Mãe Preta (Black Mother): Exhibition recovers history of black women who breastfed the white children during slavery to reflect on structures that persist today

capa - mãe exhibition

Note from BW of Brazil: The history of the struggles, resistance and contributions of black women in Brazilian society is an untold chapter in the history of the country. Although often relegated to the kitchen in the imaginations of millions of Brazilians for centuries, their stories go much further than that.

Modos de Fala e Escuta | Ways of Speaking and Listening from Patricia Gouvêa on Vimeo.

Excluded from most history books are the black women who struggled against the brutality of slavery, independent vendors/businesswomen, politicians, writers, union activists, religious leaders, musicians, organizers and much more. The exhibition below is just one of the many ways that this untold and hidden history of black Brazilian women is being recovered and given its proper place in the annals of Brazilian History. 

mural

Mãe Preta (Black Mother): Women and resistance

The exhibition recovers the history of black women who breastfed the children of white masters during the slavery period to reflect on the structures that persist until today in Brazilian society.

by Ana Paula Orlandi

In 2015, when participating in a group exhibition in Rio de Janeiro, visual artists and researchers Isabel Löfgren and Patricia Gouvêa came across a fragment of the illustration Negras do Rio de Janeiro (Black Women of Rio de Janeiro) (c. 1835), the work of the German painter Johan Moritz Rugendas (1802-1858). The scene in question, set at the door of the Rio de Janeiro gallery, brought together two black women. One of them, barefoot, carried a basket of fruit on her head and her son on her back. The other, dressed in a sophisticated way, appeared next to a trunk and with an opened book, and could even have been a teacher.

painting - woman, fruit, child

Rugendas’s image, a reflection of the complex chain of relationships within the comunidade negra (black community) of 19th century slave-holding Brazil, inspired the artists to start a research on motherhood in slavery, as well as the role of black women in the history of Brazilian society. The result is the exhibition Mãe Preta (Black Mother), the result of two years of research by the duo that opened in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, went through Belo Horizonte and São Paulo, and was shown until February 9 at the Chão SLZ, in São Luís, the capital of the state of Maranhão.

Past and present

Divided into eight modules, the showcase moves between past and present. “The issue of racism is part of Brazilian society and I believe that we have to face this as something historical and not circumstantial”, argues Löfgren in an interview. “By understanding the historical condition of black women in Brazil as free-born women who were later enslaved and then freed in Brazil (and, in our case, understanding this trajectory through the images of historical archives, through the lives of heroínas negras (black heroines), and through the accounts of living black mothers), we can find some new keys to thinking about how Brazilian society is composed, and why certain structures persist”.

Modos de Olhar, 2016
Modos de Olhar, 2016, Interferências sobre fotografia by Marc Ferrez. Partida para a colheita do café, c.1885, Vale do Paraíba, Rio de Janeiro. Marc Ferrez/Coleção Gilberto Ferrez/Acervo Instituto Moreira Salles​.

In the Modos de olhar series, for example, photographs and reproductions of 19th century illustrations gain collages and interferences, such as the placement of magnifying glasses. “These images are so well known that they are viewed superficially and contribute to a normalized view of the lives of these women who played a fundamental role in the formation of Brazilian society, but who do not reveal the stories of violence suffered by them,” explains Gouvêa. “The works propose a new way of looking at these images, so that the maternal figure appears in the foreground and not just as a detail of everyday and domestic life in times of slavery.”

Modos de Olhar - Guillobel
Modos de Olhar, 2016. Interferências sobre gravuras de João Cândido Guillobel. De Figuras populares do Rio de Janeiro; s/d.

The Modos de reportar series, on the other hand, brings together advertisements published in 19th century Brazilian newspapers to publicize the sale or rental of amas de leite, black women who breastfed the children of white masters during the slavery period (1550-1888) in Brazil and, not infrequently, had to give up raising their own children. One of these shocking claims is that a certain major had “to sell a 15-year-old black woman (with a 2-month-old offspring), who knows how to cook, wash, iron, sew [sic] and the whole arrangement of a house, very suitable for an ama de leite (…)”.

Poetry, music and dance as weapons

In addition to material of the period, the exhibition also houses contemporary images. This is the case of the video installation Modos de fala e escuta (Modes of speech and listening), with the testimony of seven black women of various ages who, over 27 minutes, address issues ranging from motherhood to daily struggles. The work is available for internet access. The audiovisual does not have headphones so that the reports can echo through the exhibition space, emphasizes Gouvêa.

In one of the testimonials, trancista (braid maker) Gabriela Azevedo points out: “[Being a black mother in Brazil today] is us waking up every day in fear that, perhaps, at dawn, we will not have our child, because society is very cruel to our meninos negros (black boys). Genocide is there, screaming at our door. It’s knowing that we are statistics. Being a mãe negra (black mother) in Brazil is very difficult.

mãe
Still from ‘Modos de Fala e Escuta’

Also participating in the video installation is singer, dancer, educator and feminist activist Glauce Pimenta Rosa and dance teacher, researcher and militant of the black movement Jessica Castro. “What I could say to a menina negra (black girl) today is: don’t ever remain quiet! Speak up! Scream! Let out your scream, that your scream is a weapon, your speech is a weapon, but a weapon in the sense of poetry, music, dance,” says Glauce Pimenta. In turn, Castro points out: “To be a black mother is to be a resistant mother (…). I’m a black woman, a black mother. My son is a black son and he is aware of it. Together, we are aware and together we are the relationship of this continuity, of knowing our history and continuing our history. And more than that: to understand and love what we are, what ours were, what we are today and how it will be tomorrow.

Resistance and struggle

At the opening of the exhibition in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, Castro and Rosa presented a performance with songs of umbanda and Jongo, an Afro-Brazilian manifestation of Bantu origin. Rosa recited the poem “Vozes-Mulheres”, by the writer Conceição Evaristo, and brought with her an Abayomi doll, whose name means “my gift” in the idioma iorubá (Yoruba language). Created in the 1980s, in Rio de Janeiro, by the artisan and activist of the black movement Waldilena Serra Martins, known as Lena Martins, the piece was made of patches and became a symbol of cultura afro-brasileira (Afro-Brazilian culture). “This doll represents the resistance and struggle of black women,” says Rosa in an interview with C&.

Dona Elzita
Exhibition Mãe Preta. Modos de encantar. Dona Elzita, mãe de santo of Terreiro Fé em Deus, in São Luís do Maranhão.

Twenty-two black women who resisted and fought in the country over time are gathered in the Mural das Heroínas Negras (Mural of Black Heroines), a panel that is part of the exhibition and is inspired by the cordéis series Heroínas Negras, by writer and poet Jarid Arraes from Ceará. Among the characters are journalist and politician Antonieta de Barros (1901-1952), writer Carolina Maria de Jesus (1914-1977), researcher and university professor Lélia Gonzalez (1935-1994) and Tereza de Benguela (18th century), queen of the Quilombo do Piolho or Quariterê, located on the border between what is today the state of Mato Grosso and Bolivia.

In the same mural you can also see the portrait of Marielle Franco, a city councilor and activist from Rio de Janeiro, known for her struggle for human rights, especially for women and residents of communities and peripheries, who was murdered on March 14, 2018, in Rio de Janeiro. “The death of Marielle, which so far has not been elucidated, illustrates the scenario of intolerance and radicalization that we are currently experiencing in Brazil,” laments Gouvêa.

Source: AM Latina

About Marques Travae 3114 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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