On the day Emmanuel Araujo died last year, his museum collapsed.
It was September 7, the 200th anniversary of Brazil’s independence, and renovations at Museo Afro Brasil had begun just a month earlier.
An artist known as much for his geometric sculptures and reliefs as for his tenacity and eagerness to get what he wanted, Araujo (pronounced ahra-oo-joh) was just two months shy of his 82nd birthday when he died — 18 years after he founded the museum. And later fought for state funding for much-needed updates.
Even as floors were torn up and walls taken down, Araujo was adamant that the Museu Afro Brasil — which bears his name on the building and which he considers his most important work — not shutter completely, leaving long-term exhibitions open to the public.
Although he is not well known in many parts of the world, Araujo is a household name in the Brazilian art world. He spent his life trying to create a much-needed exhibition space for recognized Afro-Brazilian artists – in a country with a majority black population – and was pained to think that the museum’s doors, in São Paulo’s Ibirapuera Park, would be closed.
“We already had to close in 2020 for eight months because of the pandemic, and Emmanuel is so distressed about it, so worried,” Sandra Sales, executive director of Museu Afro Brasil, said in a recent interview. “He refused to work from home. We laughed because we couldn’t physically go to the museum even though the park was closed, he wanted to go to work.”
So when Araujo died, there was no need to discuss where he would be cremated. Friends and colleagues came together to clean the gallery next to the entrance on the ground floor of the museum. In the middle of the high-ceilinged room, its stark-white walls save for two of Araujo’s reliefs, they placed a “baoba,” one of the artist’s best-known pieces.
The sculpture, a vertical figure carved into wood with sharp corners and painted in black, is named after a tree sacred to the Yoruba people of West Africa. It represents the connection between the physical and spiritual worlds and is considered the witness of time and guardian of memory. It is also a fitting symbol for a man who has spent his life preserving the history and culture of Afro-Brazilians through his artists.
“He used to say, ‘If I don’t remember them, remember their story, no one will,'” Seles said. ‘This country has no memory. They will think all this fell from the sky.’
Now the spotlight is turning to Araujo’s work: his first solo exhibition in the United States will be at New York’s Jack Scheinman Gallery, which also represents his estate. The show, which opens on September 12, will highlight pieces created by the artist throughout his career from 1970 to 2022 in a variety of mediums, including wood, metal and found objects.
“He spent so much of his life supporting other artists,” said gallery co-founder Jack Shainman. “In a way, he was hiding in plain sight. And his concern, his purpose, his work is really on par with so many artists that I already work with that adding his voice almost feels like it’s part of a chorus.”
Much of Araujo’s private collection of African and Afro-Brazilian artists – which number in the thousands and is spread across his home and Museu Afro Brasil – will also be put up for auction in Sao Paulo later this year, with the hope that they will be available for public viewing. .
Born into a family of goldsmiths in the city of Santo Amaro da Purificao in the northeastern state of Bahia, Brazil, Araujo learned to work with wood in the studio of a master woodcarver, Eufrasio Vargas. At age 13, he took a job as a graphic designer at his city’s official press, a company that prints government communications and announcements.
Six years later, convinced that he was on the right path as an artist, he held his first solo exhibition. He soon moved to the state capital of Salvador, where he studied printmaking at the Escola de Belas Artes da Bahia. He would go on to exhibit his work in nearly 50 solo shows and over 150 group exhibitions, winning several awards, including a gold medal at the 1972 Graphic Biennale in Florence.
After serving as director of the Museu de Arte da Bahia in the early 1980s, Araújo moved to New York, where he taught courses in graphic art and sculpture at City College. Back in Brazil, he spent a decade as director of São Paulo’s Pinacoteca, one of the country’s most important art museums, before founding the Museu Afro Brasil in 2004.
An avid collector, he filled the museum’s vast galleries with art he had accumulated over the years: a mix of works that touched on themes of labor, agriculture and slavery. All tell stories of the journey Africans took when they were forced to Brazil and the resilience they needed to rebuild their communities and retain their culture.
When Araujo liked an artist, he made it a point to buy every piece he could find. He was passionate about collecting and exhibiting the work of lesser-known black artists, such as the brothers Joao and Arthur Timoteo da Costa, who worked together at the Brazilian mint, designing stamps and prints before turning their attention to painting in the early 1900s.
But while Araujo won praise for supporting certain artists, he was criticized for not including others.
“Anyone who is critical can see that there are few female artists represented in the museum,” said Amanda Carneiro, a curator and an artistic organizer for the 2024 Venice Biennale who worked with Araujo as a coordinating assistant in education at the Museu Afro Brasil. Kendra “Everything has a limit. Museu Afro Brasil is wonderful, but when something stands alone, it carries more weight and is not plural enough to represent diversity.”
That’s something Salles thinks Araujo was trying to change in the months before his death. The last two exhibitions Araujo curated were “Multiple Female Voices,” which featured 86 works by 28 female artists.
While Araujo’s penchant for collecting as many works by a single artist as possible may seem excessive, it also points to his generosity. He gave countless pieces from his personal collection to the Museu Afro Brasil — about 2,000 works of the museum’s 9,000-piece collection are on loan from him — and to several other art institutions, including the Pinacoteca.
“He made a big difference, he still makes a big difference,” says Kina Ellison, curator and former artistic director of the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro. “We need to talk about Emmanuel. He needs to be referenced. We have to make him a household name.”
Araujo spent little time in an office in a corner of the museum and rarely sat down, but when he did, it was at the desk of his secretary of more than 30 years, Maria de Fatima Padua, so they could discuss the day’s work. . A demanding boss who also liked to have fun, he could usually be seen strolling around a museum in his signature hat and designer shoes — Burberry and Prada were his favorites — with his dogs, Joka and Tim by his side.
For Araujo, some longtime workers were like family. His secretary now takes care of his dogs, their yellow and white ceramic bowls still on his office shelf. Next to them is a framed photo of a chubby, smiling child, the son of another museum employee, and Araujo’s god and namesake.
He was also like family to those who worked closest to him.
“He may be gone, but the museum will never be without him,” Seles said. “All this will always come from him.”