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Motta e Silva, Danira da - VM - Victoria E. Jones

Djanira da Motta e Silva: Largo do Pelourinho, Salvador

At the Whipping Post

by Victoria Emily Jones

A coastal city founded by the Portuguese in 1549 as the first capital of Brazil, Salvador de Bahia quickly became a major port for the transatlantic slave trade. In 1558 the first slave market in the Americas was established there. For the next three hundred some years, Brazil’s economy would rely critically on slave labor for the planting, growing, harvesting, and processing of sugar for export to Europe.

Largo do  Pelourinho (Pillory Square), the historic center of Salvador, is named after the whipping post that once stood there. Enslaved persons who were deemed guilty of infractions were brought to the post to be publicly flogged and humiliated. Today the plaza is one of Brazil’s most popular tourist destinations, the site of lively street drumming, capoeira performances that combine Afro-Brazilian martial art with dance, acrobatics and music, samba clubs, shops, and restaurants in addition to well-preserved pastel-colored colonial houses and Baroque churches with ornate stuccowork. Its charm masks its sordid history.

Djanira da Motta e Silva invokes said history in her 1955 painting Largo do Pelourinho, Salvador, aka Cristo na coluna (Christ at the Column). It shows Jesus as an enslaved African chained by his neck to a stone pelourinho in Salvador’s city center, being tortured with a leather scourge. Residents pass by with indifference—they’ve seen this before.

The whipping post is emblazoned with the coat of arms of Imperial Brazil: a gold armillary sphere superimposed on a Portuguese cross, flanked by a coffee plant and a tobacco plant and topped with the crown of Emperor Dom Pedro I. This conflation of Christianity and empire is problematic. The Catholic Church was a major participant in the institution of slavery and the churches surrounding the scene allude to this shameful fact. The religious establishment of Jesus’s day was also in cahoots with the imperial powers, and it is what led to his violent death.

In 1888, Brazil was the last country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery. But as in other regions of the world, its legacy still lingers. [1] Organizations and initiatives have emerged to address elements of that legacy. One such example is the Teatro Experimental do Negro (Black Experimental Theater), founded in 1944 as “a cultural, racial, and sociopolitical movement that worked to promote positive black values and racial equality through a variety of projects, only one of which was theater.” [2] TEN published its own newspaper, organized national conferences and sociodrama workshops, and offered Black studies seminars. In 1955 it also, in collaboration with Forma magazine, ran a “Cristo de Cor” (Christ of Color) art contest, soliciting paintings of Jesus that, as a counterbalance to the plenitude of lily-white Jesuses, portray him as Black.

The contest was the brainchild of sociologist Alberto Guerreiro Ramos, whose five-year-old daughter came home from her Catholic school one day singing a song she had learned: “Cabelos loiros / Olhos azuis / És meu tesouro / Nosso Jesus” (Blond hair / Blue eyes / You are my treasure / Our Jesus). Not only is this description of Jesus patently false, Ramos said, but its standardization instills in children the implicit equation of whiteness with beauty, goodness, and authority and, by contrast, blackness with being ugly, bad, and subservient. He said his daughter was shocked when he told her that Jesus’s skin tone was probably very close to that of a moreno (a Brazilian of mixed race). [3]

Fifty-two contest submissions were selected to be exhibited inside the Ministry of Education building in Rio de Janeiro to coincide with the Thirty-Sixth International Eucharistic Congress taking place in the city. Djanira’s painting of the flagellation of Christ won first place.

Even though the contest was supported by Cardinal Jaime de Barros Câmara and Dom Hélder Câmara and an ecclesiastical representative was on the selection jury, it still elicited censure from some religious corners. A column in the Jornal do Brasil called it “blasphemy,” “sacrilege,” “a stone of scandal and cause for revulsion,” indicative of a “lack of moral control . . . respect and good taste,” and an “attack on Religion and the Arts.” [4] Some people, it seems, are so attached to European imagery of the Divine that they simply cannot abide other groups conceiving of alternative representations or making contemporary connections!

By depicting Christ as Afro-Brazilian and setting his martyrdom in the heart of the country’s colonial capital (whose name, I might add, means “Savior”), Djanira not only exposes the hypocrisy of Christians, including clergy, who treated human beings like chattel and in some cases continue to oppress, but also asserts Christ’s com-passion, literally “suffering with.” Having experienced brutality and rejection himself, he is present with those who endure the lash of injustice—validating their experience, affirming their dignity.

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Djanira da Motta e Silva: Largo do Pelourinho, Salvador, 1955, oil on canvas, 81 × 115 cm, private collection, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo: Jaime Acioli.

Djanira da Motta e Silva (1914–1979) was “a central artist in Brazilian mid-century modernism,” says curator Rodrigo Moura. Born in São Paulo of an Austrian mother and a father with Native ancestry, she was a self-taught painter who spent her career traveling the country, seeking to reflect Brazil’s diverse cultural identities. Her subjects include self-portraits, popular festivals and diversions, work and workers, market scenes, dreamscapes, Afro-Brazilian and Catholic religiosity, and the Canela indigenous people of Maranhão. In 2019 the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP) ran a major retrospective of her work, Djanira: Picturing Brazil, which included Largo do Pelourinho, Salvador.

Victoria Emily Jones lives in the Baltimore area of the United States, where she works as an editorial freelancer and blogs at ArtandTheology.org, exploring ways in which the arts can stimulate renewed engagement with the Bible. She serves on the board of the faith-based arts nonprofit the Eliot Society and as art curator for the Daily Prayer Project, and she has contributed to the Visual Commentary on Scripture and the Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception.

NOTES

1. Thomas Milz, “In Brazil the wounds of slavery will not heal,” Deutsche Welle (DW), May 13, 2018.

2. Doris J. Turner, “The ‘Teatro Experimental do Negro’ and Its Black Beauty Contests,” Afro-Hispanic Review 11, no. 1 (1992): 77.

3. Alberto Guerreiro Ramos, “Nosso senhor Jesus Cristo trigueiro,” Diário de Notícias (Rio de Janeiro), April 10, 1955: 2, 4. Cited in Elisa Larkin Nascimento, “Cristo Epistêmico,” ILHA 18, no. 1 (June 2016): 99.

4. Alice Linhares Uruguay, “Cristo negro,” Jornal do Brasil, June 26, 1955, Uruguay writes, “Está prestes a ser aberta ao público uma exposição de pintura que reúne em si a blasfêmia e o sacrilégio, aliados ao mau gusto. É a do Cristo Negro. [. . .] Essa exposição que se anuncia deveria ser proibida como altamente subversiva. Tal acontecimento realizado às vésperas do Congresso Eucarístico, foi preparado adrede para servir de pedra de escândalo e motivo de repulsa. O nosso descontrole moral, a nossa grande falta de respeito e de bom gosto, o nosso triste estado d’alma, não podem ser dados em espetáculo aos que nos visitam. Damos aqui o brado de alarma. As autoridades eclesiásticas devem, quanto antes, tomar providências para impedir a realização desse atentado feito à Religião e às Artes.”

ArtWay Visual Meditation 1 November 2020