by Anne Wilkes Tucker
Founded in 1549 as the capital of the Portuguese colony of Brazil, Salvador rises on a steep peninsula that overlooks a deep natural harbor on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other. The city is famed for the beauty of its colonial Baroque architecture especially its churches. As a major center for the African slave trade, it has one of the largest concentrations of black and mulatto populations in Brazil. Mario Cravo Neto draws on the mystical and religious energies of the indigenous, Portuguese and African populations and cultures that co-exist around him. He is known internationally for black-and-white photographs of staged "ceremonies" that poetically evoke the bi-racial cultures of northeastern Brazil. Frequently employing members of his family and his extended family of friends and artists, he merges the influence of these cultures with his own personal mythologies.
In the last two decades, Cravo Neto has also photographed in color and recently gathered selections of this work into two books. One is reviewed here, and the other (tentatively titled Lese Orixd or At the feet of the Orixd) will be published in France and Brazil next year. Both books focus on Salvador, where he was born and lives. The first book is large scale. After only a cursory review, it might be mistaken for a coffee-table offering because it succeeds in making one want to be in Salvador. I am enticed by pictures of crystal waters flowing over bare skin, glowing late afternoon light illuminatingBaroque buildings, and the city's evening lights twinkling from across the harbor. However, this is a very personal book. Many aspects of the city are missing that would appear normally in a travel book. For instance, there are relatively few photographs of Salvador's white citizens and none of upper class society. Also, there are images that would not appear in more commercial books, including a three-page foldout of bones, Voodoo ceremonies, a statue of a graphically bleeding Christ and a naked prostitute on her bare mattress. The book is more poetic, and less informative, than might be expected.
The pictures are carefully sequenced with distinct rhythms and recurring motifs. The book begins and ends with stunning images of the ocean. Then Neto introduces humans, rising from the water with a burst — rising in fact, and as metaphor. Water is the source of life. Salvador is a harbor city, dependent on the shipping trade and vulnerable to the furies of the ocean. The first section of pictures also introduces the luscious growth that characterizes and surrounds a tropical city. As in the black-and-white series, animals and plants are prominently featured in his color work as being integral to Salvador and essential to Cravo Neto's vision of life there. He described the rainy season to me with the same rich flow of imagery as he establishes with pictures in the book. "Ocean waters rise up, waters drop from heaven, waters weep over our feet," he wrote. "The growing luxurious nature of this tropic depicts man in a struggle to survive."
Another major theme is the presence of art throughout the city. Cravo Neto features the marvelous carvings on colonialbuildings, the ornate gilt interior of a vast church, and examples of his own father's sculpture commissions throughout the city. He also assembles portraits of the city's intellectuals and artists including Jorge Amado, a contributor to the book, and Pierre Verger, a photographer and mentor to whom the book is dedicated. I wish the index had identified the other sitters for those of us unfamiliar with Brazilian culture. Is the statuesque woman on page 170 a Voodoo priestess? Is DanielaMercury a dancer? Why didn't he identify the other woman who poses at the back of Ms. Mercury's chair? Full of characterand intensity, their faces contribute to the strength of our impressions of the city's vitality.
Anyone familiar with Cravo Neto's work will not be surprised by the photographs on Voodoo rituals. Images of frenetic dancing and glimpses of animal sacrifice are intermingled with photographs of churches and Christian sculpture. In both religious environments, he gravitates toward examples of intensity and sensuality. At Carnival and on the beach, where masses of bare, or nearly bare, bodies congregate and dance, he identifies the same qualities that apparently permeate the most sacred and mundane activities in the city. (His next book focuses more fully on Carnival. These pictures of writhing, decorated flesh threw me back into the film Black Orpheus. Forty years ago worldwide audiences were mesmerized by the film's retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and shot during Rio's Carnival. Cravo Neto's Carnival photographs in both books evoke the unceasing beat of tambourines and steel drums that drove the film to its tragic climax.)
The final image in Salvador silhouettes a lone figure against the city skyline. The figure is a tiny, but distinct and pivotalelement. Two other versions of this image appear earlier in the book. Also seen from a great distance, the other two solitary figures stand on rocks jutting from the sea. The figure represents Cravo Neto, who has been our guide to his homeland. Describing his vision, he wrote, "I see the city of Sao Salvador de Bahia de Todos os Santos as a bowl of ethnic and religious mixtures in the process of experience. We Bahians are able to survive in a multi-colored rainbow symbolizing the serpent in a continuous circle tightening the earth for it not to fall apart."
Anne Wilkes Tucker is the Gus and Lyndall Wortham Curator of Photography at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.