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Under the Gods’ Eyes

Under the Gods' Eyes

I arrived at the Pelourinho on Sunday night. The square
exploded with the sound of Olodum drums and dancing bodies, couples making
out, and little boys groping for wristwatches. My hunger led me to a narrow
doorway, and into a small café decorated with reed rattan and woody-colored
batiks. Reggae music pouring from a speaker in the corner of the room,
drowned out the drums outside. I sat down for a beer. Suddenly I realized
I was surrounded by the watchful eyes of the orixás.
By Kathleen de Azevedo

You could almost call it an art traffic jam, Brazilian-style. From the
Portuguese, Salvador got splendid rococo churches with gold tabernacles,
silver candlesticks, and wooden Christs covered with blood drops made from
rubies. From Africa came the congo drums and a love for rhythm that springs
from the fingers of a musician sitting in the shadow of a shop and plucking
the string of a berimbau.

Hard to believe the Pelourinho, the old section of Salvador, once hosted
the colonial spectacle of public floggings; the word "pelourinho"
means whipping post. No more. Nowadays, the tourists have conquered it,
and many of the Pelo’s artistic wares bear a gentle reminder that us mortals
must respect the recklessness of fate. To ward off the evil eye, one can
purchase a figa, a good luck charm in the shape of a clenched hand
with the thumb stuck between the pointer and middle finger. The brash
carrancas — carved wood heads of jagged-teeth half-dragon-half-man
that once protected boats against water demons — will guard homes or shops
from marauding bad karma. But for the serious artist, inspiration emerges
not from the tourist shops, but from frustration and chaos.

I arrived at the Pelourinho on Sunday night, and ran into the weekly
Olodum concert. A flatbed truck, a loudspeaker and a few amazing drummers
was all it took. The square exploded with the sound of Olodum drums and
dancing bodies, couples making out, and little boys groping for wristwatches.
Most of the restauranteurs seemed to have closed up shop and joined the
party, but upon arriving in Salvador after a long bus ride from Ilhéus,
I had to eat. My hunger led me to a narrow doorway, and into a small café
decorated with reed rattan and woody-colored batiks. Reggae music pouring
from a speaker in the corner of the room, drowned out the drums outside.

The kitchen was closed here too, but the proprietor offered to cook
some rice, beans, and meat. Good deal. I sat down for a beer. Suddenly
I realized I was surrounded by the watchful eyes of the orixás.
The paintings that hung on the café walls, paid homage to this pantheon
of gods from the African-Brazilian religion. African slaves, shackled together
in the holds of Portuguese ships, brought the orixás with
them to roam free in the new land. In spite of the colonizers attempts
to crush these beliefs, the orixás and their veneration prevailed,
and still clamor for the Brazilian soul.

In one of the paintings, "Dança do Sol" (Dance
of the Sun), black figures celebrate so joyously that a white light radiates
from their bodies. In another painting, Ogum the warrior raises
his shield with a painted face of brown, blue and yellow slashes. From
another canvas bursts Xangô, god of thunder, with fire leaping
from his head. As I admired the paintings, a young man in dreadlocks and
a dashiki tunic stepped into the restaurant followed by a cluster of small
boys. The boys ran into the back room, playing, and the young man introduced
himself as Jorge de Olinda, the orixá portrait painter.

Olinda joined me at my table. His face, with vibrant dark skin and high
cheekbones, had that Brazilian openness, and his smile showed some-missing
teeth. The frolicking kids ran back into the restaurant and one of them,
his son, came over and sat on my lap. The food arrived including dinner
for the small one. Olinda fed him spoonfuls of rice and beans while he
talked about his art. I referred to his portrait that dominated the others,
"Exu O Mensageiro" (Exu the Messenger). Exu, with
his brilliant red lips and a red shirt, holds a bottle and a pitchfork
while contemplating a salmon-colored sky. Isn’t Exu equated with
devil? I asked. Olinda turned sharply to the painting, his dreads brushing
his shoulders, and passionately corrected me. Not quite, he said. In Africa,
Exu was a messenger to the gods. A sacrifice made to a particular
orixá was first made to Exu who in turn carried the
prayers onward. In Brazil, Exu’s qualities became more sinister
once the slave trade came into the picture. The slaves used Exu’s
other attributes — his wiliness and love of witchcraft — to resist their
white masters.

Later that night, after we finished talking about paintings and the
difficulty of Brazilians getting travel visas, I left the cafe, much the
way I leave so many artists, with admiration but not enough money to buy
their art.

A week later, I met Olinda again in the Pelourinho, standing in front
of the dazzling blue Igreja Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Pretos,
a church built by slaves for their people. His loose white clothes glowed
under the streetlights and he held two large paintings. This time, he cast
his eyes away from me, and looked over at people climbing the cobblestone
hill up to the square.

It’s too discouraging, he shrugged, to work for many years, yet still
be poor. To be successful, an artist either must go to São Paulo
or Rio, or settle for painting tourist souvenirs. Many people, even friends,
he said, like his paintings, even offer to buy them, but never do. He glanced
at me with a knowing nod, a light but important brush stroke.

Then he ambled over to the steps of the city museum and set his paintings
down. The Pelourinho savored one of its quieter nights, and I could hear
the groups of men sitting on the steps and talking in soft rolling voices,
and the sizzle from the vendors toasting cheese slabs over coffee cans
stoves. Olinda continued, I must be crazy to keep painting, but I need
to paint what I want. I don’t drink or smoke cannabis like my other friends,
and I have to paint. But I have two kids, a wife. I sell my paintings for
$350, because no one would buy them for $750.

He told me of the many unnoticed artists here. He motioned to a man
with a fine set of dreads carrying a gold cardboard tube slung around his
back. He came over, uncapped his gold tube and pulled out several canvases,
letting loose a splash of mystical faces painted in greens and dark blue
surrounded by flowers and gold ankhs.

Olinda then motioned to another man chatting to a group of friends.
The man saw Olinda, nodded, slipped into a doorway, and re-emerged with
a painting. His canvas depicted workers, two women and one man all with
bulky strong arms. The artist, who seemed a bit older and more matter-of
fact, said he is impressed with hands and arms as they are the means of
working in Bahia. I found myself comparing his figures to the broad-shouldered
peasants of Diego Rivera, and the soft earth colors to early works of Picasso.
I am an academic, he admitted, so I have sold a few paintings. But he ruefully
admitted that people recognized his style from somewhere else and he became
popular by default. I thought, did I not compare his paintings as well?
But then again, artists need to blend the colors of humility with pride
to survive.

Olinda sat down bitterly between his two big paintings. It’s no use,
he said, artists are not respected in the world. He held his two paintings
and showed them to the street. The street would approve of the paintings’
honesty. One in particular, "Quem Matou João?"
(Who Killed John), portrayed a merry Salvador cityscape with children playing
among the ornate churches and red-tiled houses. But look closely. In the
corner of the painting is a murder in progress. A group of figures surrounds
the tiny tortured figure of João splattered in blood, and taking
his last tumble in the air. It is said that all paintings are self-portraits,
and this one is no exception.

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