Ye Ye Omo Ejá! Helen Salomao’s photograph of Dona Eliete at the Iemanjá Festival in Salvador, Bahia on February 2, 2019.

Searching for Iemanjá: Iemanjás’ Festivals

Part two of a curator’s journey to discover traditional and new spaces for art making in Brazil
Thomas J. Lax Aug 14, 2020

The first essay in this two-part “Searching for Iemanjá” project was published on August 7. Read part one.

In Rio Vermelho—a neighborhood in Salvador, Bahia, that faces the Atlantic Ocean—every February 2 it’s estimated that more than 400,000 people come to deliver presents and requests to Iemanjá: flowers and food as well as non-biodegradable products. Devotees gather in small groups across the shore and in long lines next to the Casa do Peso dos Pescadores, the former weigh station for local fishermen and current beacon for followers of the Afro-Brazilian spirit. During a particularly difficult fishing season in 1923, the fisherman organized a procession to ask the Great Mother for the catch they needed to survive. Since then, it has become a metaphorical lighthouse for people who gather there to make an offering, request, or plea. Outside, its mosaic tiles depict a seahorse, a pelican, and a boat floating amid a blue-and-white sky; a large-scale image of Iemanjá faces the sea. Inside, people leave yellow, white, and blue roses and daffodils, as well as candles and figurines amid a scene that includes miniature representations of the house itself. A mural painted behind the offerings pictures Rio Vermelho locating your position at its edge, and a small wood-and-cardboard maquette of the weigh station sits in a corner: Affirmation is expressed through reproduction.

Fishermen’s Weigh House in Salvador’s Rio Vermelho

Fishermen’s Weigh House in Salvador’s Rio Vermelho

Festas de Iemanjá

The Iemanjá festival, which now has offshoots in Rio de Janeiro and Recife, has been depicted and circulated broadly through reproducible media like prints and photographs. Many of the white foreigners most associated with Black culture in Salvador made bodies of work centered on this ritualized occasion. For example, Argentina-born Carybé included a representation of it in his watercolor glossary of Candomblé religious practices, in the book African Gods in the Candomblé of Bahia (1993). It introduces a taxonomy of the figures and objects associated with ritual rites, pairing captions with representative images of musical instruments, religious objects, ceremonies, and explanations of the orixás, or deities. The pages devoted to Iemanjá include Carybé’s daytime view of the inlet seen to the right and set during the festival in a romantic genre scene spotted with sailboats and figures leaving the crowd to enter the water.

Carybé’s watercolor Iemanjá Festival in the Rio Vermelho neighborhood, February 2nd, in the 2013 book "African Gods in the Candomblé of Bahia"

Carybé’s watercolor Iemanjá Festival in the Rio Vermelho neighborhood, February 2nd, in the 2013 book "African Gods in the Candomblé of Bahia"

Pierre Verger’s photograph of the Iemanjá festival in the Nigerian city of Abeokuta. Courtesy the Fundação Pierre Verger

Pierre Verger’s photograph of the Iemanjá festival in the Nigerian city of Abeokuta. Courtesy the Fundação Pierre Verger

In addition to the book’s introduction by Brazilian novelist Jorge Amado, Carybé’s widely-distributed book features texts by Pierre Fatumbi Verger, one of the most devoted visual chroniclers of the festival. The French-born, self-taught photographer and ethnographer was initiated in Candomblé both in Brazil’s Northeast as well as in West Africa. In his depictions of the festival over a thirty-year period, he traced its variations across time and space. For example, in the photographs juxtaposed above and to the right, he depicted groups of women in both Salvador and Nigerian city of Abeokuta processing with offerings. While both images emphasize the head—the part of the body associated with Iemanjá, the locus of sensual reason—in Nigeria, the women carry statues while in the New World they hold baskets of flowers, reflecting the influence of Catholicism. Verger spent much of his career theorizing the relation of Black people across the diaspora, a process of retention and loss he called fluxo e refluxo, or “ebbs and flows.” He aimed to use photography as a medium to connect people in different locations, traveling with his prints and showing them to people practicing variations on shared rites in different locations.

Pierre Verger’s photograph of the Iemanjá festival in Brazil’s Salvador. Courtesy the Fundação Pierre Verger

Pierre Verger’s photograph of the Iemanjá festival in Brazil’s Salvador. Courtesy the Fundação Pierre Verger

The Iemanjá festival continues to be well represented in photography—and her likeness remains more coded with subterfuge than might immediately meet the eye. A recent image by photographer Alvaro Villela pictures two headless torsos indoors with Iemanjá figures printed across the front of their tank tops. Behind them sits a plaque with one word printed on it: Jesus. While at first the figures and the text seem incongruous, the two Iemanjás and the succinct description of another protector form a trio, a successive stutter. In Brazil, Black religious practices historically took on Christian symbols out of a need to survive, finding refuge in Catholic aesthetics. When I visited the Candomblé group Irmandade da Boa Morte (the Sisterhood of the Good Death) in Cachoeira, I was surprised to arrive at a reconstructed church nave. This group has been led by successive generations of Black women since its founding around 1820, and when they finally secured the means to build a bespoke space in the early 1990s they opted to recreate the baroque architecture associated with Catholic sites of worship and aesthetics. As Valmir Santos (one of the only men in the group) explained to me, the cover of Catholic symbolism allowed enslaved people to gather and sustain themselves, creating unlikely plans for their future through mutual aid that paid for festivals, masses, clothing, purchases of freedom, and funerals. A good death, indeed.

Alvaro Villela, Tribute to Iemanjá in Maragogipe, Bahia, 2014.

Alvaro Villela, Tribute to Iemanjá in Maragogipe, Bahia, 2014.

Members of the Irmandade da Boa Morte (Sisterhood of the Good Death). Left to right: Senhoras Filhinha, Edite, Miuda (seated), Estelita, and Maria, 1994. Photo: Adenor Gondim. Courtesy the artist

Members of the Irmandade da Boa Morte (Sisterhood of the Good Death). Left to right: Senhoras Filhinha, Edite, Miuda (seated), Estelita, and Maria, 1994. Photo: Adenor Gondim. Courtesy the artist

Circulated images also mediate the paradoxes of Iemanjá’s contemporary representations. As artist Aline Motta explained to me, the fair-skinned, black-haired figure that appears in Villela’s photograph and recurs on the back of the Casa do Peso dos Pescadores—and nearly everywhere else in Salvador—might have once been a real person: Dra Dala, whose husband campaigned for her to be mythologized as a cult figure in the mid-20th century. While her likeness continues to be the most represented version of Iemanjá, today the orixá’s racial identity is actively debated on Black Twitter. During this year’s festival, #iemanjáénegra trended as images of thick gordas circulated widely, providing a fresh image bank of brown-skinned Black women to fill out the goddess’s likeness. One particularly resplendent image features Sandra Santos, a queer activist and author of the blog Gordinhas Lindas da Bahia, as she basks in the sun in a fisherman’s boat. In the photograph, she is pictured in front of the working-class Gamboa waterfront neighborhood. (Salvador’s Museum of Modern Art is its immediate neighbor.) Her arms extend across the boat’s frame, a sign of her power in repose. Baring her large breasts, she is covered by braids and a tangle of white and blue beads around her neck as she stares steadily at the viewer.

Sandra Santos, creator of the blog Gordinhas Lindas da Bahia

Sandra Santos, creator of the blog Gordinhas Lindas da Bahia

Ebb and Flow

In both digital and real space, visual artists invoke Iemanjá as a way of creating physical space for the viewer. In Nadia Taquary’s 2018 sculpture Dinka - Yemanjá, for example, three blue-and-white beaded strands form an oval that takes its shape from the mirror associated with Iemanjá. When describing the work in her studio, Taquary commented that riffing off of Iemanjá’s circular abebé, the twist in her object’s coils point both inwards and outwards, a form of self-reflection and social awareness. Ayrson Heráclito’s Bori (2008–11) also represents Iemanjá in three-dimensional space. Each of the 12 photographs that make up this installation is devoted to one orixá, and was taken during a ritual performance. When the photos are installed, they are propped up in a circle, constructing their own space that borrows from the roda, or dancing circle, used in many Afro-American performance forms. In this work, Heráclito channels from one cultural sphere to another, from the world of representation to lived experience. And on February 1, on the eve of the Festa de Iemanjá, he and his partner Val invited me to join Nadia and her family on a trip to Rio Vermelho. At Heraclito and Val’s home, I met curators Thiago de Paula Souza and Diane Lima (whose work I described in the first part of this essay) as well as artist Rebeca Carapiá, and together we headed out with their basket of fruit and fresh flowers to make a midnight offering.

Nadia Taquary. Dinka - Yemanjá. 2018

Nadia Taquary. Dinka - Yemanjá. 2018

Ayrson Heráclito. Bori Cabeça de Yemanjá. 2011

Ayrson Heráclito. Bori Cabeça de Yemanjá. 2011

February 2, 2020

The next morning, in Rio Vermelho, the sun quickly rose just after 5:30. Some vendors who had been selling water and beer out of coolers through the night now found cover under a large tent. They napped and took a break from the sun, which was already blazing. A little girl dressed in blue and white already had a line of people waiting to take photos with her. Men dressed in colorful prints from various terreiros called for passersby to be cleansed, hitting them with leaves. Those visitors who did not move fast enough were presumed to be ready customers, required to pay after their session.

What do you do when the distinction between authentic and made-up falls apart? When you realize you’re implicated in a large-scale performance? And you’re still filled with the same sense of longing for the same manufactured sentiment everyone else is out here hustling for? There was something truthfulrealin these unabashed displays of self-making and ancestrality, and there is something particular to this city that intensifies the relationship between fabulation and those who came before.

Salvador is filled with promises of reunion. Here, the idea of Africa serves as a nearly-ubiquitous portal to Black identity. You can find invocations to the continent in the many Afro-descendant classes taught at the FUNCEB dance school, where young students learn movements that have only been codified in the last half-century but whose claims to verisimilitude reach back before the Middle Passage. You can also see Africa on display in the annual Beleza Negra competition, a beauty pageant that, since 1975, has celebrated a pastiche of dress and movement culled through a process of “re-Africanization” to celebrate Black female self-esteem.

Estrangement creates forms of intimacy. If Salvador, whose spatial division into high and low cities has kept people of color out of its historic center, Black people nevertheless have made their own claims to the place from which they have been cast out across oceans and across the city itself. In her 2019 video Quem Manda (Who’s Boss), for example, emcee Nininha Problematica (whose name might translate to Problematic Little Nina) sings about the unlikely ability to reclaim space when you have been displaced. The video was shot in the middle of Pelourinho—whose predominantly Black and trans residents were forcibly removed in the 1980s—with tourist stalls surrounding a group of five queer and trans performers. Against this commercial backdrop, Nininha Problematica’s refrain rings over and over: Nesse espaço / Quem manda é a bicha (In this space, the fags and trannies are in charge).

Daniel Lima and Felipe Teixeira for Invisíveis Produções. World Brazil / Brazil World. 2016

Daniel Lima and Felipe Teixeira for Invisíveis Produções. World Brazil / Brazil World. 2016

Episodes of state violence and forcible displacement continue to recur. When I eventually returned home to my roommate from the Iemanjá festivals, he told me that four people were shot by the military police. The military police carefully monitor all large-scale public gatherings, regularly beating people to maintain some impossible notion of order. As the artist Daniel Lima diagrams in one of the posters he made with the group Invisíveis Produções, they kill civilians at a higher rate than any law enforcement organization in the world. He argues that they are the contemporary manifestation of the “Captain of the Woods,” a colonial figure assigned to capture fugitive slaves. And the police were not the only force of state surveillance that showed up for the festival. Evangelicals, who are sponsored by the national government and have been linked to a sharp increase in attacks on terreiros, came to protest the celebration too. Against the backdrop of these onlookers, a religious event full of references to Black culture was populated by white folks from the cidade alta and out-of-towners who came for the party. The romance continued to fall apart even as the festival had recently been declared part of the city’s cultural patrimony. This official edict promised to “respect differences,” but in all likelihood did little to offer meaningful support to the terreiros. The party raged on.

February 2, 2020, Redux

Taking a break from the sun, I went back to my apartment. After a nap, I headed out to Itaparica, a quiet island about half an hour away from Salvador’s lower city. Invited by the Sacatar residency’s Taylor Van Horne, I arrived at Bela Vista, one of four closely clustered terreiros that dates back to nineteenth-century, just as a group of roughly 50 women and queer men were preparing to bring their presents to the bay. One by one, they lined up, dressed in ballooning white skirts, and prepared to deliver ofrendas they carried on their heads.

The line walked down a street only to turn around and retrace its steps. A procession is a way of assembling in public space and a collective exercise in taking up time. Walking together at a regulated distance not only claims that we are here; it is also promises that we will stay together for a time. Spending time with others and not knowing where we might go next requires patience. But taking up time can be an exercise in holding contradiction.

As we ambled, someone set off firecrackers. The celebratory sounds of the explosions contrasted with our slow pace—spectacle mixed with pedestrianism. As I looked more closely at the ofrendas, I realized that they were made of materials that weren’t biodegradable: nail polish, baby powder, perfume. It seemed somewhat perverse that the group was preparing to gift something to the sea that would in fact pollute it. (The night before, a band dressed up in a mermaid gear made of plastic bags and bottles seemed to have been pointing directly to this irony. Here, waste management is a way of describing the process of making culture.) As we walked down the hill, Augusto Albuquerque, who also works at Sacatar, turned to me and said, “This is exactly what it’s like in Africa. I’ve never been there, how great that we have it here.”

The group approached the water’s edge, and I walked along my own path, watching the end of the procession from nearby. Later that night, after the women had been transported to a boat and all of the presents brought out to sea, I sat on the sand listening to the sound of the surf. I realized that what had seemed like contradictions might have something to do with the great mother we were celebrating. Expected to be both down to earth and divine, a real person and a mythological construction, she was everywhere I turned, quicksilver and vaporous. If art is the stuff of everyday life, crafted into something we might consider together, then Iemanjá is one way of describing the acts of faith involved in its maintenance. She held a position she had known for some time, but returned, ready to begin again.

Practitioners from Bela Vista on Itaparica island processing during Iemanjá Festival, February 2, 2020

Practitioners from Bela Vista on Itaparica island processing during Iemanjá Festival, February 2, 2020

The Research Grant Fellowship for MoMA Curators that enabled it is supported by Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Research Institute for the Study of Art from Latin America.

Thumbnail: Juh Almeida's portrait of Olga Vitória. Courtesy of artist Loo Nascimento

Thank you to Hélio Menezes and Oluremi C. Onabanjo for reading earlier drafts of this essay and for sharing their invaluable knowledge and generous feedback with me. In addition, I would like to acknowledge the artists and culture folk whose work, scholarship, and friendship informed my time, including Augusto Albuquerque, Ana Beatriz Almeida, Jonathas de Andrade, Sérgio Andrade, Olivia Ardui, Emanoel Araujo, Gersoney Azevedo, Alex Baradel, Ricardo Basbaum, Jonathan Berger, Uriel Bezerra, Everson Brussel, Julia Bryan-Wilson, Rebeca Carapiá, Maria Del Carmen Carrion, Amanda Carneiro, Solange Carybé, Kimberly L. Cleveland, Kat Cosby, Haroldo Costa, Vivian Crockett, Yhuri Cruz, J. Cunha, Thias Darze, Mauricio Dias, Fory Dias do Nascimento, Deborá Didonê, Solange Farkas, Renata Felinto, Ricardo Duarte Filho, Marina Fokidis, Karen Grimson, Sônia Gomes, Adenor Gondim, Jô Guimarães, Tali Ha, Marcio Harum, Jessica Harris, Ayrson Heráclito, Leonel Henckes, Patricia Hoffbauer and her family Evany, Daniela, and Graciela, Inés Katzenstein, Pablo Lafuente, Pablo León De La Barra, Daniel Lima, Diane Lima, Mitch Loch, Erica Malunguinho, Marepe, Pedro Marighella, Pedro Marin, Mary Marinho, Jordan Martins, Tiona Nekkia McClodden, Flavia Meireles, Denise Milfont, Sean Mitchell, Aline Motta, Maria Montero, Rodrigo Moura, Marilyn Nance, Roberta Nascimento, Paulo Nazareth, Ligia Nobre, Edgar Oliva, Moises Patricio, Dalton Paula, Thiago de Paula Souza, Rosana Paulino, Lanussi Pasquali, Vera Passos, Adriano Pedrosa, Iagor Peres, Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, Susana Pilar, Hariel Revignet, Margarita Rosa, Anthony Rosado, Roger Sansi, Tiago Sant'Ana, Ana Rita Santiago, Artur Santoro, Joceval Santos, Valmir Santos, Lilia Moritz Schwarcz, Sandra Silva, Gersonice Equede Sinha, Alex Simões, Manfred Stoffl, Nadia Taquary, Antonio Tarsis, Brittany Ayana Thomas, Ana Clara Tito, Felix Toro, Lucio Tranchesi, Taylor Van Horne, Leno Veras, Jochen Volz, Saya Woolfolk, Clarissa Ximenes, and Matheus Yehudi.