There is a Rio that flows through Brazil whose source lies in a territory that Heitor dos Prazeres once called “Little Africa”. If it seems tiny when compared to the magnitude of the continent from which most of the people who inhabited and inhabit it originated, the immensity of its cultures and ancestries, of the resistance, battles, and lives that converged in it and of the arts that emanated from it emancipates this Rio from the historical violence of slavery, racial segregation, human exploitation and social exclusion that have always characterized it. Sometimes, cities come into being in defiance of the forms of ruling power that try to shape them, powered by the flood of people who arrive and live in them, fueled by the energy of their cultures, spiritualities, and ways of life that break all the chains that try to restrain them. This is the extraordinary strength of Rio de Janeiro's Black cultures, whose epicenter was the territory surrounding the city’s port area, spanning the neighborhoods of Gamboa, Saúde, Santo Cristo, Providência, Pinto and Conceição, Praça Mauá, from the terreiros of their Afro-Brazilian religions to the samba schools and the manifestations of jongo, capoeira, words, drumming and dances that have been able to lead existences that have always extolled life as the greatest expression of their survival.
Instituto Moreira Salles’ collections gather precious documents from many of this territory’s histories that have been preserved by the IMS’ Photography, Iconography, Literature and Music Divisions. Selecting, reinterpreting and giving new meaning to these documents, linking memory with present-day Brazil’s struggles and viewpoints, resulted in this exhibition, Little Africas: The Rio That Samba Invented, fruit of a process of dialog and learning among the curators and organizers of IMS’ collections and a guest external curatorial team comprising Angélica Ferrarez de Almeida, Luiz Antonio Simas, Vinícius Ferreira Natal and Ynaê Lopes dos Santos. We express our deepest gratitude to everyone for the research, work and joint reflection that made it possible. This gratitude extends to the artists, creators, families, collectors and institutions that generously created or lent the works we can now see assembled here. All of IMS’ teams that were involved in this exhibition deserve very special thanks. Acknowledgments are also due to the dozens of associations, collectives, institutions and entities that are now retracing the memories, struggles and initiatives of all these "little Africas" in Rio amidst the dilemmas and challenges of our times.
Marcelo Araujo, General Director
João Fernandes, Artistic Director
Instituto Moreira Salles
Heitor dos Prazeres is credited with the notion of Rio de Janeiro as a “miniature Africa”. Before him, the writer Lima Barreto had already highlighted characteristics of the African “boma” in a city quarter, located on the fringes of the elitist and white center, where a large population of Afro-descendant people – destitute, poor and, above all, proud of their roots and traditions – converged. In those areas of town, so-called Little Africa was the scene of a decisive phenomenon in 20th century Brazilian culture – the invention of urban samba.
A disputed concept from historical, cultural and even geographical standpoints, Little Africa as we understand it takes hold and physically disappears between the first decade of the 20th century and the early 1940s. It was during this interval that the region bound by the Valongo Wharf and Estácio, the border between the city center and the suburbs, witnessed the birth of a type of samba that, though far from being able to account for the genre’s numerous variants, would win over the world with the release of “Pelo telephone” [Over the Telephone] in 1917.
From that moment on, the perception was consolidated that backyards and Candomblé terreiros are essential in reinventing the Afro-descendant majority’s sociability and Brazilian cultural identity. For every renowned figure, such as Tia Ciata or Sinhô, there are countless women and men whose names did not go down in history but were nonetheless active participants.
With music as its point of departure, this exhibition explores the intricate network of meetings, exchanges and conflicts that took place in Little Africa in the first half of the 20th century. Political awareness, religiosity and solidarity are inseparable from the sophisticated artistic production that has spread through space – winning over a city, the country and the world – and through time, its dissident spirit still pulsating and vibrant today in a racist and unequal country.
Starting with historic Little Africa, we propose a journey through the Little Africas that succeed it, not so much places as a set of practices consecrated to that way of life. It is an idea that pulsates in nuclei of resistance and action that are sustained by references and values of a Black Rio de Janeiro, transcending the clichés people confuse with the city’s official image.