"Pages from a Bahia Diary" 2011 - Present
Twenty-five years ago, I purchased a monumental and impressively tattered and disassembled book written in Portuguese, a language I didn’t understand , thinking, as artists do, that one day I would find a creative use for it - then relegated it to a corner of my studio and forgot about it.
In January 2011, I was awarded an artist fellowship from Instituto Sacatar, to spend seven weeks on the verdant island of Itaparica, in the bay that gives Bahia, Brazil its name. As I hurried to pack, I literally stumbled over the forgotten book, glanced down, read the word “Brasil” in its title, and swept it into my suitcase.
The moment I stepped out of Sacatar’s front gate, I felt I was wading through Yoruba spirits, every bit as palpable as the Atlantic waves lapping the shore outside my studio windows.
I was mesmerized by the Bahianas – their flamboyance, strength and beauty, their flouting of social norms, and their grace. Fortunately, they welcomed me into their company, and I spent many happy hours accompanying them during lavagems (ritual cleansings) and festivities; I would also see them at Candomblé and Umbanda ceremonies I attended. Graciously, they let me photograph them. to use as reference for my drawings
I began drawing their portraits over the text pages of my tattered book – which, amazingly,turned out to be an important historical text: the rare 1940 folio-size edition of Gaspar Barleu’s 17th century text, “Historia dos feitos recentemente practicado durante oito anos do Brasil” – the history of Conde Joao Mauricio’s Colonial Dutch “empire” of Brazil.
As if preordained, I was portraying these strong Afro-Brazilian women, and the orixas who guide and watch over them, emerging from and assuming power over their history of enslavement and colonization. Think of it as a rewriting, and a-righting, of history, and as a celebration of the Yoruban culture that is the heart and soul of Bahian life.
I was welcomed into the neighboring community, where I spent time with the Bahianas, was welcomed into Candomble houses, and was invited to paint a mural for the village chapel. The friendships we established with one another permitted me to create these portraits of the Afro-Brazilian women I met on the island, as well as portrayals of the Candomble spirit world I was introduced to.
I had the good fortune of being welcomed into ceremonies at several Candomble houses there, to make repeated visits to Ile Axe Opo Afonja, the storied Candomble compound in the port city of Salvador - this latter through the good graces of a mutual friend, who is herself a Candomble priestess, and who became my ebomi, that is, my mentor or Elder; and to be introduce into the Candomble religion. Candomble, and in particular, its orixa Exu, lord of potentiality and consequences, had an unexpectedly strong pull for me: I have attempted to portray some of what I have learned and witnessed there with deep respect and gratitude.
I was also fortunate to attend an all-night Umbanda ceremony: its much more frenzied evocations, sweet communal energy, and the spiritual intensity of the devotees made a lasting impression on me, which I've attempted to capture in some of the devotees' portraits here.
During my stay in Itaparica, I sought a meaningful format in which to portray these people who welcomed me so warmly into their community and world. Fortuitously - the Orixas would call it pre-ordained - I had brought along with me the disassembled, fraying pages of a long-ago-acquired antiquarian book, O Brasil Holandês, by Gaspar Barléu (Image at right). This oversize 1940 Portuguese-language republication of a 17th century historical text, documenting the Dutch empire of Brazil, became the context, a theater in which the Afro-Brazilian women I befriended, descendants of those enslaved under the Dutch and Portuguese, would emerge from, respond to, and, ultimately, dominate that history of colonialization and enslavement; and wherein their spirit-protectors, the Orixas, find their homes in the landscapes and maps of the New World.