Exile

(1968-1981)

Abdias Nascimento lived 13 years in exile, from 1968 to 1981. In fact, the period spent out of Brazil – especially in the United States, with a one-year sojourn in Nigeria between 1976 and 1977 – was a self-exile. Abdias was not plainly forced to leave the country, even though the political scene was not the most appropriate for a man who had been an activist of the black movement and active in a number of events and circumstances since the 1950s.

The trip to the United States occurred on account of a scholarship granted by the Fairfield Foundation, New York, meant to last two months at first. On enactment of the Institutional Act No. 5 (AI-5) in Brazil in December 1968, a milestone of the rampant persecution of opponents of the military regime, it became appropriate for Abdias to look for ways to extend his stay abroad.

During the time in which he lived overseas, he worked as a visiting professor at universities – such as Yale and Wesleyan — and finally took off as a fine artist. It was there where he executed most of his paintings and was invited to have them displayed in various exhibitions and to curate.

Also during this fertile period, Abdias came into contact with the Pan-Africanism, an ideology that was heavily discussed in the congresses he started to attend during his self-exile. The term Pan-Africanism is understood as the movement advocating the union of all the peoples from Africa in order to strengthen the continent in the international arena. Being a foreigner – a Brazilian in the United States – and being an integral part of this diaspora as well – Brazilian and of African origin – strengthen the Pan-Africanist concept in Abdias’s worldview.

In a dissertation submitted to the Department of Sociology at the Faculdade de Filosofia, Letras e Ciências Humanas at Universidade de São Paulo (FFLCH/USP), Tulio Augusto Samuel Custódio discusses Abdias’s self-exile and to what extent this event changed his life and his activism practice. “Nascimento goes to self-exile as an artist and returns as a leader. His ideological rhetoric at the time went on to incorporate transnational elements, such as Pan-Africanism and Afrocentricity, which give him new meaning to think about black culture and the racial issue in Brazil. In addition to this tone in his ideology, the author revisits Abdias’s history itself. He reads his past experiences in the light of a new perspective of black identity that is now transnational and diasporic,” he points out in a passage of his dissertation.

Another remarkable event of the period spent in the United States was Abdias’s marriage with Elisa Larkin. He met the one who would become the mother of Osiris, his third child, and his life companion to share his struggle when he was hired as a professor with the State University of New York, in the city of Buffalo. The approach was made easier because Elisa, who had been an exchange student in Brazil as a teenager, could speak Portuguese. Abdias, despite having lived abroad for some years, did not speak English fluently, claiming that his giving in to a foreign language would be like being settled twice.

Buffalo, New York, 1978: wedding of Abdias Nascimento and Elisa Larkin. In the foreground, Sufi celebrants Robert and Miriam Minkoff | Ipeafro's Collection

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Timeline – United States

1969 – At first, Abdias stays at painter Ann Bagley’s house and resumes painting. He works as a visiting lecturer at the Yale School of Drama of Yale University.

1970 – Abdias displays his works at the African Art Gallery, in Washington D.C.

1971 – Founded the Chair in Black Cultures in the Center of Puerto Rican Studies of the Department of American Studies, Buffalo campus of the State University of New York. Promoted to Associate Professor, Abdias remains in office until 1981.

1974 – Carrying documents that proved his status as a temporary immigrant, Abdias travels to Brazil, where he attempts to put his documentation together in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro to legalize his stay in the United States.

1977 – Invited by UNESCO, Abdias travels to Nigeria to participate in the 2nd World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture, held in Lagos. Having had his name vetoed at the request of the military government and without the support of the Brazilian delegation, Abdias Nascimento distributes the conference text to the attendees and publishes its content in various Nigerian periodicals.

1978 – Publishes the book Sortilege: black mystery in the United States, translated by Peter Lownds. Marries Elisa Larkin in Buffalo, New York.

1979 Despite living in the United States, Abdias spends long periods of time in Rio de Janeiro, where he makes arrangements to found the Partido Democrático Trabalhista [Democratic Labor Party] (PDT) with Leonel Brizola.

1980 – Participates in the 2nd Congress of Black Culture of the Americas, held in Panama. On this occasion, Abdias presents the main points of the quilombism concept, which is framed in parallel with Molefi K. Asante’s afrocentricity.

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Guinea-Bissau, 1976: Paulo Freire and Abdias Nascimento | Elisa Larkin Nascimento/Ipeafro's Collection

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1978: Abdias Nascimento in an event at the African-American Cultural Center in Buffalo, New York (United States) | Ron Wofford/Ipeafro's Collection

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Fine artist

While in exile, Abdias fully went into his side of a fine artist. It was in the United States where he executed most of his paintings and was invited to have them displayed in various exhibitions and to curate.

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July, 1978 | Elisa Larkin Nascimento/Ipeafro's Collection

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Elisa's Oríkì

Love feeling homesick
detached
from physical death
weakened

Love of full love
overflowing
throbbing
poignant music

The temples throb love
the taclas type love
unforgiving sharp dagger
stabbing the pain

Pain of lovelessness that
is not mine
nor yours
mine is
affection that has not died
shared associated
in the apportionment of what is
mine and yours

Yours and mine in the whiteness of Obatala
in the darkeness of Laroiê
in the golden fishes
of mother oshun
oraieieu Eshu saravá

Love missing corimba
I dance my tear
while in the drum
your growing image
multiplies my strength
expands my horizons
transforms life
with a shout
happy in the affirmation
of one
of two
of all the humane trait
in us

Joined together in love
in the work with four hands
in the shared struggle
of the hope and communion
to the rhythm of the beautiful things
to the crude taste of goodness
and beauty that profess
the tenderness that you are

Elisa

[translation of the last stanza taken from Niyi Afolabi. Afro-Brazilians: cultural production in a racial democracy. New York, University of Rochester Press, 2009. p. 224]

Rio de Janeiro, July 1, 1980

Poem published in the book Axés do Sangue e da Esperança (Orikis) [Axés of Blood and Hope (Orikis)].

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New York (United States), 1978: Lélia Gonzalez, Abdias Nascimento and Leonel Brizola in a gathering promoted by Abdias | Elisa Larkin Nascimento/Ipeafro's Collection

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Timeline – return to Brazil

1981 – While still working as a professor in Middletown, Connecticut, Abdias travels several times to Brazil and helps establish the Partido Democrático Trabalhista [Democratic Labor Party] (PDT). In Sao Paulo, he founded the Instituto de Pesquisas e Estudos Afro-Brasileiros [Afro-Brazilian Studies and Research Institute] (Ipeafro) and joins it to Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo (PUC/SP). He actively participates in the creation of the Memorial Zumbi. The project aims to build a cultural center in Serra da Barriga, the old location of Quilombo dos Palmares, in the state of Alagoas.

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1981: Abdias Nascimento and Mestre Didi at the 33rd meeting of the SBPC – Sociedade Brasileira para o Progresso da Ciência [Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science], in Salvador (BA) | Elisa Larkin Nascimento/Ipeafro's Collection