Mãe Preta (Black Mother) began in 2015 with an invitation to create a new piece for a group show in a gallery located in Rio de Janeiro’s colonial centre. On the gallery’s door, we found a fragment of a print by travelling painter J. M. Rugendas called Negresses of Rio de Janeiro (1835), which portrays a Black woman carrying her baby using an African wrap-cloth. At this time, the debate around feminism in Brazil was beginning to gain prominence the public sphere, and in light of new archaeological evidence found during urban regeneration in preparation for the 2016 Olympics, the city of Rio confronted its own past as the largest slave port in the world. The uncovering of major landmarks related to slavery brought forth a renewed interest in the memories and legacies of our slave past, which had been buried beneath successive layers of urban modernisation. These findings have provided channels to access memories of great value to Black populations, even though there is still a long way to go before more substantial reparations are made.
Within the ‘Black field’ – a term coined by historian Flávio dos Santos Gomes to define the field of complex social and race relations in the history of the enslaved population in Brazil –Rugendas’ image became the trigger to investigate the fragile relationship between the representation of motherhood within the memory of slavery in Brazilian visual history and the struggle of Black women and mothers in Brazilian society.
In 2016, Mãe Preta became an exhibition project following an invitation to exhibit in the memorial site of what is known as the largest slave cemetery in the Americas, the Pretos Novos Cemetery, in Rio de Janeiro. Today, the memorial for the archaeological site includes Instituto de Pesquisa e Memória Pretos Novos – a research centre – and Galeria Pretos Novos de Arte Contemporânea – a contemporary art gallery. It is estimated that thirty thousand bodies of African captives, many of them children, are buried there. These were enslaved people who did not survive the Transatlantic crossing and whose bodies were deposited only inches from the ground. The site is located only a few hundred metres from Valongo Wharf, one of the main places of landing and trading of African slaves in the continent.
In each new city where Mãe Preta is shown, we look for new points of inflection in the local context to uncover new aspects in the relationship between motherhood and slavery. In 2017, Mãe Preta was shown in Belo Horizonte with additions taken from the context of Minas Gerais. In 2018, thanks to the art prize Prêmio Funarte Conexão Circulação Artes Visuais, we were able to expand the research to Brazil’s largest city, São Paulo, and São Luís do Maranhão in Northern Brazil. These two cities present two vastly different contexts in the history and memory of slavery.
In São Paulo, we examined the history of the Mãe Preta monument located at Largo do Paissandu, which is a major landmark for the memory of slavery in the city centre. This city square is currently undergoing a period of urban degeneration along with the slow yet forceful erasure of significant Black memories from the urban space. This square has also become a dystopic scenario where dozens of homeless people huddle around the statue, following the collapse of the Wilton Paes building in May 2018, which made the acute housing crisis in the continent’s richest city all the more apparent. The statue forms a link to the monument Zumbi dos Palmares – which pays homage to one of the earliest Black heroes in Brazilian history, a maroon who held up a resistance against the Portuguese for several decades in the 17th century – located in the nearby Praça Antônio Prado, as a poor attempt to re-inscribe the Black memories that the urban planning has torn asunder.
In São Luís, we engaged with quilombola, or maroon communities – originally communities of runaway slaves in the time of slavery, and which have persisted as a form of communalistic organization within certain Black communities ever since – where the struggle for Black memory is strongly connected to the struggle for land and the respect for diverse ways of living in the Amazon region, which is continuously being threatened by large-scale mining and logging companies. Maranhão’s encantaria – rooted in an unique array of Afro-Brazilian social and religious practices that permeate all forms of local resistance – is embodied in the centuries-old knowledge of ‘enchanted’ midwives, who are responsible for both physical and spiritual healing in these communities.