A Soul Portrait
Once a central port in the Portuguese colonial network of commerce and trade, the city
of Salvador, in the state of Bahia, was the entryway for 3 to 4 million enslaved Africans.
The Africans were forced to work in the plantations and mines, build cities and labor as
craftsmen and artisans in the colonial culture. They brought to Brazil their own heritage
of art and religion, which is remembered and celebrated today in the popular arts of this
Pelourinho, the historic square at the heart of Salvador, once associated with slavery,
is now the remarkable center of a resurgence of Afro-Brazilian culture and identity. Some
artists depict the old city itself, inspired by its rich, architectural forms, the colors
and textures of sloping roofs, the patterned pavements and façades of colonial palaces
and churches. Other artists paint scenes that reveal the complex and rich cultural mix of
traditions stemming from the Americas, Africa and Europe. Dislocated Africans and their
descendants absorbed many aspects of the European culture, including Christianity.
Founded in 1549 on the steep bluffs overlooking the Bay of all Saints, Salvador da
Bahia de Todos os Santos was the first colonial capital of Brazil and the Portuguese
gateway into the Americas more than half a century before France and England established
permanent settlements in North America. Echoing the town plan of Portuguese medieval
cities with fortified walls, narrow twisting streets, open plazas and richly-ornamented
churches, Salvador was, by the 17th century, a major colonial center of wealth, commerce
and culture and one of the busiest ports in the triangular trade route linking the
Americas, Europe and Africa.
A little of Bahia’s treasure is coming to the United States. Two Brazilian Art
exhibitions open this spring at the UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) Fowler
Museum of Cultural History. "O Pelourinho! Popular Art from the Historic Heart of
Brazil" opens March 1 and continues through May 10. The art featured in "O
Pelourinho" combines African traditions, Brazilian history, popular culture and the
spirituality of Candomblé and Catholicism into a rich celebration of reclamation and
As documented in a companion presentation, "Scenes from Bahian Carnaval", a
select group of photographs, captures the vitality and brilliance of this amazing event
and highlights the Afro-Brazilian presence in the city’s celebrations. "Scenes from
Bahian Carnaval" opens February 4, 1998 and continues through May 10, 1998.
There are 61 contemporary paintings and 25 sculptures in the art exhibition.
The images in "Scenes from Bahian Carnaval" were photographed by Pravina
Shukla, UCLA doctoral candidate in Folklore and Mythology, during the city’s 1996 and 1997
celebrations. These images clearly show that Carnaval in Bahia is like no other on the
The Pelourinho is the central site of one of the most immense and lavish of all
Carnaval celebrations. Lasting for six days and nights just prior to the Catholic
observance of Lent, the Bahian Carnaval clearly reflects the history of the city. During
all hours of the day and night tens of thousands of Carnaval revelers, both young and old,
participate by playing instruments, wearing costumes, or dancing in the streets.
Due to its complex history, Salvador is a city full of juxtapositionshigh rises,
colonial architecture, cobblestone streets, 365 Catholic churches (or so says the legend),
and hundreds of terreiros for the Yoruba-derived religion, Candomblé. This history
especially permeates the Carnaval celebrations, influencing the yearly themes for parade
organizations, costumes, musical instruments and musical styles.
December to early March is Carnaval season in Salvador. During the few months preceding
Lent there are many Candomblé ceremonies and festivities, which must take place prior to
Lent when all such activities come to an official halt. These city-wide celebrations may
be as secular as they are sacred, depending on the religious preferences of the
participants. For example, Candomblé initiates and ordained priests and priestesses
engage in processions and religious rituals, while other participants drink and dance on
the streets in anticipation of Carnaval.
Both exhibitions will be on view Wednesdays through Sundays, noon to 5 p.m., and
Thursdays until 8 p.m. For information, call (310) 825-4361. (L.R.)
By Brazzil Magazine
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