Claiming Public Space for Important Gods : Notes on Brazil

Bahian artist Tatti Moreno has put larger-than-human Afro-Brazilian orixas on display in public places. May his work may bring comfort to a nation coping with the pandemic.

This peaceful-looking fellow has a lot to do these days.

Represented here on a much larger-than-human scale is Ossanha, a healer deity who traveled from Africa to Brazil centuries ago. This sculpture was created by Tatti Moreno (b. 1944), an artist from the Brazilian state of Bahia. Bahia is the part of Brazil that has best preserved the nation’s African heritage.

Map of Brazil from Library of Congress’ online collection. Image is in the public domain.

An estimated 4 million Africans arrived in Brazil between the 16th and 19th centuries. They’d suffered the trauma of being enslaved and the horrors of the trip across the Atlantic. These survivors carried with them their own religious beliefs, many drawn from the Yoruba-speaking nations of Africa.

Ossanha today forms part of a patheon worshipped in the Afro-Brazilian religion, Candomblé. Ossanha, or Ossain as he is better know, stands with more famous orixas such as Yemenja, who is associated with the sea, and Xango, who is associated with thunder.

My husband, David, and I had the great luck to be surprised by this sculpture of Ossanha. We came upon it during a visit to the Botanical Garden of Rio de Janeiro. We looked up and there he was, in harmony with nature, as is fitting for Ossanha.

Author photo.

Stumbling across Moreno’s Ossanha was the highlight of our trip to the Botanical Garden, and the garden was itself one of the most beautiful places in Rio de Janeiro.

And that’s saying a lot, as Rio de Janeiro on a sunny day is among the world’s most beautiful cities.

Rio’s Botanical Garden by David G. Young.
Rio’s Botanical Garden by David G. Young.
Rio’s Botanical Garden, photos by David G. Young.
Rio by David G. Young.

In Need of Healing

As I said at the start of this essay, Ossanha must be busy these days.

When David and I visited Rio’s Botanical Garden on Feb. 8, 2020, there were not yet any confirmed cases of COVID-19 in South America. The first one was reported on Feb. 25, diagnosed in a man who had returned from Europe to Brazil’s largest city, São Paulo. The rapid global spread of COVID-19 would force us to cut short our time in South America.

David and I left Brazil on March 17. By that time, Brazil had suffered its first coronavirus-related death, and there were 291 confirmed cases in the country.

As of May 22, Brazil had an estimated 310,087 cases of COVID-19 and 20,047 deaths, according to the New York Times coronavirus tracker.

Rio’s Botanical Garden is closed for an indefinite time, as are beautiful parks in other countries. Rules about quarantine have disrupted religious practices of many kinds in Brazil, as they have around the world.

Brazil’s reported last month on how a Candomblé community in the southern Brazilian city of Petrolina, was coping. In this religion, adherents regularly gather for ceremonies centered around music and dance. (Note: There is a link at the end of this essay to a bibliography with full details on this piece and all other articles mentioned here.)

During the pandemic, Pai (Father) Adeilson of this Candomblé community of Petrolina told Globo’s G1 news service that his fellow worshippers had to forego their regular gatherings. They missed the drumming and joining together in prayer.

But only emergency spiritual care can be given during the pandemic — and this only with great caution, Pai Adeilson told G1. Below is a translation of his quote in the article and then the original.

There is alcohol gel, they stay a little distant from me. Very few people come here. They wear masks. We stay distant from each other. It’s very strange, (Tem álcool em gel, eles ficam um pouco distante de mim. Pouquíssimas pessoas vêm aqui, usam a máscara, ficamos distante um do outro, mas muito raro),” he said.

In Salvador da Bahia, the hometown of artist Tatti Moreno, a beloved image of Christ known as Senhor do Bonfim (Lord of the Good End) was carried through the streets on April 2. In Candomblé, the Senhor do Bonfim is associated with Oxalá, father of the orixas and creator of humankind.

The procession was meant to comfort people, letting them see the Senhor do Bonfim from their windows even as the pandemic halted church services. Parades, usually a staple of Brazilian celebrations, were banned from this procession of Senhor do Bonfimof due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In normal times, Salvador’s Church of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim attracts large crowds. It’s one of the world’s loveliest pilgrimage sites, drawing people of many faiths, and people with no particular spiritual affiliation. They take comfort from the stores of hope and good will brought to this church. There is a tradition of tying ribbons at the gate of the church in search of blessings, as shown in the photo below of the church. I added red arrows to point out the ribbons. And that’s me in the other photo below, tying a ribbon in honor of a friend.

Photos by author and by David G. Young.

Other kinds of Brazilian churches also have temporarily halted services as well due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The church’s mission is not limited to preparing man to live in heaven, but also to teach him how to behave on earth — what I call the horizontal gospel,” Fernando Firmino, bishop of New Life Church of Brazil, an evangelical congregation, told Christianity Today.

In Firmino’s view, religious faith “does not take away from common sense and reason.”

That’s why I believe the online services in this period of isolation have been both a revealing tool of our faith and spirituality and a revelation of our social responsibility,” he said.

Not all Brazilians have taken precautions against COVID-19 as seriously.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has urged churches to continue holding mass gatherings. An evangelical Christian, he draws political support from this group. Brazil remains the world’s largest Catholic country, with about 123 million claimed for this religion in a 2010 census. But, as the Associated Press reported, evangelicals are a growing force, with 42 million believers, about 20 percent of the total population.

No political party in Brazil manages to bring together as many people, in as many places, as many times a week as churches do,” said Carlos Melo, a political science professor at Insper University in Sao Paulo, told the Associated Press. “And people tend to follow the pastors’ directions.”

In researching this essay, I learned Tatti Moreno also created a work of art that has stuck in my memory for many years.

Postcard pasted into my journal from 2000 trip to Brazil.

I visited Salvador da Bahia in 2000 as part of my first trip to Brazil. Years earlier, I had studied the history of Brazil’s religions while taking a class on Latin American studies at Tulane University. So I knew how governing authorities in Brazil had tried at times to repress the practice of Candomblé.

So for me, it was a thrill to see these eight giant figures representing orixas in a prominent location, the Dique do Tororó, a lake near an old dam.

“Bahia, a place where statues of orixas stand in a public lake,” I wrote in my journal.

Wikipedia copy of Portal da Copa/ME (victoria.camara) / CC BY 3.0 BR

The state of Bahia repressed the practice of Candomblé after the abolition of slavery in Brazil in 1888 and until the 1930s, wrote Heather Shirey in her 2009 article in African Arts, “Transforming the Orixás: Candomblé in Sacred and Secular Spaces in Salvador Da Bahia, Brazil.” And in 1998, evangelical Protestants protested the installation of Tatti Moreno’s giant sculptures at the Dique do Tororó.

Today across Brazil, practitioners of Candomblé face attacks by bad people who happen to be evangelical Protestants. It has become dangerous in certain neighborhoods to practice this religion, Terrence McCoy wrote in the Washington Post last year. The evangelicals involved in these attacks sometimes have ties to gangs.

Gilbert Stivanello, commander of the Rio police department’s crimes of intolerance unit, told McCoy that some evangelical criminals who target Candomblé adherents call themselves “Jesus drug dealers.”

They carry weapons and sell drugs, but feel entitled to forbid African-influenced religions by stating that they are related to the devil,” Stivanello is quoted saying in the Post.

It’s important that the works of Tatti Moreno stake a claim in Brazilian public life for Candomblé amid continual threats. Moreno’s sculptures representing orixas have been on display in other parts of Brazil, including São Paulo and Brasilia.

Tatti Moreno,left, prepares his sculpture of Iansa for transport to São Paulo in 2001 photo. Thanks to Heather Shirey for this image, which earlier appeared in her article cited above.

But there is a cost to this success in civic debates. Shirey writes in her article about the compromises required for Moreno to put Candomblé on public display.

In Candomblé, people create altars filled with objects chosen for their personal significance. These altars are intended for exploration of ideas and emotions.

Filhos-de-santo, as people who practice Candomblé are called, continually add new objects to their altars as part of their prayers and meditations and search for connection with higher powers. Other objects will lose their honored place in the process.

The objects that embody the orixas are the most difficult to see and the altar is transformed into a record of ongoing interaction with the orixas as indicated through constant change,” Shirey wrote in her 2009 article.

The most important altars are kept behind closed doors, sometimes locked away, sometimes hidden by curtains, Shirey wrote. In contrast, Tatti Moreno puts depictions of Candomblé on permanent and public display. In their role as civic art, the depictions of the orixas are intended to be easily understood. Shirey notes there is even a plaque to help people unacquainted with Candomblé to tell orixas apart at Dique do Tororó.

Wearing her trademark yellow, for example, is Oxum, an orisha associated with beauty who long had been worshipped at the Dique do Tororó. Tatti Moreno’s massive artwork was intended as part of an urban revitalization of an area that had experienced a high level of crime.

The project has worked perhaps too well in some ways.

Authorities who maintain the Dique do Tororó reported a drop in offerings left at the site following the revitalization, Shirey wrote. She attributed this to the loss of the trees and brush that used to lend privacy for worship near the water. Now followers would find themselves exposed if they honored the orisha there.

Many filhos-de-santo told me that Oxum was no longer present at the Dique,” Shirey wrote in her 2009 article.

For a bibliography of works used in writing this essay, click here to find the Artists of the Americas — bibliography page on my website. The sources for this essay are listed in the “Moreno, Tatti” section.

Journalist fascinated by art, food, architecture, justice, politics, history and business. Has visited museums on six continents, eaten in more than 60 nations.

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