The day Emanoel Araújo died last year, his museum was in shambles.
It was Sept. 7, the 200th anniversary of Brazil’s independence, and renovations at the Museu Afro Brasil had just begun the month before.
An artist known as much for his geometric sculptures and reliefs as for his tenacity and penchant for getting what he wanted, Araújo (pronounced Ahra-OO-zhoh) was just two months shy of his 82nd birthday at the time of his death — 18 years after he founded the museum and later fought for state funding for much-needed updates.
Even as floors were being torn up and walls taken down, Araújo was adamant that the Museu Afro Brasil — which bears his name on the building and which he considered his most important work — not shutter completely, leaving the long-term exhibitions open to the public.
Although he is not well known in many parts of the world, Araújo is a household name in Brazil’s art world. He spent his life trying to create much-needed exhibition spaces for underrecognized Afro-Brazilian artists — this in a country with a population that is majority Black — and it pained him to think that the doors of the museum, in São Paulo’s Ibirapuera Park, would be closed.
“We already had to shut down for eight months in 2020 because of the pandemic, and Emanoel was so distressed about it, so worried,” Sandra Salles, executive director of the Museu Afro Brasil, said in a recent interview. “He refused to work from home. We laughed because even when the park was closed and we couldn’t physically get to the museum, he wanted to go in to work.”
So when Araújo died, there was no need to discuss where his funeral would be held. Friends and colleagues got together and started clearing out the gallery next to the museum’s ground-floor entrance. At the center of the high-ceilinged room, its stark-white walls bare save for two of Araújo’s reliefs, they placed one of the artist’s best-known pieces, “Baobá.”
The sculpture, an imposing vertical figure with sharp angles carved in wood and painted black, is named after a tree sacred to the West African Yoruba people. It represents the connection between the physical and spiritual worlds and is considered a witness to time and a guardian of memory. It’s also a fitting symbol for a man who spent his life trying to preserve the history and culture of Afro-Brazilians through its artists.
“He used to say, ‘If I don’t remember them, remember their story, nobody will,’” Salles said. “‘This country has no memory. They’ll think this all fell from the sky.’”
Now the spotlight is being turned back on Araújo’s work: His first solo exhibition in the United States will be at Jack Shainman Gallery, in New York, which also represents his estate. The show, opening Sept. 12, will highlight pieces the artist created throughout his career, from the 1970s to 2022, in various mediums, including wood, metal and found objects.
“He spent so much of his life supporting other artists,” the gallery’s co-founder, Jack Shainman, said. “In a way, he was hiding in plain sight. And his concerns, his intentions, his work really parallels so many of the artists I work with already that adding his voice feels almost like it’s part of a chorus.”
Much of Araújo’s personal collection of pieces from African and Afro-Brazilian artists — which number in the thousands and are spread out across his homes and the Museu Afro Brasil — will also be put up for auction later this year in São Paulo, with hopes that they will continue to be available for public viewing.
Born into a family of goldsmiths in the town of Santo Amaro da Purificação in Brazil’s northeastern state of Bahia, Araújo learned to work with wood in the studio of a master woodcarver, Eufrásio Vargas. At 13, he took a job as a graphic designer for his hometown’s Official Press, a company that prints government communications and announcements.
Six years later, certain that he was on the right path as an artist, he held his first solo exhibition. He soon moved to the state capital, Salvador, where he studied printmaking at the Escola de Belas Artes da Bahia. He would go on to show his work in some 50 solo shows and more than 150 group exhibitions, winning several awards along the way, including a gold medal at the 1972 Graphic Biennial in Florence.
After a stint as director of the Museu de Arte da Bahia in the early 1980s, Araújo headed to New York, where he taught courses in graphic arts and sculpture at City College. Back in Brazil, he spent a decade as the 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 immense galleries with art he’d accumulated over the years: a mix of works touching on the themes of labor, farming and slavery. All tell the story of the journey Africans took when they were forcibly brought to Brazil and of the resilience they needed to rebuild their communities and hold on to their cultures.
When Araújo liked an artist, he made it his mission to buy every piece of theirs he could find. He was passionate about collecting and exhibiting the works of little-known Black artists, like the brothers João and Arthur Timótheo da Costa, who worked together at Brazil’s mint, designing stamps and prints before turning their focus to painting in the early 1900s.
But while Araújo had been winning praise for supporting certain artists, he was criticized for not including others.
“Anyone with a critical eye can see there are few women artists represented in the museum,” said Amanda Carneiro, curator and artistic organizer of the Vienna Biennial who used to work alongside Araújo as a coordination assistant at the Museu Afro Brasil’s education center. “Everything has its limits. The Museu Afro Brasil is wonderful, but when something stands alone, it ends up carrying more weight and not being plural enough in its representation of diversity.”
That’s something that Salles thinks Araújo was trying to change in the months before his death. The last two exhibitions that Araújo oversaw were “Multiple Female Voices,” showcasing 86 works from 28 female artists.
While Araújo’s fondness for accumulating as many works by a single artist as possible may have seemed excessive, it also pointed to his generosity. He gave countless pieces from his personal collection to the Museu Afro Brasil — about 2,000 works in the museum’s 9,000-piece collection are on loan from him — and made donations to several other art institutes, including the Pinacoteca.
“He made a big difference, he still makes a big difference,” says Keyna Eleison, curator and a former artistic director of Rio de Janeiro’s Museum of Modern Art. “We need to keep talking about Emanoel. He needs to be referenced. We need to make him a household name.”
Araújo spent little time in the office tucked away in a corner of the museum and rarely sat, but when he did, it was at the desk of his secretary of more than 30 years, Maria de Fátima Pádua, so they could discuss the day’s tasks. A demanding boss who also loved to joke around, he could generally be found flitting around the museum in one of his signature hats and designer shoes — Burberry and Prada were his favorites — with his dogs, Joca and Tim, by his side.
For Araújo, some of the longtime staffers were like family. His secretary now cares for his dogs, their yellow and white ceramic bowls still on the shelf in his office. Next to them sits a framed photo of a chubby, smiling baby, the son of another museum employee and Araújo’s godson and namesake.
For the people who worked closest with him, he was like family, too.
“He might be gone, but the museum will never be without him,” Salles said. “All of this will always have come from him.”