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.