The Way We Were

The Way We Were

An exhibition of paintings by the Dutch artist, Albert Eckhout
has sparked a revival of interest in
the history of Brazil.
His works allow present-day Brazilians to see what their
forebears of almost 400
years ago looked like.


John Fitzpatrick

Living in a metropolis like São Paulo, one can be forgiven for imagining that the local people have little sense of
history. There are few buildings which are more than a century old, no historic center and the rapid urban development has
shown little mercy to older buildings, which have simply been swept away regardless of their architectural or historical interest.
The obscene scale of the giant concrete and glass constructions has made the city not only ugly but inhuman, as these
monstrosities tower over the people and reduce them to ants.

Only a handful of the mansions built by the coffee barons remain in Avenida Paulista and few have been well looked
after. One is even rented out for events, which have ranged from dog sales to a reception for a sex magazine. The banner of
this magazine was draped across the front of the building. Rather than see this as an affront to their city’s cultural wealth,
the people of São Paulo passed on by or went on in, as was their wont. (The magazine itself is called
Brazil, so if the owners can get away with purloining the name of the country to peddle pornography why should they not desecrate the city’s
historic assets as well?)

As most São Paulo people are descendants of immigrants or migrants from other parts of Brazil, perhaps their
historical memories are short. In previous articles I have commented on the sad state of the original city center where scores of
attractive buildings have been neglected, defaced and abandoned. Some have been taken over by squatters while others have
been turned into seedy hotels and cinemas showing sex films. The general decline and lack of security has left the center to
those who are miserable, abandoned and criminal.

Having said that, an exhibition of paintings by the Dutch artist, Albert Eckhout, which has just opened, has sparked
a revival of interest in the history of Brazil, if not São Paulo itself. Thousands of
Paulistanos have been visiting the
exhibition—Albert Eckhout volta ao Brasil
1644-2003—in the Pinacoteca art gallery near the Estação da Luz railway station.

Eckhout spent about seven years painting the people and vegetation of that part of the Northeast of Brazil which
was in Dutch hands in the 17th century. He came to Pernambuco in 1637 at the age of 26 as part of a scientific mission ordered
by the governor, the splendidly-named Johan Mauritz van Nassau-Siegen, to collect information on this fascinating part of
the New World. The mission included a botanist, a zoologist and another painter, Frans Post.

While Post concentrated on sketching and painting the landscape and architecture, both Dutch and Portuguese,
Eckhout concentrated on people and plants. He was one of the first European painters to portray the people of this emerging
country and his works allow present-day Brazilians to see what their forebears of almost 400 years ago looked like. Eckhout
painted eight life-sized portraits showing the different races and mixtures—a black man and a black woman, a Tapuia Indian man
and woman, a Tupi Indian man and woman, a mulatto man of European and African descent and a
mameluca woman of European and Indian descent.

The men are all armed, with the Indians and the black man carrying bows, arrows, clubs and knives while the mulatto
has a gun and sword although he is barefooted. The women carry baskets and are sometimes accompanied by their children.
The Tapuia Indian woman has a severed human leg in her basket and is holding a human hand, showing that, even under
Dutch rule, cannibalism was still prevalent among some Indians.

The most striking work is a painting, about 10 feet wide, called "The Dance of the Tapuias" which shows a group of
Indians dancing and wielding spears and clubs. The men’s faces are fierce and you can almost hear the stamp of their feet on the
ground as they mark what appears to be a warlike ritual. Two women are looking on and commenting to each other, possibly
reckoning who is the best dancer. This dynamic painting contrasts dramatically with the others, which are fairly static. It shows
that the Brazilian Indians were fearsome enemies and not the kind of gentle pacifists which recent historical revision would
have us believe. In fact, the Dutch, Portuguese and French all recruited allies amongst the Indians to fight their fellow Europeans.

Dutch rule ended in 1654 after an occupation of only around 30 years and one cannot but wonder how the Northeast
of Brazil would have developed had they remained. It is unlikely that they would have penetrated far inland as they were
more interested in trade than territory, but if they had maintained control then present-day Brazil would be very different. It is
possible that it could have even split into various countries as the Spanish colonies in Latin America did. In any case, it is
interesting to see how these brief colonizers left their stamp on Brazil, not only in the canals and buildings they constructed in
Recife and forts they left scattered along the coast, but in presenting portraits of the people who formed the evolving Brazilian nation.

Is it too much to hope that the citizens of São Paulo who visit the exhibition will wonder why, so often, foreigners
show greater interest in Brazilian culture and history than Brazilians themselves?

John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish journalist who first visited Brazil in 1987 and has lived in São Paulo since 1995. He
writes on politics and finance and runs his own company, Celtic
Comunicações—, which specializes in editorial and translation services for Brazilian and foreign clients. You can reach him at

© John Fitzpatrick 2003

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