Joshua Sofaer

Religion, Recycling & Recycling Religion

We brought in 2010 at the celebration of a terreiro (or temple) that is part of the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé.

Candle

Candomblé has its roots in Africa and the many different religions brought over to Brazil by the slaves who were forced to immigrate. Compulsory conversion of slaves to Catholicism meant many of the religious rituals had to be made in secret or combined with Christianity in some way. The result is a kind of syncretistic approach incorporating bits and pieces of different religious approaches from across the world, though centring on the Yoruba Orixás (spirit) tradition. It is almost entirely an oral culture with no official holy text.

Although widely practiced in Brazil (especially in the northern state of Bahia, centring around its capital Salvador) it is only relatively recently that it has been legally recognised. There is still something of a stigma and a degree of hysteria, about the practice today. Stories of strange and sinister ‘happenings’ in terreiros abound, with descriptions of frightening possessions as the spirits descend into the bodies of worshippers. Got to be worth a visit.

The invitation was extended to us (but not without prior appraisal and agreement from the pai do santo (or master) via the ever-smiling Renato Bolelli Rebouças, a very interesting set-designer, who has one of the sunniest dispositions of anyone I have ever met. Indeed his permanent glow of euphoria was one of the strongest drives to see his ‘church’ and learn something of his religion.

The terreiro that he belongs to is called Aruanda and is described by the pai do santo, Kabila, as being ‘contemporary Candomblé’, in which the syncretism of centuries is adapted to the modern world. Drinking and sex are allowed (one might even say, encouraged).

Kabila is a fashion stylist. When I was told this, before we met, my vision of a wizened wise old man suddenly receded and I was left thinking that it was rather an incongruous mix, couture and faith. But actually it makes for a very interesting and extraordinarily ‘stylish’ terreiro and is very fitting for a religion that is premised on the power of material culture. You dress and arrange objects to entice the spirits.

Just over an hour’s drive from the centre of São Paulo, Aruanda is set in the countryside of Itatuba. Aruanda is an incredible looking place with a superabundance of mainly recycled objects that hold next to no economic value but are positioned in such a way that they shimmer with aesthetic and spiritual purpose.

We were given a tour and I was allowed to take photographs but I can’t really remember the detailed and complex meanings apportioned to each place. Here is a wall covered with votives and offerings that Kabila has arranged and left open to the elements.

Votive Wall

These weather beaten bits and bobs are strangely magnetic and oddly unified.

Votive Photograph

Votive Kalho

Votive Eye

Votive Bells

This is the hut dedicated to ancestors.

House of Ancestors

This altar (made out of empty wine bottles) is a place to, erm, well I’m not quite sure exactly but it’s to do with the physical body.

Body Altar

Whereas the altar in this room is to do with the spirit.

Spirit Altar

There was also a very pretty Wendy House type thing that represents childhood.

Childrens House

One of my favourite things was that the clothes of the Orixás that have already ascended and no longer ‘possess’ the body of Kabila are placed high up in trees and given to the elements.

Costume in Trees 1

Costume in Trees 2

There is also a brilliant floor made out of salvaged tiles in the place where worshippers eat and chat.

Floor Tiles

I don’t have any other terreiro to compare this one too but it was very beautifully done and had a serene kind of atmosphere that was quite overwhelming. Many of the devotees here are artists and it had something of the spirit of what I imagine an arty commune from the 1960s might have been like. Visiting on New Year’s Eve was out of season because the rituals proper (sacrifices, multiple possessions, etc.) don’t start again until mid-January. This was mainly a social occasion for about 20, of the 60 ‘children’ of Aruanda. However there was an incarnation and visit from Kabila’s personal Orixás: Dona Maria Gertrudes. If you are thinking that this sounds like the name of a Brazilian drag queen then that’s not completely inappropriate. Dona Maria Gertrudes describes herself as a kind of permissive transsexual, a female prostitute in a former life whose spirit has now entered the male body of Kabila. She is the queen of all Orixás in Aruanda.

We were all sitting around drinking beer quite happily when all of a sudden, as if a tornado had swung into the room, and amidst the loudest possible multiple drumming, Dona Maria Gertrudes entered spinning like a wild dervish whirligig. Could this be the same person who had calmly shown us round the premises just an hour earlier? It is a cliché but really, you had to be there. The force of this crazy dance was extraordinary, compelling and quite scary. Even as a jaded critic of ‘performance’ I would still say that the rush of energy was something powerful. To be honest, I was quite unexpectedly nauseous and felt close to tears.

After singing and dancing things calmed down a bit and Dona Maria Gertrudes went round and talked to us all individually. She was quite lewd and confrontational. And it is my understanding that it is through these kinds of provocations that this spirit tries to shift the perceptions of the congregation and, no doubt, the person whose body she borrows for her incarnation.

I asked permission to take some photographs and Dona Maria Gertrudes seemed quite happy. I’m including a blurry one (very low light levels!) to give something of the movement of her frenetic dance.

Donna Maria Gertrudes 1

Donna Maria Gertrudes 2

Then after auctioning off some of her adornments and clothes (devotees want them to keep something of her energy and to make a contribution to the upkeep of the terreiro) she left. A short time later Kabila came back and we all then sat down for a feast.

Feast

Talking of feasts…

BANANA UPDATE

Banana Market

The mind-boggling array of banana produce here really became apparent this week when I stumbled upon a ‘banana market’. On sale were massive range of shapes and sizes of banana. The sheer volume of bananas was impressive in itself. I have subsequently learnt (actually from the back of a packet of Tipikus ‘100% natural banana pieces’) that bananas are Brazil’s favourite fruit and their largest international export.

I bought a bunch of teeny-weeny ones and ate them immediately as a kind of ‘amuse bouche’. Intense banana flavour. Lovely.

Small and Big Bananas

On the same day we passed a very large supermarket, not so close to home, but we decided to explore anyway. There was half an entire aisle dedicated to banana produce!

Banana Shelves

This is where the aforementioned Tipikus was purchased.

Tipkis

Plain dried banana. OK but nothing special. Other banana purchases this week include a ‘banana flavoured ice-bar’: Melona. Milky, cold, banana. Ordinary. Nice. (Actually, I think the melon flavoured ones which the brand names itself after are actually much tastier.)

Melona

And then these, erm, crisp things, simply called ‘Banana’. Not crisp. Oily. Barely recognisable as banana. Pretty horrible.

Fried Bananas

Bananinha still wins.

END OF BANANA UPDATE

Although 100% of municipal waste collection ends up in landfill there is a Brazilian obsession with recycling. It is something of a paradox.

Much of this preoccupation is to do with seeing ‘pretty’ things made from trash. There is even a word for it: ‘sucata’. While the literal dictionary translation of sucata seems to be ‘scrap iron’, my understanding is that in Portuguese it has come to denote something that is made out of trash. There is a whole rubbish craft thing going on here.

These Christmas decorations were some of the nicest I have seen and are made entirely out of recycled materials:

Recycled Christmas

The ingenious ‘super-dust-pan’ is made out of a recycled can:

Recycled Leaves Collector

And here is recycled Jesus:

Recycled Jesus

There was even a TV drama in which the central character’s rags to riches Hollywood dream is due to recycling. Rainha da Sucata (Queen of Scrap) was a Brazilian telenovela broadcast in 179 episodes in 1990. It follows the fortunes of Maria do Carmo Pereira, who makes millions from scrap and then spends. The melodrama follows her rise and fall. ‘High-rise’ and fall in the case of the dramatic antagonist Laurinha, who ends up throwing herself off the top of a skyscraper. If you want to see what the Brazilian telenovelas are like click here. This 1 minute 29 second clip should tell you all you need to know. (One random addendum. In Brazil’s multi-racial utopia almost all the characters, in these hugely popular telenovelas, are white.)

Rainha da Sucata

For a more radical televisual experience and certainly a more extreme form of recycling, you might want to try and get hold of the incredible 2005 documentary Estamira by Marcos Prado. You may have already seen it. It was on international release and won a slew of awards.

Estamira 1

Estamira is the real life story of the woman who gives the film its title. Born into a middleclass family she suffers a series of misfortunes and is subject to different kinds of domestic abuse. She ends up working (and for sometime living) on Jardim Gramacho, the massive rubbish tip on the fringes of Rio de Janeiro, which she declares she loves.

Estamira 3

Estamira has developed a psychosis, a kind of schizophrenia that manifests itself in wild ramblings that nevertheless often sound completely sane. In the ultra-Catholic God-fearing suburban environment in which she lives, she has totally rejected conventional religion and sees humans as legislators of their own fate.

Estamira 4

Although it depicts people living in conditions I can barely imagine, Estamira is a very beautiful film. At first I found this over-aestheticisation inappropriate: sweeping long shots, dramatic music, grainy black and white sequences. But what it does more than anything, especially in a society so predicated on economic difference as the benchmark for social status, is to give the subjects of the film dignity. Ultimately it seems to be a film less about the political situation in which thousands of people turn to trash to try and eek out a living and more about social stigma.

Estamira 5

Estamira 6

So as the angels of sucata carry the gravy train of recycling skyward (in what has to be one of the oddest seasonal decorations ever) I am left realising that, in Brazil at least, the environmental ramifications of rubbish are eclipsed by those for this country’s citizens.

Angels of Sucata

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