Mestre Didi

Ancestry, memory and invention

Mestre Didi’s unique artistic oeuvre emerges from a breadth of knowledge obtained inside the Nagô Candomblé, with which he always maintained a profound intimate relationship. The mythical sacred permeates the oeuvre of the priest-artist, who left a legacy of more than a hundred sculptures.

The category of Afro-Brazilian art that critically evaluates the production of Black artists is, therefore, contemporary to the birth of Mestre Didi in 1917, with its development and complexity parallel to the trajectory of the priest-artist. Mestre Didi’s unique artistic oeuvre emerges from a breadth of knowledge obtained inside the Nagô Candomblé, with which he always maintained a profound intimate relationship. His poetics departs from this knowledge and deepens it by means of formal solutions that look to the mythical African and Afro-Brazilian world. It was for this community that he produced several liturgical objects, before his personal award-winning artistic career earned him renown in the mid-1960s, even if at the outset the Brazilian artistic community only accepted his work as decorative art.

Initiated in 1925 in the Bahian Nagô community, in the Ilê Axé Opó Afonjá terreiro, to the priesthood of the pantheon of the land dedicated to the Nanã Goddesses and their children Omolu/Obaluiyê and Oxumaré, it was in his position of Assobá – high priest of the Omolu cult– that Mestre Didi learned to make emblematic objects like the Xaxará of that Orisha and the Ibiri of his mother Nanã, both made of toothpicks from dende palm tree, with parts covered by strips of colored leather, cowries, beads and seeds, calabashes, coastal straw. The presence of these and other organic materials like clay, raffia and iron is going to form the two sides of his double persona of priest and artist.

The mythical sacred, other than being a subject present throughout Mestre Didi’s poetics, must not be confused with the sacred of Candomblé. In this way, his art works exhibited in exhibitions stand apart from those reserved for religious use. A ritual Xaxará or Ibiri is first magnetized, that is to say, made sacred with substances that transmit energy from nature – axé – like dende oil, plant leaves, honey and, not to mention, spells – ofó – which are said as prayers so that the object achieves the expected goal. Consequently, that which governs an artistic object, even if made from the same materials, is that it has not been produced to be used in a terreiro but rather envisioned for exhibitions. Just as pieces like Sasara Nlá – Great Xaxará (2000); Eleye N´la – Grande Pássaro Mãe (Large Bird Mother, 2007); Opa Aiyê Orun – Cajado da Ancestralidade (Ancestor’s Cane, 1999); Egin Awô – Lança do Mistério (Mystery Spear, 1994) or Opaejô Merim – Cajado das Quatro Serpentes (Four Serpents’ Cane, 1993) are never confused with religious artefacts, albeit reminding us of the desired and necessary aesthetic beauty for the full experience of Candomblé.

Different critics interested in Mestre Didi’s production have underlined the mythological aspect of his oeuvre, whose formula, which he conceived, to “evolve without losing its essence,” provided the basis for the development of more than a hundred sculptures bequeathed to us. In the entirety of his work, it is just as likely to find materials characteristic of his religious position, mentioned above, as it is to see certain motifs, like snakes and birds. If the snake is a reference to Oxumaré, the bird is evocative of Oxalá and Ossayn, the first the orixá of creation, the second the bearer of botanical knowledge. In Mestre Didi’s hands, memory linked to tradition is not a mere repository. It is, above all, creative invention.

In 2013, the year of Mestre’s death, when São Paulo was celebrating the Afro Brazil Museum’s nine-year anniversary as an institution, one of the greatest homages to his memory was made at the exhibit O Alapini-Escultor da Ancestralidade Afro-Brasileira (The Alapini-Sculptor of Afro-Brazilian Ancestry). Emanoel Araujo, eternal admirer of his double life as a priest-artist, was the one who most fomented the recognition of his oeuvre inside and outside of Brazil. By calling him the Alapini-Sculptor, Araujo reaffirmed Didi’s importance in the cult of the Egun ancestors since he was initiated at the age of eight into the priesthood to the dead who were considered important to the Yoruba society. In 1980, having accumulated a ritual repertoire over the years, Mestre Didi founded and presided over the Ilê Asipá Cultural and Religious Society of the cult to the Egun ancestors in Salvador. Today, works such as O cetro da Ancestralidade (The Ancestral Scepter, 2001), are located in public spaces in the Rio Vermelho district. In São Paulo, the Artistic and Cultural Foundation Gilberto Salvador sculpture park exhibits the work Opa Nilá Bàbá IgiThe Great Scepter of the Ancestor of the Trees (2012).


Alexandre Araujo Bispo is an anthropologist, critic, independent curator and educator


Translated from Portuguese by Sara Hanaburgh.