Rosana Paulino Threads Through Painful Histories

Rosana Paulino Threads Through Painful Histories

The Brazilian artist weaves together archives, family albums, and records of Black suffering to suture a history of Amefricanas.

BUENOS AIRES — The life-size front, back, and profile photographs of a nude Black woman in Rosana Paulino’s installation “Assentamento” (2013) at the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (MALBA) are disquietingly familiar. They’ve been enlarged, transposed onto raw cloth, sliced into horizontal strips, and then stitched back together with deliberate imprecision, evoking the slippage that results from attempting to piece together fragments of histories. But a wall text confirms their origins: The images were taken under duress by a photographer named Augusto Stahl at the behest of Louis Agassiz, the Harvard University professor and proponent of polygenism, a pseudoscientific belief in the hierarchy of the human races. In 1866, Agassiz traveled to Brazil with the aim of compiling a photographic inventory of so-called “pure” and “mixed” racial types. Although the slave trade was outlawed in 1850, slavery itself would not be totally abolished until 1888 in Brazil — the last country in the Americas to do so — and in the fazendas of Rio de Janeiro and beyond, he saw the ideal sample population to pursue his racist, dehumanizing theories. A decade earlier in South Carolina, Agassiz had commissioned the daguerreotypes of two enslaved individuals, Renty and Delia Taylor, that are now at the center of a historic lawsuit brought by Tamara Lanier, Renty’s great-great-great granddaughter.

Unlike Lanier, Paulino does not trace her ancestry to the images or stake a claim to them, but she similarly rejects the notion that they belong to the men or the institutions that seized and continue to profit from them. Through a process of deconstruction and subsequent haphazard repair, she asserts their place in the fraught history of Amefricanas, the word from which the exhibition at MALBA draws its title. Coined by Afro-Brazilian philosopher and activist Lélia Gonzalez in the mid-1980s to reflect the collective identity and forms of resistance of Black and Indigenous women, the term implies by extension the limitations — and exclusions — of the “Latin American” designation. In this poetic survey of 80 works by Paulino, curated by Andrea Giunta and Igor Simões, the artist weaves together archives, family albums, botanical taxonomies, and records of Black suffering, not simply to unify them, but to expose their seams.

The artist prefers to refer to these seams as “sutures,” an allusion to the impossibility of reconciling the disparate parts of Brazilian identity without coming to terms with its past. Although the nation kidnapped and enslaved more African people than any other in the Americas — 5 million — a government plan for reparations has never been approved, a fact that Paulino has critically explored throughout her practice. Each section in the exhibition corresponds to a body of work or thematic grouping, beginning with “Red Atlantic,” after Paulino’s eponymous 2016–17 series that draws from critic Paul Gilroy’s 1993 concept of intercontinental Black diasporic exchange. Advancing the notion of an “Atlântico vermelho,” Paulino combines squares of fabric printed with images of Portuguese azulejos, colonial-era ceramic tiles, 19th-century photographs, and the recognizable schematic diagrams of the Brookes slave ship, among other signifiers of the violence wrought across those waters and on Brazilian society in particular. The scraps are intervened on with red thread, and as in all of Paulino’s textile works, they are visibly sewn together, accentuating rather than concealing the role of the woman who stitched them together. I spotted subversive nods to an alternative history of Brazil: Musa paradisíaca (2019), for instance, references the 1930s Carnaval anthem Yes! Nós Temos Bananas, which lampooned the distorted view of South American abundance propagated by importing nations like the United States.

The art of sewing allows Paulino to play with the relationship between a whole and its parts, thus visualizing the tension between generic, textbook acknowledgments of slavery’s legacy and a more complex reckoning with its individual ramifications. This is the mechanism at work in “Parede da memória” (1994–2015), a wall of more than 1,000 small, cushion-like sacks on which Paulino has transferred photos of her relatives and ancestors. Described as a patuás or amulets, the pillows are filled with spices and herbs considered sacred in Candomblé, an Afro-Brazilian syncretic religion that melds elements of West African, Islamic, and Catholic beliefs. The sprawling mural is immediately captivating when viewed from afar, but each minute representation of a man, woman, or child, and the visible blue and yellow stitching that frames it, can only be appreciated upon close inspection.

The painting “Garça Branca” (2023), an outsized triptych rendered in hues of flaxen yellow and maize, finds us at the midpoint of the exhibition. A central female figure emerges from a tangle of roots like a human mangrove. At once burgeoning out of and implanting herself further into the earth, her body’s upward thrust echoes the tree trunks that flank her on either side. Bromeliads bloom from her lips and two herons, alabaster white against the cream ground, are perched at her feet. The interlocking, serpentine branches conjure the crosshatch pattern of Paulino’s suturas, and the painting’s protagonist seems to be born out of spools of golden thread. She resurfaces in nearby watercolor studies, such as the Jatobá (2019) and Nascituras (2023) series, sensual explorations of birth and awakening.

The coda of Rosana Paulino: Amefricana is the artist’s massive wall-mounted installation “Tecelãs” (2003) (“weavers” in Portuguese), composed of hundreds of terracotta and faience figures wrapped in cotton thread, as though swaddled or cocooned. The silkworm-women stretch across the space in the manner of a swarm, but at eye level, each figure’s shapely features are discernible. Paulino is intimately acquainted with clay — she traces her relationship with the material back to the days of sculpting mud figurines with her mother and sisters in her backyard. Here, the substance gives shape to her vision of Brazil, one in which Black women are protected and cared for. Yet, as in all of the artist’s work, there is always another reading: The bodies, emerging but still constrained, are bound by cotton. In an interview quoted in the exhibition catalogue, Paulino rebuffs a feminist interpretation of her work on the basis that a central tenet of the movement, at least as posited by its leading White exponents, has been the right to labor. This was “never a question for Black women,” she explained. “We have always worked, it is either that or dying of hunger.”

The locus of the artist’s practice is Brazil, where an estimated 91 million people are of African ancestry. Her message takes on a different resonance in Argentina, a country whose comparatively sparse Black population shoulders a distinct burden — the destructive myth that race-related issues do not exist. Recent efforts led by Afro-Argentinians to center their heritage offer some hope that this public misconception could one day change. The frayed edges of Paulino’s works are an urgent reminder of what is still left to unravel.