Sunday, April 21, 2013

Brazilian Gems

Brazilwood and then sugar cane may have been the initial sources for Brazil's wealth, but they did not last long: you can't build an economy on a pretty tree and the uptake of sugar cane in the Caribbean was far more successful. To understand Brazil's success you need to head inland from Rio to the hills and mountains of Minas Gerais. Initially all development was along the coast, but soon explorers, the so-called bandeirantes operating out of São Paulo, moved further inland. The initial motivation was to find indigenous slaves, but soon the bandeirantes found that the vast interior was home to unimaginable mineral wealth. The gold deposits in and Ouro Preto were discovered in the late 17th century (they were hard to miss as gold was found in large nuggets in the streams) and soon people were flocking to the region to get a piece of the action.

View of Ouro Preto, once the richest city in the world and the epicentre of the world's largest gold rush that formed the basis of Brazil's wealth.

And boy, was there a lot of action. Between 1700 and 1800 it is estimated that the mines of Minas Gerais (Minas to its friends) produced fully one third of all the gold extracted in the period 1500-1800. That's a lot of gold. And it wasn't just gold either, but a whole host of precious gems and other metals and minerals. This was the mother of all gold rushes. Mining towns sprang up throughout the hills and millions of slaves were shipped in to work (and die) in the mines, shifting the balance of power within Brazil inexorably away from the northeast and down to the south (as evidenced by the transfer of the capital from Salvador to Rio de Janeiro in 1763). The wealth streaming out of Minas bankrolled the Portuguese state (which took a whopping 20% of all extracted products) yet still managed to leave behind an artistic, architectural and cultural legacy that is probably the richest in Latin America. It's hard to go anywhere in Minas without stumbling across a quaint colonial town, draped across a hillside, with cobbled streets, whitewashed houses and a grandiose church in the middle harking back to the glory days.

Luckily for me those glory days coincided with the height of the flamboyant Baroque and Rococo styles which were the perfect outlet for the conspicuous consumption engendered by the boom. Brazilian Rococo reached its zenith under the sculpting hammer of Aleijadinho, a mulatto artist who would have been a household name had he been working in Europe, especially since he lost his fingers to a debilitating illness and had to create his wondrous sculptures with the tools lashed to the stumps of his hands*. Ouro Preto, which was the capital of Minas at the time, is dripping in elaborate, whimsical reliefs and sculptures. And although most of the artwork is religious in nature, it is undeniably gorgeous. Though for the full on Rococo experience you have to travel to the nearby town of Congonhas with its small basilica, the Sanctuary of Bom Jesus (which made me realise the strange paradox that very few churches are actually dedicated to Jesus himself, but instead to one of the army of Christian saints). As you approach the church from down the hill you pass a series of pavilions with life-sized wooden dioramas of the Passion of Christ before you reach the double staircase flanked by intricate statues of Old Testament prophets that lead you to the basilica itself with its fair share of altars and frescoes that cover every spare inch of wall. As a whole it's quite possibly the greatest work of colonial art in the Americas.

Aleijadinho's statues guarding the entrance to the Sanctuary of Bom Jesus in Congonhas. One of the spectacular oeuvres of world art.

Gold and precious stones may no longer be a major source of wealth for Brazil, but the mining heritage is still strong, having only moved on to other resources. Iron was found in the Rio Doce valley about 100 years ago, and the company that sprang up to exploit it grew, over time, into Vale, Brazil's largest company and the world's number one producer of iron (for those who are interested in such things the biggest iron mine in the world is the Carajas mine in the north, in Para state, a few hundred kilometres south of Belem) that is profitting from today's resources boom that has led to Brazil's burgeoning wealth. As well as being one of the top mining companies Vale has the dubious distinction of being voted the world's most offending multinational last year, a sure sign that Brazil is on its way to becoming a fully fledged member of the developed, Western world.

The town of Diamantina, as its name suggests, was the hub for the diamond and gem mining in Minas. It was similarly wealthy to Ouro Preto, but due to its more remote location it has sunk into genteel obscurity. Untouched by the hustle and bustle of the past century the centre has been wonderfully preserved and potters along thanks to a steady (but not overwhelming, due to its location) stream of tourism. It may be a town, but at heart it's a village where everyone seems to know everyone else, neighbours stop in the street to have a chat, and everyone gathers at the old market every Saturday for a bite to eat and gossip.

I love the small town feel of Diamantina that makes you feel like you're in rural France or Italy.

Whilst in Diamantina I was lucky enough to be hosted by Eduardo and Ana Paula, a lovely, warm-hearted and generous couple. Eduardo is a local doctor, and, as such, something of a minor celebrity in town. One evening he mentioned that he had been invited to a Candomblé ceremony at a local terreiro (assembly hall). Of course I jumped at the chance when he invited me too as I knew I'd probably never get another opportunity to witness authentic Candomblé again, even though it meant a 500km round trip as I'd already decided to visit "nearby" Belo Horizonte in the meantime.

Part of the candomblé ceremony. I would like to be able to tell you exactly what is going on, but to be honest much of the ceremony is quite esoteric and I would hate to misinterpret it. But whatever the case it was a fascinating and unique glimpse of how African cultures have merged into the Brazilian cultural sphere.

Since Candomblé in Minas Gerais is a relatively small-scale affair, unlike in Salvador, the terreiro was little more than a small hall built behind somebody's house. As we entered about 20 people were already there, sitting on benches against the walls. The floor was sprinkled with eucalyptus leaves, a candle in the middle, and the "mother" and "father" of the congregation at the back. About half a dozen initiates (for want of a better word), dressed in white began to gather in the centre. Some were young, some old; men and women. Soon the proceedings began with a steady drum rhythm as the initiates began to circle the room to the beat. One by one they approached the candle, stayed a while and then departed, no longer heeding the drumbeat. Their demeanours had changed and it was obvious that they were now "possessed" by spirits. Each, quite visibly (sometimes thanks to props such as cigars), had a different character (that didn't necessarily correspond to the appearance of the embodying initiate): maid, mother, warrior, elder. The spectators now came up to talk to the spirits, asking them for advice, choosing the most appropriate spirit for their particular problem. After a while the initiates reverted and there was further dancing, chanting and music. Then there was some more audience participation as everyone passed through a tunnel created by the initiates whilst being lightly thrashed with leaved branches (I wasn't too sure what this was supposed to symbolise, perhaps some sort of purification) before the main event; the arrival of the personification of the head deity being invoked. In this case some female warrior-god embodied by a rather short, middle-aged mulatto lady, dressed in a glitzy red dress with billowing skirts and wielding a symbolic sword and shield. She pranced about, gesticulating, ululating and letting out the odd shriek before hopping off stage. Then came another round of initiates becoming possessed, although this time by child-like spirits that caused them to slide around on the floor, play with little baubles and beg for sweets from the audience. Apparently these bring good luck.

It may all seem very strange and possibly primitive to most of us (though probably because we rarely ever stop to think about how our own rituals might appear when objectively viewed from the outside), but everyone was very welcoming and didn't mind me taking photos (although I did try to be unobtrusive and made sure I asked permission). And perhaps most interestingly after the ceremony, whilst we were munching on the free food, everyone was smiling and chatting away like at any social gathering, even those who had, only minutes earlier, been "possessed". Either way, for me it was a fascinating opportunity to get to experience a facet of Brazilian culture that is rarely seen, even by many Brazilians; and also to see, despite the completely alien nature of the religion to my own cultural background, the underlying humanity and community spirit behind it. [For those of you who are interested below is a, poor quality, video of part of the proceedings.]

*Although there are some that claim Aleijadinho never existed and is a legend created to foster a sense of national pride and unity in the young Brazilian nation.

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