DALTON PAULA, “João Mulunga,” 2023 (oil and gold leaf on canvas in two parts, 24 x 17 3⁄4 x 1 1⁄2 inches). | © Dalton Paula, Courtesy the artist and James Fuentes


THE WORK OF Brazilian artist Dalton Paula (b. 1982) may look familiar. A pair of portraits he painted representing slave resistance leaders Zeferina and João de Deus Nascimento are featured prominently in the international traveling exhibition “Afro-Atlantic Histories,” and one of the portraits, Paula’s image of Zeferina, graces the cover of both the Brazilian and U.S. versions of the exhibition catalog.

Paula recently joined a new gallery. James Fuentes, with locations in New York and Los Angeles, announced its representation Paula on Nov. 30. Previously, Paula was on the roster of Alexander & Bonin in New York. James Fuentes is now representing the artist in the United States in collaboration with Sé Galeria in Brazil.

James Fuentes showed Paula’s work at Art Basel Miami Beach this week. At the end of 2024, the gallery will present its first solo exhibition with the artist in Los Angeles.

Born in Brasilia, Brazil, Paula lives and works in Goiânia, Brazil. Paula’s multidisciplinary conceptual practice is a powerful nexus of visual representation, historical preservation, and racial justice. His central concern is the African Diaspora in Brazil and understanding its history through the lens of its people. Working across painting, photography and installation, Paula and is best known for his portraits.


Dalton Paula in his studio Goiania, Brazil. | Courtesy the artist


Historically, few Black Brazilians were represented in paintings. When they were depicted, most went unidentified. Paula researches historically significant figures whose lives are documented, but for whom there is no visual record and creates imagined portraits, giving them visibility, recognition, and “redressing history’s omissions.”

The artist also makes composite portraits drawing on both the past and the present. Paula starts by photographing current residents of quilombos—rural communities originally established by Indigenous people and African descendants fleeing enslavement. Then he selects a reference portrait found in “Enciclopédia Negra: Biografias afro-brasileiras” (Black Encyclopedia-Biographies of Afro Brazilians). An important historiography published in Portuguese, the volume highlights about 500 Brazilians, mostly ordinary people who fought racism and resisted slavery, such as Zeferina and João de Deus Nascimento.

Paula’s paintings are based on the contemporary photographs and inspired by the powerful historic portraits, including their period elements (clothing and hair) and the names of the figures, which serve as the titles of the works. The portraits are composed of two vertical, adjoined panels representing the hybrid, constructed nature of the works. The series is about memory, representation, and healing.

“These paintings portray Black leaders, who were silenced in Brazilian history. Blacks make up more than half of the population in Brazil, but power is dominated by white people. In 2018, when I made the first two portraits, what inspired me was the lack of historical images of Black people. The only photos and paintings objectified blacks. In my portraits, I seek to create a new history,” Paula said in a conversation with Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) Curator Thomas Lax.

“These paintings portray Black leaders, who were silenced in Brazilian history.… In my portraits, I seek to create a new history.” — Dalton Paula

DALTON PAULA, “Vitόria da Conceição,” 2023 (oil and gold leaf on canvas in two parts, 24 x 17 3⁄4 inches). | © Dalton Paula, Courtesy the artist and James Fuentes


IN TERMS OF SOLO SHOWS, Paula has been the subject of two major museum surveys in recent years: “Dalton Paula: Rota do algodã” at the Pinacoteca de São Paulo (2022-23) and “Dalton Paula: Brazilian Portraits” at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (2022). Also in Brazil, Paula’s work was featured at the 32nd São Paulo Biennial (2016).

“Afro-Atlantic Histories” originated in Brazil in 2018, across two venues: the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP) and the Instituto Tomie Ohtake. The exhibition has been traveling in the United States since 2021. Currently, “Afro-Atlantic Histories” is on view at the Dallas Museum of Art in Texas, through Feb. 11, 2024.

In New York, Paula participated in “Songs for Sabotage,” the New Museum Triennial (2018). Six portraits made by Paula in 2020 were acquired in the same year by MoMA and five of the works were recently featured in the museum’s contemporary collection galleries (Fall 2021-Winter 2023). The presentation was titled “Critical Fabulations.”

The museum’s introduction to the display illuminated the mission and responsibility of Paula’s ongoing portrait series: “The title of this gallery is borrowed from Saidiya Hartman, a cultural historian who has written about the afterlife of slavery. Responding to the limits of official archives, she offers us ‘critical fabulation’—the use of storytelling and speculative narration as a means of redressing history’s omissions, particularly those in the lives of enslaved people.… Together [the works on view] strive to tell what Hartman has described as ‘an impossible story.’” CT


Published earlier this year, “Dalton Paula: Brazilian Portraits” documents artist’s solo exhibition at Museu de Arte de São Paulo. Also consider, “Enciclopedia Negra: Biografias afro-brasileiras” (Black Encyclopedia-Biographies of Afro Brazilians), which is published in Portuguese. “Zeferina” (2018), a portrait painted by Dalton Paula, covers the exhibition catalog “Afro-Atlantic Histories.” Published on the occasion of the U.S. presentation, the fully illustrated volume features works dating from the 17th to 21st centuries by more than 200 artists from Africa, the Americas, the Caribbean, and Europe and essay contributions by co-editors Adriano Pedrosa and Tomás Toledo, along with Vivian Crockett, Kanitra Fletcher, Ayrson Heráclito, Hélio Menezes, Lilia Moritz Schwarcz, and Deborah Willis. Books by Saidiya Hartman include “Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America” and “Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval.”


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