A few weeks ago an interesting exhibition was opened at the Casa França-Brasil in Rio de Janeiro, called ‘Orixás’, curated by art historian Marcelo Campos. What would fit better to a blog entitled ‘Orisha Image’ than an exhibition review of ‘Orixás’? Unfortunately I could not travel to Rio as an art critic. I translated (and interpreted) the Portuguese press-text and got the copyright for some exhibition views and artworks from the institution’s office - muito obrigado! The exhibition and its great side program with lectures and performances show the value Yorùbá traditions have in the Brazilian diaspora and how the heritage of the slaves continues to shape the identity of the country. (And for those who do not speak Portuguese: the 'x' is pronounced like 'sh', Orixá and Orisha basically means the same, with the first one referring to the Brazilian version.)
For me the interesting fact is, according to the press-text, that the younger generation is no longer searching for the ‘original’ roots or thinking that ‘something has been lost’ in the diaspora form of Yorùbá Orisha traditions. Older generations were more likely trying to restore or re-africanize the traditions. Today, maybe also due to the influential work of these predecessors, the ‘syncretic’ status has become obsolete, because Orixá traditions have already become an authentic Brazilian religious expression with millions of followers. Actually the ‘Orixá’ exhibition itself includes objects from an exhibition on the same topic in 1990. The current exhibition is a kind of a contemporary review of the exhibition held at the same place 26 years ago, with many artworks added from the youngest generation of Brazilian artists. An interesting concept which allows to compare old and new views on Yorùbá traditions! I give a small introduction, not all the readers might know about Brazil’s colonial history, before I continue with the exhibition text.
A small introduction on Brazil and Yorùbá traditions
Brazil was the main importer of African slaves with an estimated number of around four million people forced to migrate as laborers. Over the centuries slaves were traded from different ports in Africa and formed a multi-ethnic community in the diaspora. Many of them were worked to death within a few years in the plantations. It was simply cheaper buying a new slave than to invest money into the living conditions. The survivors and their children, Brazil-born creoles and ‘mulattos’ of mixed ‘race’, managed to adopt African cultural traditions to the new environment, facing severe oppression in the Portuguese colony.
In the 19th century, after the Ọ̀yọ́ empire fell and the Jihad had reached Yorùbáland, various kingdoms were in war with each other. From then on most of the slaves exported to Brazil (and Cuba) were of Yorùbá origin. The quantity of sold Yorùbá at the end of the era of slave trade is one of the reasons why the Yorùbá culture in Brazil, called ‘Nagô’, is so strong until today. A second reason is that after the so-called Malê-slave revolt (from Yorùbá ‘ìmọ̀le’, Muslim) in Bahia in 1835 many slaves were expelled from Brazil, others could buy their freedom and returned to Africa, among them again many Yorùbá who settled down in Lagos, the so-called Aguda. Ironically some of them became big players in the transatlantic slave trade. Others engaged in the trade of kola-nuts, African textiles and cultural objects. A continuous connection was established between Lagos and Brazilian cities like Salvador da Bahia, where even traditions like the Egúngún masqueraders’ cult survived and contributed to the high visibility of Yorùbá culture in the diaspora.
Candomblé generally is the term for an African religion in Brazil and most of the people today link it to the Orixás (Òrìṣà, the Portuguese ‘x’ is pronounced like Yorùbá ‘ṣ’). More specific the worship of Orisha is called Candomblé Nagô or Ketú (also spelled Queto, after the Yorùbá city Ketou in today’s Benin Republic). But there is also the Candomblé Jeje (Gêgê), worshipping the Vodun, based on the Ewe/Fon/Adja traditions or the Candomblé de Angola worshipping the Nkisis, spirits from the Bantu-speaking people. Macumba, Umbanda, Batuque, Mina, Ijexá, Caboclos – many different religions, or cults within the religions, exist today in Brazil, each one with its own history. The African heritage, linked to the cruel times of slavery and colonial racism, is an important part of Brazil’s culture and influenced the language, music, food, people - and the arts.
About the exhibition ‘Orixás’
In September 1990, the Casa França-Brasil, a cultural center in Rio de Janeiro, realized the exhibition ‘Retratos da Bahia’ (Portraits of Bahia) which brought together photographs of Pierre Verger, drawings by Carybé and traditional African sculptures from the private collections of the two artists. Verger (1902-1996) was a French photographer and babaláwo, who settled down in Salvador da Bahia. He dedicated his life and work to the transatlantic Yorùbá culture, publishing and researching. Carybé (1911-1997) was a Brazilian artist and painter, born in Argentina. He was entitled an ‘Obá de Xangô’ in the Candomblé community, Brazilian history and Orisha culture deeply influenced his work. The current exhibition ‘Orixás’ is investigating how the African-Brazilian identity manifests itself in art and religion. It is a kind of review of the exhibition from 1990, promoting a re-reading of the same issues, but this time differing between the Modern and the contemporary view.
The theme of ‘Afro-Brasilidade’ (African-Brazilianness) is explored from various perspectives in the artistic context of Brazil’s art scene. African ancestry and religions are connected to issues such as identity, the question of representation and linked to various socio-cultural conditions. The Modern fascination with the cultures of African descent in Brazil has produced important debates on the ‘patrimonialização’-process (a discussion about cultural expressions becoming worth of preservation or restauration for the country’s heritage) and on the recognition of non-Western religions, although their material culture was anchored in premises of the colonizers.
In Brazil the influence of Candomblé in artistic production led to famous works like the novel Jubiabá e Bahia de Todos os Santos by Jorge Amado, the movie Barravento directed by Glauber Rocha, the Teatro Experimental do Negro founded by Abdias Nascimento, the album Afro-Sambas of Baden Powell and Vinicius de Morais and the works of Pierre Verger, Carybé, Rubem Valentim and Mestre Didi, just as examples. Mestre Didi, artist and initiated priest, worked on the boundaries between contemporary art and folk art. Parallel to the beginning popularization of the African-Brazilianness, the religion Candomblé was still under problematic conditions related to its illegal status. Its members suffered political and social persecution from a repressive state and the racist society. The use of violence against the Candomblé communities was common.
The 21st century brought new approaches. While the Candomblé religion still remains a target for attacks and intolerance, the ‘terreiros’ (temples) and the religious ‘casas’ (houses) of African origin are currently in a process of legalization, getting recognized as a cultural heritage, shaping the identity and faith of the Brazilian people. Contemporary artists such as Ayrson Heraclitus, Arjan Martins, Tiago Sant’Ana, Paula Dalton and others keep on reconfiguring the African-Brazilian heritage, accepting its hybridity and cultural ‘contaminations’. This identity is being recoded today by the young generation of artists and has overcome the former boundary between the popular and the academic discourse, what can be observed in the artworks of Heitor dos Prazeres, Maria Auxiliadora, Louco e Chico Tabibuia.
In this sense the exhibition ‘Orixás’ goes beyond the Bahian context and is bringing together artworks from different times, intending to provoke new readings on the aspects of African-Brazilian culture. Candomblé, syncretism and popular art, seen from the inside of the universe of the Orishas, with artpieces from institutions and private collections from Salvador, Fortaleza and Rio de Janeiro.
‘Orixás’ marks for the Casa França-Brasil the possibility to involve itself in a debate in which the survival of so many different African cultures, resulting from slavery, violence and inequality, can finally be transformed into outcries, hymns, words of faith, protection and good omen. Again the Brazilian people are called to visit this exhibition, where they might receive a good-luck charm, maintain their close relationship with Africa, recognize their ancestors, stay ‘odara’ and experience the beauty of Orisha not from a colonial perspective as something inaccessible, but rather as a gift to be shared amongst us, one ‘Axé’ for all of us. Candomblé shapes through the arts the Brazilian society and is responsible for important symbolic moments, in which different forms, colors and elements emerge and get released, played, celebrated and experienced. It is the strength of this ‘emi’, the air emitted by the body, that keeps the Brazilians connected to Africa, across the ocean, to reaffirm a simple and perhaps the first human condition: to know that we are not alone.
(This text is a translation/interpretation of the press-release in Portuguese language by the Casa França-Brasil.)
Note: ‘ficar odara’, a Portuguese-Yorùbá phrase, is frequently used today by African-Brazilians, with an approximate meaning of ‘staying in harmony with the earth and heavens’ from Yorùbá ‘ó dára’, which simply means ‘it is good’. As it is a Yorùbá expression the phrase got related to spirituality and nowadays means more than the simple literal translation. It is a also the title of famous samba song by Caetano Veloso, hear it on Youtube. ‘Axé’ is the Portuguese way of writing Yorùbá ‘àṣẹ’ and the ‘emi’ the press-release speaks about is Yorùbá ‘ẹ̀mí’ meaning ‘breath, life, soul’. These are some words that do not have to be translated to Brazilians!
September 24 to October 23, 2016
Curated by Marcelo Campos
Rua Visconde de Itaboraí, 78 - Centro, Rio de Janeiro - RJ, 20010-060
See more photos of the exhibition on Instagram
I tried to find the direct websites owned by the artists or websites on their work, with images, click on the links for more details.
Adalton Fernandes Lopes
Heitor dos Prazeres
Mario Cravo Neto
Thiago Martins de Melo
Virgínia de Medeiros