Axé Bahia

The Power of Art in an Afro-Brazilian Metropolis

The book offers a comprehensive framework that combines history with cultural and art historical approaches, featuring vivid and enticing descriptions of life in Bahia.

Helen Salomão, Full Boom, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.

Helen Salomão, Full Boom, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.

By Nan Collymore

In both the exhibition and the book, The Axé Bahia collection of images, artifacts and music is a celebration of the African influences within Brazilian culture. There are almost three million people living in Salvador, the capital of the state Bahia. The majority of that population is drawn from people of color—ranging from people of African descent —Afrodescendentes— to those indigenous to the area.

Axé Bahia, the book, gives us an extensive well-researched portrayal of the creative and artistic expression of the people living in the region. From the spiritual dimension to the cultural legacy, the book demonstrates beautifully and cohesively the varied cultural expressions of the Afrodescendentes, and the intersection between the spirit, the body and the visual. Axé derives from the Yorubá term Àse, meaning light or spirit and refers also to a form of Bahian music, making it a fitting application for this thorough examination into Bahian culture.

Caetano Dias, The Ravings of Catherine, 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Caetano Dias.

Spiritual component and music

Aptly, the book covers the intersection between the deeply-held spiritual component of Bahian culture and the passionately music-based life of many Baianos. Candomblé, with its roots in West African spiritualism and religion, was developed by African priests, amongst those captured by the Portuguese, who then re-created their belief systems over hundreds of years, forming Candomblé. At the heart of the religion is the concept that Olodumaré is the creator of all and that the Orixás are less powerful gods that serve him.

Interestingly, in Bahia the spiritual has a tangible connection with the political and Carnaval. The Ilê Aiyê (translated from Yorubá to mean ‘house of life’) was formed by a group of working class youth from Liberdade who opposed the neo-liberalist agenda of ‘racial democracy’ being promoted by the conservative elite. They sought to promote a more empowering approach and used their influence to build a more representative contingency of musical artists during Carnaval. Over the decades since their inception in the mid-70’s, the blocos afro have gone on to enjoy global success sharing their sound of percussive, African-influenced beats with artists ranging from Michael Jackson to Talking Heads.

Women from Bahia

The depiction of women plays a huge part in the book, photographs and drawings of the familiar portrayal of women from Bahia wearing white gowns and head wraps. These images are offered throughout the book but juxtaposed by the critique of the Baiana’s stagnant positioning. In Heather Shirey’s essay she cites cultural theorist Stuart Hall saying that identity is an incomplete process, that is “always constituted from within, not outside, representation.” She goes further to examine the constructed image of the Baiana as one stuck in “an essentialized vision of Bahian femininity, that is frequently exoticized, ‘othered’, frozen in time and commercialized”.

Helen Salomão da Silva e Silva’s photographic work, for example Gorda Flor (2016) and Igbagbo Fé (2015) gives us a more studied and mutable survey of the women living in Bahia. As Shirey observes “the women of Bahia engage with the viewer through confident poses and expressions. Hairstyles and clothing are used to express individuality, challenging the tendency to reduce the women of Bahia to a ‘type’ defined by a style of dress.”

Lita Cerquiera, The Dance of Capoeira II, 1976. Courtesy of the artist and Lita Cerqueira.

Minimizing the ethnographic gaze

When Roland Barthes spoke of subversive tendencies in some photography, he concluded that “ultimately, photography is subversive not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks.” Da Silva e Silva’s imagery is a helpful illustration of this, as is, that of Mario Cravo Neto. The essay devoted to his work speaks of his immersion in the performative aspects of Carnival and the exquisite rituals of Candomblé. Some of his work is reminiscent of Rotimi Fani-Kayode—the muscular eroticized form of the – specifically dark-skinned – black male body and the inclusion of nature. Gledhill and Conduru conclude that Cravo Neto is an essential chronicler of Bahian life, “minimizing the ethnographic gaze that dominated the works of Voltaire, Fraga and Pierre Verger.”

Though the book is quite formal in its stylistic direction, offering a serious and comprehensive framework that combines history with cultural and art historical approaches—it also features vivid and enticing descriptions of life in Bahia that prove its position as an influential and internationally renowned state.


Axé Bahia. The Power of Art in an Afro-Brazilian Metropolis. Published by the Fowler Museum, UCLA, 2018


Nan Collymore writes, programs art events and makes brass ornaments in Berkeley California. Born in London, she lives in the United States since 2006.



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