Exhibition recounts the narrative of black women who breastfed the children of white slave owners in order to reflect on structures that persist today in Brazilian society.
Mãe Preta Exhibition. Performance Jessica Castro and Glauce Pimenta Rosa.
Ways of Seeing, 2016. Interference on photograph by Marc Ferrez. Leaving to the coffee harvest, c. 1885, Paraíba Valley, Rio de Janeiro. Marc Ferrez/Gilberto Ferrez Collection/Moreira Salles Institute Collection.
Ways of Seeing, 2016. Interference on prints by João Cândido Guillobel. From “Popular Figures in Rio de Janeiro”, undated.
Mãe Preta Exhibition. Ways of enchant. Mrs. Elzita, priestess of the Candomblé Yard "Fé em Deus" in São Luís do Maranhão, Brazil.
In 2015, when participating in a group exhibition in Rio de Janeiro, visual artists and researchers Isabel Löfgren and Patricia Gouvêa came across a copy of the print Negras do Rio de Janeiro (c.1835) by German painter Johan Moritz Rugendas (1802-1858). The scene in question, on the door of the Rio gallery, depicted two black women. One of them, barefoot, was carrying a basket of fruit on her head and her son on her back. The other, dressed more sophisticatedly, was sitting next to a trunk and with an open book, and might even be a teacher.
The image by Rugendas, a reflection of the complex chain of relationships within the black community of slave-owning nineteenth-century Brazil, inspired the two artists to research motherhood during slavery, as well as the role of black women in the history of Brazilian society. This developed into the exhibition Mãe preta (Black Mother), the result of two years of research by the pair and which opened in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, travelled to Belo Horizonte and São Paulo, and can be seen until February 9 at Chão SLZ, in São Luís do Maranhão.
Past and Present
Divided into eight series, the show transits between past and present. “The issue of racism is part of Brazilian society and I believe that we have to view this as something historical, not circumstantial,” Löfgren said in an interview. “By understanding the historical condition of black women in Brazil as free-born women who were then enslaved and later freed in Brazil (and, in our case, understanding this trajectory through images from historical archives, through the lives of black heroines, and through the stories of living black mothers), we can find some new keys for thinking about how Brazilian society is made up, and why certain structures persist.”
In the series Modos de olhar (Ways of Seeing), for example, photographs and copies of 19th century engravings are combined with collage and interferences, such as magnifying glasses. “These images are so well known that they are seen superficially and contribute to a normalized view on the lives of these women who played a fundamental role in the formation of Brazilian society, but which do not reveal the stories of the violence they suffered,” Gouvêa explains. “The works offer a new way of looking at these images, so that the maternal figure appears in the foreground and not just as a detail of daily and domestic life during slavery.”
The series Modos de reportar (Ways of Reporting) assembles ads published in 19th-century Brazilian newspapers for the sale or rental of wet nurses – black women who breastfed the children of white slave owners during the slave period in Brazil (1550-1888) and often had to abandon their own children. One of these shocking classifieds placed by a certain major announces “for sale: 15-year-old negro female (with 2-month-old baby), knows how to cook, wash, iron, and all household chores, very suitable for a wet nurse (…)”.
Poetry, music and dance as weapons
In addition to historical materials, the exhibition also houses contemporary images, such as the video installation Modos de fala e escuta (Modes of Speaking and Listening), with testimonials from seven black women of varying ages who, over 27 minutes, address issues ranging from motherhood to day-to-day struggles. The work is available online. There are no headphones, so that the stories can echo throughout the exhibition space, Gouvêa stresses.
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In one of the testimonials, hair braider Gabriela Azevedo says: “[Being a black mother in Brazil today] means waking up every day in fear that, maybe, when the sun comes up, we’ll lose our child, because society is very cruel to our black boys. The genocide is right there, shouting down our door. It means knowing we’re statistics. Being a black mother in Brazil is very hard.”
Other participants in the video installation include singer, dancer, educator and feminist activist Glauce Pimenta Rosa, and dance teacher, researcher and Black Movement activist Jessica Castro. “What I would say to a black girl today is: don’t ever shut up! Speak! Shout! Cry out, your cry is a weapon, your speech is a weapon, but a weapon in the sense of poetry, music, dance,” says Glauce Pimenta. For her, Castro says: “To be a black mother is to be a resistance mother (…). I am a black woman, a black mother. My son is a black son and he is aware of it. Together, we are aware and together we are the relationship of this continuity, of knowing our history and continuing our history. And more than that: understanding and loving what we are, what our ancesters were, what we are today and how our tomorrow will be.”
Resistance and struggle
At the opening of the exhibition in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, Castro and Rosa presented a performance with umbanda chants and Jongo, an Afro-Brazilian dance of Bantu origin. Rosa recited the poem Vozes-Mulheres, by writer Conceição Evaristo, and brought an Abayomi doll, whose name means “my gift” in the Yoruba language. Created in Rio de Janeiro in the 1980s by artisan and Black Movement activist Waldilena Serra Martins, also known as Lena Martins, the rag dolls became a symbol of Afro-Brazilian culture. “This doll represents the resistance and struggle of black women,” Rosa says in an interview with C&.
Twenty-two black women who have resisted and fought in Brazil over the years are gathered in Mural das Heroínas Negras (Mural of Black Heroines). The portrait gallery is part of the exhibition and draws on the series of cordel folk poems Heroínas Negras, by the writer and poet from Ceará, Jarid Arraes. Some of the women featured include journalist and politician Antonieta de Barros (1901-1952), writer Carolina Maria de Jesus (1914-1977), researcher and university professor Lélia Gonzalez (1935-1994) and Tereza de Benguela (18th century), queen of the Quilombo do Piolho or Quariterê, located on the border between what is now the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso and Bolivia.
The same mural also features the portrait of Rio de Janeiro city councilwoman and activist Marielle Franco, known for fighting for human rights, particularly those of women and the residents of communities and inner citie neighborhoods, and who was murdered on March 14, 2018 in Rio de Janeiro. “Marielle’s death, which has yet to be solved, illustrates the scenario of intolerance and radicalization that we are experiencing at this moment in Brazil,” laments Gouvêa.
Ana Paula Orlandi is a journalist. She writes about culture and behavior and has a master’s degree from the School of Communications and Arts of the University of São Paulo.