Mãe Preta | Black Mother

by Isabel Löfgren and Patricia Gouvêa

Exhibition views of  Mãe Preta | Black Mother exhibition at Galeria Pretos Novos de Arte Contemporânea, images of the Pretos Novos memorial site and images of artistic interventions in the institute's research library, photo credits: André Ostetto Motta, Hans Georg and Patricia Gouvêa

About the project

MÃE PRETA | BLACK MOTHER is an artistic research and exhibition project by artists Isabel Löfgren and Patricia Gouvêa that aims to trace the connections between motherhood and slavery in colonial times and the voices of Black women and mothers in Brazil today.

The exhibition was conceived especially for the Instituto de Pesquisa e Memória Pretos Novos (Institute for Research and Memorial of the Pretos Novos - IPN), a memorial site for slavery in Rio de Janeiro's now revitalized colonial port area where the archaeological site of the Pretos Novos Cemetery is located. Thousands of enslaved Africans who died after the transatlantic crossing were buried in this cemetery in very shallow graves from 1799 to 1836. IPN houses a memorial, a study room, a research library and an art gallery, the Pretos Novos Contemporary Art Gallery. 

The exhibition is an homage to all the women and children buried at the site by addressing the iconography of "black mothers" (mães pretas), those enslaved women working as wet-nurses during colonial times. They breastfed their masters’ children and as such provided the most vital life support of the colony during the more than three centuries of slavery in the country. A pivotal character in the life of the colony, the wet nurse was at once the closest to the intimate life of the colonial family structure but also very often deprived of a family and children of their own. 

The exhibition addresses the status of black mothers first by selecting representations of motherhood and maternal relationships in the vast archives of paintings and engravings of daily life in the colony made by Jean-Baptiste Debret, Johann Moritz Rugendas, Joaquim Cândido Guillobel among others. With the photographic turn in mid-19th century, there are even more photographs of wet nurses in the daguerreotypes found in the Instituto Moreira Salles archive, as well as other collections. 

By using optical objects such as magnifying glasses and lenses, in the series Ways of Seeing and Ways of Revealing we highlighted the duplicity and complexity of the different relationships entertained by  the wet-nurses with both the white children they took care of and their own children, causing a shift of perception that makes the mother the protagonist of each scene. We also researched about the whereabouts of Black mothers' children often placed in fostercare in Ways of Reporting.

The archival research is counter-balanced by the video-installation “Modes of Speaking and Listening" that bridges the past and contemporary voices in the present time. In this art piece, seven contemporary black mothers give testimonials about maternity, memory, ancestry, invisibility and everyday struggles.

The remaning pieces are conceived specifically with the significance of the archaeological site for the Afro-Brazilian community in mind. Ways of Navigating is an attempt to both trace and imagine the cemetery as a sacred place that stands closest to an African ancestry due to its proximity to the port area, and the connection to the African continent through the ocean. This opens the possibility to retracing and reimagining ancestry beyond the history of slavery, back to a homeland of sorts, as in the pieces in the series Ways of Dwelling

The exhibition extends beyond the gallery space into the research library with a series of conceptual interventions. Within the collection of reference books, a new feminist section was created with new donations featuring titles of black woman authors and/or works about black women. In addition, the walls of the library gained a portrait gallery of Afro-Brazilian heroines that are not necessarily well-known to a wide audience. They range from saints such as Anastácia, to rebellion leaders such as Tereza Benguela and Nzinga of Angola up to Afro-Brazilian feminists such as Lélia Gonzalez and Sueli Carneiro, among others, representing a little-know history of social achievements, struggle and resistance by Afro-Brazilian women which should become part of the official history of the country.

For an interview with the artists in English, please click here




Ways of Navigating

Ways of Navigating

Ways of Reporting

Ways of Reporting

Ways of Seeing

Ways of Seeing

Ways of Revealing

Ways of Revealing

Ways of Dwelling

Ways of Dwelling


The Mãe Preta publication is written in Portuguese and English and contains 4 articles and print-outs of artworks that can be framed separately. 


Interview: Honoring Black Motherhood in the Brazilian Slave Trade- Dodge & Burn:

January 11, 2017

In December 2016, we were interviewed by photographer and writer Qiana Mestrich from Brooklyn, New York for her online magazine Dodge & Burn: Decolonizing Photography History. Qiana is interested in the aspect of decolonizing photography and seeking to “seeks to establish a more inclusive history of photography, highlighting contributions to the medium by people within underrepresented … Read More


Mãe Preta - Palácio das Artes

Palácio das Artes
Clóvis Salgado Foundation
Belo Horizonte, Brazil

05/12 to 08/13 2017

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Mãe Preta - Instituto Pretos Novos

Instituto de Pesquisa e Memória Pretos Novos
Galeria Pretos Novos de Arte Contemporânea
curated by Marco Antonio Teobaldo
Rio de Janeiro
07/23 to 09/24 2016

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Exhibition Crossover

Group show at Crossover
Galeria Monique Paton
curated by Osvaldo Carvalho
Rio de Janeiro
from 07/25 to 09/14 2015

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Performance by Glauce PImenta Rosa and Jessica Castro.
Opening at Galeria Pretos Novos de Arte Contemporânea 23/07/2016

Glauce opens the performance with the chant of Eleguá, the orisha of waters and femininity. Jessica complements with Jongo dance and rhythm, together with a powerful performative speech about racism, feminism and the memory of her African ancestors. Glauce recites the poem "Voices-Women" by Afro-brazilian poet Conceição Evaristo, and continues explaining the significance of the Abayomi dolls made from rags of the enslaved women's skirts and given to their children upon separation in the slave ship or in the fields as a reminder of their mother. Jessica and Glauce finish by praying and singing for the mothers and children who rest in the holy grounds of the cemetery of Pretos Novos.  Fotos: André Ostetto Motta

Artist Talk

Artist talk with the artists, Glauce Pimenta Rosa, Jessica Castro e Gabriela Azevedo
Galeria Pretos Novos de Arte Contemporânea 30/07/2016

In this artist talk, the artists invited three of the protagonists of the video piece "Modes of Speaking and Listening:" the dancer Jessica Castro, the black multiartist Glauce Pimenta Rosa and the braider Gabriela Azevedo. The introduction was made by exhibition producer Carlos Chapeu. For two hours, the black mothers shared their stories included in their participation in the film with personal experiences, song, poetry and the crucial importance of writing their own history.  The audience contributed vividly to the discussion with their own manifestoes, rituals, questions and personal reflections. 
Photos by Marian Starosta