Tarsila painted this work early in her career, during one of several trips to Paris. There, she studied with
, socialized with the city’s avant-garde—including
, and Erik Satie—and cultivated ideas of returning to Brazil and developing a native art form. A Negra
came to life while she was working in the former studio of
, and Tarsila had the robust, sculptural volumes of the French artist’s “Bathers” series in mind. The figure is something like “an amplification of motherhood,” curator Perez-Oramas noted. Primal and stoic, she is more body than head.
Tarsila continued to develop her figurative style, shrinking heads and enlarging limbs to arrive at Abaporu (1928). In this painting, the giant, spectacular arm, leg, and foot of a seated male figure fill the painting’s foreground, mirroring the solid, curvilinear form of a cactus. A slice of lemon in the sky fills in for a sun. She gave the work a name composed of two Tupi-Guarani words, aba (“man”) and poru (“who eats human flesh”). This work would inspire Tarsila’s partner, de Andrade, to write his Manifesto of Anthropophagy the same year. The text reclaimed the word for “cannibalism”—an accusation European colonizers had leveled against the Tupi-Guarani people—and instead exalted a hybrid Brazilian culture that consumed and repurposed the traditions and practices of other cultures.
A year later, Tarsila would combine the figures of A Negra and Abaporu into Anthropophagy (1929), further stripping them of identifying characteristics. They become seemingly raceless and almost genderless, except for the presence of one centrally placed, monumental breast (an echo of A Negra). The reduction of the figures’ features underscore the way in which their bodies mirror the bulbous volumes and curving forms of plants behind them—a distillation of the universal idea of humanity and nature as inseparable. “Afro-Brazilian culture understands the wholeness of humanity,” said Perez-Oramas. “It doesn’t divide nature and culture. Culture is a matter of the body.”