Searching for Iemanjá
MoMA Magazine (ed. Leah Dickerman, Alex Halberstadt, Prudence Peiffer)

Over six weeks at the beginning of 2020, I traveled across Brazil, where I met artists and cultural leaders who told me how ingrained political dynamics appeared in their everyday lives. A former slavocracy with a large population and a tradition of ingesting other cultures into its own, Brazil bears an uncanny resemblance to my own place of origin. Writing today from New York City, where I was born and continue to stay, the stakes of comparative thinking about how history reappears in the art of the present feel increasingly urgent.

The US and Brazil have reported the highest case rates and deaths from COVID-19 in the world, an expression of the forms of governance that make Black people vulnerable to premature death in both countries. Against this backdrop of loss and grief, protests have followed the state-sponsored extrajudicial killings of Black folks whose commonalities transcend national boundaries: João Pedro Matos Pinto, George Floyd, Lucas Eduardo Martins dos Santos, Breonna Taylor, Allyson do Nascimento, Tony McDade, and others.

What we are witnessing is the end of one order and the possibility of a new one. The following two essays, dedicated to the Afro-Brazilian spirit Iemanjá and those who offered me a path to seek Her out, are my attempts to account for the reservoir of cultural resources available for transitioning from one world to another.

Part 1. Searching for Iemanjá: On the Move

If you’re looking for Iemanjá in Salvador, Brazil, you’ll find traces of Her wherever you go. In the touristy Pelourinho neighborhood, Her smiling face beckons from the towels and tchotchkes that litter the gift shop windows in the city’s historic district. At the shopping mall in the middle-class Barra neighborhood, She advertises a deal in a restaurant named after her. Yemanjá’s sits a few doors down from Johnny Rockets and promises fried acarajés filled with black-eyed peas, delivered by servers wearing lace tops, long flowing skirts, and headdresses.

Iemanjá is not only a ubiquitous commercial icon; She organizes public space. Large-scale images of her preside over apartment buildings, cultural centers, beaches, bars, businesses, and markets across the city. Her outstretched arms extend her benevolence to those who seek her protection. The dozens of orixás, or deities, that make up the pantheon of Afro-Brazilian gods and goddesses dot the cityscape. For example, a sculpture of Exu, the guardian of the crossroads, who oversees all forms of communication, is positioned in front of the city’s central post office. But in this seaside city, Iemanjá, the goddess of the moon and the sea, is perhaps most visible. A sculpture of her stands stolidly in the Dique do Tororó, a man-made lagoon, where a metal sculpture by Tatti Moreno depicts her holding a mirror facing outward in a gesture of collective self-reflection. (Nearby, the orixá of fresh water, Oxun, can be distinguished from Iemanjá by her inward-facing mirror.) In modernist Bahian artist Mario Cravo Jr.’s fragmented rendering of Iemanjá, She bears her breasts and bulging eyes that look up to the sky. Cravo’s statue was recently moved: not all stand-ins for Iemanjá are made to last. At the Ponta da Humaita—which juts out into the immense, island-filled Bay of All Saints that gives the city its name—people leave offerings for Her in the form of white corn and candles that lie wet and scattered beside broken yellow platters. And in Rio Vermelho, where on every February 2 hundreds of thousands of people gather for a 24-hour celebration in Her honor (including the military police who survey the festivities and Evangelicals who are sponsored by the national government to come and protest them), fungible plastic miniatures that represent Her with a snow-white face and jet-black hair are bought one by one.

Divine Mother

Iemanjá—otherwise known as Yemanjá, Yamaja, Yemonja, Yemaya, Yemoja, and Emanje, depending on where in the Atlantic world you are—is a water goddess. In Bahia, She is the orixá of salt water, the deity of the ocean. In Yoruba, the cultural and linguistic group who were enslaved and transported en masse from West Africa to Brazil’s northeast and Cuba well into the 19th century, Her name is derived from the expression YéYé Omó Ejá: “The Mother whose children are fish.” Within Black and popular Brazilian culture (and even in places in the south of the country, where Bantu people were forcibly transported), She is known as the Great Mother, or the Great African Mother. Both religious practitioners and occasional believers turn to Her in search of good health, fertility, and abundance. Iemanjá is not only the source of life; She also intervenes when life is threatened, buttressing the living from the specter of death. She offers fishermen their catch and prevents their boats from capsizing. Her story, which varies across different traditions and places, often links birth to an act of near-death. In one telling, particular to the Americas, She gave birth to 10 other orixás—including the gods of agriculture, war, and health—after having been raped by a family member. Both an abyss and a womb, She organizes the relationship between the world’s creation and its destruction into a relatable family drama.

Taken together, Iemanjá’s stories dissolve the boundary between the worlds of spirit and human. In most religious practices, gods and mortals remain separate, but in Afro-Brazilian religious traditions, including Candomblé, Quimbanda, and Umbanda, the two spheres come into contact physically through trance. Orixás are incorporated into bodily form by possessing individual practitioners. To receive the orixá, the initiate prepares by shearing her head, cutting a small divot at her crown. This religious encounter is not an everyday occurrence, and certainly wasn’t for me as an uninitiated person. But fazer a cabeça—the expression of preparation—like other Black Brazilian idioms, circulates in daily life. Outside of religious practice, it can mean to convince someone of something, a friend explained to me. It also describes an act of self-reinvention.

During the month and a half I spent traveling across Brazil, Iemanjá appeared in official forms of culture through the performances and museums I visited obsessively looking for Her. The Balé Folclórico was one such place, in which a high-energy amalgamation of Black Brazilian movement techniques, including orixá dances, capoeira, and samba, were performed. On stage, Iemanjá was surrounded by 10 of her children, who used their arms to cast imaginary lines as if fishing at sea. (A sword fight between three duos of men dressed in loincloths followed.) In Salvador’s modern art museum and two different museums devoted to Afro-Brazilian culture in the city, artists marshaled symbols that made reference to Her: blue and white beads, a wooden relief in the shape of a goat, seashells. While I appreciated these fierce representations, I did not find the unnameable thing I had come looking for: the figure that might at once summon me and shatter something inside me. The closest I seemed to get to this feeling in a museum or at a concert stage was a collection of objects by self-taught artists where palm-sized ceramic mermaids by unnamed makers sat on small shelves. Behind a vitrine, their black pupils stared upwards, surrounded by full, white irises which looked steadily out at the horizon. It was only later that I realized that, like the people who had cupped these objects in their hands or placed them on a table for safekeeping before me, I too held the idea of Iemanjá steady in my mind’s eye as I crossed the city looking for Her.

Duas Cidades

For nearly 500 years, Salvador has been tailor-built to limit its inhabitants’ movement under the premise of “civilization.” After Portuguese settlers declared the triangular peninsula Brazil’s first capital in 1549, dispossessing the Tupinambá of their land, military architects carefully organized the city into two zones separated by a steep slope. Engineers trained by the Portuguese crown built the forts, prisons, ports, and markets for sugarcane and slaves that organized the cidade baixa (an area that might be called “The Bottom” were it set in a Toni Morrison novel.) The zone is so categorically split from its upper half that it has retained its name into the present. In their song “Duas Cidades,” the rock and reggae group BaianaSystem sing an organizing refrain in their chorus: “Divi- divi- divi- dividir Salvador.” The cidade baixa also answers to nicknames, proudly abbreviated by those who live there as the CBX as artist and CBX resident Rebeca Carapiá explained to me.

While the cidade baixa was organized for industrial trade, the city's colonial architects adorned the cidade alta with gilded churches, two-story homes, administrative buildings, and botanical gardens. Many of these spaces were clustered around the Pelourinho, a neighborhood that took its name from the wooden pillories, or pelourinhos, built to constrain and punish enslaved people who greatly outnumbered whites in the city. In 1985, UNESCO designated the Pelourinho a World Heritage Site. Soon after this designation, the neighborhood was subject to a multimillion dollar rehabilitation, during which the colonial houses were repainted blue, yellow, and pink, and many of the neighborhood’s predominantly Black and trans residents were forcibly removed. While almost a half-millennium has passed since the vertical order of this city’s geography was established, its effects remain in effect.

Quilombos Urbanos: Urban Marronage

Salvador was constructed to limit Black and Indigenous people’s mobility, but formerly enslaved people have also long built their own territories outside of the law, just beyond the city’s limits. There are many examples of these urban quilombos—spaces of refuge for fugitive slaves, people of Indigenous and African descent, and others who want to live free—which date back to the beginning of slavery. Terreiros, the grounds where Afro-Brazilian religion is practiced, are one such space of refuge.

When I visited Terreiro de Candomblé Ilê Axé Iyá Nassô, otherwise known as Casa Branca, a terreiro founded in the mid-1830s, Equede Sinha explained to me that the assembly of structures that form Casa Branca was built on the outskirts of Salvador. Equede, a sylphlike woman who wears delicately embroidered layers of white and whose name describes her role in caring for those who are possessed, is one of Casa Branca’s mães-de-santo—a priestess and its second-in-command. Terreiros are hierarchically structured and power is often passed down matrilineally. When I visited her, Sinha was buttressed by two younger women and told me about her new book on how power in the terreiro is coded through dress. She carries her power with a lightness and a sense of humor, dotting her sentences with meu filho—“my child”—inquiring about my boyfriend, and receiving her house daughters’ protective attention with ease. Casa Branca, she told me, is the oldest physical religious ground in the city of Salvador, established two generations before the abolition of slavery in Brazil in 1888.

Casa Branca’s physical space was created in the wake of the Malê revolt, a planned rebellion organized by enslaved Muslims during Ramadan in 1835. While 200 of the revolution’s leaders were subsequently deported to West Africa, a small group including Francisca da Silva later returned to Salvador, where they established the spaces that today house three dozen residents at Casa Branca. The terreiro was surveilled by the police in the 1940s due to its presumed association with “communist activity,” and was nearly destroyed by the city in the 1980s because its inhabitants did not hold a deed to the property. During former president Lula’s tenure, it received state support from the ministry of culture. Today, it remains a space of worship and mutual aid, a cultural workshop. Each of its various buildings is filled with tools for making clothes, food, music, or dance: rows of sewing machines, black-eyed peas and palm oil, a battery of drums. Upon entering the space through a yard that faces a busy city street, you can see a defunct water fountain dedicated to Oxum designed by architect Oscar Niemeyer. (The fountain is one of two works Niemeyer made in Bahia; the other is a tomb for the Bahian-born, Afro-Brazilian writer and guerrilla Carlos Marighella, who was murdered by the military dictatorship in 1969.) Iemanjá appears in a smaller mosaic made by Bronx-born terreiro initiate Manny Vega. This mermaid looks back at the people and other animals who sit under one of the yard’s trees. If you ask, the origin of each tree is known by those who find cover under them.

Artists across the country use the expression quilombo urbano, or urban maroon communities, to describe their spaces of work. Erica Malunguinho—an artist and Black feminist state congressperson in São Paulo—uses the term for the cultural space she made in 2016 from her studio, Aparelha Luiza. Aparelha is many things: an art gallery; a rehearsal room for dancers and drummers in the weeks leading up to Carnival; a dance party filled with ’90s throwbacks from Congo, Brazil, and the Black US; and a center for political education. The stakes of the space are made clear by a large-scale artwork by Raylander Mártis Dos Anjos that greets you upon arrival: VOCÊ TEM QUE PARAR DE ACHAR QUE ESTÁ NO LUGAR ERRADO (“YOU HAVE TO STOP THINKING YOU’RE IN THE WRONG PLACE”). You’re once again reminded of why you are here when you leave or go out to chat with a friend. A mural on the facing building features a photographic reproduction of Marielle Franco, the Black queer activist and politician who in 2018 was gunned down in Rio de Janeiro by President Jair Bolsonaro’s extrajudicial militar. Next to her smiling face, which has become a rallying cry for anti-fascist activists across the country, are the silkscreened words be inspired; get mobilized; don’t forget.

On the first night I went to Aparelha, Malunguinho got on the mic to describe the historical necessity of creating space explicitly for Black and Indigenous people. (Malunguinho's Chief-of-Staff, Sandra Silva, generously translated for me.) Her message, a compelling stump speech that yielded to poetry, starts as far back as Palmares, a quilombo that developed in the early 17th century and may have included up to 20,000 inhabitants at its height. The urgency for this kind of space continues today under Bolsonaro’s tenure. (Malunguinho and Bolsonaro were elected on the same day.) Malunguinho was raised in the country’s northeast and often makes references to the place she grew up. At one recent public talk titled “How to Overcome This Crossroads,” she began her remarks by invoking a specific terreiro in her neighborhood of Água Fria dedicated to Iemanjá.

Malunguinho—whose name means “one who travels with you” in Bantu, a name adopted by newly formed kin who were forcibly transported during the slave trade—is one of several artists working across Brazil whose studios are extensions of terreiros. Terreiros are imaged in artworks. For example, in Dalton Paula’s 2009 painting Comunhão, São Cosme and São Damião sit with a child facing out in three-quarter profile. Paula places these figures within the sparse interior of a terreiro’s safe haven. The painting invites the viewer into an open space, a lateral horizon line that refuses a perspectival center. Three sitters calmly protect their space from the onlookers’ gaze.

Hariel Revignet, an artist trained as an architect and living in the same city as Paula, calls the spatial logic of the terreiro “axétetura.” The term is a conjunction of architecture and axé, the concept used to describe the energetic force that sustains terreiros, as well an affirmation used in everyday speech. In a downloadable broadsheet that includes bulleted descriptions and digital collages juxtaposing people and buildings at fantastical scales, Revignet defines axétetura through “its opposition to a notion of architecture, which constructs ‘universal,’ ‘international,’ or ‘good’ architecture, which are racialized territories…of class dominance and white hegemony.” One collages a photograph of architect Oscar Niemeyer, later in life, with a cigar in hand reclining on top of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, a French national monument. Cultural institutions, axétetura suggests, are one of these intensely racialized territories.

Can a Museum Be an Urban Quilombo?

Museums devoted to Afro-Brazilian art are the epicenter of this contestation over cultural space. Perhaps most iconically, the Museu Afro Brasil, in São Paulo’s Ibirapuera Park, occupies a Niemeyer building, which artist Emanoel Araujo turned into a display for his massive collection of cultural objects related to Black Brazil. In addition to being a key artistic figure who began showing in the late 1950s, Araujo was a longtime director of the state Pinacoteca museum, hosting a series of exhibitions that were key to crafting the category of Afro-Brazilian art. (His ongoing series of exhibitions, A mão afro-brasileira [The Afro-Brazilian Hand], first included key mid-century artists who straddled abstraction and Black spirituality, like Mestre Didi and Rubem Valentim, and later featured important living artists like Sônia Gomes and Rosana Paulino.) One series of vitrines in Araujo’s display at the Museu Afro Brasil, devoted to Iemanjá, gives a sense of the range of this total artwork-as-museum. In a single sightline, you can see a colonial-style Portuguese tile of a mermaid, a wood relief African sculpture of a figure carrying a basket on her head, a plastic banner adorned with silver tinsel and butterflies, and a high-gloss color photograph of cropped eyes covered with beads. Each representation of Iemanjá comes from a different aesthetic history and is installed, one on top of the other, in non-chronological order without accompanying wall texts. This is not a from-slavery-to-freedom story, but rather a history of Black creativity and religious experience under the expansive title of Afro Brazil.

Today, other attempts to write a history of art from inside the circle of Black life proliferate. These efforts have significantly shifted the stakes for art made by Black people. In the past five years, the country’s most resourced museums have organized landmark exhibitions, including the 2015 Territories: Artists of African Descent in the Collection of the Pinacotecaand MASP’s 2018 exhibition Histórias afro-atlânticas (Afro-Atlantic Histories). Meanwhile, São Paulo galleries like Mendes Woods and Sé Galeria have demonstrably increased the representation of Black artists in commercial venues. This is not unlike the shift in museum and commercial discourse occurring in the country’s North American neighbor, and as I spoke to Black curators working inside and across institutions, I began to understand the nuanced contexts they are creating.

If Blackness is a layered category whose meanings change across time and place, Black curatorial work is equally shaped through specificity and collaboration. A handful of the curators doing this work whom I had a chance to meet include: Hélio Menezes, Curator at the Centro Cultural of São Paulo, who co-organized Histórias afro-atlânticas and whose thesis on the emergence of the category of “Afro-Brazilian art” is a key reference; Amanda Carneiro, assistant curator at MASP, who, in addition to running their public programs, is working on a research project about the history of Black Brazilian artists working in abstraction in the 1960s and ’70s; Uriel Bezerra, who co-organized the Ecos do Atlântico Sul about the Afro-Luso-Brazilian triangle; Diane Lima, who, with artist Rosana Paulino, organized the 2016–17 Diálogos Ausentes (Absent Dialogues) exhibition at Itaú Cultural, in 2018 created AfroTranscendence, a radical education program for artists, curates the Valongo Festival Internacional da Imagem, and is co-organizing the Third Frestas Triennial with Beatriz Lemos and Thiago de Paula Souza; and de Paula Souza, whose exhibition Tony Cokes: To Live as Equals recently opened at BAK in Utrecht and who, with Gabi Ngcobo, was co-organizer of the 10th Berlin Biennial, titled We Don’t Need Another Hero, and the trans-disciplinary platform I’ve seen your face before, models of collaborative curatorial practice.

Black artists are also creating their own models for supporting one another’s work through organizations such as Trovoa, a collective started by four women artists in March 2019 that has since greatly expanded. In cities across the country, its various chapters respond to the needs of their contexts while organizing across sites through a WhatsApp group and shared Google Docs. Technology as a means of bringing people together in real space is also important for 0101 Art Platform, a residency program and social media network that includes Moises Patricio, Ana Beatriz Almeida, and Keyna Eleison, among others. It is hard to overstate the range and depth of Black-feminist approaches to curatorial work in Brazil today. Tiago Sant’Ana’s 2013 six-part photo series Composições simples para ouvir ancestrais (Simple Compositions to Listen to the Ancestors), which opens this essay, provides an inadvertent portrait of this richness: In this dedication to Iemanjá, the artist, scholar, and curator, currently pursuing his PhD at the Federal University of Bahia, depicts himself being steadily drowned by seashells, a symbol of Her prosperity.

These curators and organizers are not only showing and collecting Black artists’ work; they are creating Black spaces, meaningful augmentations and redefinitions to the museum as a cultural institution. This other kind of Black space, like the itinerant Batekoo party I went to with Thiago, requires material support to sustain itself, as well as brick-and-mortar space in which to gather. Nevertheless, it remains on the move.

Read part two of “Searching for Iemanjá”