It’s no coincidence that Eustáquio Neves lives and works on Rua Arthur Bispo do Rosário, in the town of Diamantina, in the interior of the state of Minas Gerais. Seven years ago, he and his wife, historian Lilian Oliveira Neves, came up with the idea to name the small street after one of Brazil’s greatest visual artists, who spent part of his life confined to a psychiatric hospital in Rio de Janeiro. “After seeing a Bispo do Rosário [1909-1989] exhibition in the early 1990s, I realized there was no need for me to be ashamed about breaking the rules,” says the photographer from Minas Gerais.
From then on, Neves started to manipulate negatives, something of a trademark in his career, which began in 1992 with Caos Urbano (Urban Chaos). In that photo essay, where he portrays a homeless community on the outskirts of Belo Horizonte, one can already see another crux in his work: the place of the black man within Brazilian society. “We lived for almost four centuries as slaves in Brazil, but to this day, 129 years after the abolition of slavery, we are still invisible to a large white majority who seem to believe the country was made exclusively for them,” he says.
This concern is also present in his most recent work, Valongo: Letters to the Sea (2015-2016), inspired by the history of Valongo Wharf, in Rio de Janeiro. In July 2017, the site, which received between 500,000 and 900,000 enslaved Africans between the 18th and 19th centuries, was named a Unesco World Heritage site. Since then, it has come to be regarded as a “place of remembrance”, like Auschwitz or Hiroshima. “It’s important to remember so that we won’t forget. The history of Valongo is part of the history of all people of African descent in Brazil,” emphasizes Neves.
C&: How did you come up with the idea for Valongo: Letters to the Sea?
Eustáquio Neves: That photo essay was commissioned in 2015 by anthropologist and photographer Milton Guran, director of FotoRio [Encontro Internacional de Fotografia do Rio de Janeiro], who at the time was on the technical committee for the Valongo Wharf Archaeological Site World Heritage bid. The idea behind the photo essay, which was first exhibited at FotoRio in 2016, alludes to the practice of throwing letters in bottles into the sea: they’re messages so that people will never forget and always reflect on the tragedy of slavery. In addition to memory, the images also speak about death.
The area of Valongo was not just a port of entry, but also a burial ground, where the bodies of Africans who died during the long and hazardous ship crossing between Africa and Brazil were thrown into a mass grave. Now the death of the place’s memory is taking place: with the current renovations, many of them will be buried by projects that are attempting to scrub the area clean.
C&: Valongo Wharf was built in 1811, buried for decades and rediscovered during excavations for renovations of the Rio de Janeiro waterfront, initiated by the city in 2011 in preparation for the 2016 Olympic Games. How do you view this revitalization process?
EN: I think there’s a great contradiction. If, on the one hand, this revitalization is attracting visitors to an area that was once abandoned by public authorities, on the other, it winds up repeating past oppression. That’s because the vast majority of the region’s residents are ordinary, low-income people, and the local cost of living, such as the price of rent, has risen sharply since then. So, this revitalization has turned into an exclusionary process.