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‘Cumbe’ by Marcelo D’Salete (all images courtesy the artist)

The history of black slavery in Brazil has largely been told from the perspective of the colonizers, not the enslaved. Few firsthand accounts exist, and even in art, slaves often appear as exotic secondary characters. Despite extensive texts on the subject like those written by sociologist Gilberto Freyre, many Brazilians still think of slavery in an abstract way that obscures the suffering their ancestors inflicted and endured.

The 157-page graphic novel Cumbé by black artist Marcelo d’Salete represents one of the first literary and artistic attempts to come to terms with the country’s dark past through the eyes of its victims. “To build a new visualization of black people is to subvert the old image of the black in Brazilian history,” d’Salete told Hyperallergic. “I want to show them not only as victims, but also as protagonists.”

Divided into five stories, each tells of ordinary slaves who stood up to their masters, even if they never made the big history books. One centers around a group plotting a rebellion; another follows a slave’s revenge against a white owner for the rape and murder of his sister. The book’s title comes from the Bantu word for Quilombos — rural villages founded by escaped Congolese and Angolan slaves that have become symbols of resistance.

Though Cumbé is rooted in fact, its stark illustrations and magical realism vividly provoke the poetic imagination. In “Calunga,” a mistreated slave drowns while attempting to escape a sugar plantation; as he sinks to the ocean floor, he has a stirring romantic vision of his lover. In “Sumidouro,” a female slave experiences a similarly moving hallucination of her dead baby, killed by the master’s mad wife. Together, these gruesome tales offer a tragic but illuminating portrait of Brazil’s black origin. It’s hard to look away.

Marcelo d’Salete’s Cumbé is available from Livraria da Travessa.

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Laura C. Mallonee

Laura C. Mallonee is a Brooklyn-based writer. She holds an M.A. in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU and a B.F.A. in painting from Missouri State University. She enjoys exploring new cities and...

4 replies on “A Graphic Novel Portrait of Slavery in Brazil”

  1. I think the last group of images may be out of order. Shouldn’t the image of the woman picking up the knife from the kitchen counter come before the images of her using the knife out of doors?

    Also, are the images in the original novel accompanied by text in Portuguese that is omitted here? It would have been interesting to see the text/image relationship.

  2. This is exactly the type of graphic novels we need today. I’ve had enough of comedy and trickster tales. Give stories of slavery to me a raw and gruesome while highlighting resistance, both mental and physical.

    I just ordered a copy! The website is in Portuguese so it took me awhile to figure it out using Google Translate.

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