Samba Spirit, Brazilian Art, Beauty, and Rituals

Brazilian cultural rituals and everyday life are on display in a small yet powerful exhibit at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

Samba Spirit: Modern Afro Brazilian Art is showing until October 19 at the MFA’s Bernard and Barbara Stern Shapiro Gallery (Gallery 231).

The exhibit: one drawing, two sculptures, and 15 paintings, are 2011 gifts to the MFA from collector John Axelrod. Together, they represent an important first step toward the museum’s creating a more complete catalog of modern artists of African descent—one that was virtually nonexistent at the MFA until Axelrod’s gift.

While tiny by MFA standards, the exhibit features a range of mid- to late-20th century work by rural and urban artists, many of whom are either precursors or practitioners of modern art’s op-art and pop-art movements. The Brazilian artists may be untrained in the classic sense, but the feelings their artworks evoke are raw, real, and unforgettable.

Waldemiro de Deus’ Boizebú (Devil, 1981) is a disturbing, nightmarish twist on the typical religious themes that North Americans and Europeans are accustomed to viewing. Demons and serpents surround the devil on his throne, while a newborn demon (or perhaps a newly arrived sinner) writhes at his cloven feet.

It’s an arresting and unnerving image that captures a mystic ritual inspired from African and Christian religious and cultural archetypes.

However this artwork makes you feel, de Deus (whose last name happens to mean “of God”) has accomplished his job of getting you think about his work long after you’ve walked away from it.

Waldemiro de Deus’ Boizebú (Devil, 1981). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Waldemiro de Deus’ Boizebú (Devil, 1981). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The composition of de Deus’ painting shows his cultural and artistic familiarity with traditional Christian iconography, such as Masaccio’s Renaissance masterpiece:

Madonna and Child. Masaccio, 1426 (Wikipedia)

Masaccio’s Madonna with infant Jesus, 1426 (Wikipedia; National Gallery, London)

Ruben Valentim’s Painting 1 also evokes the religious rituals of Brazil’s indigenous culture and African cultural roots. Valentim places tribal elements into a sophisticated geometric composition to represent three deities (Orixás) of the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé religion.

The staff of Oxalá, the creator of humankind, associated with fertility, and divinity of light, clarity, and purity.

The trident of Exú, the messenger between the human and divine worlds, protector of travelers, god of roads, and deliverer of souls to the underworld.

The double-headed axe of Xangó, once a Yoruba king, and deified posthumously as the warrior god of thunder, lightning, and fire, also representing male power and sexuality.

Tribal elements: Painting 1 by Ruben Valentim

Tribal elements: Painting 1 by Ruben Valentim. 1964, MFA Boston.

Beauty Rituals…

As you walk around the exhibit, notice the variety of Brazilian rituals the artists chose to portray. Scenes depict mundane and major events, life and death, on the farm and in the city: mourning and celebration, planting and harvesting, the cycle goes on and on.

What beauty rituals do we use today that have been passed down through the generations, inspired by our ancestors and stored in our cultural DNA? Do you use natural ingredients and recipes from your mother and grandmother to treat and pamper your skin? Are monthly facials or daily visits to the gym part of your modern beauty ritual?

I have two beauty rituals for better skin that I’ll share with you…

Acne-fighting aromatherapy.

I use three natural ingredients to treat my teenage son’s run-ins with acne. Every night, right before bed, I soak a few cotton balls in witch hazel and place them on his spots for a few minutes. I have him lay down and rest while the witch hazel reduces any swelling and inflammation. This also usually pops any whiteheads naturally without having to squeeze the boils (and risk spreading the infection, which creates more acne outbreaks). Next, I daub a mix of tea tree oil and lavender oil directly on any zits with cotton swab. This works wonderfully without over-drying his skin. Added bonus: we’ve noticed that the lavender calms down his hormonally-induced furies almost instantly, and helps him sleep better.

The water cure.

I discovered my second beauty ritual for clear skin by accident. I was looking for natural ways to help alleviate my symptoms for Crohn’s Disease, when I turned to a naturopath for help. His recommendation was for me to try the water cure. After a couple of weeks of doing this ritual, I felt better and I looked better: the whites of my eyes were whiter, and my painful adult cystic acne was gone–forever. A miracle!

The water cure involves re-balancing the acid/alkaline balance in your body through drinking lots of water–salt water, that is. I dissolve 1/4 teaspoon of fine ground Celtic sea salt into 32 ounces of water (about 1 liter). I try to drink half as many ounces of water a day as  what my body weighs in pounds. I usually sip the first 32 ounces of warm water (which tastes less salty) within the first hour of my getting up, which is when your body is most acidic. You must use Celtic sea salt only, and pure water. I use Multipure water filters. It’s an investment to get a good under-the-sink water filter, but it pays off quickly, because you’re not buying plastic water bottles anymore.

Enjoying the skin you’re in.

The water cure and using natural ingredients taught me that the best beauty rituals are simple, yet incredibly effective. But women (and men) have been taught for millennium that the quest to achieve beauty just isn’t worth it unless we suffer or pay for it in some way. Beauty rituals can be downright hellish: think of Brazilian bikini waxes. But we don’t need to go through hell to look beautiful. We can drink water! We can play ball! We can have fun while we’re out there getting (and looking) gorgeous. Why not enjoy the skin we’re in–as well as the rituals it took to get us looking and feeling vibrant in the first place?

from this... (mosaic detail, Piazza Amerina, Sicily)

Play ball: mosaic detail, Piazza Amerina, Sicily (early 4th century AD)


21st century beach volleyball, Brazilian style (