museum of the South Atlantic — MSA
Marcelo Rezende, Berlin, 25.08.2022


Curated by
– 15.01.2023
The State of the World: The Museum of the South Atlantic
Assaf Gruber, Charbel-joseph H.Boutros, Gisela Casimiro and Rodrigo Ribeiro Saturnino (ROD), Jacira da Conceição, Jonathan Monk, Juraci Dórea, Luisa Mota, Marcelino Santos, Márcio Carvalho, Maxim Malhado, Tenzin Phuntsog, Tuti Minervino, works from ethnographic collections, as well as publications by the Portuguese philosopher and educator Agostinho da Silva
Marcelo Rezende
Pavilhão Branco