Here’s a little retrospective from a religious ceremony I photographed in a Salvador favela, Brazil. The work was subsequently exhibited alongside another collection of my work from that particular Brazilian trip at Cape Town’s Month of Photography. These are raw scans of 3200ASA film which was pushed a stop. The light was compliments of a bulb or two dangling in the middle of the room and I was categorically forbidden from moving around. Tricky. I won’t go into too much more detail as I reckon it’s pretty much covered in the original exhibition description below.
Afro-Brazilian religious ceremony.
Salvador favela / slum; Bahia Province; Brazil. 2004
Candomblé has its roots in Africa and considered to by some to be voodoo and a cult. The followers commune with their God through mediums who are able to achieve a state of trance. This state of trance is obtained without drinking or drugs, apparently. In the afternoon a goat or two gets a tad nervous and not without reason. It’s and African ritual after all, native to Nigeria in this particular house. But I only witnessed the late show.
The Candomblé ceremony is music-based. Boys and teenagers drum with purpose and repetitive but ever-changing rhythms. Often targeting a particular member of the group dancing and chanting around the room. The drummers increase the tempo to “push him under”. The group circles and chants around the room for an hour or two. Abruptly all the dancers, disappear into a small back room through a curtain, raggedy. Mysterious.
At this point the tourist folk seemed to be saying, “Get me the hell outta here!” Speaking in fluent fidget and various Mexican waves of yawning. “Don’t move” their guide had said, and they couldn’t, he was the driver.
After many spectator yawns, one by one those dancers in the deepest trance appeared from behind the curtain: raggedy. Mysterious. Some dressed as kings and queens, are tended to by a personal guide who would receive hugs in exchange for guidance and attention. When the last person appeared, there were five in deep trance, but were not there at all. Now bellowing in Yoruba, eyes rolling white, they made their way around the room bowing and shuffling to the chanting crowd and beat.
Their chanting is what makes the air surreal. Any language but your own sounds weird, granted but. The expressions, facial and vocal intonations were contorted, crazy. One chanted word rises above the rest and each medium bellows it like a very large awkward bird marking territory, sending out a signal. In this state they, and through them, the onlookers are in touch with their God.
Spectators are not what they appear either. Intermittently the force spills out of the arena and a spectator falls in. Thereby acquiring a guide who’d remove their shoes and guide them back through raggedy. Mysterious, indeed. A few boys around me nudged and pointed, mocking a young woman who was being led there. A while later she came hurriedly back, blushing and palming away the jibes and laughter the boys directed at her. Another young guy quietly pulls his buddy between himself and an oncoming dancer, as if to say, “Not tonight, please”. It was these subtle indications of reluctance I found to be the most convincing. At one point three individual spectators standing around me simultaneously buckled into trance. Fighting it, they returned shortly after being led back through that curtain. Sheepish.
Witnessing this ceremony radically adjusted my cynical, skeptical and very pragmatic Western opinion of this kind of thing. An opinion I realise, formed without any experience. It seems there’s a grey area when it comes to the scrutinisation of the place where the alert and lucid world that we are familiar with, meets the one where our bodies run in neutral and the mind is completely focused on something we can’t remember. A bit like being drunk. And Meditation. A little rhythmic sleep, walk, dance.
My normal perception of people, religion and life has been shifted. My mind has been opened a crack by what lies behind that raggedy. Mysterious curtain.
This is what the eye sees: