The catalogue Axé Bahia: The Power of Art in an Afro-Brazilian Metropolis was made in conjunction with the exhibition at the Fowler Museum at UCLA in 2017. The exhibition took part in Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, a multisited program showcasing Latin American and Latino Art in southern California. The catalogue and exhibition “are intended as an exploration of how selected artistic practices express and shape notions of Salvador in general and Afro-Brazilian identity and experience in particular” (p. 43), as Patrick Polk states in his introduction. While Brazil is said to have the largest population of African descent outside of Africa, the city of Salvador, Bahia, is most closely associated with this status. As the first extensive treatment of Bahia's visual culture, Axé Bahia establishes Salvador as central to black artistic creation and culture.
The catalogue includes eleven chapters and twelve interleafs. The chapters provide the social and historical context in which to understand the art and images found throughout the book. Interleafs are shorter dives into the work of an individual artist or cultural event. While each chapter offers a unique perspective on a specific topic, the chapters also constitute a dialogue with one another. Specific people, subjects, and events recur throughout the chapters and interleafs, with each appearance offering different layers to the topic. Rather than feel repetitive, each treatment of the recurring material presents it from another angle, which produces a complex, dynamic, and nuanced understanding of the subject matter. Four themes emerge from the material.
While Salvador is known for its large black population, size alone was not enough to create the image of Salvador as the “Black Rome.” The first theme concerns the various processes that constructed and depicted Salvador as a black city. The massive numbers of Africans transported to Salvador through the transatlantic slave trade was foundational to producing Salvador's black population. Cécile Fromont traces the origins of many enslaved Africans to the Bight of Benin, which informs the structure and form that African cultural expressions would take in Salvador. Interactions among Africans, Europeans, and others on the continent of Africa, in the waters of the Atlantic, and in the city of Salvador generated Bahia's unique expressive culture. The elite viewed the large black presence as a burden following the abolition of slavery in 1888 and wished to emphasize the European nature of the city. Anadelia Romo describes the shifting nature of Salvador's identity with Vargas assuming the presidency in 1930. Vargas located authentic and unique Brazilian culture in the nation's black population. Blackness would become central to Salvador's image, but the shape and content of that image was yet to be determined. Randal Johnson shows that Jorge Amado, Caymmi, Carybé, and Pierre Verger created artistic work in the form of literature, music, paintings, and photography that whittled the contours of the Afro-Brazilian image of the city. That these artists emphasized similar aspects of Salvador was not a coincidence, in that they interacted with one another and gained inspiration from each other's work.
The second theme positions the religion of Candomblé as a considerable force in the making of Afro-Brazilian art. Enslaved Africans in Salvador forged Candomblé from religious practices carried with them from west and central Africa. Candomblé revolves around honoring the orixás, divinities that govern everything in nature. Everyone is born under the rule of an orixá. J. Lorand Matory details the colors, personalities, symbols, and nature of the most commonly encountered orixá. Candomblé functions socially as a “technology of self-making,” meaning that it enables people to manage “the multiple personified social and natural forces that constitute the self “ (p. 88). Initiation into a Candomblé temple also plunges one into an elaborate array of social relations that form a community for the members. Roger Sansi argues that Candomblé art should not be understood as simply a display of objects associated with the religion. Rather, Candomblé centers the relationship between people's bodies and their religious objects. One is called to Candomblé through bodily ailments caused by an orixá. He details the steps of initiation, during which the initiate learns to fulfill their obligations to their orixá. Failure to fulfill these obligations can bring about other ailments and bodily afflictions. Art emerges from the material culture and symbolism that make up the Candomblé orixá, shrines, altars, and ritual objects. Candomblé makes its way out of the ritual communities and into the pathway of the wider public through artwork and popular music. Christopher Dunn explores how popular musicians have transmitted knowledge of the orixá through their song lyrics. Kimberly Cleveland shows how artists, such as Agnaldo, Carybé, Velemtim, and Mestre Didi combine religious and secular influences in their art. While their work is for public viewing, some pieces require knowledge of Candomblé in order to fully understand their meaning.
Third, sports like capoeira and popular festivals like Carnaval also inform artistic creation. Paulo Miguez gives a history of Afro-Brazilian participation in Carnaval. In the beginning of the twentieth century many elites considered black involvement in Carnaval to be an embarrassment. The invention of the trio-electrico, “a kind of moving stage that drives through the city” (p. 194), opened Carnaval to the black and mixed-race population and allowed for its democratization. Finally, the blocos Afros, or black Carnaval blocks, of the 1970s created spaces where black people could take center stage at Carnaval and express their cultural heritage. Ana Paula Höfling details the history of capoeria's stylistic development. The process of developing the forms of capoeira we see today emerged from different stylistic traditions created around the 1930s. Mestre Bimba developed the style of regional capoeira while Mestre Pastinha developed capoeira Angola. Capoeria schools trained legions of practitioners, who would then go on to perform capoeira for a general audience through films, books, pictures, and live practice throughout the city's tourist attractions. Today one can find capoeira both inside and outside of Brazil.
The last theme introduces Afro-Brazilian women as central figures and agents in cultural production. Heather Shirey addresses how the image of the Baiana has changed throughout the years. The term “Baiana” simply refers to a woman from Bahia, yet the figure has been imaged in various ways. Brazilian and foreign photographers crystallized the Baiana “type” through the common images of a black woman dressed in a white blouse and skirt with large bracelets and necklaces. Carmen Miranda appropriated the Baiana image, Pierre Verger endowed it with individuality in his photography, and a recent issue of Vogue magazine updated the image of contemporary Baianas. Rather than a static stereotype, the Baiana “is a complex image of black Bahian femininity that also has the potential to speak to the strength and resistance of powerful women of African descent” (p. 131). Quite a few of the interleafs also focus on black women in Salvador. Tia Dentinha (Aunt Dentinha) is an artist in Salvador and a follower of Candomblé who makes dolls in the figures of orixás. Goya Lopes made five cloth panels for the exhibition and intended for visitors to pass through them and awaken their senses.
Robert Conduru ends the volume by explaining the political dimensions of blackness and art in Salvador. He reminds us that “We should not … ignore the presence of portrayals of Afro-Bahian culture in public settings in a society that systematically marginalizes and makes the black population and cultures socially invisible” (p. 243). Afro-Bahian artwork draws attention to and critiques the unequal conditions of poverty, violence, and invisibility making art a site of racial struggle and a testament to the persistence of black people.
Axé Bahia includes extensive treatment of Candomblé, but also includes other influences, offering a well-rounded picture of Salvador's cultural forces that inform the work. Many of the authors note that this artistic cultural influence of Afro-Brazilians has not translated into their material gain. Afro-Brazilians remain largely poor and marginal in Salvador and in Brazil in general, despite being the majority of the population. Yet the authors did not touch on why such rich artistic production does not bring improved material conditions. While many academics have dissected the intricacies of Afro-Brazilian culture in their written work, this catalogue gives much-needed attention to historical and contemporary visual practices. Additionally, the copious, colorful, and powerful visual images of the artwork in Salvador demonstrate that the visual is just as important as the written. Essays provide ample context to the artwork, making the book very accessible to those uninitiated in Brazilian history and culture. For those already immersed in the study of Brazil, the essays will provide depth around the particular figures, events, and historical processes that informed Salvador's culture and image as we know it today.
The term axé takes on various meanings. It can mean “Blessings,” “Peace” (p. 31), “amen” or “let it be so” (p. 90). Axé is “the intangible energy or vital force that infuses life” (p. 31) and it describes the presence or force of the orixás. Axé is present in humans, animals, and inanimate objects, yet “it is most visible in ritual and art” (p. 31). This book is an important scholarly contribution, an affirmation of black life, and, following the definitions, a conduit of much axé.