In Conversation with Eustáquio Neves

“Letter to the Sea”

The Brazilian photographer underscores how vital Valongo Wharf, in Rio de Janeiro, is as a place of remembrance for Brazil, and highlights the small number of artists of African descent on a predominantly-white Brazilian art scene.

C& América Latina: How was the photo essay produced?

EN: First, I read the application file for the Valongo World Heritage bid, which was several pages long, to learn more about the history of the place. Then I went to Rio de Janeiro. intending to photograph the area and also make a video, but I decided to just talk to the local residents and merchants over the course of a week. When I returned to Diamantina, where I live, after digesting all that information, I decided to work with portraits of friends that I had taken in the past and even a self-portrait, actually an appropriation of a photo of me, taken at the age of seventeen, from an ID card. That’s because, in my view, the history of Valongo is part of the history of all people of African descent in Brazil.

C&AL: In addition to the portraits, the images also feature stamps, references to Africa, such as guinea-fowl feathers, and texts. Why is the word “loaded” repeated throughout the photo essay?

EN: One reason was to show that those people, kidnapped in Africa and brought to Brazil against their will to work as slaves, were treated like cargo, like objects. But I also wanted to talk about contemporary slave ships, like suburban trains crowded with poor people, mostly black, who work in the city center, live on the outskirts of big cities, and spend three or four hours a day or more inside public transport.

C&AL: You work with an analog camera. Is time an important factor in your work?

EN: Totally and in several ways: the time of memory, the time to manipulate the negatives to create the image… In the case of Valongo: Letters to the Sea, this is reflected even in the cotton paper used as a backing on the images. Since the 9/11 attacks have made it difficult to bring chemical materials into several countries, including Brazil, I emulsified a fair amount of paper during a trip to the Netherlands in 2008. This paper obviously suffered the effects of time over the years, it got smudged and stained, which in the end reinforced the documentary idea of the photo essay. In addition, I’m not in a hurry in life, I think there’s a time for everything, something I learned in the films of [Russian filmmaker Andrei] Tarkovsky. I can’t say I’ll never work with a digital camera, but I run counter to the immediacy and exaggeration.

C&AL: Is there space for visual artists of African descent on the art scene in Brazil today?

EN: I’ve never actually seen an opening. What I see now is more young people doing what I and other artists have done in the past, kicking in doors to get their work shown in overwhelmingly white spaces. I’ve also noticed today a greater presence of Afro-Brazilian women, such as [photographer] Ana Lira, on the Brazilian visual arts scene. Not to mention that if before artists were at the mercy of curators and galleries, nowadays they have more autonomy, thanks to social media and also because they’ve reclaimed more of the streets. In any case, we need to underscore [curator and artist] Emanoel Araújo’s work at the helm of the Museu Afro Brasil (São Paulo), which maps the production of Afro-Brazilian artists so well. And also the work of Solange Farkas at the Associação Cultural VideoBrasil, which opens up the VB Galpão (São Paulo), not only to Afro-Brazilian artists, but also to people from Africa, the Middle East and other Latin American countries. But back to your question, we still have a long way to go.


Ana Paula Orlandi is a journalist who writes about culture and behavior. Currently she writes her Master at the Communication and Arts Institute of the University of São Paulo.


Translated from Portuguese by Zoë Petry.