Meet the Brazilian creatives channeling the Afro-Brazilian religion, Candomblé, into their artwork — COLORSxSTUDIOS

COLORSxSTUDIOS

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Meet the Brazilian creatives channeling the Afro-Brazilian religion, Candomblé, into their artwork

A religion that has been described as an amalgamation of West African beliefs—from Yoruba, Fon, and Bantu cultures—and Catholicism, Candomblé centres around the worship of divine spirits called orixás who are honoured through offerings, dances, and rituals. Prevalent in Brazil, specifically in the Bahia region, since African people were displaced during the slave trade, Candomblé has suffered a lot of prejudice in the country over the years. “People always had a preconception about it because it’s African—Black people aren’t accepted in society here,” said Pai (father) Nelson, a Candomblé priest, in an interview with NPR. “We do animal sacrifice. Our religion is very different from others. People didn’t understand it.”

Despite these misconceptions, Candomblé is starting to become more accepted in Brazil. There are also many exciting young creatives—whether they be hairstylists, singers, visual artists, or mothers of vogue houses—coming to the fore who are using their religious beliefs to inspire their work. We talked to three of them to find out more about what Candomblé means to them, how it inspires their creative practices, and their hopes for the future of the Candomblé community.

“Candomblé traditions are what keeps me grounded while everything else shifts around me.”

Janice Mascarenhas, hairstylist and artist, Rio de Janeiro

COLORS: How would you describe Candomblé to someone who hadn’t heard of it before?

Janice Mascarenhas: Candomblé is a religion that is deeply connected with ancestral forces. For me, it is also connected to the concept of family.

COLORS: When did you discover Candomblé?

JM: As a child I always dreamed of being part of the Candomblé community, but my family was evangelical. It wasn’t until I went on a trip to Berlin as an adult that I had my first proper encounter with the religion: my friend Priscila who lives there was telling me about her terreiro—a Candomblé temple—in the city called Ilê Obá Sileké. After the conversation, I was walking through the streets and started talking to a tree. We had a conversation together. At first, I thought I was crazy.

When I got back to Brazil, I started visiting some temples here and learning more about what trees represent in Candomblé. Then everything made sense for me. Trees are connected to the earth, and, according to the religion, I was born from the meeting of earth and water. I have an affinity with clay as an element. Every person is connected to something different. My sister, for example, has an affinity with the moon, which represents beauty.

COLORS: You’re a hairstylist and artist, and create intricate hair sculptures that have gained a lot of attention on Instagram. How does Candomblé influence your creative practice?

JM: When I found out that I was a daughter of clay, I started going to ceramics classes so I could use my power to create. The first thing I made was a hair mask. The process of making ceramics isn’t easy: clay is fragile, it can burn or even explode in the kiln. But everything I made in my classes seemed to turn out how I wanted it to. I think it’s because I was connected to my element. When I understood my power, I felt like creating my work became almost like a healing process.

COLORS: You also work a lot with hair braiding. Does this have a significance in Candomblé? In an interview with Dazed you said that the yabás—female orixás and mediators between the human and spiritual realm—braided each other’s hair as a way of predicting the future.

JM: There are a lot of tales in Candomblé that I have to keep secret. The religion needs to be protected. If people know too much about Candomblé’s tales—especially white people who don’t know how to use them—it can be dangerous for our community. What I can tell you is that in Yoruba culture—which comes from Nigeria and is one of the strongest influences on Candomblé—it is thought that what sustains the human body is the hair and the head. So they are both really important in Candomblé.

For Black people, also, hair is something that is really empowering. That’s why I like to work with it in a sculptural way, and use it as a way to celebrate my culture. Braiding fabrics to create macramé—something that has become widespread around the world—also comes from Candomblé.

“Like Black culture, Candomblé is all about resistance and survival.”

COLORS: Are there any misconceptions about the religion that you’d like to dispel? I read that it has struggled to be accepted in Brazil.

JM: Candomblé has been in Brazil since Black culture arrived in the country. Like Black culture, Candomblé is all about resistance and survival. I like to say that Black people use art as a gun.

I don’t think it’s about acceptance, I think it’s about being respected. People are always afraid of things that they don’t know much about. Learning about different cultures can help you to be more respectful.

COLORS: Has Candomblé evolved at all over time at all?

JM: People change, values change, and the world changes. Right now we’re living in a capitalist society: everything revolves around money. For me, Candomblé traditions are what keeps me grounded while everything else shifts around me.

COLORS: Are there any projects at the moment that you’re working on that you’d like to share with us?

JM: This year I was the winner of Dazed 100, an award spotlighting the people leading change in their communities and chosen fields. I’m using the prize money to develop a film that will tell the history of African bodies in Brazil. It will also connect humans and nature, taking inspiration from my ancestor’s beliefs. You have to go right to the beginning of everything to be able to move forward and start again. That’s what I’m trying to do with this project.

Diameyka Odara, vogue house mother, singer, and multidisciplinary artist, São Paulo

COLORS: How would you describe Candomblé to someone who hadn’t heard of it before?

Diameyka Odara: Candomblé is almost like a science. It’s about the pure connection between humans and nature, and how all elements are in relation to one another. I feel like an extension of nature and believe in singularity: everyone and everything is actually just one entity. That’s what Candomblé is to me, feeling like you are part of one interconnected entity.

COLORS: When did you discover Candomblé?

DO: I grew up in Campinas, a city northwest of São Paulo. During my childhood, I was always very spiritual. My family always made me aware of my African ancestry: we used to listen to lots of music and go to a variety of events. But it wasn’t until around six months ago, when I met Janice Mascarenhas, that I started to learn more and do some deep research about my ancestors. She introduced me to my Pai de Santo—a Candomblé priest or “father of the saints”—and now Candomblé has become much more prevalent in my life.

“Candomblé views people as if they are all leaves on the same tree: every leaf is different from one another, but they all belong together.”

COLORS: You’re the mother of a vogue house in São Paulo called the House of Odara. Can you tell us more about what that entails?

DO: For me, being the mother of a house is a must have in life. Every day I work with my sons and daughters who come from marginalized cultures. Being maternal allows me to embrace an important part of my most authentic self. Going to balls with my family is extremely healing. There, you see people screaming, applauding, and dancing together. It’s really important to have these spaces because at the moment, in Brazil but also all around the world, it’s hard to find safe places where the LGBTQIA+ community can experience and explore their bodies.

COLORS: How has Candomblé influenced you in your role as a house mother, and your work as a singer and artist?

DO: Candomblé has really influenced my work and life. My house name, Odara, means “beauty” in Yoruba. I identify as travesti—a gender identity used in Latin American countries—and it can be really hard to feel beautiful in a society that persecutes me and my community. So, when I created my safe space, I wanted to call it Odara so that everyone who is part of it can feel beautiful.

I’m also going to release a new album in the near future called ‘Orin Odara’ which means “beauty of the song” in Yoruba. It’s a work in progress, but it will be a musical exploration of Yoruba culture. Yoruba culture is very important to me: unlike other cultures it celebrates my existence and my body in society.

COLORS: Can you expand on this? What are the attitudes towards LGBTQIA+ identities in Candomblé and Yoruba culture?

DO: In Candomblé, what you perform or show on the outside has nothing to do with what you have between your legs. Candomblé is about energy, and it’s very fluid. It’s complicated to try and analyse the acceptance of orientations and identities in the religion. I like to say that Candomblé views people as if they are all leaves on the same tree: every leaf is different from one another, but they all belong together.

COLORS: Have you experienced much prejudice towards Candomblé as a religion?

DO: Many years ago, I used to attend an Evangelical church and sing in a gospel choir. When I decided to switch to Candomblé, I suffered a lot of attacks from people from my old church. Now, however, people seem to be more curious about the religion and Yoruba culture than scared or angry.

COLORS: What are your hopes for the future?

DO: I want to share my voice, and my music, and for it to be heard. I’ve always felt like my body is invisible. When was the last time you saw a black, fat, travesti in the media, singing, or even at the supermarket?

DiU, singer and visual artist, Niteroi

COLORS: How would you describe Candomblé to someone who doesn’t know what it is?

D: Candomblé is the feeling of being connected to family through Black ancestry. It’s my roots, and what anchors me in this world.

COLORS: When did you first become interested in Candomblé as a religion? Was it something you grew up with or did you discover it yourself?

D: I was adopted at birth: I grew up in a very white, Christian family and went to a Christian school. I found Christianity very frustrating. I didn’t identify with it as a religion, and I felt like it copied the essence of other Black religions while misrepresenting and enslaving the believers of those faiths.

When I first met some of my Candomblé brothers and sisters, such as Janice Mascarenhas, I felt an instant connection with them. Learning more about the religion, and especially axé—a spiritual or sacred force talked about in Yoruba tradition that is found in specific objects, such as leaves and roots, or in body parts, especially blood—I felt like I’d found my place in this world. Until then I felt like a ghost, or a lost soul.

COLORS: How does Candomblé influence your work as a singer and visual artist?

D: Candomblé and being connected to my ancestors helped me to discover more about my identity, especially as a Black woman. The invisibilization of Black women is always what shocks me the most in any context I live in. So, I sing, paint, edit videos, and dress up as a way to express myself.

COLORS: What projects are you working on at the minute?

D: Right now I am working on ‘*** [DELUXE]’. It’s an extension of my EP, which was released exclusively on Soundcloud last year and is going to become a full album. I’m also setting up EKKO, a label for Black women, non-binary, and LGBTQIA+ artists.

COLORS: What do you think are some of the most beautiful things about Candomblé as a religion?

D: The fact that people come together like a second family. With many people, it’s as if they’ve known each other for many years: they may have even known each other in another time, in a different form, or a different body. Everyone in Candomblé shares similar experiences because of our shared ancestry.

“They think we are witches. We are, but that’s not a bad thing.”

COLORS: What are some of the misconceptions people have about Candomblé?

D: They think we are witches. We are, but that’s not a bad thing. I don’t care what other people think.

COLORS: What are your hopes for the future?

D: I hope I’ll continue to have exchanges with amazing people such as my sister, Janice. Candomblé has shown me that I can find people I can call brothers in a world that denies so much love and affection to Black people.

Janice Mascarenhas, Diameyka Odara, and DiU are creatives based across Rio de Janeiro, Niteroi, and São Paulo who use their Candomblé beliefs to inspire their art work. To find out more about Candomble, why not read this NPR article, or check out the BBC’s overview of the religion?

This interview was published as part of COLORS’ EDITORIAL COVERAGE running alongside our 2021 production period in Brazil. Discover some of the Brazilian artists we’ve produced shows with on our YouTube channel, or read more articles about the transgender politician and activist ERIKA HILTON and female baile funk DJs and MCs (including TASHA & TRACIE OKEREKE and MC Dricka) on our EDITORIAL PLATFORM.

Text: Emily May and Rodrigo Guima
Photography: COLORS, Janice Mascarenhas, and Lucas Nogueira

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