Featuring the works of over one hundred Brazilian artists, Axé Bahia: The Power of Art in an Afro-Brazilian Metropolis offered insight and prospective into the Afro-Brazilian experience in the city of Salvador and into the distinct culture of Bahia, Brazil. Presented by the Fowler Museum at UCLA and curated by Patrick Polk, Roberto Conduru, Sabrina Gledhill, and Randal Johnson, the exhibit ran from September 24, 2017–April 15, 2018. This review will focus on three works featured in the exhibit: Códice (2011–2014) by José Antônio Cunha, A Força Que Habita em Mim (2016) by Eder Muniz, and the Jexus series (2014–2015) by Álex Ìgbó.
José Antônio Cunha's Códice is a collection of twenty-one canvas tiles, each subdivided into twenty-five squares (Fig. 1), painted with the intention of reflecting the beliefs and associated iconography central to Afro-Brazilian religions like Candomblé and Umbanda. The artist, José Antônio Cunha, has created each tile with a specific orixá or myth in mind and intended for the tiles to be read from left to right, bottom to top. Cunha's work was accompanied by short explanations in printed form, which visitors could use to interpret each tile.
Tile #8 (Fig. 2) is representative of the orixá Osanyin (also known as Ossanha, Ossaim, and Ossaniyn). Osanyin is a healer deity, with power over healing herbs; he is represented with the colors green and white and depicted as a one-armed, one-legged, one-eyed man who traverses the forest using his distinctive cane. As can be noticed in the center square, Osanyin is also associated with a white, six-spired figure (called an operé) mounted by a bird. Cunha has filled the surrounding squares with references to Osanyin, such as medicinal herbs (e.g., aguapé, dandá, and others written into the corner tiles), trees, plants, mortars and pestles, animals (e.g., turtle, birds, and fauna), and tiquira (a purple-colored alcoholic beverage popular in northeastern Brazil which is Osanyin's liquor of choice). Interestingly, Cunha has also included nontraditional references, such as avocado and pumpkin (bottom-left square, second from the left) as well as Western medicine in the form of capsules and a beaker (middle row, second square from the right). Cunha here is juxtaposing traditional understandings of Osanyin with a contemporary reinterpretation of the deity, including what a modern Candomblé practitioner would interpret as Osanyin's domain.
A Força Que Habita em Mim, a beautiful piece by Eder Muniz, Bahía, represents a tropical paradise (Fig. 3). The figure on the right bearing a crown in the shape of a fish is meant to represent the orixá Oxum. In Candomblé and Umbanda, Oxum is seen as the goddess of sweet rivers, waterfalls, wealth, beauty, love, prosperity, and is often referred to as the “Lady of Gold.” Devotees often represent the orixá with dark blues and vibrant yellow or gold. The two birds on either side of the piece—a surucuá-pavão (surucuá peacock) on the left and a beija-flor-de-papo-branco (white-throated humming bird) on the right—are both found in the Amazon rainforests of Brazil. They are framed by vibrant representations of Brazilian flora, as well as references to the expansive submarine megahabitats that can be found in the Bahían bay.
Muniz juxtaposes Oxum with the natural beauty and abundance of life that can be found in Brazil, highlighting not only the connection that Candomblé and Umbanda devotees see between Bahia and the orixá herself, but also praising Oxum for such a wealth and a way to appreciate it through her worship. This piece is especially poignant given the recent increase in deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, destruction of habitats due to nonecologically minded forms of waste disposal, and mining in the Bahian state.
In Álex Ìgbo's controversial Jexus series, the artist combines the name of the Christian prophet “Jesus” with that of the orixá Exu. In Candomblé and Umbanda, Exu is one of the most powerful orixá, having power over roads, over axé itself, and is believed to be the messenger of the orixás. As such, devotees see Exu as the mediator between the spiritual worlds and the mortal, owning the crossroads in life and spirit, and thus nothing can be done without his permission. However, Exu is contradictory, provocative, and often associated with Satan of the Abrahamic faiths. In what can be seen as a multifaceted act of contemporary cultural and religious resistance, Ìgbó combines the names of the Christian prophet with that of the African orixá, creating the name “Jexus.” Ìgbó then posted the name across Salvador, in the form of printed-out sheets of paper affixed to buildings or telephone poles (Fig. 4) or spray-painted onto walls (Fig. 5) in black, red, and white (the colors most often used to represent Exu). Ìgbó's work brilliantly showcases the Afro-Brazilian experience in Salvador with profound minimalism: More than simply a fusion of the two figures, the Jexus series serves to reflect the orixá himself, provoking those who see the works in urban Salvador to confront their understandings of both Exu and Jesus.
The Axé Bahía exhibit served as a fantastic exploration of the Afro-Brazilian experience in contemporary Salvador. This is in addition to special events that were put on by the Fowler to expand on this theme. These included lectures, film screenings (Cidade das Mulheres, Samba Richão, and Mensageiro Entre Dois Mundos), and live performances of Afro-Brazilian arts (e.g., Mateus Aleluia and a live demonstration of Brazilian capoeira). As elaborated by cocurator Patrick Polk, the exhibit was focused around the relationship between art and identity:
How does art help to reveal what it means to be black or Afrodescendente (of African descent) in Brazil? In selecting works, we sought out artists who speak directly to crucial, and often fraught, realities of race and cultural heritage. The exhibition also hinges on specific ways in which Afro-Brazilian traditions such as Candomblé and Carnaval can express empowering notions of self and community; acts that can be inherently transformative (Polk 2017).
Polk—along with his international team of cocurators—succeeded in assembling an exhibit that served as an impressive and informative introduction for those unfamiliar with Afro-Brazilian culture, religion, and philosophy. It remains, however, the duty of the attendee to continue to seek out Afro-Brazilian perspectives in the arts, literature, and music, and in so doing, more fully understand and appreciate the history and reality of the Afro-Brazilian experience in Bahia, in Brazil, and abroad.
A catalog is available: Patrick A. Polk, Roberto Conduro, Sabrina Gledhill, and Randall Johnson (eds.), Axé Bahia: The Power of Art in an Afro-Brazilian Metropolis (Los Angeles: Fowler Museum at UCLA and Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2018; 288 pp., 233 color, 40 b/w ill., $50 hardcover).