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