Kraay on Romo, 'Selling Black Brazil: Race, Nation, and Visual Culture in Salvador, Bahia'

Anadelia A. Romo
Hendrik Kraay

Anadelia A. Romo. Selling Black Brazil: Race, Nation, and Visual Culture in Salvador, Bahia. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2022. Illustrations. xiv + 332 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4773-2419-6

Reviewed by Hendrik Kraay (University of Calgary) Published on H-LatAm (January, 2023) Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz (Johns Hopkins University)

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Elegantly written, lavishly illustrated, and cogently argued, Anadelia A. Romo’s Selling Black Brazil challenges historians of twentieth-century Salvador, Brazil’s “Black Rome,” to think more carefully about how that construction of the city came into being in the 1940s and 1950s and about the limits and exclusions deeply embedded in this portrayal of Blackness as central to Salvador’s culture. Over forty illustrated “tourist guides” published from the 1930s to the 1960s, along with the twenty-five articles on Salvador published in Rio de Janeiro’s O Cruzeiro and illustrated with 337 photographs by the French journalist Pierre Verger, are Romo’s principal sources. The “tourist guides” are curious artifacts. Written by leading intellectuals, they provided little in the way of practical information for visitors, of whom there were, in any case, relatively few for much of this period. Instead, Romo sees them (and the O Cruzeiro articles) as local modernists’ efforts to promote Bahia to other Brazilians. Like modernists elsewhere, these Bahian writers sought “to represent a ‘native’ reality in contrast to a European ideal,” but they produced “images of Black figures immersed in a happier, simpler way of life unsuited and generally at odds with modernity and, perhaps more troubling, placed them outside of political life” (pp. 11, 209).

After chapter 1’s brief look at portrayals of enslaved people in nineteenth-century lithographs, cartes de visite, and postcards, along with early twentieth-century Bahian propaganda that focused on industry, progress, and whitening, Romo turns to Jorge Amado’s 1945 Bahia de Todos os Santos: Guia das ruas e dos mistérios da cidade do Salvador in chapter 2. She argues that the novelist broke with the guidebooks of the 1930s and early 1940s whose “visual representations stressed whiteness” (p. 69). While Amado’s text inconsistently emphasized Blackness and Black culture, rather than mestiçagem (racial and cultural mixing), and evinced some concern for social reform, illustrator Manuel Martins “distilled Amado’s vision into a tighter narrative” by portraying a city dominated by its Black laborers (p. 77). His dark street scenes focused on poverty and disorder, amid which strong Black women and men went about their daily labors.

The late 1940s photographs of Verger (who would later become a leading ethnographer of Candomblé and its connections to Africa) are Romo's subject in chapter 3. She argues that, in the postwar context of developmentalism and cultural effervescence, including efforts to define Blacks as Bahia’s folk and the wellspring of the city’s culture, Verger gained quick entrée into Salvador’s modernist cultural circles. His photographs of popular festivals and of Black men and women engaged in outdoor physical labor have too often been seen as documentary evidence, rather than as “a carefully curated portrait”; indeed, his photographs were used to illustrate the (in)famous 1950s UNESCO research project on racial harmony in Brazil (p. 95). As Romo concludes, “Verger both constructed a particular reality with his creative eye and then was called upon as offering the best documentary proof of that same reality years later.” By constructing “Bahia as a harmonious place of Black traditions,” Verger “thus helped fashion and reinforce the myth of Brazilian racial democracy” (p. 137).

The Argentine Brazilian artist, Héctor Bernabó (better known as Carybé), the subject of chapter 4, arrived in Salvador in 1950 with a mandate to draw the city and quickly entered modernist circles. Romo's analysis shows how he drew heavily on Verger’s photographs in his spare, bold drawings of street scenes and Black life but largely effaced the individuality and sense of difficulty of the labor that can be seen in Verger’s photographs. The central theme of Carybé’s work—that Salvador was “engaged in a constant stream of celebrations in the street, where convivial scenes brought people together”—admirably suited the moment, when racial democracy was gaining prominence nationally (p. 169). It also served the interests of tourism promotion much better than Martins’s dark portrayals of poverty and labor in Amado’s book and jibed nicely with modernists’ interest in folklore and authenticity.

In chapter 5, Romo examines the tourist guides of the 1950s. By the end of the decade, some thirty thousand tourists per year (mostly Brazilians) visited Salvador. While the authors of this decade’s guides did not always fully embrace the notion of Salvador as a Black city, illustrators did. Yet as Romo shows, they invariably portrayed Black people as “anonymous masses on the streets” in their “insistence on a traditional, premodern way of life lived outdoors” (p. 200). Portrayals of Salvador as modern scarcely appeared in these volumes.

Candomblé, the subject of chapter 6, figured in many of the tourist guides (Amado’s 1945 guide, for example, listed the address of more than one hundred terreiros [Candomblé temples]), and artists from Martins and Carybé to their successors sketched festivals (Candomblé practitioners’ reluctance to be photographed, in fact, meant that artists had a relative advantage). While there were still limits to the acceptance of Candomblé in the early 1950s, by the end of the decade, Candomblé had become “a symbol of the city” in the tourist guides (p. 234). The acceptance of Candomblé, however, was also shaped by its leaders, notably the formidable Mãe Senhora of Opô Afonjá, who established close ties with modernist intellectuals and who set the terms under which her terreiro would receive visitors. With her blessing, Amado arranged a visit to Opô Afonjá for the delegates to a 1955 tourism conference, while the widely covered 1960 visit of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir to Salvador included a meeting with Mãe Senhora (also coordinated by Amado). Romo recognizes that the focus on Opô Afonjá as “the most famous and most important terreiro de santo in Bahia” (as Amado put it [p. 245]) was part of the consolidation of the hierarchy among candomblés that privileged self-proclaimed Gêge-Nagô (Yoruba) traditions, and it remains unclear what leaders and practitioners of other branches of Candomblé thought of their religion’s portrayal. Capoeira, the Afro-Brazilian martial art today considered a major Afro-Bahian cultural institution, scarcely figured in the mid-twentieth-century tourist guides, for it was then still too closely associated with male street violence and thuggery. Candomblé’s “festive female religiosity,” Romo argues, was better suited to the tourist promoters’ interests (p. 211).

A prose review cannot do justice to a book heavily reliant on interpretations of images, in fact so lavishly illustrated that the publisher skipped the customary “List of Illustrations and Figures” in the prefatory material. I can only recommend reading it yourself and doing so alongside as many of the tourist guides or collections of Verger photographs you can get your hands on. The brief allusions to parallel processes elsewhere in the Americas seem almost like afterthoughts (despite their importance in shaping how Verger and Carybé approached Bahia), and this book’s strength lies in Romo’s portrayal of what happened in Bahia. Romo’s central theoretical point is well taken. Art historians have long known that images are never simply straightforward depictions of reality; rather, they reflect social anxieties and the interests of the photographer or the artist. But its implications are challenging, particularly in Romo’s critique of iconic cultural figures like Verger and Carybé for their essentializing portrayals of Black Bahia. The power of this imagery, however, is unmistakable. Amado’s abandonment of his youthful radicalism led him to revise Bahia de Todos os Santos, and in the 1977 edition, he replaced Martins’s drawings with “celebratory modernist” images by Carlos Bastos, more in keeping with the dominant aesthetic of the time (p. 91). And, as Romo notes provocatively in her epilogue, the renovation of Salvador’s historic center, the Pelourinho, in the 1980s and 1990s, removed most of the district’s Black residents “to promote a more sanitized vision of Blackness” that has much in common with the aesthetic of the tourist guides of the 1950s (p. 255).

Citation: Hendrik Kraay. Review of Romo, Anadelia A., Selling Black Brazil: Race, Nation, and Visual Culture in Salvador, Bahia. H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews. January, 2023. URL:

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