Museu Afro Brazil
Brazil has the largest black population outside of Africa, so it’s curious that only in the past decade or so has black or Afro consciousness really begun to take root. This new museum — one of the most popular cultural institutions to open in São Paulo in recent years — is dedicated to showing the cultural achievements of Africans and their descendants enslaved in Brazil. If you think you might be letting yourself in for a hectoring guilt-inducing lecture, think again. The museum is not a cri de coeur over the injustice and hardship of slavery but rather a celebration of the art and accomplishments of the African diaspora. Displays show short biographies of writers or painters or politicians who were black, including lots of their artwork and artifacts. Displays are gorgeous — particularly the art and photography — and the museum has wonderful natural light.
Museu Lasar Segall
Lovers of modern art, particularly of cubism and Klee and Kandinsky, will enjoy a visit to the Segall museum. Born in the Jewish ghetto of Vilnius in Lithuania in 1891, Segall started his painting career in Europe, but moved to Brazil in 1923. Over the years his work grew increasingly abstract and geometric. The museum was also his residence from 1932 until his death in 1957. On display are his sculptures, pen drawings, watercolors, graphite, and oil paintings. No English signs.
Museu de Arte Sacra
Sacred art refers to objects — chalices, crosses, statues, paintings, and sculptures — created to adorn churches or for use in Catholic service. Built in 1774, the Mosteiro da Luz (which still functions as a monastery on the upper levels) provides the perfect setting to view these works; piped-in choral music echoes through the stone corridors as light pours in from the cloister, casting a warm glow on the beautiful collection. Many of the silver objects sparkle, ostentatious testimony to the wealth of the Church. Older pieces include woodcarvings and clay statues of angels and saints. Portuguese and English texts explain the origins and name of each piece.
Museu do Imigrante
Beginning in the 19th century, three million immigrants went through the gates of this building to start a new life in Brazil. The last group to get processed was in 1978. Today’s visitors get an excellent idea of what those immigrants must have felt. The admission hall, office, hospital, and dormitories are shown in their original condition. Objects are on full display, not hidden in display cases. A second room shows how immigrants first eked out a living in their newly adopted country as masons, printers, farmers, and bakers. The upstairs has been converted into a diorama of an early-20th-century São Paulo street. On Sunday and holidays a historic train takes visitors on a short ride around the museum area. On other days you can still visit the carriages and the station area.
Museu do Ipiranga/Museu Paulista
Located at the birthplace of Brazilian independence — it was here that D. Pedro I in 1822 declared Brazil’s independence from Portugal — the museum is a classic European palace: a grand neoclassical building with Versailles-like gardens out front and a “wilder” botanical garden out back. The collection houses some real gems of Brazilian art and some interesting exhibits telling the history of São Paulo. There are also a number of photo exhibits showing 19th-century São Paulo as it developed. Upstairs in the grand salon hangs one of Brazil’s most famous paintings, a canvas by Pedro Americo entitled Independence or Death. The remainder of the exhibit consists of period furniture, household objects, and clothing. On weekends, the park behind the museum is packed. No English signs.
Pinacoteca do Estado
The Pinacoteca is a sunlit joy to be in, and one of the best-curated art collections in the city. It’s the perfect place for anyone wanting to see and understand Brazilian art. Renovated in 1997, the roof and many interior walls were removed, replaced with a latticework of glass and open spaces, and connected by a series of catwalks. Though none of the signs are in English, the Pinacoteca does an excellent job of displaying some of the best Brazilian artists from the 19th and 20th centuries, from the landscapes of Antonio Parreiras and João da Costa to still-life painters such as Georgina de Albuquerque and João Batista Pagini. The 20th-century work starts to break free of European influence and includes interesting examples of colorful Brazilian pieces bursting with energy. The Pinacoteca’s sculpture collection includes a lovely statue by Raphael Galvez entitled O Brasileiro, as well as works by Alfredo Ceschiatti, the artist who designed many of the sculptures in Brasilia.