Pierre Verger encountered the culture of Afrodescendants on his first major trip to South America, upon his arrival in the Caribbean archipelago of Guadeloupe in late 1932. At this time, Europeans had a truly biased, condescending, and racist outlook on African cultures and communities of African descent in the region ―and theirs was indeed the dominant vision. The comic Tintin in the Congo had just been published to wide commercial acclaim, while the Paris Colonial Exhibition of 1931 had reasserted the French colonial empire’s global influence. And though intellectuals like André Gide and Michel Leiris (1) or journalists like Albert Londres called attention to the precarious living conditions of Africans in the colonies, people still broadly used the word nègre as a simplistic slur.
People and cultures of African descent were not treated any better in the Americas. Major French magazines of the time, like Vu and L’Illustration, seldom published articles on the topic, and when they did, they usually presented African culture in a sensationalistic manner, focusing on black magic, Vodou, or witchcraft in Haiti and the Lesser Antilles. Being African or of African descent was equated with being a savage or a sorcerer; blacks were treated like children (dependent on their European “parents”) or, if they were indeed “lucky,” as objects of study. They were rarely viewed as normal human beings, as just average people around the world.
When Pierre Verger arrived in Guadeloupe, he had not yet studied anthropology and had only been working with photography for a year. One of the first impromptu snapshots he took after leaving France is also one of the oldest in his archive, and it depicts a West Indian woman contradicting all the usual clichés of the time. Indeed, it is not a portrait of a person of African descent from a prejudiced European perspective. On the contrary, it situates the European gaze in its encounter with an utterly unfamiliar culture: a gaze that, wittingly or not, can appreciate a different way of life or may even want to share it. At this time, and until the late 1940s, Verger used photography as a way of exploring other cultures, as a means of escaping the bourgeois lifestyle of his upbringing, a lifestyle he disavowed, dreaming of freedom, greater diversity, and simplicity. The pictures that Verger took between 1932 and 1946 in the French West Indies and Brazil reveal an attempt to identify with the communities he encountered rather than a desire to classify or describe foreign cultures. This is what makes him such an original photographer in the context of his time: he showed Africans and their descendants as human beings, acknowledging their values and respecting them; he almost seems to be yearning for their way of life, given the intimate, poetic aesthetic of his images.
Beginning in 1948, two years after he arrived in Bahia, Brazil, where he immersed himself in the universe of Candomblé, an Afro-Brazilian religious tradition, Verger increasingly focused on topics associated with Afrodescendant communities. This led him to write specifically and extensively on Candomblé. Thenceforth, he spent his time visiting countries with an obvious African influence, often traveling with friends of his who were anthropologists, like Alfred Métraux or Lydia Cabrera: to Suriname and Haiti in 1948 and to Cuba in 1957. Along the way, his images gradually lost their poetic quality, as he concentrated more on their documentary or ethnological content. His photographs from this period reflect his desire to more thoroughly examine the cultures he encountered, especially those with Fon and Yoruba roots from the region near the Bight of Benin.
In 1953, Verger underwent an initiation rite and adopted the name Fatumbi. During this second phase of his work, he published several books, such as Dieux d’Afrique (1954), which is considered one of the first major works in the history of visual anthropology. In both of its stages, Verger’s work was ahead of its time. His skillful, original, and nuanced approach to documenting Afrodescendant cultures in the Americas helped change the Western view of African culture. Clearly, Pierre Verger was one of few true pioneers who employed photography to assert the importance of these cultures.
This foundation was established by Pierre Verger in 1988, in the aim of divulging the anthropologist’s own work in photography and writing, and also to strengthen the cultural ties between Brazil and Africa. The foundation is a private institution headquartered in what used to be Verger’s home in Salvador, Bahia. It organizes exhibitions and publishes books by Verger, oversees copyright and royalty issues and the sale of Verger’s original prints, and offers a program of activities and workshops for the community in the working-class neighborhood of Engenho Velho de Brotas, where it is located.
In this, its thirtieth year of existence, the foundation is pleased to take part in Africamericanos, displaying a selection of photographs that Verger took in Mexico, which are different from those he took in the same country in the 1930s, recently featured in an exhibition entitled Con los pies en la tierra (With the Feet on the Ground).
1. The work of these two writers constitutes an early benchmark for anti-colonialist treatments of Africa. Gide’s book Voyage au Congo is a denunciation of French colonial policy contained in an account of the writer’s trip to Africa in 1925-1926, in the company of filmmaker Marc Allégret. In L’Afrique fantôme, Michel Leiris recounts his impressions of the celebrated Mission Dakar-Djibouti, an ethnographic expedition that traversed the African continent, from the Atlantic to the Red Sea.
Los dos murales muestran una fusión entre las tradiciones y la cultura de Costa Chica, Guerrero y Costa Arriba, Panamá, que tienen su origen en el pasado africano. El primero, describe la llegada del pueblo africano al continente americano y con ello el surgimiento de la comunidad africamericana a partir del mestizaje. Mientras que el segundo, habla de la resistencia, la lucha y salvaguarda de la tradición e identidad de los pueblos afrodescendientes.
En el primer mural se encuentra una paloma negra que simboliza al pueblo africano en su llegada a América. Sembrada en la tierra está la minga, un hombre negro con una máscara de mujer blanca que representa el mestizaje, personaje de la danza de los diablos que se baila en la Costa Chica de Guerrero. Este personaje lleva una arusa o tigrera, instrumento musical de fricción cuyo tono recuerda el sonido de los jaguares, misma que emula el vientre materno y resguarda en su interior a un niño, que simboliza el pueblo nuevo que surge del mestizaje. El niño es protegido por el rey cimarrón que se encuentra a los pies de la madre. Se le llamó cimarrones a los esclavos negros que huían para ser libres. A un costado vemos a Elegua, deidad considerada el inicio y el fin de todos los caminos en el culto de origen africano Yoruba. Finalmente, se observa la reina congo bailando con su pareja, quien ha sido poseído por un diablo. Éste último personaje es una fusión del folclor de ambas costas.
En el segundo mural, vemos en la parte superior a un ángel, la mamaguarda, quien cuida de la nueva cultura mestiza para preservarla. Abajo está representada la embarcación en la que llegó el pueblo africano. En los extremos del mural se encuentran, por un lado, Yemayá, la divinidad del culto Yoruba asociada a los ríos, medio que permitió el despliegue de los pueblos al continente. En el extremo opuesto está una minga con un ángel a sus pies; en el cuerpo de éste se aprecian tres símbolos africanos que significan, en orden descendente, fuerza, continuidad y, aceptación y resistencia, valores centrales de los grupos afrodescendientes. Al centro encontramos dos diablos, que representan a los conquistadores europeos, uno de ellos intenta serenar pero también traicionar al cimarrón, sobre él está "el pajarito", mensajero de la tribu de los congos, quien advierte al otro congo sobre las verdaderas intenciones colonizadoras de los diablos. El cimarrón está representando una escena de la danza tradicional del son de artesa de la Costa Chica, baile típico zapateado que se remonta a las colonias, el cual se bailaba sobre un cajón de madera con figura de animal labrada en uno de sus extremos, éste se baila en ausencia del patrón, como forma de rebelión y resistencia.