K. Ibura




Vol. 21, In Brazil: Candomble and Visual Arts

Posted on 6 March 2002

Salvador, Bahia

My latest discovery in the hand-washing clothes saga is, despite Salvador’s heat, anything I want to dry properly must be hung directly in the sunshine. During my second go-round with clothes washing, I hung all my clothing at one time. Since line space was limited, I hung half my clothes in the sun, and the rest on the lines under the shelter of the roof, but all of the clothes were in the open air. All the clothing in the sun dried fine, as well as the sheets in the shade. But the rest of my clothing—those items that were hanging in the shade of the shelter—had the sour smell of clothing left in the water too long. The small things I hung in my room downstairs (for lack of clothesline space) smelled even worse. My host says it’s a fungus. Due to Salvador’s ridiculous level of humidity, everything (except things of lighter material such as linens) must be hung in the sun. I decided to wear the sour clothes and just put up with the smell. I hope the fungus doesn’t cause a skin rash or something.

There is a black woman photographer here who is a Fulbright fellow. Her funding is toward a photo-documentation of women involved in candomble rituals. A couple of nights ago, she was headed to an Oxum ceremony and invited me and a few friends along. The terriero (place of Candomble worship) was in Engenho Velho da Federação about 40 minutes away from Santo Antonio where I live. The neighborhood was noticeably black, different from my more mixed neighborhood. On the streets, people were hanging out, talking, enjoying the weather. I don’t remember the name of the terriero that hosted the Oxum ceremony, but it seemed to be pretty small compared to Apo Funja, the only terriero I had previously been to.

A brief note: “candomble” has been taken as the name of the religion, but from what I understand, the world “candomble” actually refers to the ceremony. I have no idea what candomble practitioners themselves call the religion.

When we arrived, the candomble was already in process. The men were sitting on one side of the room, the women were on the other. The place was so packed, that it was standing room only. In the middle of the room were three thrones back to back. The Oxum initiates were in full traditional Bahiana costume—white pants below huge white hoop skirts, African print or batik cloth wrapped around their torsos and the tops of the skirts, and beautifully-crafted eyelet or lace short-sleeved tops. The predominant color was yellow for Oxum, but I also saw a few blue-green combinations which I had seen used in reference to Oxum once or twice before. Against the far wall in one corner was the bateria—the drum section. The bateria was made up of all men, beating on drums with either long flexible sticks or their hands. I noticed one drummer stopping for a moment and opening and closing his fingers. I assume to keep up the pace of the drumming you have to keep a tight grip on the sticks, and keeping a tight grip on the sticks probably causes quite a bit of hand cramping. There were various children scattered around. Some in the audience, some dressed similarly to the initiates hanging on the fringes of the spiritual circle. One child sat up front with the older leaders. I noticed one boy in particular, and kept my eye on him as he sang along with the adults. A few songs went by and soon, the drummer who had stopped to flex and stretch his fingers passed his sticks on to the little boy and the little boy took over the drumming. In this community, it seems, the children grow up learning important roles to the ceremonies and therefore to the religion.

On the other side of the far wall sat a few rows of older women who had already been initiated into Oxum. They wore Western-style yellow dresses, sang along with the music, and looked with interest as the ceremony progressed. In the front row sat an older couple who I assume were the mai and pai de santo—the man and woman with the most seniority, who run the terriero. Against the remaining three walls were three rows of simple wooden benches for interested folks to sit and watch. We all faced the center where the beautifully-dressed initiates were being led around the circle by a woman with a rainbow colored wrap over her baiana dress. She held a ceremonial gold bell similar to the one Oxum holds in the many paintings and sculptures the artists of the city dedicate to her. The point of the ceremony, it seems, is to commune with Oxum in particular. Not long after we arrived, two of the initiates were visited by Oxum. As the women’s bodies jerked and yellow-dressed women came from their seats to stand close and follow them to make sure they didn’t hurt themselves while in trance, the other initiates cheered and sat down on one side of the circle.

The women who were being ridden by Oxum began to dance around the circle. Their movements weren’t grand or frenetic, there were slow, measured, paced. Orixa dance is made up of very specific motions celebrating each deity. Though they all participated in the dance, none of the initiates seemed to be consumed by the dance. Their movements were small, and you needed to know which motions belong to which dance to know which orixa was being celebrated at any given time. As the women made their way around the circle, the people in the audience—those who participated in or had a respect for the religion, would lower their heads and hold up their hands, palms outward, when the women neared them. I interpreted it as either a show of respect or a gesture of protection as the orixa passes. Some of the people, specifically men, even knelt on one knee as they lowered their heads to avoid looking directly at the women Oxum had possessed (for lack of a better word).

From time to time, the orixa or the initiate (however you want to look at it) stopped in front of someone to hug them. Brazilians commonly greet each other with a kiss on each cheek. Similarly, the candomble hug is double-sided—they might hug right cheek to right cheek, then switch to the left side. Often (well twice that night) the spirit is transferred from the possessed to the person she hugs. After dancing to a few songs one of the initiates who had the spirit opened her arms to the woman with the gold bell who had been previously leading them around. After they hugged, the older woman’s body jerked and she stumbled. One of the watchers came near to help her, soon it was clear that the spirit had entered her body. All of the initiates gasped. Some of them even covered their mouths with their hands in surprised delight. I didn’t understand what was so shocking about this woman in particular receiving Oxum. She seemed to be older and have a leadership position, so I don’t know if it was more powerful that Oxum was riding her, or if it was just totally unexpected that she receive Oxum at this type of ceremony.

After the woman with the bell got the spirit, the other two women—who were initiates, and didn’t seem to be as high up as she was—left the room. The watchers retied the woman with the bell’s clothes and removed her head gear. She danced the next few songs, with her watchers shadowing her. Sometimes she charged at the bateria and didn’t look as if she would stop. The watchers would touch her back gently and she would stop as if reminded of her surroundings. In between dances, she would stop in front of the bateria. When she stopped dancing, they stopped drumming. In the pause she would rock back and forth, and her watcher would cradle her head to make sure it didn’t fall back too far. After someone called out a new song, the woman with the bell would start dancing again.

Certain dances really excited the initiates. Specifically when the woman threw her arms up and spun in a circle, the initiates cheered. After dancing a few more songs—the majority of the candomble ceremony seems to be dancing—the woman with the bell began greeting all the initiates with hugs. They genuflected, then climbed to their knees to hug her on one side, then the other. As they rested their cheek on her shoulder or chest, she rubbed the crown of their heads. After she had hugged each initiate, people from the audience came up to her, touching the hem of her skirt, then hugging her. On the men’s side of the room, I could see that Joshua—a friend of ours who is a member of a Cuban Yoruba religion—had gotten to his knees in preparation to salute her. He too got his hug.

Finally after everyone had been hugged, the woman disappeared behind the yellow curtains into another room. When she returned, she was dressed all in white. The celebrant’s costumes are changed according to the stage of possession or the number of saidas (entrances). I learned this by flipping through an art book featuring the work of Carybé. Before his death, Carybé—a Brazil-based sculptor, painter, drawer, and print maker—completed an extensive series of drawings of every element of candomble cermonies. One of his series of drawings focused on the saidas, showing the dress of the first, second, and third saidas of ceremony participants. Only by the third saida is the person fully dressed as the orixa or “the saint.” Based on his drawings, Carybé also completed a stunning series of hand-carved wood panels of each orixa which is on permanent display at the Afro-Bahian museum at the Terriero de Jesus. The artistry is superb. He plays with the surfaces by carving out some parts and building other parts up. He embeds other objects (shells, beads, nails, metal) when necessary. The depictions are ripe with symbolism and grace. The museum also features African art, photos of African hairstyles and textiles and costumes from Yoruba orixa worship.

Before we left the terriero, people were given handfuls of rice. I asked what it was for. The woman next to me said we were to throw the rice on the woman with the bell when she comes out dressed as the saint. We left before that happened. On our way out I asked Joshua if he felt anything when he greeted the saint. In response, he let out a huge emotional outburst. Viewing the ceremony from the lens of his tradition—Palo Monte—he was completely disappointed. In comparison to a Cuban ceremony, he thought the dances were muddled, the drums were weak, and the orixa were indistinguishable. He was appalled that there was an audience and that people clapped and he was concerned that an official person didn’t seem to be running the order of the songs. I think they lost the African connection, he said in a dejected voice. Later, after he had vented, he apologized for how he came off. He said he was wrong to be making such judgements about something he didn’t know anything about. I told him I understood completely. I didn’t get a sense that he was trying to be mean or disrespectful. He was just shocked at the difference between what he’s come to view as a ceremony and what he saw at the candomble.

The difference was obvious to me too. In Joshua’s words, a Cuban ceremony is about fire. As Joshua describes it, the orishas at a Cuban ceremony interact with anyone in the room, not just the initiates. There’s no separation between audience and celebrant. The ceremony is more open and vibrant, so that even random visitors are a part of the ceremony. Everyone’s involved. The next day, he want to visit a mai de santo at another ceremony and he backed even further away from his previous judgements. He still was confused about the way the candomble was run, but he no longer questioned candomble’s connection to the African roots. He could feel the woman’s realness and accepted his feeling of disconnectedness as a consequence of his own outsiderness. He was very apologetic about his reaction and continues to be quite respectful of candomble, but I feel blessed to have been there during his outburst. I told him later that his reaction added a whole new element to the ceremony for me. It was good for me to hear about the differences between a Cuban ceremony and a Brazilian ceremony. We talked about the possibility of the ceremony we saw as being something strictly for the public, and there being other private ceremonies which may be more similar to what he was accustomed to. He said he thought there was definitely something else going on under the surface and he’d definitely like to get to a closed ceremony and experience more of what the religion has to offer. I suggested that if Cuban Yoruba traditions are fire, then perhaps Candomble is water, explosion vs. trance. If the Cuban traditions are open, maybe Brazilian candomble has more hidden pockets, making it completely different to watch a ceremony than to participate in one. I told him about my experiences taking orixa dance classes and promised him that those traditions weren’t lost. In classes the motions are explosive, vibrant, and very clear but it seems to me that the participants in a candomble don’t bother to “perform” the dances. He listened to my ideas and said he was working on reminding himself that Brazilian worship evolved from different traditions.

Perhaps because Joshua had just shown us his film Cuba Amor (which, funnily enough, deals with sexual tourism and religious worship in Cuba), I was sensitive to other forms of orixa worship. As I watched one of the women bow and tremble her shoulders in a specific salutation, I thought about how differently people from different cultures represent the orixas. We, as humans bring so much to worship, such that even the style with which one receives an orixa can be a cultural trait. This difference extends to how individual humans receive artistic inspiration, philosophy, spiritual visions, ideas for social change—all of these things are filtered through our realities and our identities and are impacted too by the culture and language of the individual.

Joshua speculated that perhaps the synchronism of the pre-candomble African religion into Catholicism was more complete in Brazil than in Cuba. Africans all over the world pretended to take on the master’s religion while worshiping their own by replacing their saints (on the surface) with Catholic saints. In Brazil, the synchronism was definitely profound. The other day, while climbing the hill into Pelourinho, my host saw a friend of his at a church. He called him over and asked him what was going on. The friend explained that an important member of their candomble terriero had died. They did a seven day ceremony and on the seventh day they had a mass for him in the church. I’ve seen photos of priests at a particular candomble street festival. It seems the two religions are still extremely intertwined in present-day Salvador.

During this trip, I saw the Brazilian film Pagador de Promesas (the payer of promises), which dealt with how candomble is rejected by the church. They stopped short of making it a race clash by having the main character and his wife be white [theories abound on how mainstream filmmakers make stories about people of color palatable (or profitable) by having a white main character, otherwise known as the Great White Hope]. The film dealt with a man who had dragged a wooden cross a long distance to deliver to St. Teresa’s church as payment for a promise. At a candomble he promised Iansa (Oya in Santeria) he would complete a huge promise if she saved his mule. The priest of St Teresa’s church welcomed him until he realized the man made the promise to Iansa, not to St. Teresa. The issue resulted in a citywide clash as the media escalated the issue and practitioners of candomble and capoeira got involved. Pagador de Promesas won an award in Cannes and is an interesting look at the clash of African and white Catholic culture in Brazil even if it was irritating to see the black people be used as colorful film elements rather than actual characters.

Joshua’s reaction to the candomble also reminded me of how different the expressions of the African diaspora are. I remember a Kikuya woman in an African dance class I had taken during college. I believe she was from Kenya. Someone in class commented that the dance moves should come naturally to her. She smiled and shook her head. “We don’t jump around like that,” she said. “Our dances are much more calm.” She revealed her traditional dance to be a quiet type of foot shuffling, rather than wide armed leaping that we Americans have come to accept as African dance. The majority of the African dance we see in the U.S. is West African and so has particular stylistics. As an East African, her traditional moves differed from the West African styles.

I was reminded of continental differences again when a Ugandan dance troupe performed as part of Chuck Davis’s Dance Africa last summer in Brooklyn. They also, did not do much leaping, they did a lot of marching and more cheerleader-ish arm motions, but their buts, hips and legs twisted in acrobatic gyrations. It was so refreshing and mind-blowing, I had never seen anything like that before. I think it’s beautiful that the diaspora is just as varied as the continent is. Each of Africa’s expressions can be potent in its own right.

At the Apo Funja ceremony, years ago, the ceremony was similar, but on a grander scale. There was one woman who I would never forget. It was a ceremony to pass initiates of Xango on to the next level. Before the ceremony began, I noticed this big, dark-skinned woman whose beautiful face had features as precise and planar as an African mask. She had an energy about her that kept drawing my eyes to her. When the ceremony began, I was surprised to find her as one of the initiates graduating to the next level. Somehow, all the initiates got the spirit together. I remember asking myself how it was possible for a spirit to universally visit the exact group of people being initiated. Even surrounded by ten or twelve entranced folk, this woman stood out. Where the others seemed to be doing the motions of Xango’s dance, she seemed to be Xango. Between dances, she would walk around the circle with huge loose-limbed strides, almost like she was walking on stilts. Her grunts of possession were loud and male. Her already formidable presence was multiplied quadruple fold. She continued to be a dynamic force for the entire night. When we left the terriero after the ceremony, I was surprised to find all the initiates still in trance wandering around the terriero with their watches following after. I felt sorry for the watcher of the woman I had been drawn to. She was huffing and puffing her way around the yard in a powerful manner. It seemed there was nothing her watcher could do if she decided to hurt herself or somebody else while entranced. That’s how powerful she seemed.

Before the Candomble, we had run into a pagode party on a tiny side street of Santo Antonio. The party looked very different from the tourist offerings in Pelourinho. It was obviously a Brazilian party. One look inside, revealed it to be a down-home, wine-down type of party. Regular people grooving with good vibes. We passed back after the candomble, but the party had closed down, perhaps because it was a Sunday night. The next day, after everyone had headed off to the beach, I went over some English lessons with my host, then headed over to the Solar do Unhão where the Bahian Museum of Modern Art is located. It had been three or four years since I had last been and I couldn’t remember what bus would let me off closest. I ended up making the same mistake I made years ago. I got on a bus in Cidade Baixa thinking it would drive straight up the coast, instead it turned inland and I ended up having to pass up the Solar do Unhão before I could get off the bus.

As usual, the mistake turned out to be a blessing. It was a beautiful day, and as I walked to the coast I heard music and voices. Over the edge of the rotorno—the road on the edge of the coast—was a steep drop to the ocean, which people had claimed as a favela. In Salvador, favelas are built on steep stretches of land no one wants to purchase because it’s difficult to build on them. People build a collection of randomly placed homes, accessed by steep stairways. This particular favela would seem to be hot property because it’s right on the water. The sun was shining, I could see brown bodies in the water and in canoes, there was a bar on the favela side of the road packed with people celebrating the beauty of the day. I was caught up in a feeling of rapture and thankfulness. On this day it was clear that the water and the sun was seen as a blessing and was being celebrated as such.

I made it down to the Solar and was again taken by beauty. This time it was the beauty of the museum compound. The museum is housed in four separate buildings joined by a cobblestoned courtyard. The area is surrounded by trees. Behind the museum compound is a pier with tables and a restaurant. As I sat on the pier having a watermelon juice, I noticed the middle class folks coming through for a drink. On the other side of the museum is a park with a small waterfall, and further beyond is a tiny beach. Interesting how the museum neighbors the favela. And a boatload of folks from the favela took the luxury of rowing over from their property to the tiny beach to lounge. Among the museum’s cobblestones, I found the abandoned yellow wing of a grounded butterfly. As I walked back to the bus from the museum, I kept seeing wings all over the ground. It made sense because the air that day was full of butterflies. I see them all over Bahia, at the beach, during carnival, while I’m standing on the balcony. I guess when they pass on, they leave behind the obvious evidence of their deserted bodies.

As it was the Museum of Modern Art, the art was modern. A lot of it conceptual, but some of it was straight ahead. It was great to spend an hour or two delving into another mindset. Salvador is a very artistic city, from the stone designs on the sidewalk which change from neighborhood to neighborhood, to the plethora of visual artists in the Pelourinho area. Besides the regimented similarity of the tourist art, there is a wonderful range of art found just strolling down the street. I found the place so inspiring that I actually started painting here. My delving into art was a mixture of a long-held desire to paint, experiencing Carybé’s woodcarvings, and an artist friend who one day gave me an old canvas and a brush and said, “paint.”

Painting is a means of survival, but is also another of Bahia’s various artistic expressions. Of course Candomble and Bahian culture are popular references. Some of the most striking pieces I’ve seen are Gil Albelha’s portraits of women who are part of the Irmanidade da Senhora da Boa Morte, a group of Candomble practitioners who are over the age of 50. In their advanced age, they’ve left behind their hoop skirts for black skirts and red shawls. I’ve seen Griot’s orixa paintings all the way in Washington D.C. and Bida’s stylized country scenes are included in many European collections. Yet their struggles are the struggles of artists everywhere: trying not to get pimped by art hustlers, needing to sell one more painting to pay the rent or keep the gallery open, trying to ignore political exclusion from arts events. Then there are the factory painters: painters—one family in particular I’m friendly with—who turn out tourist paintings to earn a living. Because there are so many painters, the gallery and shop owners can buy the paintings at a low price and sell them as high as they want. There’s always another artist willing to sell. If you are able to tap directly into an international market, you can do pretty well. A friend who started with a stall now spends a few months traveling to the U.S. and Europe selling his work, but if you don’t have a place to sell out of or your work isn’t foreigner friendly, art is a hard road to travel. But what else is new?

Be well. Be love(d).

K. Ibura

: : : August 2001 – present : : :

Publications: 4
Grants/fellowships: 0
Residencies/workshops: 0

Publications: 5
Grants/fellowships: 0
Residencies/workshops: 0


No acceptances or rejections this week.