Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Cocoa Tree and Exu, or not.

Over the next several days after class at Senac, I attempted to gain access to Nossa Senhora, the Blue Church. For one reason or another, usually the staff lunch hour, I usually found the front door locked. Finally, on Friday we were released before noon, so I scurried downstairs to make another attempt. The side door was unlocked. I paid my $2 reals and went on in. I had not captured a good photo of São Benedito and I wanted to explore more of the facility.

Again, I looked at the cocoa tree, admiring the six or so large pale green fruits that hung from its spindly branches. When I inquired about the tree and its story, the attendant could not tell me anything more than it was here when I arrived; 18 years ago. We went to the Irmandade Office, where the Sister in charge said the same thing, adding a few more years for herself. In the end, they went to the rear to ask one of the older Sisters. She conveyed that it was 28 years old, and was recently identified as the best species of Cacao in the country. Quite rare, and no one knows how it got there…

Through two doorways at the rear of the building was a small Sacristy that contained vitrines filled with various images of the black saints, a few portraits of previous pastors, key members of the Irmandade, a traditional lion’s head faunt and a signed photo from Pope Paul II’s visit.

Not being Catholic, I needed some tutorial on the saints. As I began photographing all of the icons a petite black woman amply built with a frosting of moles on her face brought in some golden and white carnations to fill the vases throughout the church. While she added water to each vessel, I introduced myself and began to ask questions. The Sister said that she was one of the 300 plus members of the Irmandade. They were dedicated to the church and community work, which included helping sister churches and the needy. All my questions were carefully answered in beautifully enunciated Portuguese. We hit it off well.

“E voce estava afora no jardim pra ver no cimiterio des escravos? E muito importante pra a Igreja; pra a comunidade.” I made sure that she understood that I would not miss the slave cemetery in the backyard, and kept on taking pictures as she filled the vases.

I am fascinated by the dialectic between belief systems. It has been suggested to me that São Benedito was a bone of incentive thrown to the slaves. If they saw one of their own in an ascendant role, it may have been an inspiration to adopt Christianity. Thus they may become faithful; and possibly more easily able to be dominated.

In contrast, the Africans arrived with a full complement of their own, “saints”. The Catholic cosmology provided a thin veil to drape over their belief systems, thus fostering the spread of Candomble, Santeria and other African spiritual cosmologies of the Americas. Now, so intertwined this fabric appears seamless. There are modern voices preaching for a cleaving of the Christianity from the Candomble; thereby arresting the synchronous connection. Mae Stella at Terreiro Ile Axé Opo Afonjá had all of the Christian references removed from her Terreiro in 1988.

It all becomes a trick-bag. Many of the metaphors in the synchronous experience reference slavery, keeping it fresh in our minds. Foods that we have eaten as slaves, and still consume in sacred and utilitarian cooking provide a through line to our history. This may suggest the possibility of an empathic experience. Hopefully, it does not foster a victim or martyr status. These deeply rooted retentions often seem essential as markers of the culture.

I suspend my internal dialogue, as she directs me to the vitrine along the far wall. I had noticed the sparse arrangement when I had entered this room. There were just three items inside, a painted ceramic sculpture, a weathered pencil drawing of a proud woman and a picture of Pope Paul II. Playing tour guide, she now turned toward the carved marble lion’s head faunt behind her. “Ate poco tempo estavamos utilizando este banho pra baptistas. Agora fazemos no sanctuario……” I think, “Ok, so the baptisms don’t happen here anymore, what about the vitrine. Nice, but..”
Switching between topics I continue, “Gosto muito a esculptura de Exu. Está bem feito”. -I very much like the Exu sculpture. It is well done. I had accepted his presence as another example of the bonding between faiths. “…..Oo. Este home, ele não é Exu. Eu posso ver porque voce esteve achando isso. Mais, não é ele.” I retorted, “Huh?” Essa esculptura é uma imagem da molher ao lado; dentro na desegno.Sim. Aquela.”

Now, I am truly stumped. Does she not want to reveal a truth set down as a construct hundreds of years ago? This likeness is so reminiscent of Ex..and No; it is not a feminized image. I sat on my thoughts and the images, wrestling with my logic and perceptions. Roaming the surfaces, my eyes continue to investigate and question the premise; while I look for some concordance. Her smiling face and the glint in her eye allowed me to insert a ray of doubt regarding her statement. The alleged door closed and we stopped discussing this piece, moving toward the hallway and the backyard.

The yard is nondescript, ordinary. Two reddish benches face each other. A large white planter is standing empty on top of the scrub grass. In the distance I see a partial view of Avenida des Sapateiras, made famous by Jorge Amado. The hallway door closes, revealing a long glass case mounted to the structural wall. Four large square concrete lids are set just below the ground’s surface. The covers of the communal crypts housing the slave remains from this neighborhood. Inside the case are plastic flowers and references to Escrava Anastacia, a famous local slave who faced and fought her captors. She has a power and place in history akin to Sojourner Truth. Her remains now reside in Rio. We stand quietly, staring at the contents of this display. I cry briefly, scattered tears, not a river. I thank her and walk towards the street.

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