The Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP) is located in the heart of Brazil’s most populous city on one of its busiest streets, Avenida Paulista, which takes its name from the term for the city’s residents. More important, the thoroughfare is home to much of São Paulo’s financial industry, and as such it has been the site of social and political actions since the early 20th century. When MASP opened to the public in April 1969, with a building designed by pioneering architect Lina Bo Bardi, it quickly became an architectural icon of Brazilian modernism—and a backdrop for Paulistas protesting all manner of things.
Recently, though, there has been a revolution going on within the museum’s walls. In 2014 the museum appointed a new artistic director, Adriano Pedrosa, a closely watched curator who had worked on some of the world’s most important exhibitions, including the 1998 and 2006 editions of the Bienal de São Paulo and the 2011 Istanbul Biennial.
Shortly before joining MASP, Pedrosa had organized, with frequent collaborator Lilia K. Moritz Schwarcz, an exhibition at São Paulo’s Instituto Tomie Ohtake called “Histórias Mestiças.” Mestizaje describes the mixing of races in the New World colonies of Spain and Portugal; Pedrosa and Schwarcz were using it as a lens through which to examine Brazil’s history—from onetime colony to empire to republic to dictatorship to today—and see it as far more than a single narrative that privileges the stories of wealthy white men.
Pedrosa brought the “Histórias” series to MASP, and has used it to turn the museum from a sleepy, somewhat provincial, institution to what Bay Area–based art historian and MASP adjunct curator Julia Bryan-Wilson calls “the most progressive and dynamic museum in the world right now.”
To fully grasp the impact of “Histórias,” it helps to know the history of MASP. In the years following World War II, Brazil’s economy was growing rapidly, and one of the country’s richest and most influential men, media mogul Assis Chateaubriand, set out to create a museum the country could be proud of. He amassed what became the largest and arguably the finest collection of European art in the entire southern hemisphere, and in 1947, with Italian art critic Pietro Maria Bardi, who had relocated to Brazil at Chateaubriand’s invitation, established what would become MASP.
Prior to Pedrosa’s arrival in 2014, MASP’s artistic directors didn’t seem to know quite what to do with the museum’s vast holdings of 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century European art. Pedrosa took the collection as a challenge; he became interested in placing these works in dialogue with objects that are typically considered less valuable. Pedrosa found special resonance in the Portuguese word histórias itself, which as in other Romance languages, implies more than just a textbook retelling of past events. Together, these seemingly disparate objects might just create a new history, he said, that is less focused on chronology and “more open, plural, speculative, and perhaps in a way more marginal.”
“The political dimension of this is very much present,” Pedrosa said. “We are always questioning who is telling and writing these histories around Brazil, often white histories, and how can we offer juxtapositions or contrasts that question these hierarchies.”
Before bringing his collaborative “Histórias” exhibitions into MASP’s programming, Pedrosa rehung the museum’s permanent collection, restoring Bo Bardi’s original vision of exhibiting paintings on crystal easels installed in the galleries like sculptures that can be approached from various angles. “Histórias” would establish a research topic, and all the museum’s programming for the year would revolve around it.
“A different kind of curator, who might share Adriano’s political vision, could come in and say, ‘Who cares about all these dead white male Europeans? They’re irrelevant,’” Bryan-Wilson said. “But one of the things that’s genius about what he’s doing is: how can we activate the collection precisely in the service of queer histories, of Afro-Atlantic histories, of women’s histories, etc.? What can we do to use those objects as a way to reframe them that surrounds them in a totally new context?”
Pedrosa mounted the first “Histórias” exhibition in 2016, under the theme “Histories of Childhood,” and went on to explore Sexuality (2017), Afro-Atlantic (2018), and Women (2019). Upcoming are Dance (2020), Indigeneity (2021), Brazil (2022), Nature (2023), Sexual Diversity (2024), and Delirious Histories (2025). (In November the forthcoming “Histórias indigenas” won a share of the $250,000 Sotheby’s Prize in support of research for the exhibition.)
“At the museum, we are trying to address certain themes that are urgent right now and have become even more urgent in the last few months,” Pedrosa said this past September, pointing to the political tumult in Brazilian politics that has seen a public resurgence of racist, anti-black and anti-indigenous, sexist, and homophobic sentiments.
That sense of urgency has brought in a wider diversity of visitors. “Because MASP is located in the heart of São Paulo, we thought it would be good to have this idea to organize the whole program at MASP around the different histories throughout Brazil,” said Moritz Schwarcz, who is adjunct curator at MASP and a professor at the University of São Paulo. “The idea was to invite all kinds of Brazilians to enter the museum and to recognize themselves inside the museum. The idea was to change the identity of the museum.”
Pedrosa has encouraged thinking outside the box, and the juxtapositions can be jarring. As part of this year’s “Histórias das Mulheres” exhibition, which looked at artistic practices by women prior to 1900, Bryan-Wilson placed textiles on the same level as paintings: Punjabi and Uzbekistani fabrics are next to an undated oil painting by the obscure Chilean artist Celia Castro del Fierro, who is considered the country’s first professional female artist, and began studying at Santiago’s Academy of Painting in 1877. Elsewhere are works by Rosa Bonheur, Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Leyster, Mary Cassatt, Vigée Le Brun, and Berthe Morisot, with pieces by similarly underknown artists and woven work from Pennsylvania, the Philippines, and pre-Columbian peoples living in the Andes. “To take women’s making seriously, we had to get rid of the category of fine art, which is just a category that to me is not interesting to uphold in the space of the museum anymore,” she said.
But perhaps the most groundbreaking of the “Histórias” exhibitions was 2018’s “Histórias Afro-Atlánticas.” Co-organized with the Instituto Tomie Ohtake, the exhibition included some 400 works and is accompanied by a 400-page catalogue in English and Portuguese. Placing Brazil as a central point within the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the exhibition looked at a broad range of histories and artistic practices from the 16th century to the present that centers on the lives of enslaved people and their descendants.
The section titled “Emancipations” brought contemporary work in a range of mediums by black artists like Kara Walker, Hank Willis Thomas, Glenn Ligon, Cameron Rowland, and Paulo Nazareth into dialogue with unsettling 19th-century paintings by Europeans like Augustus Earle, Alphonse Garreau, Samuel Raven, Jean-Baptiste Debret, and Thomas Jones Barker. The section also included historical documents: sketches of slave ships, racist drawings, engravings of lynchings, a receipt for the sale of a slave. In “Afro-Atlantic Modernisms,” paintings by Wifredo Lam, Rubem Valentim, and Howardena Pindell shared a wall; nearby were pieces by Americans Alma Thomas, Norman Lewis, Nigerian Uche Okeke, South African Ernest Mancoba, and Sudanese painter Ibrahim El-Salahi.
“I don’t think anyone in the United States could have done that show,” said Mari Carmen Ramírez, who is curator of Latin American art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and has plans to bring the “Histórias Afro-Atlánticas” exhibition to Houston.
The show held special significance in Brazil, which was the destination of about 40 percent of all people brought over from Africa and forced into slavery for more than 300 years. Over 50 percent of Brazil’s current population identifies as black or pardo (mixed race).
“It was a political statement—an act of resistance,” Moritz Schwarcz said of the exhibition. “The museum has a very important place in this context. Art can be a starting place for resistance.”