Photo Essays

Seeking Humanity in the Barbarity of Brazil’s Slave Past

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“Departure for the coffee harvest by ox cart, Vale do Paraíba, Brazil, c. 1885” (all images courtesy of Instituto Moreira Salles)

At the University of São Paulo’s Museum of Contemporary Art, a new exhibition is interrogating Brazil’s legacy of slavery, disrupting a body of photography that was meant to normalize slavery. The pictures were taken by Europeans and Brazilians in the 1860s–80s as a kind of ethnographic endeavor, to present slavery as natural and orderly. In collaboration with the Instituto Moreira Salles, which supplied the 76 photographs in the show, selected pictures were zoomed in on and enlarged, some of them as large as the walls in the exhibit. In doing so, the curators sought a redemptive aspect to the photographs, moments and details — sometimes hidden — that the photographer could capture but not control. Formerly sunk into the sweep and scale of the images, numerous details are lifted out and brought into focus when blown up: dirty, tattered clothing; armies of bare feet; children and infants alongside their parents in the field — glimpses of the barbarity of slavery and the humanity contained within it.

Enlargement and detail of "Departure for the coffee harvest by ox cart, Vale do Paraíba, Brazil, c. 1885" (click to enlarge)
Enlargement and detail of “Departure for the coffee harvest by ox cart, Vale do Paraíba, Brazil, c. 1885” (click to enlarge)

Submerged personal expressions and gestures are revealed. In the image of “Slaves harvesting coffee, Vale do Paraíba, Brazil, c. 1882,” the enlargement shows many of the people in the group confronting the photographer, their gazes direct, curious, perhaps scornful. One figure has his back to the camera, a defiant gesture or an incidental one. These details stand out in an image that serves as a record of human cruelty. By selecting this cross-section of photos and staging them in such a large format, the curators seek to coax out the many looks, postures, and responses that are embedded but often missed in these visual documents.

This is also an important project because, as a NPR feature on the exhibition noted, Brazil may possess the largest such collection of slavery photography in the world, due in large part to the country’s long history with slavery. In fact, Brazil was the last country in the Americas to legally abolish the practice, in 1888. (Slavery was still legal in the Caribbean until Cuba outlawed it in 1886.) During its 300-year-long participation in the slave trade, Brazil received nearly five million enslaved Africans, or almost one half of the estimated 10.7 million African slaves transported to all of Americans and the Caribbean. Approximately 450,000 Africans are believed to have been transported to the United States.

The Emancipation, Inclusion, and Exclusion exhibition is attempting to open up a significant, yet largely unengaged, corner of Brazilian history. Perhaps it will encourage a better understanding of the worldwide system, a reclaimed vision of the ways people presented themselves and lived amid one of the most painful chapters in human history.

“Black with his son, Salvador, Brazil, c. 1884”
Slaves in the yard of a coffee farm | Vale do Paraíba, c. 1882
“Slaves in the yard of a coffee farm, Vale do Paraíba, Brazil, c. 1882”
Slaves in the yard of a coffee farm | Vale do Paraíba, c. 1882 _ENLARGE
Enlargement of “Slaves in the yard of a coffee farm, Vale do Paraíba, Brazil, c. 1882”
“Lady in the litter with two slaves, Bahia, Brazil, c. 1860.”
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“First picture of the work inside a gold mine, Minas Gerais, Brazil, 1888”
“Stallholders, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, c. 1875”
“Slaves harvesting coffee, Vale do Paraíba, Brazil, c. 1882”
Enlargement of “Slaves harvesting coffee, Vale do Paraíba, Brazil, c. 1882”
“Slaves in the coffee harvest, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, c. 1882”
Enlargement of “Slaves in the coffee harvest, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, c. 1882”
“Departure for the coffee harvest, Vale do Paraíba, Brazil, c. 1885”
Enlargement of “Departure for the coffee harvest, Vale do Paraíba, Brazil, c. 1885”
Emancipation, Inclusion, and Exclusion runs through November 29 at the Museum of Contemporary Art at the University of São Paulo (Rua da Praça do Relógio, 160, Cidade Universitária, São Paulo, Brazil).
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1885. It has been fixed.
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