Colonial art South of the European “Brasilianas”

Picture wallpaper with Brazilian landscape from Jean-Jacques Deltil from a motif by Johann Moritz Rugendas
Exotic Brazil in the view of historical travellers | Photo (detail): akg-images © picture alliance

How can artists in the Global South contribute to the process of retracing the path towards a fading and sometimes seemingly forgotten past, thereby articulating and redefining the region’s cultural, political, social and economic vision?

By Tiago Sant’Ana

Brasilianas is the name of a series of works that European explorers made in Brazil, mostly in the 19th century, to portray the country to the rest of the world. For various purposes, the “Brasilianas” were sold in Europe, but were also used for studies that would foment scientific racism. These artistic productions, mainly prints and photographs, still inform the present imaginary about Brazil, because they are taken as productions that, supposedly, bring into their compositions the details and minutia of a colonial and imperial Brazil – characterized by the enslavement of black people and unrestrained exploitation of the national territory.

Mozambicans: from "Picturesque Journey in Brazil" by Johann Moritz Rugendas, 1830-1835, Collection of the Biblioteca Nacional, Brazil | Photo: Fine Art Images/Heritage © picture-alliance Mozambicans: from "Picturesque Journey in Brazil" by Johann Moritz Rugendas, 1830-1835, Collection of the Biblioteca Nacional, Brazil | Photo: Fine Art Images/Heritage © picture-alliance | Foto: Fine Art Images/Heritage © picture-alliance Despite the constant use of this as ethnographic data, one must question the logic of inserting the Brasilianas as an ipsis litteris [word for word] portrait of the colonial reality of the country. Through an analytic exercise, and also by comparing documentation and artistic images as a whole, there is an immense contradiction: the bodies of the represented black people are healthy and willing to work, even in physically violent conditions and when deprived of food; the social reality is always portrayed as very calm, devoid of conflict or any doubt about the evils of racist colonial enslavement; the scenes are always very organized, without any juxtaposition of people and entirely lacking any trace of rebellions.

The Brasilianas are a good example of how art can be used to crystallize an image about a place or a certain social and historical situation, while reinforcing a social norm. In the case of Brazil, European artists, like the French Jean Baptiste Debret and the German Johann Moritz Rugendas, were responsible for the creation of a colonial Brazilian imaginary which remains to this day. Their records are printed in textbooks and are included in most exhibits about Brazil’s history.

The Eurocentric view has always been taken as “God’s view,” in other words, something impartial seen from a privileged position, detached from reality.


Only very recently have these images begun to be questioned by a group of artists, particularly influenced by decolonial perspectives and black thought and activism. These artists bring to their works the contradictions of the Eurocentric view on the historical reality of Brazil, suggesting that, still in contemporaneity, these scenes are repeated in Brazil by means of updating and refining colonial mechanisms, underscoring that this is still an open wound. It is a diametrically unsubmissive gaze directed at what was produced, attempting to put together a plan of escape from the Eurocentric fantasies about Brazil.

A sustained and complex task weighs on this practice of artistic revision. It is an attempt at disputing the narrative and confronting the European colonial machine that has always held an aesthetic legitimizing power within an artistic tradition. But, moreover, it is a machine that also has the capacity to determine and crystallize representations and knowledge – considering that the Eurocentric view has always been taken as “God’s view,” in other words, something impartial seen from a privileged position, detached from reality.

The task of artists from the Global South is to address their local realities, in many cases destroyed by colonization, but also to highlight that these issues should concern not only to the South, but the entire global community.

When we speak about the decolonial, it is not about being held back by history, but rather something that is happening now and in the future. With the advent, systematization and dissemination of decolonial perspectives, it is impossible, for instance, for the nations that traded the Global South with their agreements to exonerate themselves from this discussion.

Picture wallpaper with Brazilian landscape by Jean-Jacques Deltil from a Motif by Johann Moritz Rugendas Picture wallpaper with Brazilian landscape by Jean-Jacques Deltil from a Motif by Johann Moritz Rugendas | Foto: akg-images © picture alliance Therefore, one of the possible strategies for artists from the South is to carry out a systematic analysis of how, cynically, there is a (re)utilization of the “other” (South) as something local, in other words, that only concerns us from the Global South, whereas Eurocentric perspectives continue referring to themselves as something “global,” as if expressing themselves and composing their works were not coming from their ideas based on a localized view. Even when we underscore the problematic of colonization of the Global South, this issue does not solely concern us. Because, historically, as in the case of the Brasilianas, the view on us was constructed from a Eurocentric point of view.