Reenacting slavery and power in Debret: An interview with artist Vasco Araújo

Helton Levy
5 min readNov 14, 2016

Portuguese artist Vasco Araújo discusses the unusual reinterpretation that he proposes to the French 19th-century painter, Jean-Baptiste Debret (1768–1848), one of the first artists to portray the enslaver Brazil [First published in 2012]

They are light and funny sculptures, translating known scenes from the history books. Within a blue egg, arranged on a small baby-blue table, the coloniser interacts with the natives. Here, Portuguese landlords with Indigenous and Blacks in Brazil of the 18th and 19th century. With this background, Vasco Araújo shows at São Paulo’s Pinacoteca.

More than a compelling storyteller, Araújo reaches the level of a provocative reading of famous paintings by the French artist Jean-Baptiste Debret (1768–1848), known by his dubious portraits of colonial Brazil, in particular, of slaves.

On the one hand, his characters with cool poses into realistic scenes; on the other, it is about the brutal routine of those times. For Araújo, the intention was to describe this “relationship of fragility” and “to complement” the colonial portrait, not leaving behind the sexual exploitation, which is a painful part of that context, here reenacted with a “healing purpose”. On the following interview, he also talks about earlier works and on his strategy of representing the “other”, always challenging the “exotic” as a concept.

Q — When have you met Debret? Can you speak a little bit about your relationship with his works?

A — I first got to know Debret in 2009, in an exhibition here in Lisbon, with some related pieces. I knew Debret a long time ago, when I studied Fine Arts, in Art History we were used to studying Debret. When I was in São Paulo, in the [International] Biennial, in 2008, they had recently launched a raisoneé catalogue of his works. I bought it, saw the best of his work, and realised that Debret was probably the first testimony of the European relationship with the Africans. That means, the relation of the Lord of his slaves. Also, this subject was fascinating to my work. How was the situation of the ‘so-called majority’, when the minority was the majority? How is this relation of fragility? Moreover, Debret, for me, is one of the first testimonials or the first one, whatever in drawings or paintings.

Q — I see some scenes with sexual intercourses between these little figurines, why did you want to include these references?

A- The subject matter was the domestic life. As we know, the slaves worked in precarious conditions, they were sexually abused, and girls were eventually violated, and got pregnant and so on. That was the everyday situation. I think this is what we miss from Debret works, if you could appoint something missing, that’d be the thing. We only can talk about this now, since a long time has passed, not too much, but sometimes.

Q — How would you describe your approach, which is different from the documental approach, I see a certain light, also humorous tone? They are beautiful pieces for not lovely scenes.

Government Employee with His Family, Jean-Baptiste Debret

A — What it concerns to me on these pieces is that they have a healing proposal. In the sense that they are contemporary tables, blue ones, with the eggs, which are maximum symbols of the birth of something. The egg, itself, is also the symbol of maximum imperialism; we couldn’t have a more significant logo. What matters to me, is, precisely, that through this luxury and through this thing we don’t see, [I can] paint all the dirtiness of the human being.

Q — Is this why you also put phrases on the base of the works?

A — These are quotes said by Father Antonio Vieira [17th century Jesuit priest, who came to Brazil from Portugal], taken out from his sermons. They reinforce these scenes, as they were subtitles for them, but also are valid to criticise these scenes. What is essential for me is, potentially, to show that thing we don’t see. Do you know when we raise the towel, and it’s all full of garbage below? I took the trash out of the table, and now it’s on it.

Q — There is also a character who is under the skirts of one lady. I always see this kind of “level relationship”: up and down.

A — Yes, Exactly. In the other countries were different, but in the relationship of the Portuguese with the Africans, in Africa and Brazil, they were one of the only people to mix. Nobody spoke about this abuse. That was normal. It was normal lords to abuse black women. It was normal the Ladies do have sexual favours from the slaves.

Q — Generally, I see in other works of yours the same elements of this exhibition on Debret. I see subjects as a kind of photography, the same look, the other. Tell me more about these connections.

A — On Botânica, the subject is perhaps a note on the abuses committed against the humanity. How valid was this to build on what we are in today? It was possibly an attempt to create something exotic. Therefore, to use human beings, brought in from other countries, directly to Portugal, Spain, London, where there were the so-called “humans”. This is “Botânica”. In this way, they saw human beings as animals. Similarly, they brought in trees and made the botanic gardens. Here, Brazilian and African trees make the Lisbon Botanic Garden entirely. It is beautiful, we thank you so much, but at the same time, it’s strange. The problem was the manner how they were treated. It was something in between the irrational animals and the Europeans. This subject is how we make an identity.

Q — I noticed that “identity” is the background of other work, Capita.

A — Capita means “head’. The history of Capitalism comes from this, and how we can build on something from the head. During centuries all the civilisation hasn’t had a voice. What matters to me, always, is how we look at each other, and this other is not only about having a different skin colour. It’s you and me. This “other” is right on by my side. Be white, black, yellow, whatsoever, tall or thin. We all are the “other”.

Vasco Araújo is a sculptor. He has participated in the 28th São Paulo International Art Biennial with a performance, and of VideoBrasil in 2007. More on the artist you can find out on his website —



Helton Levy

Journalist, researcher & lecturer in media based in London. I am interested in media convergence from the margins of society. My website: