Entrance to Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) (all photos by Elisa Wouk Almino/Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

In Brazil, the painter Tarsila do Amaral is so beloved and well known that we just call her Tarsila. Not surprisingly, Brazilians in New York are very excited by the exhibition of her work currently at the Museum of Modern Art. Many made it to the show’s opening weekend, proudly posting pictures to their Instagram accounts. Osklen, a Brazilian fashion brand, launched a clothing line inspired by Tarsila’s art, to coincide with the MoMA display (I caved and bought the T-shirt). When I heard about the show over a year ago, I immediately penciled it into my calendar.

The MoMA exhibition, which traveled from the Art Institute of Chicago, credits Tarsila with “inventing modern art in Brazil.” It is a grandiose statement, but I don’t think many Brazilians would take issue with it. In our textbooks, she is considered the first artist to have developed distinctly ‘Brazilian’ art in the 20th century.

In the last few years, major New York museums have staged exhibitions devoted to Brazilian artists, including Lygia Clark, Hélio Oiticica, and Lygia Pape. There has been a certain giddiness among Brazilians to see these exhibitions at big-name institutions — an excitement that the world stage is finally starting to pay attention to their art. These exhibitions have delightfully complicated the exotic, sensuous, and facile image that many Americans have of Brazil. But for me, and perhaps for other Brazilians, they have also become opportunities to articulate and elaborate on who we are, not only for an outside audience but for ourselves.

In a way, Tarsila was doing just that. She unearthed her roots to understand them better, and showed them off to the world. This, in part, was a reaction to Brazil’s peripheral status, far removed from Europe, the world’s great art center at the time. By cultivating a strong national identity, her work seemed to demand, “Look at me.” The message feels just as relevant today.

Brazil then, as now, suffered from historical amnesia, often overlooking its indigenous communities and refusing to confront the legacy of slavery. Until Tarsila, no artist had really probed the country’s past, and in such a personal way. Part of her process involved searching for a sense of place, when she felt she had lost one. In a curious twist, by the 1960s, and arguably to this day, Brazilians would find a sense of place in her art.

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Tarsila do Amaral, “Cartão-postal (Postcard)” (1929), oil on canvas

The central question of the Brazilian modernist movement boiled down to: How to define Brazil? A Portuguese colony from 1500 until 1815, Brazil by the 1920s seemed to have forgotten its precolonial roots. The country was (and still is) a mix of European, indigenous, and African cultures, and Brazilian modernists wanted this multicultural identity reflected in their art. Together they developed a new visual language that broke with Brazil’s colonial and Eurocentric past, and that more accurately reflected their heritage.

These artists — all educated, upper-middle class citizens — were profoundly influenced by the European avant-garde movements. Many had gone to art school in Europe, including Tarsila, who lived in Paris between 1920 and 1923 and studied under Fernand Léger. Taking after the European avant-garde, Brazilian modernists set out to dismantle the academic mindset that still reigned in their art schools. Their challenge, however, was to assume a European modernist spirit while resisting cultural dependence on Europe. They wanted to establish something of their own.

Tarsila felt this impulse early in her stay in Paris. After only two months there, she wrote that she felt “increasingly Brazilian,” likely accentuated by her somewhat outsider status. It was during her time abroad that she felt an urge to reconnect with her home. “I want to be the painter of my country,” she wrote in a letter to her family.

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Tarsila do Amaral, “A Negra” (1923), oil on canvas, 39 3/8 x 32 in. (Museo de Arte Contemporânea de Universidade de São Paulo, © Tarsila do Amaral Licenciamentos)

In 1923, toward the end of her stay in Paris, Tarsila painted “A Negra.” The work depicts a naked black woman of exaggerated proportions: an enormous breast, drooping lips, and large hands and feet. The figure fills most of the canvas, the background composed of abstract blocks of color; she stares coolly at the viewer. Tarsila replaced the ubiquitous European depiction of the nude female bather with a Brazilian black woman. It was the first of many artworks in which Tarsila would subvert a European tradition to assert a Brazilian presence.

Still, the painting is not exactly a portrait of empowerment. Tarsila later said that “A Negra” was inspired by the female slave who lived on her family farm in rural São Paulo. Slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1888, only two years after Tarsila was born, and her wealthy father, a landowner, had at one point owned many slaves.

In its current exhibition, MoMA does not fully acknowledge the problem of race in Tarsila’s work. The museum points out that a 21st-century American audience might find this painting challenging to reckon with, but, as some critics have already argued, the exhibition downplays the politics and power dynamics at play in Tarsila’s art. In the catalogue, for instance, the curators, Luis Pérez-Oramas and Stephanie D’Alessandro, can seem evasive, alluding briefly to “our possible reaction” and how “some may find [the painting] disturbing,” rather than stating point-blank that Tarsila, like many of her social class, was kind of racist. (Even Tarsila would later acknowledge the work as a “very controversial picture” and only chose to exhibit it twice in her lifetime.)

We must, as with so much art, see Tarsila’s through the lens of privilege. While her decision to foreground Brazil’s marginalized histories was radical at the time, she could also afford to idealize her heritage and surroundings. At the same time, the simple fact that she was a woman making and exhibiting work in a conservative and sexist culture was exceptional, and a feat in itself.

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Tarsila do Amaral, “Morro da favela (Hill of the Favela)” (1924), oil on canvas

Soon after Tarsila painted “A Negra,” she returned to Brazil and embarked on a journey with her artist friends to ‘rediscover’ their country. As D’Alessandro writes, the trip was “reminiscent of the kind undertaken by foreign travelers.” Together they stopped throughout Minas Gerais, one of Brazil’s most historical states. There Tarsila “found the colors” she “loved as a child” on her family farm — beautiful pastel pinks, blues, and greens. Her sketches and paintings of this time are both personal records and items from an explorer’s sketchbook. While these trips nostalgically evoked Tarsila’s upbringing on the farm, her childhood was far from what she observed in Minas Gerais — she grew up in a household where, as she put it, “everything smelled of France,” from her mother’s perfume to the ribbons in her hair.

But Tarsila did something that was quite novel for her time: she placed subjects front and center that, for many modern artists, wouldn’t have been considered sophisticated or serious enough to paint. She painted Amazonian flowers, the hills of the favela, and everyday people in a reduced, modernist aesthetic, and then filled them with those pastel colors — a choice, D’Alessandro pointed out to me, that is “confrontational — [the colors] are political, they’re very intentional and focused.” Tarsila mixed her European and Brazilian influences without privileging either one, placing as much emphasis on her bold style as on her quotidian subject matter.

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Tarsila do Amaral, “Abaporu” (1928), oil on canvas, 33 7/16 x 28 3/4 in. (collection MALBA, Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires, © Tarsila do Amaral Licenciamentos)

In 1927 Tarsila gave a painting to her then-husband, the influential poet Oswald de Andrade, as a birthday gift. The picture depicts an androgynous figure with a bulbous foot, leaning contemplatively on its left hand; it sits beside a cactus and beneath a sun that looks like a slice of lemon. The work would eventually be named “Abaporu,” which in the indigenous dialect of Tupí Guaraní means “man who eats people.”

This painting, perhaps Tarsila’s most famous, was the catalyst for Brazilian modernism’s ultimate legacy: cannibalism. Shocked and moved by the image, Oswald wrote a manifesto that in many ways verbalized what Tarsila had been doing for at least the previous five years. Translated in the MoMA exhibition as the “Manifesto of Anthropophagy,” it compared Brazilian modernists to cannibals. Like the native Tupí Indians who consumed their enemies to acquire their traits, the Brazilian modernists digested the foreign, transformed it, and then made it their own. In this way, Oswald and Tarsila asserted Brazilian modernity as a local creation. In other words, one could now be Brazilian and modern at the same time.

Tarsila do Amaral, “Anthropophagy (Antropofagia)” (1929), oil on canvas

Another shift came around the time that Tarsila painted “Abaporu.” She focused less on a concrete sense of place and began to paint dreamier, more imaginary settings. In 1929, she completed “Antropofagia,” which seems to draw equally on “Abaporu” and “A Negra” and shows a depthless background of foliage. A year later, she painted a “lonely figure” whose long brown hair ripples out, horizontally, like water in a deserted green landscape. Rather than search for a sense of place, Tarsila had finally created one.

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Tarsila do Amaral, “Operários (Workers)” (1933), oil on canvas

The MoMA exhibition concludes with a large painting from 1933 titled “The Factory Workers,” which depicts a sea of stern faces with gray clouds rising from factory smokestacks in the background. This painting marked yet another shift, when Tarsila became involved with the Communist party and Brazil entered an economic depression. There has been some pushback around the exhibition’s endpoint, with critics claiming that MoMA has depoliticized her work by not displaying what came after.

While we would benefit from an exhibition that continues to follow Tarsila’s long and productive life — she died in 1973 — I understand why the exhibition concludes where it does. Tarsila’s work from the 1920s made a mark on the Brazilian consciousness, and it resurfaced in the 1960s with Oiticica, Pape, and Clark, as well as the musical movement of Tropicália. Tarsila, and the ideas of anthropophagy, handed down some creative tools for these artists who, living under a dictatorship, yet again felt on the periphery and were disconnected from their country. Like Tarsila, they returned to Brazil’s indigenous roots and mixed foreign influences into their work with a sense of pride and irreverence.

Some Brazilian historians and critics have said that the tactics of anthropophagy are now irrelevant in a globalized world, because local history is no longer prized. But I’m not so sure. We are still seeking a connection with our past — and we are still confused by it. As Aracy Amaral, a prominent art historian (who is speaking at MoMA this Thursday), said in the early 2000s, “the questions that modernism posed still remain and are disquieting for a country like Brazil,” which is still relatively isolated, and has a diverse and fraught sense of identity.

In general, Brazilians are still neglectful of indigenous and marginalized histories, and while the country is no longer as off the radar as it was — exhibitions like this one, at MoMA, signal that change is underway — we are still eager to express who we are and where we came from. As Tarsila said about her paintings in a 1929 interview, “This is just the aperitif.”

Tarsila do Amaral, “Composição (Figura só) (Composition [Lonely Figure])” (1930), oil on canvas

Tarsila: Inventing Modern Art in Brazilcontinues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through June 3.

Elisa Wouk Almino is a senior editor at Hyperallergic. She is based in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.