Figari, Goeldi, Africanity - contexts [1]

Roberto Conduru

CONDURU, Roberto. Figari, Goeldi, Africanity - contexts. 19&20, Rio de Janeiro, v. X, n. 1, jan./jun. 2015. [Português]

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1.      The inspiration for this text came from the work presented by Georgina Gluzman and Ursula Estrada in the seminar on non-Western artistic traditions held at Universidad Autónoma de Mexico in November 2013, in which they compared two paintings: La Papanteca, executed by Luz Osorio around 1880, and La Chola Desnuda, by Angel Guido, from 1924. The presentation of their work in the seminar and the ensuing debate encouraged me to finally establish a dialogue between the Uruguayan painter Pedro Figari (1861-1938) and the Brazilian designer and engraver Oswaldo Goeldi (1895-1961), as I had been meaning to do for some time. I would like to warn the reader beforehand that I have not reached the power of concision of the analytical exercise undertaken by Georgina Gluzman and Ursula Estrada, whose succinctness focused on the confrontation of the two paintings, which - apparently disconnected from each other at first sight, since they originate from different periods and places - have rich points of connection as well as points of divergence.

2.      Not starting from this fertile radicalness, I will focus on some works by the Uruguayan Pedro Figari and the Brazilian Oswaldo Goeldi, putting them into dialogue in order to think, first and foremost, about the question of Africanity in Uruguay and Brazil, respectively, and therefore in this region called South America - whose delimitation is based more on socio-political than geographical grounds - a key “topos” of the project Unfolding Art History in Latin America.[2]

3.      While still alive, Figari and Goeldi were not in touch with each other, neither directly through personal contacts, nor indirectly, through exhibitions that could have drawn parallels between the one’s paintings and the other’s engravings and drawings. The dialogue between them, latent in their works, in my point of view, has been established a posteriori by myself, taking their works as contexts for one another. The third element I will include in this discussion is that of Africanity, which could be considered as a link between the two artists, but I prefer to understand it as a third context from which they are confronted – a third element which obviously stems from my studies on the relationship among art, Africa and Brazil. As from this project, though, my studies will also encompass the Americas, particularly the areas which make up the so-called Latin America, so I must, in fact, highlight the artificiality of the notion of “context” applied herein.

4.      Despite considering elements of the socio-cultural context, I am interested in investigating how artistic works shed light on one another, and how they enlighten or get enlightened by the problematics of Africanity. I could definitely relate Figari’s work to other contexts, such as the poems of Ildefonso Pereda Valdes (negroid poems, 1927), the African-Uruguayan studies of Vicente Rossi (Cosas de Negros, 1927), or the memories of Lino Suarez Peña (Apuntes y datos referentes a la raza negra en los comienzos de su vida en esta parte del Plata, 1924),[3] from the same decade in which Figari painted his Africanity-inspired works in the Plata River region. Similarly, Goeldi’s work on the African-Brazilian culture can be associated with the works of thinkers like Arthur Ramos and Manuel Querino, among others who have studied the African-Brazilian dimensions.

5.      Before addressing the dialogue itself, I would like to point out that the relationship between art and Latin America are a problematic topic. Without embracing the idea of Latin America as a uniform socio-cultural unit formed by the Iberian presence in parts of the Americas, I believe it can be politically and culturally interesting to think of Latin America as Olu Oguibe suggests we should think concerning Africa: “Culturally, the problem is not only to recognize the plurality of Africanities, but also to aspire to an active formulation of a singular African ‘identity,’ somehow parallel to the pan-Europeanism and the construction of the Western world.”[4] In this sense, the works by Figari and Goeldi form one pair among other possible ones below and above the Rio Grande, as demonstrated by research conducted in this project and by other studies in art history on similar artistic actions which took place simultaneously or on different occasions, but without knowing of or having any connection with one another. Thus, the aim for art history is to become a practice that is more creative, proactive, and transformative of reality and less reminiscent, supposedly aiming at restoring an inaccessible reality: the past.

6.      As I make Figari’s and Goeldi’s works establish this dialogue revolving around Africanity, it is also important to note that neither of them were of African descent. While Figari’s ancestors were Italian, Goeldi’s were Swiss. Although their artistic trajectories have coincided temporally for a little more than four decades - since Figari was born in 1861 and deceased in 1938 and Goeldi was born in 1895 and deceased in 1961 - if I am not mistaken, their paths never crossed spatially.

7.      What is more, Figari and Goeldi led very different lives. Figari was renowned in Law and Politics; he was an editor and a writer with texts published in the press and in books, of which a theoretical essay on art should be highlighted. He directed the School of Arts & Crafts in Montevideo before starting to paint at the age of sixty. According to Pablo Thiago Rocca, “painting is just one more chapter - a brilliant one, indeed - in the copious book of his life.” Goeldi started making art as a teenager. He even started studying Engineering and working in a bank, but soon quit these activities in order to be a full-time artist, devoting himself to making drawings and engravings which were exhibited, sold, and published in newspapers, magazines, and books; only at the age of sixty did he begin to teach at the National School of Fine Arts in Rio.

8.      Notwithstanding the differences, both experimented with art in transit. To Figari, his work as a painter was a kind of self-exile, after the failure of his reform of the School of Arts & Crafts: first in Buenos Aires, to where he moved in 1921, then in Paris, where he stayed between 1925 and 1934, and finally in Montevideo to where he returned and lived until his death. Goeldi also lived and produced his work in transit, between Switzerland and Brazil, where he settled in his native city, Rio de Janeiro, having also lived in Belem, Niteroi, and Salvador.

9.      Never having crossed paths as they travelled between America and Europe, these men’s trajectories can be connected through Africa. Indeed, Africanity is a prominent feature in Figari’s work. He is known as the painter of Candombes. Even though this nickname does not live up to his work, which is more extensive, including paintings about many other themes, it is possible to understand the emphasis placed on the Candombes by his interpreters, for this theme marks the extraordinary nature of his work. According to Pablo Thiago Rocca, “in Buenos Aires, his work plays a compensatory role, offering a harmless and ‘beneficial’ image of the behavior of these enduring human groups,” the Afro-descendants, who, according to the same author, had been “victims of a deliberate policy of extermination.”[5] In Paris, the work of Figari was a unique and much less exoticizing contribution to the euphoric negrophilia of the French capital in the 1920’s.

10.    In Goeldi, Africanity is a secondary concern. It is an inflection in his view of certain marginality in cities which, in the modern world order, were peripherally located. However, as pointed out on other occasions, his images of figures, objects, and practices related to Africa in Brazil constitute a special chapter of his work. In my view, the Africanity present in his work helps differentiating it from other examples of modernist poetics disseminated in the country, and adds to the extensive repertoire of representations of Africanity related to Brazil.

11.    Uniqueness based on affection. One trace of the link between the two artists is the relatively small dimensions of both Figari’s cards and canvasses, and Goeldi’s drawings and engravings. As observed by Jorge Luis Borges in his text about Figari, “not only in language does the diminutive carry a connotation of affection.”[6] Such smallness, instead of diminishing, strengthens the eloquence with which they express themselves about people and the social conditions that affect them.

12.    The brevity that Borges sees in Figari’s paintings can be extended to Goeldi’s drawings and engravings. The two artists can be compared based on the economical dimensions of their work. More than that, both the way Figari sprinkles pigments on canvasses and cards and the way Goeldi scratches paper and woodblocks, forming figures and spaces with few elements and apparent speed, indicate how they face the dynamic process of modernization. These are indications that they see the sketch as a paradigm of modern artistic production. Expressed quickly and apparently unfinished, more announcing than describing, the morphology of these works justifies bringing Figari closer to Goeldi, and vice versa, and not to other artists devoted to representations of Africanity in the Americas, who are more concerned with ethnographic or allegorical topics. It is true that Figari takes Afro-descendants for the primitive, and therefore, the very human essence, that is, a particular that refers to the universal. Similarly, Goeldi’s attention to the Afro-descendant girls from Bahia seems to stem more from personal relationships with these and other marginalized individuals than from the interest in the Afro-Brazilian cultures expressed by the Modernist movement in Brazil[7] or from the attraction to Africa by the so-called German Expressionism due to the power of primitivism.[8] Neither Figari nor Goeldi seem to take Afro-descendants as characters to be typified or raised to the condition of national emblems, as it was common in art from the late 19th century to the early 20th century.

13.    If Figari’s paintings do not characterize special types, neither do they portray or give voice to individuals. The Afro-descendants attract the artist as a social group. Indeed, most of his scenes are constituted by a large number of people confined in small spaces, even when they take place outdoors. In these scenes, one can catch a glimpse of the modern masses. They are part of an undifferentiated crowd from the cities of the Southern Cone, which can be seen swarming buildings, patios, pathways and open spaces. Goeldi’s characters also emerge from streets, slopes, and buildings, highlighting desolate empty spaces which translate the discomfort of the individual before the fast and chaotic transformation of the city. Although Figari’s scenes usually take place in somewhat claustrophobic precints, whilst Goeldi’s exude the agoraphobia found in modern spaces, their inhabitants seem to share a similar environment: they are nocturnal creatures.

14.    Such nocturnality, more symbolic than physical, is well expressed in Goeldi’s scenes when the day fades away so the night can shine bright, or the night gives way to daylight, which raises the question of temporality. As it is often pointed out by Figari’s interpreters, his work is evocative. And not just because he started painting when he moved to the other side of the La Plata River. Besides the geographical distance, there was a temporal one. He talks about the past, about things he had experienced since his childhood. Unlike Figari, Goeldi drew and engraved images of blackness based on his experiences in Brazilian cities. However, it is certain that, as in other dramas he portrayed, the scenes with Afro-descendant men and women talk about how the past resists its downfall brought about by modernity. This helps seeing the contemporariness of Figari’s pictures, since he paints the persistence of memory, that is, a feeling ingrown in the body.

15.    Both of them are far from documenting reality, close to the lived experience, far from registrations, close to the consolidation of memory through artifacts, works of art. As much as both have witnessed the scenes which they represent, their works were produced in the studio and are therefore re-creations, obviously.

16.    They talk about the world from the perspective of their time and place. Almost all of Goeldi’s images are scenes of labor. Not the production of goods aiming at the accumulation of wealth, but the work necessary for self-subsistance. Marginal labor in the eyes of the capitalist production order, but still labor. In Figari, labor is present by contrast and absence, since, in most cases, he paints moments of exception: funeral rituals and balls, parties.

17.    These are scenes of cultural crossroads, of the entwinement of artistic traditions. The decoration of façades and architectural interiors, as well as furniture and clothing present in the works stem from European standards, referring to classical traditions. One of Figari’s Candombe scenes, as well as the figures of the three magi on the table, indicates religious mixes intertwining Africa, Europe, and America, as exemplified by the persistence of native cultures seen on the gourd to drink mate that the king seems to be sharing with a woman.

18.    As it can be seen, there is the representation of spaces, objects, rituals, gestures, body postures and even the mood of the characters - but not as detailed records of material and immaterial culture. Certainly, these images may be associated with scenes of customs particularly frequent in the iconography regarding America, elaborated in the visual arts during the 19th century and even before this period. However, it does not seem productive to understand this continuity as a conservative trait which would minimize the modernizing dimension of these works and, consequently, of art in the Americas. On the contrary, I believe they should be seen as a topic - the dialogue with the Other - which constitutes artistic modernity, tearing it problematically, and not only in the Americas, for a long time.

19.    Color is a good element to understand how these artists, each in their own way, face challenges concerning the artistic composition and representation of figures, things, events. Unlike Figari’s rich palette, color, in Goeldi, is an exception, a rarity only present in some of the scenes with Afro-descendant girls, in which he experiments with color graphically. Igniting the ambient, color is a plastic way of translating the heat of social tensions. He also employs color to highlight some elements of a scene, including the skirt, the pano da costa (a bright cotton cloth of African origin worn as a shawl) and the turban worn by a native woman from Bahia. However, the discontinuous chromatic scheme of the other elements of the scene allows the viewer to notice that, more than a social type, this is a woman confronting the city solitarily, a being in the world in a unique moment, when the night is falling or the day is dawning.

20.    The association of architectural details and garments to the environmental effects of a liminar moment emphasizes the factor that, in my view, best justifies the idea of drawing parallels between these two artists: light. This is an element as to which they seem to take different, if not opposite directions. While Figari’s scenes show excessive brightness, Goeldi’s emerge from darkness. His scribbles create flashes that not merely allow us to see the scenes, but rather make it possible for them to happen. In a way, Figari does the opposite: he gradually distinguishes the overwhelming brightness - uniform at first - with the use of chromatic diversification, through which things, figures and actions start to emerge.

21.    This polarity in the color-light treatment is similar to the approach they take on Africanity, to the way the artists deal with the “Africas” that were reinvented from Uruguay’s and Brazil’s - or more generally, America’s - standpoint. During the long 19th century - which extends into the following century and even into the one in which we are now -, these “Africas” would be gradually exterminated by slow social policies such as sending soldiers to the battlefield, the whitening miscegenation, and segregation in urban and rural areas, with unsanitary conditions that spread diseases and cause deaths. By managing the treatment of color-light with the use of black or white, darkness or excessive brightness, Goeldi and Figari, respectively, participate in the resistance against the different but complementary processes, orchestrated from a distance, which aimed at rendering invisible and destroying Afro-descendants in the Americas and beyond.


BORGES, Jorge Luis. Figari. In: Figari. Buenos Aires: Ediciones Alfa, 1930.

CONDURU, Roberto. Pérolas negras, primeiros fios. Rio de Janeiro: Eduerj, 2013.

GOLDMAN, Gustavo. Vicente Rossi y sus estudios afrouruguayos.Dossier, Montevideo, year 1, n.4, sep.-oct. 2007.

Oguibe, Olu. “In the ‘Heart of Darkness’”. In: Fernie, Eric (Ed.). Art history and its methods. London: Phaidon, 1995.

PERRY, Gill. O primitivismo e o ‘moderno’. In: HARRISON, Charles, FRANCISNA, Francis e PERRY, Gill. Primitivismo, cubismo, abstração. Começo do século XX. São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 1998.

ROCCA, Pablo Thiago. De candombes y negros: usos sociales y simbólicos de la pintura de Pedro Figari. Dossier, Montevideo, year 1, n.4, sep.-oct. 2007.

ROLAND, Eduardo. El blanco negro de las letras uruguayas. Dossier, Montevideo, year 1, n.4, sep.-oct. 2007.

SIQUEIRA, Vera Beatriz. Fissuras. In: BRITO, Ronaldo. Goeldi. Rio de Janeiro: S. Roesler-Instituto Cultural The Axis, 2002.

English translation by Ricky Toledano e Liane Sarmento


[1] Special thanks to Carmen Fernandez and Jorge Gómez Tejada, and the Universidad San Francisco de Quito for their hospitality. I would also thank the companions of the project Unfolding Art History in Latin America for the opportunity to participate in this special moment, when almost everyone who participated in the initial phases is gathered. A thank you to Elena O'Neill, architect and historian of Uruguayan art living in Rio de Janeiro, who was the first assistant in the coordination of our project. Thanks to relations among Uruguay, Brazil, and Africa, Elena has been a great promoter and collaborator in this dialogue with Goeldi and Figari. She holds a master degree from UERJ, where she now works as a postdoc.

[2] Available at: <>. Acessed on 25/05/2014.

[3] For more on these authors, see GOLDMAN, Gustavo. Vicente Rossi y sus estudios afrouruguayos. Dossier, Montevideo, year 1, n.4, sep.-oct. 2007, pp.32-35; ROLAND, Eduardo. El blanco negro de las letras uruguayas. Dossier, Montevideo, year 1, n.4, sep.-oct. 2007, pp. 26-31.

[4] OGUIBE, Olu. “In the ‘Heart of Darkness’”. In: Fernie, Eric (Ed.). Art history and its methods. London: Phaidon, 1995, p.320.

[5] ROCCA, Pablo Thiago. De candombes y negros: usos sociales y simbólicos de la pintura de Pedro Figari. Dossier, Montevideo, year 1, n.4, sep.-oct. 2007, p.8.

[6] BORGES, Jorge Luis. Figari. In: Figari. Buenos Aires: Ediciones Alfa, 1930, p.12.

[7] For more about Goeldi's relationship with Terezinha, the mulatta with whom he lived and whom he consulted about his works, see SIQUEIRA, Vera Beatriz. Fissuras. In: BRITO, Ronaldo. Goeldi. Rio de Janeiro: S. Roesler-Instituto Cultural The Axis, 2002, p. 195. For more about relationships with the African and Afro-Brazilian universes, see CONDURU, Roberto. Pérolas negras, primeiros fios. Rio de Janeiro: Eduerj, 2013, pp. 25-47.

[8] See PERRY, Gill. O primitivismo e o ‘moderno’. In: HARRISON, Charles, FRANCISNA, Francis e PERRY, Gill. Primitivismo, cubismo, abstração. Começo do século XX. São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 1998.