Various photographers, Instituto Moreira Sales

Black Identity & Slavery in the Archives of the Instituto Moreira Salles

About the project
Angélica Dass
Angélica Dass


About the project
TED Talk, February 2016 | The beauty of human skin in every color

Archivo Instituto Moreira Salles, Brazil
Various photographers

This selection of images belonging to various collections of the Instituto Moreira Salles features photographic documentation of the black community in Brazil by seven artists, most of them foreigners. The photographs depict the tropical landscape, the countryside, and its inhabitants. Made using large-format cameras on tripods, the images have an iconic, pictorial, dream-like character.

Photography arrived early in Brazil. By the late 1860s, it already had keen enthusiasts, including Brazilian emperor Dom Pedro II. On the other hand, the country was one of the very last to abolish slavery in the West. The confluence of these two realities means there is a wide and diverse range of visual records of slavery in the country.

Whether they appear in casual snapshots or purposely posing as exotic models ―in some cases, they are even meant to provide a typology for scientific analysis― enslaved Afro-Brazilians were photographed in a gamut of situations, sometimes as a part of the scenery and sometimes as the main figures of the tableau.

In cities, nineteenth-century photographers revealed the rationale and characteristics of urban slavery, working in the streets and documenting everyday characters such as porters, vendors, bootblacks, and barbers, whether they were free or enslaved. Pictures from the countryside display more of a documentarian aesthetic, with their factual records of chores and farm work. The photographs were often posed, precise, embellished: everything in them is in its proper place, reifying an imaginary construct of slavery as something peaceful and unchallenged, although this was clearly a barefaced lie.

Nevertheless, these same photographs also reveal the precarious living conditions of the enslaved, their defiant attitudes and their overseers’ relative permissiveness, at least in the cities. In a sense, the mostly foreign photographers maintained a critical perspective ―inspired by the humanist ideas embraced at the time in more educated circles― and voiced how urgent it was for the country to eradicate slavery as a system of economic production.

Angélica Dass, Brasil

Humanae is a work in progress, a trial presentation of a color chart of various skin tones. This taxonomy of Borges-like proportions takes the form of a Pantone guide, lending the sample book a degree of hierarchical horizontality that readily invalidates flawed beliefs in concepts of race and in the superiority of certain human beings over others based on the color of their skin.

The display of an endless range of skin tones coaxes the spectator into thinking about one of the meanings of the word “identity,” in the sense of “equality.” Angélica Dass set this extraordinarily simple semantic mechanism in motion by “innocently” shifting the issue of race from its socio-political context to a more anodyne medium like the color chart, where primary colors have exactly the same status as mixed hues.

- Brazilian artist Angélica Dass reframes the concept of race by showing the diversity of skin tones in her global photographic mosaic.

(b. 1979) Rio de Janeiro, Brazil / Madrid, Spain

Creator of the Humanae project —a chromatic taxonomy of portraits showing the different human skin tones—, Angélica Dass focuses in her work on the defense of human rights and on ethnic identities. The artist-activator has participated with this project in important international economic, cultural, and educational forums. Dass has illustrated the special edition of National Geographic devoted to the subject of race (2018), presented an installation at the World Economic Forum in Davos (2017), and been awarded the Premio Festival Off at PhotoEspaña 2013. Following the TEDGlobal talk she gave in 2016, her work has become a tool for social change, promoting dialogue and challenging entrenched cultural prejudices.