Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 10, 2019
Henry Glassie and Pravina Shukla Sacred Art: Catholic Saints and Candomblé Gods in Modern Brazil Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2017. 540 pp.; 450 color ills. Cloth $48.00 (9780253032058)

In Sacred Art: Catholic Saints and Candomblé Gods in Modern Brazil, Henry Glassie and Pravina Shukla explore Brazilian religious-themed art rooted in European- and African-based faiths. The authors limit their study to the northeastern states of Bahia and Pernambuco, where “Native, European, and African cultures first fused into something new and Brazilian” (2). Their examination demonstrates that artists continue to draw inspiration from both the European- and African-originated sacred subject matter and that the profuse resultant works have become “markers of national identity” with local, national, and international appeal (2). Throughout the text Glassie and Shukla highlight the transformation of nonreligious materials into representations of sacred subjects and prioritize the words of practicing artists—collected through various interviews conducted over nearly a decade—over written sources. In contrast to scholarship that solely focuses on either Catholicism or Candomblé (an Afro-Brazilian religion created by the Yoruba brought from West Africa to Brazil via the Atlantic Slave Trade by combining aspects of their faith with Catholicism) and deems the sacred production made by largely self-taught individuals as “craft,” the authors underscore the “simultaneous and interlinked traditions of faith and creation” inherent in both religions, and approach the material culture and its makers as art and artists, respectively (4). Because much of the sacred work is produced for sale, the authors also consider the role of the art market. Glassie and Shukla, both folklorists trained in anthropology, have each published single-authored studies of international art and culture. In Sacred Art, they draw on their collective knowledge base and contextualize their Brazilian subject matter within the broader scope of spiritual art through comparisons with artists and traditions from other periods and parts of the world.

Following an introduction, the main body of the text consists of fifteen chapters. Glassie and Shukla begin their examination with Salvador, Bahia’s capital city and historic center. Polychrome wooden statues of saints are ubiquitous in this area, which is known for its nine grand Catholic churches. The authors also highlight the African presence in Salvador, including the black wooden saint sculptures and black figures in the Stations of the Cross that decorate the interior of the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary of the Blacks. They also discuss the regional history of Candomblé. Chapter 2 focuses on the artist couple Edival and Izaura Rosas, who have been staples of the regional arts scene for decades and who are also frequently referenced in subsequent chapters. Edival carves saint figures, and Izaura paints them. Chapter 3 provides a more in-depth examination of Edival’s entry into artmaking and his technique. The couple creates new pieces to replace old works, restores older ones, and also makes unique figures. Because their main clientele has shifted from private collectors to churches, their current works are most often used in a religious context.

Chapter 4 explores Catholic saint figures and a range of Candomblé-related items, available for purchase at local markets in Bahia via a middleman, as a counterpoint to the Rosas’ production. In this commercial system, which is largely based on supply and demand, merchants source and market their goods by region rather than by individual artists. As such, chapter 5 examines carvers in Ibimirim, Pernambuco—the fount for commercial-grade, domestic-scale saint sculptures. The authors underscore the master-apprentice tradition in Ibimirim, as well as artists’ use of machinery. Employing Edival and Izaura Rosas’s production as their benchmark for saint figures, Glassie and Shukla conclude that, in Ibimirim, the work is “more collective than solitary, more neoclassical than baroque, more natural than painted” (147).

In chapters 6 and 7, the authors shift their focus from wood to clay works. They return to Bahia, where pottery is the main economic livelihood in Maragojipinho. They then contrast ceramic representations of Catholic saints and everyday subjects from this area with those produced in Tracunhaém, Pernambuco. The authors divide Tracunhaém’s history of art making into two lines of production: large-size works created predominantly by men and smaller-size pieces predominantly created by women. In the current generation, however, this second body of work has also become male dominated (232–33). Chapter 8 explores paintings of saints and orixás (Candomblé deities) in Olinda, Pernambuco. The authors highlight connections between the two religions, including painted representations of Catholic saints in terreiros, which are the sacred spaces (including all architectural structures) of each Candomblé community.

Chapter 9 investigates wood carving in Cachoeira, Bahia, with an emphasis on the artistic lineage of the well-known carver Louco (1932–1992) and his son, Louco Filho. In tracing this family history, the authors underscore a sharp decline in tourism that has affected carving in Bahia following its peak in the 1980s and 1990s. Chapter 10 explores quotidian paintings, including depictions of landscapes and international cultural figures, by various artists in Bahia, and chapter 11 examines the production of sculptural, painted, and woodblock representations of saints and orixás related to Bahia’s historic district, which is also the main tourist area.

In chapters 12 and 13, Glassie and Shukla survey Bahian representations related to Candomblé. They feature metalsmiths who create both figures and symbols of the orixás, as well as the artist Francisco Santos, who largely produces murals and banner paintings of the gods. In chapter 14, the authors outline their main conclusions, emphasizing the collective desire to create both “power and beauty,” regardless of the artist’s Catholic or Candomblé subject matter (455–56). In the abbreviated chapter 15, Glassie and Shukla honor the passing of individuals who were linked to their research in Brazil.

The brilliance of Sacred Art’s contribution to the field lies in its number and range of images, including numerous photographs of religious processions. The pictures of sacred artworks at various stages of the creative process are particularly enlightening. Further, the authors often include either a picture or diagram of the artist’s studio in addition to a photo of each artist. This publication will likely be the most in-depth study on the majority of the more than fifty Brazilians featured in the book. As a complement to their visuals, Glassie and Shukla present what often feels like a travelog of their research journeys. Their detailed descriptions of various sacred ceremonies enable the reader to vicariously share in the experiences. The authors devote considerable space to the words of the various artists, providing unparalleled insight into the numerous individuals’ views on pedagogy, the art market, artistic approaches, and other topics. Whereas most scholars produce authoritative studies based on their own expertise, here the authors privilege the thoughts of their subjects. Importantly, all the interviews were conducted in Portuguese by the Lusophone Shukla and translated into English by the couple (4).

Some of the book’s strengths, however, are also its greatest weaknesses. Although the authors’ determination to give the artists a “voice” is laudable, a more discerning approach could have been taken regarding the extensive amount of quoting from the interviews. Glassie and Shukla’s frequent comparisons of the Brazilian artists and artworks to individuals and production from other parts of the world—from Picasso and Kandinsky to santeros in New Mexico to Haripada Pal, a maker of sacred images in Bangladesh, and Ahmet Sahim, a ceramicist in Turkey—will likely fail to resonate with the reader to the extent desired unless the reader, too, has as wide-ranging knowledge of international cultural production as the authors. Rather, it would have been more useful to expand the examination of carved saint figures made in Salvador to include artists beyond Edival and Izaura Rosas for a more comprehensive analysis of this category of work. Given the length of the publication, the cross-referencing among the various chapters would make it difficult to use select portions of the book in an academic setting. Additionally, the body of the publication lacks any endnote indicators, despite the twenty-two-page section of notes at the back of the book. Lastly, Glassie and Shukla’s proclivity for commenting on the “pretty” or “handsome” appearance of subjects seems to detract from the otherwise apparent objectivity of their analysis and appreciation of the artists.

Nonetheless, Sacred Art will likely serve as a useful reference for scholarly inquiries beyond the stated focus of the study. For example, almost all the self-taught artists included in the book describe their research techniques, which contradicts the longstanding misperception that only formally trained artists conduct research as part of their artistic process. These and other insights from the artists would be interesting to compare with studies of Brazilian popular art that often assign an atavistic nature to self-taught and informally trained artists. In their examination of production from Tracunhaém, the authors attribute the region’s style of Catholic saint representation to West African Yoruba cultural emphasis on the head (241). This assertion should be considered against the broader, mounting attention to identifying African influences on and contributions to Brazilian society and culture in the past few decades. In the examination of carving in Cachoeira, it would be interesting to investigate the reasons behind the “sudden” decline in tourism that is mentioned several times and that has affected regional artists who are dependent upon sales of their works. The case studies of individuals who are not Candomblé initiates but who nevertheless create images of the orixás would be a compelling juxtaposition to scholarship on the internationally recognized Candomblé priest and artist Mestre Didi (1917–2013), whose sacred production and knowledge was tied to his rank within the terreiro. Further, one might problematize how Francisco Santos’s paintings of imagined seminude Africans perpetuate romanticized notions about Africa and stereotypes about the hypersexualized black body (446).

For those readers who want to simply take the information contained in Sacred Art at face value, the publication is a visually stimulating and interesting read on sacred production in Bahia and Pernambuco. Academics in a variety of fields will be frustrated by the superfluous quoting from the interviews and the lack of more nuanced discussions grounded in more recent scholarship on artistic production from Brazil’s Northeast, but they will likely be sufficiently intrigued by the gems of information sprinkled throughout the text to read the entire fifteen chapters.

Kimberly Cleveland
Associate Professor, School of Art & Design, Georgia State University