Black Arts and the Reactivation of Lost Existences


Memory, violence, protection, trauma, science, biology, spirituality, subjugation, autonomy, and healing: these are words that come into mind once we take a look at the work of Rosana Paulino. In most of her pieces, Paulino works with photographs. Instead of taking the photos, she prefers to use already existing ones. The artist works with all the affective/emotional charge a photo contains – and “affection” here does not relate solely to good feelings, but all kinds of affections, including love, hate, happiness, anger, sadness, and hope. Experiences that accumulate over time, imprinting all kinds of meanings to those images/objects/pieces of memory.

Paulino works both with her family memories and a typical iconography of the Black population during slavery/colonial times in Brazil. Specifically, the photos taken in the context of the Thayer Expedition headed by Louis Agassiz, a Swiss Zoologist (naturalized American), who wanted to prove the superiority of the White ethnic group over the others. In order to make his racist point, Agassiz commissioned a series of anthropometric photographs from Augusto Stahl, a photographer who was living in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) at that time (around the 1860s). It was intended to portray a scientific character, and Black men and women were photographed in three different positions: from the front, from the back, and in profile. Cold and distant subjects portrayed only as types, things, objects, elements to be measured, scientifically observed, and studied.

In the artist’s book called Natural History, Paulino mixes typical scientific drawings and representations of different qualities of plants and animals with representations of people, alluding to those “curiosity cabinets” and the building of museums of natural history. The National Museum in Brazil was one built in these models. One of its directors, João Baptista de Lacerda, a Brazilian scholar who taught the first anthropology class in that institution, was present at the Universal Races Congress in 1911 in London. 

On that occasion, he stated that the policy of “Whitening” the country would be completed by 2011, when the Brazilian Black and Indigenous populations would become extinct, concretizing the will to “purify Brazilian race through miscegenation,” a violent project often hidden under ideas of a so-called “racial democracy.” Paulino confronts that history and looks into the shadows of Brazilian society in order to underline the violence of the colonial process that keeps updating itself whilst trying to deflect from its ugly face.

Through freedom, as Lucinea Ferreira1 affirms, Black people make art. An art brave enough to tackle a bitter past and create a path for other possible futures. Paulino intervenes in these photos by inserting heart, fetus, roots, and branches to the human figure. The artist dissolves the supposed scientific neutrality and underlines the forces composing it. Forces of annihilation and forces of life crossing those images are revealed in the act of sewing. 

As Hélio Menezes2 says, referring to Assentamento/Settlement, “The split soul of the Black Diaspora is given shape in the unease on the face of the woman whose name was not recorded, in the crooked seams that attempt to mend parts of her body.” Paulino sutures the images, a gesture that contains both the violence of putting parts together and an act of care. It reminds one analogous movement by Saidiya Hartman in her Wayward Lives3, especially towards the “Minor Figure,” using her words as a shield, as tools to protect, reveal, and reactivate the existence of that young Black girl.

There is a powerful message in the use of the sewing techniques. These demonstrate the impossibility of simply erasing all the processes that are contained in these images – and all the events related to them. Neither the violence that somehow gives origin to these images nor the effort to suture back the humanity to that human figure can be merely ignored. Rather, the process itself matters. The gesture of sewing is also related to the knowledge and techniques of African-based religions in the diaspora – an important part of Paulino’s background and references – that refers to the need to ritualize the processes of reconnection with one’s past, ancestors, memories, hopes, struggles, flaws, qualities, traces of individuality and connections to collectivities. 

In Settlement n.3, for example, the way the artist sews roots and branches onto the picture that turn into stars evokes the connections with the past, the present, the future, the possibility of dreaming and producing a future, connecting earth and sky, Orum and Aye, visible and invisible worlds. 

The sutures intended to mend parts not only reveal the violent, hurtful connections present in the photographs but also the processes that led to that particular image, carried out by the people who produced it – and felt entitled to do so. However, Paulino’s interventions transform the image, changing the focus so that it is no longer possible to ignore the present violence or establish a distant, neutral standpoint. One is urged to look into oneself and cope with the affections emerging from the weight of these processes. The image, the interventions, the violence, the pain, and the complexities tying it all together. The perspective shift itself provokes a change. 

The work of another artist may help to illuminate the point. The filmmaker Safira Moreira, in her short film Travessia4, makes an apparently simple but deeply powerful gesture: a particular use of the cinematic frames reveals an entirely different narrative over one single photo of a Black woman holding a White baby. She composes image, history, and the words of the writer Conceição Evaristo to underline other forces already present in that complex photo. Forces connecting generations of experiences only apparently lost or obliterated. The artists’ interventions on image brings to life potentialities that were already there, hidden in the eyes and expressions of those men and women, in a reactivation emerging from a sort of sewing of temporalities.

In Assentamento/Settlement Paulino builds what seems at first to be a kind of altar to the image of a Black woman. The title of the piece refers to the process of adapting to a new environment, but also to ritual assentamentos that contain the Axé of a candomblé house, its beginning, its force, the materialized presence of the gods and ancestors.  

So, the message seems to be ambiguous. As she works to reactivate and accommodate the humanity of those men and women subjected to the horrors of slavery and its afterlife, her work also refers to the foundations of Brazil as a nation, built on the basis of profound violence and trauma, through the exploitation of Black and Indigenous people, on the legacy of these human beings who were supposed to be out of sight and out of mind. The “problem” is that, as Conceição Evaristo puts it, “we agreed not to die” or, as is heard among Black social movements, “they buried us, but they forgot we were seeds.” Black art seems to play a particular role in these movements. Art in, all its forms, is the writing of new possible experiences. The work of these powerful artists reveals that the potentialities of activating existence, even in the face of the unthinkable, are endless.

About Barbara Cruz

Barbara Cruz is a Ph.D. Candidate in Social Anthropology at the National Museum, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, where she also completed her Master’s degree (2018). She graduated from the National Law School/UFRJ (2012) and is currently a researcher at the Núcleo de Antropologia Simétrica (NAnSi). Cruz is a Fulbright Fellow as Visiting Research Scholar at the Graduate Center, CUNY (2019-2020). 

Her current doctoral project focuses on Terecô, an Afro-Brazilian Religion practiced in the state of Maranhão/Brazil. Her research interests include Afro-Brazilian religions, Anthropology of Religion, Anthropological Theory, and Race Relations.


  1. FERREIRA, Lucinea dos Santos. 2019. “Entre o Kalunga Grande e o Kalunga pequeno: territórios invisíveis, imagens arquetípicas e artes da escuridão”. Master’s Thesis. Postgraduate Program in Social Anthropology, National Museum Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.
  1. MENEZES, Hélio. 2019. “Rosana Paulino: the suturing of history”. Available at:
  1. HARTMAN, Saidiya. 2019. “Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval”. W. W. Norton & Co.
  1. MOREIRA, Safira. 2017. “Travessia”. Short Film. 5min. Available at:

Other Sources

CRUZ, Barbara. 2018. “Resistência e memória na destruição do Museu Nacional”. Site
Alma Preta. Available at:

NARAHARA, Karine. 2018. “Nos roubaram uma segunda vez: sobre as cinzas do Museu Nacional”. Site Alma Preta. Available at:

PAULINO, Rosana. 2019. “Artist of the Suture: How Rosana Paulino became the first woman of color with a retrospective at the Pinacoteca”. Interview by Cynthia Garcia. Available at:

PAULINO, Rosana. 2011.“Imagens de Sombras”. PhD Thesis. School of Communications and Arts, University of São Paulo.

PINACOTECA DE SÃO PAULO. 2018. “Rosana Paulino: The Sewing of Memory”. Exhibition Catalogue. Valéria Piccoli, Pedro Nery (org.). São Paulo: Pinacoteca de São Paulo. Available at: