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Why Quilombo Is Not an Institutional Program, Nor a New Art “Ism”.

  • Essay
  • Aug 16 2023
  • Filipe Lippe
    is a poet, artist and researcher born in 1986 in Duque de Caxias, Brazil. He is a PhD candidate in art theory at HFBK Hamburg, researching on historical trauma, racism, and (de)coloniality in the context of neoliberalism.

In colonial Brazil, quilombos — autonomous communities created by fugitive enslaved Afrodiasporic people — constituted one of the first documented experiences of anti-slavery and anti-colonial resistance. It is credited that first quilombola communities were formed in the 16th century. These were socially structured according to African cultural values with a democratic type of political organization sustained by an economic model based on communitarian mutual help, in contrast to the Western colonial plantation system and capitalist accumulation. The aggregating characteristic of these communities made them a point of convergence where different peoples, such as Amerindians, and even white people who were not committed to the colonial society, could interact and eventually join. This form generated cultural and ethono-racial entanglements and hybridizations that gave birth to a multiethnic and pluricultural way of being beyond the direct mediation of European colonizers. Although quilombos were first formed as a result of the suffering provoked by the experience of losing identity and humanity, defined by the experience of being trafficked to another continent to be enslaved, quilombola people were also driven by the need to establish alliances to guarantee the freedom and survival of peoples oppressed by colonialism. More than a dissident community, the quilombo is a way of surviving, a struggle, and a means of belonging collectively to a territory that has historically informed the struggle for the rights of Black and non-white peoples in Brazil to this day.

Based on this background, the Brazilian artist, author, and politician Abdias Nascimento proposed at the 2nd Congress of Black Culture of the Americas (Panama, 1980) the legacy of quilombo as a model of resistance for Black peoples in the Americas. Moreover, Nascimento proposed an understanding of Quilombismo in his book, Quilombismo: Documentos de uma militância Pan-Africanista (1980), as an anti-capitalist and anti-racist political principle for the Brazilian state with the aim of establishing a nation based on racial, cultural and class egalitarianism.

Before articulating his concept of Quilombismo, Nascimento had already created, with his wife Maria Nascimento, the Teatro Experimental do Negro (TEN) (Black Experimental Theater) in 1944. Besides aiming at the inclusion of Black people in the Brazilian theater scene, TEN's main goal was to question the legitimacy of the Brazilian theater aesthetics that, according to Nascimento, were mainly informed by a white and Eurocentric aesthetics. Moreover, TEN promoted literacy courses for Black people and conferences on Black culture and the social condition of the Black population in Brazil. In 1948, the journal Quilombo: Vida, Problemas e Aspirações do Negro (Quilombo: Life, Problems and Aspirations of Blacks) was created in order to promote Afro-Brazilian culture and thinking. In the 1950s, Nascimento created the Museu de Arte Negra (MAN) (Museum of Black Art) in order to promote and value Afro-Brazilian art, and Black people, as exponents of a struggle against racism. Although MAN organized exhibitions in various institutions, the museum never had its own fixed location. 

During the Brazilian civil-military dictatorship (1964-1985), Abdias Nascimento lived for thirteen years in self-imposed exile in the United States and Nigeria between 1968 and 1981. In the United States, Nascimento was a visiting professor at Yale and Wesleyan Universities, and was named professor in the department of Puerto Rican Studies at the State University of New York. By that time, he had come into direct contact with the activists from the broader US Civil Rights Movements, the Black Panthers, the Black Art Movement, and several institutions created by African-American artists, authors and activists. In the 1970s Nascimento traveled regularly in the United States and Africa. He lived in Nigeria from 1976 to 1977, becoming strongly influenced by Pan-Africanism. During his exile, he also developed his painting, which combines geometric abstraction with Candomblé-derived religious symbology. On returning to Brazil, he formally joined the Partido Democrático Trabalista (Democratic Labor Party) in order to serve as a congress member representing the ideals of the Movimento Negro Unificado (Unified Black Movement), which advocated for the rights of the Black population. In 1981, Nascimento created with his second wife, Elisa Larkin Nascimento, the institute IPEAFRO (Institute of Afro-Brazilian Research and Studies) in order to promote Black thinking and culture in academia.

In Quilombismo: Documentos de uma militância Pan-Africanista, Nascimento identified quilombo as a principle of social organization and resistance which imbues a sense of aggregation and community based in recognizing the humanity of the Other. For him, the function of ensuring the survival of oppressed peoples is the ethical foundation for what he named Quilombismo. Thus, by applying Quilombismo as a political principle, Nascimento claims space for an autonomous theory and practice based on the experience of the oppressed which is not directed by external concepts aiming to adapt the oppressed to the dominant social scheme. In this sense, Quilombismo is seen as a principle meaning “fraternal and free encounter, solidarity, coexistence and existential communion.” [1] Quilombismo, then, offers the possibility of transforming society in a way that “represents a stage in human and sociopolitical progress in terms of economic egalitarianism.” [2]

In colonial Brazil, the anti-systemic quality of quilombo guaranteed the survival of quilombola people and the maintenance of their cultures and knowledges. However, even after Brazilian Independence in 1822, the Abolition of Slavery in 1888, and the Proclamation of the Republic in 1988, non-white populations continued to be oppressed by the state, and African and Amerindian cultures remained marginalized. These segments of society needed to create methods through which they could keep their cultures and traditions alive. In this context, the quilombos remained as a subterfuge where cultural traditions could be maintained; simultaneously, the quilombo way of life was spreading to urban centers and acquiring other settlement formats. Based on this, Abdias do Nascimento classified two types of quilombo. The first is the “illegal quilombo,” which were the settlements in the forests established during the era of slavery in Brazil. The second is the “legal quilombo”, which consists of sites of culture such as samba schools and terreiros [3] founded after the abolition of slavery. 

Settlements similar to quilombos were created in all regions of the American continent where the slave system operated. [4] But Brazilian quilombos originate, specifically, from the Imbangala people of Angola. In her essay O Conceito de Quilombo e a Resistência Cultural Negra (1986), the Brazilian historian Beatriz Nascimento explains that the nomadic character of the Imbangalas’ way of life, which, added to the specificity of their social formation, allowed their community to integrate foreigners as long as they were initiated through a ritual. The Imbangalas created then an institution called “Kilombo”, which served to unite peoples of diverse origins into a community designated for military resistance against slave trafficking. [5] In this respect, the individuals who were integrated into the Imbangala’s group would be instituted as Kilombo.

As Beatriz Nascimento argues in the 1989 essayistic film Ôrí, [6] due to constant persecutions and battles, quilombola people had to adapt to a fugitive way of life. Although the foundation of the quilombo is the land, and quilombolas identified themselves deeply with the land, they had to learn that they themselves were the land; they were the quilombo. This characteristic of quilombo defines this type of community as a becoming, a continuous and unfinished history, an open memory of ancestral struggles, a process of identification forged in the relations and action between individuals who join together to fight for emancipation, and for the possibility of inhabiting the world. So, the quilombist becoming is, in this sense, the ethos that guides the effort of quilombola individuals to inhabit the world and belong to it. Unlike the colonial-capitalist-neoliberal rationality that identifies land as private property that can, or must, be exploited, in a quilombo the individual recognizes the community and the land as part of a collective identity. A quilombola does not see itself as the owner of the land, but as someone who belongs to the land. This outlines the non-predatory way in which quilombolas relate to the territories they occupy.

As the quilombist model of communal organization is an open and dynamic system structured to handle individual and collective needs, the kind of political governance it applies is defined by mutually supportive relations, establishing a mode of power that differs from the predominant Western one. Also in Ôrí, Beatriz Nascimento states that:

“Research about the quilombo is partly based on questioning power. However much a social system dominates, it is possible that a different system is created within it, and that is what the quilombo is. But the quilombo’s mode of being does not enact state power in the sense that we understand it as political power, power of domination, because the quilombo disallows this perspective. Each individual is the power, each individual is the quilombo.” 

This kind of power she is referring to is non-oppressive. She is arguing about a form of potentializing the subject that differs from neoliberal forms of empowerment, because it aims to promote the welfare of a community and not the individualization of power. The quilombola individual is, from this perspective, a collective individual, and its potentiation strengthens its social group. When Quilombismo is applied in a specific sociopolitical context, it functions as a potency that codifies a way of coexisting and cohabiting spaces.

Hence, while Abdias do Nascimento identifies Quilombismo as a principle that can be applied as an instrument of sociopolitical decolonization, Beatriz Nascimento identifies quilombo as an identity in process, and a form of (co)existing in the world. This understanding of Quilombismo as an identity provides tools to challenge the coloniality of being. [7] The quilombization of social spaces will only be effectively accomplished if it leads to the quilombization of individuals. From this perspective, Quilombismo is instrumental in creating the conditions for individuals to coexist in the world without having their ethno-racial and cultural differences suppressed by a single way of living.

With this is mind, I proposed in my essay Common Grounds: Quilombizing the Subject, the Museum, and the World to Inhabit It, [8] published in Issue 12 of the Stedelijk Journal, the application of Quilombismo into the artistic practice and art institutions as a means of collectivizing art and turning institutions into communal spaces where new social relations and cultural hybridizations can germinate in opposition to racism and neoliberal capitalism. More precisely, my proposal asserted that in adopting the autonomous model of self-governance, communal participation and aggregative identity of quilombos, the possibility of transforming art institutions into counter-institutional spaces where diverse social groups, cultures and knowledges intermingle to create a radically democratic and collective way of being is enhanced. Thus, the quilombization of artistic practices and art institutions would inform the implementation of a new ethics and a new institutional mechanism of operation, engaging the institution with the community that surrounds it, and contradicting competitive and hierarchical structures. In short, my proposal for quilombizing art institutions and artistic practices is aimed at the creation of a place where collective anti-colonialist, anti-racist, and anti-capitalist aesthetic-political practices can find the necessary strength to create cultural entanglements, subjectivities, and to establish social relations that provide belonging, recognition, and recognize the humanity of all kinds of people and a non-destructive way of living together.

Quilombizing Institutions Or Institutionalizing Quilombo?

With the intensification of the debate on identity-based issues and decolonial thinking within the social realm, the current incorporation of non-Western aesthetic and epistemic perspectives into the mainstream art scene has become a strategy (if not a rule) which engaged agents employ to “decolonize” and “democratize” art. In this context, Quilombismo has been “rediscovered” as an alternative to coloniality and racism within the art system. Despite this performative embrace, the current flirtation that art maintains with Quilombismo highlights problematic nuances existing in the relationship between institutions and dissident practices, especially when it comes to the assimilation, institutionalization, and instrumentalization of them. One example of this is the project Programa Abdias Nascimento e O Museu de Arte Negra (Program Abdias Nascimento and The Museum of Black Art) undertaken by the private art institution Instituto Inhotim (Minas Gerais, Brazil) and IPEAFRO. It was initiated in 2021 in order to host the Museu de Arte Negra in Inhotim, and to associate the work of Nascimento with the collection of the institution. This project is devided in three temporary exhibitions at Inhotim, Primeiro Ato: Abdias Nascimento, Tunga e O Museum do Negro (Act One: Abdias Nascimento, Tunga and The Museum of Black Art), Segundo Ato: Dramas para negros e prólogo para brancos (Second Act: Dramas for Blacks and Prologue for Whites), Terceiro Ato: Sortilégio (Third Act: Sortilege). Additionally, there are the exhibitions Quilombo: Vida, Problemas e Aspirações do Negro (Quilombo: Life, Problems, and Aspirations of the Black) and O Mundo é o Teatro do Homem (The World is the Theater of Mankind), organized by the direction and curatorial team of  Inhotim in partnership with IPEAFRO, to celebrate the work of Abdias Nascimento. 

In August 2017, Bernardo Paz, the founder of Inhotim and a former mining magnate, was sentenced by Brazilian courts to nine years and three months in prison for money laundering. Subsequently, Paz was sentenced to five years for tax evasion. At the time, there were also accusations of slave and child labor, illegal deforestation, and land grabbing. [9] In 2018, Paz made a deal with the courts and paid his multimillion-dollar tax debt using 20 works from his art collection, a strange transaction in which the works were donated to the state, but remained installed at Inhotim. In 2020, Paz was acquitted of the crime of money laundering. Private institutions and property are exactly what Brazilian quilombos have been opposing for five centuries. Why then would a private institution like Inhotim be a suitable place to celebrate the work of Abdias Nascimento and Quilombismo?

Another recent attempt to introduce Quilombismo into the institutional space is the exhibition and program O Quilombismo: Of Resisting and Insisting. Of Flight as Fight. Of Other Democratic Egalitarian Political Philosophies opened in June 2023 at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) in Berlin. The HKW program has been emphatically presented as a broad effort to employ quilombist principles by promoting quilombo-inspired exhibitions, publications, performances, film screenings, storytelling sessions, lectures, cooking jams, concerts, and an educational program called School of Quilombismo. Since its opening, this program has been widely celebrated as a novelty that would refresh the Berlin art scene. However, despite the avowal that HKW is drawing on quilombist principles to change its operating model, turning it into a communal space, this project does not apply Quilombismo in the radically necessary way to transform HKW into a quilombo-style community space. On the contrary, it institutionalizes a practice which is historically anti-systemic and counter-institutional, once all of the activities promoted by HKW's quilombist program until now have followed  all of the standard institutional norms adopted by every regular Western art institution. Besides being an autonomous mode of social organization, quilombola communities are historically a form of political and cultural resistance developed by oppressed populations. Adapting quilombo to the institutional model of the arts, especially in major capitalist countries like Germany, is a strategic error that can neutralize quilombola resistance. 

Projects such as the HKW’s play the relevant role of popularizing quilombo's history and practice, presenting it to audiences who have never had contact with quilombo. However, they also ensnare (not to say imprison) revolutionary ideas, knowledges, and practices in a strictly Western and capitalist institutional model. It is important to accept that there is a crucial difference between turning an institution into a quilombo and institutionalizing the quilombo. When I proposed the quilombization of art and art institutions in my article in the Stedelijk Journal, I presented a radical proposal in which administrative and curatorial decisions of an eventual quilombo art institution can be made through public assemblies, and in which art collections are de-privatized and turned into common goods, as well as accompanying financial reforms based on obtaining new means of collecting funds that are not not dependent on private capitalist foundations, banks, and patrons committed to neoliberalism. The existing hierarchies between professions and payment should be abolished in order to avoid competition, as well as the proliferation of classism, racism, sexism, and the precarization of working conditions. As a quilombo, this art institution should be an emancipatory space of encounter, conviviality, mutual help, and care, but also a place of resistance and rupture with the capitalist system. None of this is evident at Inhotim and HKW.

A trap into which dissident agents acting in the field of art often fall, especially nowadays when openly anti-systemic aesthetic-political practices are increasingly rare, consists of the institutional and market assimilation of their practices and thinking. This has mainly occurred with decolonial and identity-based proposals within the art system. It probably occurs because one of the main strategies adopted by decolonial thinkers and doers, as well as by social minorities concerned with identity politics, is to occupy spaces of power and representation so that they can spread their ideas and sociopolitical demands, and, thus, finally be heard. In this respect, every art space, from museums to commercial galleries, are understood as spaces that can potentially be occupied and reformulated based on the interventions of artists, curators, and thinkers who share the same yearning for social reparation, as well as for diversification, democratization, and decolonization of art and knowledge. This is a reformist strategy that aims not at the total dismantling of the art system, but at the application of specific measures based on inclusion policies to improve it. The problem with this strategy is that while it promotes individual success for a few artists and curators, this kind of inclusion tends to turn dissent agents into collaborators, as well as to commodify social demands and marginalized identities. Moreover, it does not have a concrete impact on the lives of oppressed populations, since it keeps the capitalist system intact.

In this context, we must pay special attention to the phenomenon of identity politics and its close relationship with neoliberal capitalism. Since the 2000s, identity politics [10] has gained special attention within progressive political sectors of the United States, spreading rapidly to Europe and several countries of the Global South. Identity politics has stood out precisely because, after the bankruptcy of traditional Socialist and Communist lefts, and the triumph of neoliberalism in practically the entire world between the late 1980s and the early 1990s, progressive sectors of societies felt lacking a political agency that could offer alternatives to the social ills they experienced. In a context where there were almost no anti-systemic options within the left, identity politics then emerged as a means to fight racist, heteronormative, and misogynistic social oppressions by demanding social equality, as well as cultural and political representation for social minorities within the capitalist system. [11] However, although identity politics has advocated social reforms, it isn’t able to contain the expansion of neoliberalism from economics and politics from key sectors of societies such as education, labor, health system, media, and culture. Hence, it didn't take long for identity politics to be instrumentalized by neoliberalism.

In this vein of argument, the American Marxist-oriented feminist philosopher Nancy Fraser coined the term progressive neoliberalism to designate the assimilation of identity-based political agendas by political and economic power centers in the United States, more specifically the Democratic Party and Wall Street. Fraser contends that:

"In its US form, progressive neoliberalism is an alliance of mainstream new social movement currents (feminism, anti-racism, multiculturalism, and LGBTQ rights) on the one hand, and "symbolic" business and service sectors (Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood) on the other. In this alliance, progressive forces effectively join the forces of cognitive capitalism, especially financialization. Albeit unintentionally, the former lend their charisma to the latter. Ideals like diversity and empowerment, which in principle might serve different ends, now gloss over policies that have devastated manufacturing and what were once middle-class lives."

The incorporation of identity-based social agendas and decolonial perspectives into the global art system/art market corresponds to the phenomenon of the instrumentalization of progressive socio-political agendas and anti-systemic aesthetic-political practices, making them a means to enhance the system. Quilombos, as well as Abdias Nascimento's Quilombismo, are fundamentally opposed to this type of assimilation. 

Quilombismo Has Never Been a Systemic Practice.

In the 20th century the Black rights movement in Brazil was successful in guaranteeing the official recognition of the right to collective lands for quilombos, codified in the Constitution of 1988. But legality, besides submitting quilombos to the apparatus of the capitalist state, did not mean that quilombola communities actually obtained the right to land. Until today, the very few quilombola communities which are officially recognized by the Brazilian state have received title deeds to the lands where they live. Local landowners and transnational companies regularly violently force quilombola populations to leave their lands. This shows how problematic the relationship between dissident practices and the institutional order established by capitalist power can be. Why then would quilombist practices need any kind of legitimization such as that promoted by mainstream Western  institutions? What would the transformation of Quilombismo into a trend within the art scene, or a new marketable art “ism” add to the struggle of quilomobola people?

In the Brazilian context, Quilombismo, as it was proposed by Abdias Nascimento, remains as a social option that can inform anti-racist and anti-capitalist struggles from an anti-systemic perspective. Why, therefore, should it be turned into an institutional program? Celebrating the work of Abdias Nascimento is laudable in itself, and to expose the history and the legacy of the quilombo in cultural spaces is a valid exercise in historiography, but it is urgent that we take precautions so that the continuing legacy of the quilombo is not assimilated in such a way that its subversive and transformative potential is reduced. Otherwise we will lose a powerful form of resistance that, together with other Non-Western and some Western (why not?) anti-racist and anti-capitalist practices, can guide us in the creation of an in-common based on solidarity, mutuality and a means for the recognition of the vulnerability, needs, and rights of all peoples.



    [1] Abdias do Nascimento, Quilombismo: Documentos de uma militância Pan-Africanista (Brasília: Fundação Palmares, 2002), 274.

    [2] Ibid.

    [3] Temples where Afro-Brazilian religions such as Candomblé and Umbanda are cultivated.

    [4] The communities created by runaway enslaved people in the Americas have their origins in African communalism. The name given to the settlements varies according to the country, with “maroon community” and “maroonage” being the most used terms in the United States and Caribbean countries, while “cimarron” is often used in the Spanish Antilles. The word “maroon” comes from the French adjective marron, which means “fugitive” and “savage.” In Latin America, some of these communities can also be called palenques. The term “mocambo” is occasionally applied in Brazil, meaning “improvised hut.”

    [5] The etymological origins of the word “quilombo” stem from Kilombo, which means “village” or “fortress” in Bantu.

    [6] Raquel Gerber, 1989, Brazil, 100'.

    [7] For a broader understanding of the concept of coloniality of being, I recommend the article “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument” by Jamaican author Sylvia Wynter.



    [10] It is credited that the term "identity politics" has indeed a longer history, since it was coined by the Marxist-oriented black feminist collective Combahee River in the 1970's, as American author Asad Haider clarifies in his book Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in The Age of Trump (2018). In my argument I am referring specifically to the growth of identity politics since the 2000's.

    [11] There were other movements such as the Alter-globalization and Occupy. However, I am focusing my argument on the phenomenon of identity politics, which, unlike these movements that quickly faded away, managed to remain an ideological force present in the socio-political debate.

    [12] Nancy Fraser. "The End of Progressive Neoliberalism". USA, Dissent Magazine, 2017. The article is available online under the link:



    Mapa da Capitania de Pernambuco, com rapresentaciao Quilombo dos Palmares (1647).



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