Brazilian Candomblé through the lens of Mario Cravo Neto

Mario Cravo Neto, ‘Laróyè 1980-2000. Courtesy Rivington Place, London.
Mario Cravo Neto, ‘Laróyè 1980-2000. Courtesy Rivington Place, London.

There is a silent story when studying global history in the UK. This is the history of the slave route from the African continent to Brazil. Led by Portuguese colonisers, the route between Africa and Brazil saw ten times more slaves crossing the ocean (around 5.5 million in total, of which 4.8 made it across alive) than the ones forced by the British to work in the U.S. Most of the people taken to Brazil were forced to work in Portuguese plantations, with the central hub being the city of Salvador in Bahia, founded in 1548. This city is also the birthplace of photographer, Mario Cravo Neto.

Born in 1947, Cravo Neto is one of Brazil’s most widely acclaimed photographers. Rivington Place—one of London’s foremost art centres—is now hosting Cravo Neto’s first UK solo exhibition. He passed in 2009, but this exhibition shows how much he will be missed. Cravo Neto’s work is important to understand the religious practice of Candomblé in Brazil. Candomblé is a religious practice based on West African beliefs, specifically from the Yoruba, Fon, and Kongo people. From the 16th Century, many of these people brought their traditions and oral histories on the slave ships, weaving them together (combined also with the colonisers Catholicism) to form what refer today as Candomblé.

Portuguese colonisers tried to end the traditions of Candomblé, which explains why the first Candomblé church was only founded in the 19th Century. Candomblé followers were still frequently persecuted until the 1970s, but this was perhaps more to do with its role as a religion that is essentially racialised and tied to ‘blackness,’ which many Portuguese demonised.

Case in point, the initial colonisers were intensely aware of this majority non-white population, thus systematically encouraged and implemented a migration of white Portuguese population to Brazil. Miscegenation—the mixing of different racial groups—during the period of slavery was also a lot higher in Brazil than in the U.S.: whilst this may be attributed in part to promiscuity, it also reads as a dissemination of the white, Portuguese ‘seed’ into the black population (whilst the British feared miscegenation, the Portuguese seemed to encourage it).

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Mario Cravo Neto, ‘Sacrificio ‘V [1989], Courtesy of Daros Latinamerica Collection, Zurich & Rivington Place, London.

Candomblé as tied to blackness was seen as an act of resistance against the coloniser. This was literal in the case of quilombos: communities founded by runaway slaves, where Candomblé is most often practiced and to this day undergo frequent raids by police. A quashing of Candomblé thus becomes a quashing of blackness, and vice versa.

Cravo Neto’s photographs therfore become a site of resistance. He understands the importance of Candomblé to Brazilian identity, and puts it at the forefront of his work. His images are imbued with references to the spiritual practice: Sacrificio V (above), the sacrifice of animal, which is said to feed the deities, existing as an explicit example.

Less clear are some of the other more nuanced black and white portraits that make up the first half the exhibition named The Eternal Now.  In this instance I think of Deus de Cabeça (Head of God; see photo below). An integral part of the belief is the following of orixas (orishas), the deities underneath the supreme creator, Oludumaré. Each person is said to have their own orixas, based on their personal character, who they then communicate with and worship throughout their lifetime. Parallel to orixas are nkisi, objects which contain a spirit. Deus de Cabeça is a coming together of both orixas and nkisi. The subject holds the spirit, represented here in turtle, to their face—their bodies becoming a patterned symbiosis—amalgamating the nkisi, or the orixas (whichever way you want to see it) with their human counterpart. 

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Laróyè is the second portion of the exhibition. The word is a greeting to éxù, the messenger of all the orixas. As Argentinean curator Gabriela Salgado writes:without his [éxù’s] consent, the other entities would not manifest or connect with humans, as he holds the key to open the gates of the intangible.”

In her salient essay she also goes on to point out that éxù is an entity that patrols the street and protects those that inhabit it, “the homeless, the stranded and children.” Cravo Neto’s colour photos here come as manifestation of éxù, the camera eye reflecting that of éxù’s own. The messenger’s colours are black and red and this colour scheme is leitmotif that runs throughout the photographs that Cravo Neto made for Laróyè. Whilst the shadows in these photos are strong, the bodies of the Salvador population exude the prevailing black. They become the ‘earth’ and clad in red cloth, the ‘fire’ too, that the black and red of êxù are said to symbolise. They are the human counterparts of éxù – both the life force of Salvador and the messengers of the Gods.

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Mario Cravo Neto, ‘Laróyè 1980-2000. Courtesy Rivington Place, London.

But what if, like me, you have little knowledge of Candomblé when you enter Rivington Place? What I was reminded of first was the musings of novelist, essayist and photographer, Teju Cole, in his essay, “A Truer Picture of Black Skin. In the black and white works of Cravo Neto, but even in some of his colour photographs, there is not always an attempt to illuminate black skin. I mean that literally—some of these photos are dark, the shadows, as aforementioned, are strong. Teju Cole writes similarly about the photographer, Roy DeCarava: His work was, in fact, an exploration of just how much could be seen in the shadowed parts of a photograph, or how much could be imagined into those shadows.”

Mario Cravo Neto, ‘Laróyè 1980-2000. Courtesy Rivington Place, London.
Mario Cravo Neto, ‘Laróyè 1980-2000. Courtesy Rivington Place, London.

What DeCarava was shooting, says Teju Cole, was black identity under question. The same could be said of Cravo Neto, even if imagined differently. Both are documenters of the black experience in their respective countries (DeCarava’s in the U.S.). Both use the shadows to help illustrate their point. They differ as photographers all over the place: framing, colour, abstraction vs. realism. But the shadows remain, and talk of untold or invisible experiences.

There aren’t many fixed statistics regarding the numbers of Candomblé followers in Brazil. In 2010, around 5% of the population declared themselves spiritualists—one can only imagine some of these follow Candomblé, but not all.

In a country that declares itself a racial democracy (something to explore another time), I believe it important to understand the history of Candomblé (even if the numbers are small) to the Afro-Brazilian experience—as both a cultural practice, a form of black unity, and as colonial defiance. In this sense, the photographic works of Cravo Neto are increasingly important: as documentation, as art, and as resistance.

‘Mario Cravo Neto: A Serene Expectation of Light’ is on at Rivington Place, London till 2nd April 2016, and is free entry. Do also check out the exhibition there on Maud Sylter—it is equal importance.

Rohan Rice

Londoner Rohan Rice is a writer, photographer and videographer. He writes on art, literature, film, race, gender, current affairs, and football.

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