Against the 'Erasure' of Black Women's Lives

As part of the FAM project, my research on decolonial aesthetics focuses on the specific notion of gender, questioning aesthetics from the concept of gender coloniality, as developed by the Argentinian philosopher María Lugone:

Only the civilized deserved the label of men and women. The indigenous peoples of the Americas, as well as the enslaved Africans, were placed in the category of non-humans in their species, and like animals, they were seen as savages with unbridled sexuality. Modern European man, bourgeois, colonial, has become a subject / agent, destined to govern, in public life, a being of civilization, heterosexual, Christian, a being of spirit and reason. The bourgeois European woman was not seen as her complement, but as someone who reproduced race and capital through her sexual purity, her passivity, her attachment to the home and to the service of the white European and bourgeois man.

Fabiana Ex-Souza

How to aesthetically reflect on race, gender and sexuality from a decolonial feminist perspective ?

In a canvas entitled A Redenção de Cam (The Redemption of Ham), dating from 1895, the painter Modesto Brocos refers to Brazilian rural daily life, associating it with an ancient biblical episode, "the curse of Ham" (Genesis 9: 18-29), according to which Ham as well as his descendants were cursed by his father Noah. This curse comes after Ham laughed at the patriarch's nudity and drunkenness. Noah then prophesies that Ham will be "the slave of his brothers” slaves. In fact, this curse befalls Canaan, the future grandson of Noah. This biblical passage had many exegeses (Judaic, Christian and then Muslim) which see in Ham the ancestor of the Negro-African populations. On his canvas, Brocos represents a typical Brazilian family: the father, white, probably Portuguese; the wife, mulatto; the black mother-in-law, perhaps a former slave, and finally, the white son, symbolizing the racial difference between the generations.

Redemption of Ham
Modesto Brocos, A Redenção de Cam (The Redemption of Ham), 1895, Museu Nacional de Belas Artes, Rio de Janeiro.

The title of the work - "Redemption" - means that the miscegenation in Brazil allowed the "descendants of Ham" to finally free themselves from the biblical curse, as symbolized by the figure of the grandmother who raises her arms to heaven as a sign of thanks to God. For the painter Brocos, as well as for eugenics in general, the progress and achievement of the Brazilian Republic lies in miscegenation.

Whiteness, unlike negritude, is a divine blessing. We can also say that the question of the « impurity » of the blood – which would come from the maternal line – is represented through the grandmother. In this family, we notice that a white man has already intervened since the wife is of mixed race, who by marrying a white man again finally has the child of the desired and desirable colour, white. The laundering goes through the paternal line, the child seems to be a little boy thus guaranteeing white paternity in the country. The slave grandmother thanks Heaven for "disappearing". Is it a metaphor for the erasure of black women's existence, their history, their struggles, their contributions ? Or is it a desire on the part of the painter to represent a national project then in vogue in Brazil, that of 'embranquecimento' or whitening of his black population?

For context, see video "Why did the idea of “whitening” develop in Brazil?”