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For the Sake of God, Gold, and Science: Photographic Appropriation in Rosana Paulino’s ¿História Natural?

Despite the consensus among scholars that Rosana Paulino’s works are seminal to Brazilian contemporary art and the boost in the research dedicated to her over the past decade, many aspects of her production still need addressing. For instance, there is little scholarship on how she has appropriated photographs representing Black enslaved individuals in Brazil, even though these images are central in some of her most acclaimed works – e.g., Settlement (2013), ¿Natural History? (2016), and Brazilian Geometry (2018).

Paulino was the first Brazilian artist to appropriate photographs representing slavery in Brazil to address how race science was instrumental in producing demeaning representations of Black individuals. For thirty years, through her artistic practice, Paulino has claimed that Brazilian society must reckon with its historical ties to slavery and its legacies and make the necessary amends to shape a better future for its Black citizens.

The artistic book ¿Natural History? (¿História Natural?) – one of Paulino’s most ambitious works – was created in the 2010s when she focused on examining the damaging impacts of race science in Black Brazilians’ lives. During this phase, Paulino took a direct stand against the Swiss-born American naturalist, geologist, and Harvard professor Louis Agassiz, whose scientific theories have had a lasting prejudicial impact on the debates over race in Brazil. Like many other artistic and scientific travelers, Agassiz came to Brazil during the 19th century to study the country’s flora, its fauna, and the result of racial miscegenation on the formation of its people. The visual archives created by these men are nowadays known as Brasiliana collections and non-critically constituted for a long time the pillars of Brazilian identity.

All photographs appropriated by Paulino in ¿Natural History? represent Black enslaved individuals whose images were registered without consent by Augusto Stahl, Christiano Júnior, and Alberto Henschel, European photographers who took residency and developed a significant part of their professional practices in Brazil. This study draws on a multidisciplinary theoretical and methodological basis to propose a close-up analysis of how Paulino transformed the materiality of these appropriated photographs, investing them with additional layers of meanings and effects. In this sense, it aims to deepen the comprehension of how Paulino has engaged with the practical limits, ethical risks, and aesthetical possibilities of depicting slavery and its afterlife in the 21st century.