MFA’s “Samba Spirit” Exhibit Sheds New Light on Afro-Brazilian Art and Culture

The first exhibit of its kind opens this Saturday.

Samba Spirit 'Chuva Sobre Sao'

“Chuva Sobre Sao” (Rain Over Sao Paulo) is an oil and mixed media piece on canvas by Maria Auxiliadora da Silva, Brazilian, 1935-1974. (Image Provided)

The Museum of Fine Arts is known for its “Art of the Americas” collection, but the exhibit “Samba Spirit,” opening Saturday, explores a new frontier: Afro-Brazilian art.

This show breaks new ground not only for the MFA, but also for the general study of Afro-Brazilian art in the United States. The pieces are being shown for the first time in New England and, aside from a trip to University of Pennsylvania, for the first time in the country, shedding a new light on the cultural artistry.

Part of a much larger partial gift-purchase from John Axelrod, much of which contains broader pieces that have already been integrated into the galleries, the specific selection of pieces in “Samba Spirit” represent a much more focused topic of discussion.

“This is part of the larger mission of presenting art of the Americas and expanding the whole idea of what that means,” curator Karen Quinn explains.

Including 15 paintings, one work on paper, and two sculptures, the varied techniques mirror the different aspects of Afro-Brazilian culture that each piece explores.

“Some of them are largely self-taught, and some of them studied in more formal circumstances, so there’s this great range of style,” says Quinn of the 11 artists on display. “It’s supposed to show, or celebrate, this great range from very sophisticated approaches to those that might be out of the mainstream. They’re all relevant, significant, and important to the culture as forms of expression.”

Quinn admits that, like many Americans, she had a very limited understanding of Afro-Brazilian culture–she cites generalizations such as “a preconceived notion from Carnaval what samba was”–before preparing for the exhibit. “There are sociologists who will tell you that African culture permeates all of Brazilian culture,” she says.

For Quinn, immersing herself in the culture and learning about the inspiration behind the certain pieces–such as an African legend that suggests a woman brought rice over in her hair to feed the culture when it got there–was the highlight of preparing the show. She even learned basic Portuguese to understand the exhibit, as much of the already-limited work of these artists is in the language.

The most beneficial way to enter this exhibit is with an open mind. “It was hard to pick one image to represent the show, to be honest,” says Quinn of her choice, “Chuva Sobre Sao” (shown above). “If somebody looks at that and then goes to the show, they’re going to realize when they get to the show, ‘Oh, there’s that, and then there are all of these other things that are fabulous in their own way.’”

Because they are so different, a stylistic approach to the gallery layout would be impractical, so the MFA will take a thematic approach, Quinn says.

“It’s so much fun,” says Quinn of the different aspects of Brazilian culture that appear in the show. Pieces touch on religion, samba dances, frevo music, potentially slavery–or at least forced labor–and compelling genre scenes like the rain beginning to fall over Sao Paulo (above). “There’s such a large Brazilian culture in the Boston area that this, we hope, will bring people in to get a slice of that as well.”

The MFA hopes for extra traffic as the exhibit opens the weekend leading up to Martin Luther King Jr. Day, when the museum will host an open house.

“It’s a really great opportunity to see something different,” says Quinn. “I hope people take an opportunity to come see it.”

On January 20, the museum will offer free admission and special events including performances, interactive art-making activities, and gallery tours. There will be 10-minute spotlight tours on “Samba Spirit” at 11:30 a.m., 12 p.m., and 12:30 p.m.

“Samba Spirit,” opens Saturday, January 18, and runs through October 19 at the Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., 617-267-9300,