“Cet énorme volume de moellons”
Ewé is not a work of analysis. It’s more like a cookbook, a book of recipes, of medicinal herbs and materia magica, useful should you wish to cast a spell—to cure worms, say, or get rich, or make rain fall, or make someone fall down a well, or—in the case of a man—render them sexually impotent (or find a cure for impotence), or else, finally, perhaps a rarer requirement these days, make a peasant dance in front of a king.
If you seek one of these ends, then this book will inform you—or remind you if you are an adept—of the ingredients and forms of words that are required. Verger writes from within the Yoruba tradition, as a babalâo, or father of secrets, a devotee of Ifá, the spirit of divination, a role into which he was initiated in 1952 in Dahomey. It was on the latter occasion that he was given the name Fatumbi, an appellation that signifies symbolic rebirth under the aegis of Ifá. It was a name that he used with pride.
Ewé is, accordingly, a book that takes little or no account of developments in the academic fields of ethnobotany and ethnomedicine. What it provides, as Theodore Monod, one of Verger’s academic patrons, put it, a trifle bluntly, when speaking of Flux et Reflux, is a rubble of information (“cet énorme volume de moellons”), the building material for some future architect.
Nor does Ewé broach the question of the survival of Yoruba medical techniques in Brazil, though Verger was himself an occasional consultant to practitioners of this art in Bahia. Coincidentally, though, a useful new book by Robert A. Voeks, Sacred Leaves of Candomblé, takes Afro-Brazilian herbal medicine as its subject. Voeks describes how, while their white masters were introducing temperate agrosystems to the tropical environment of North-Eastern Brazil, Brazilian slaves were busy discovering analogues to the flora they had left behind in West Africa. Geomorphological happenstance, which links North-Eastern Brazil to the Bight of Benin as part of the ancient southern supercontinent Gondwana, has produced a natural environment in Bahia that is not so far removed from that of West Africa. Thus some of the key ingredients of traditional Yoruba and Fon medicine (and cuisine), such as dendê palm oil, the viscous reddish cooking oil that is familiar to lovers of Bahian street food, were easily introduced and cultivated in the new world. For others, such as the iroko tree—the tree at the heart of the Yoruba sacred grove—Afro-Brazilians were able to find botanically-related local substitutes.
The species lists in Ewé and in Sacred Leaves are important contributions to ethnobotany. They also act as a metonym, a key example of the process of cultural translation and substitution that brought the wider Afro-Brazilian cultural world into being, the world that Verger documented so copiously and with such loving empathy.
The Go-Between is a selection of the same photographs that once spilled out of Verger’s kitchen cupboard. It’s an apt title: for much of his adult life Verger moved back and forth between Africa and Bahia, reintroducing one to the other, both in his scholarly research and his work as a photographer. Unlike the pictures in his most remarkable photographic work, Dieux d’Afrique (1954), which paired images of West African religious rituals with their Brazilian equivalents, those in The Go-Between are not arranged ethnographically, but rather chronologically and topographically. They reveal a further aspect of his oeuvre: the strikingly global range of his working life in the years after he left France, and before he settled in Brazil,
Verger was a true world-wanderer, determinedly expatriate. He was born in 1902 to a prosperous family of Belgian immigrants in Paris, where his father owned a printing works. In old age his elegant manners still bespoke the discipline and charm of the French haute bourgeosie. But he spoke with loathing of his upbringing, professing, like Jean-Paul Sartre, to hate everything about his childhood. This antipathy to the culture of his birth did not drive him to political activism or moral philosophy, as it did Sartre; it found its outlet in another form of escape, a centrifugal trajectory that propelled him to the tropics, to the allure of otherness embodied in non-European peoples. As his fellow photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson put it succinctly, “He came from a grand family, but his first pictures were of prostitutes in Mexico”.
The photographs Verger took during his Wanderjahre, in the nineteen thirties, forties and fifties, are a tour d’horizon of the Western world on the brink of decolonization. They were widely published—in Life magazine, in the Daily Mirror in London, and in a number of book-length collections produced by French publishers, most of them now hard to find. These are pictures of people in their own element, and largely on their own terms: in Tahiti and Algeria; in Harlem and Haiti; in Cuba, Surinam and Ecuador; and in Mauretania, Rwanda and Niger. The photographs are all—or nearly all—of people, rather than landscapes or artefacts.
Some are of notables: Trotsky and Diego Riveira in Mexico, Hemingway in Cuba, Chiang Kai-Chek in Nanking, or religious dignitaries in Nigeria and Dahomey. The most striking pictures, however, are of anonymous, good-looking young men: dockers and colporteurs, ferrymen and musicians. In the latter photographs Verger’s lens plays over limbs and faces, taking in the light on the smoke of an exhaled cigarette, the glance between two friends, the half-closed eyes of a young man in trance. Or it comes to rest on a youth with whom, it seems clear, he is himself exchanging a flirtatious stare—an instance of photographic counter-transference. Verger’s sensibility was, as these pictures bear witness, manifestly homoerotic. But they are pictures from an age of comparative innocence, when the nature of the contract between photographer and subject could remain tacit, implicit.
O carro alegórico
Huge enlargements of these photographs adorned the carros alegóricos assembled outside the Sambódromo in Rio de Janeiro at midnight on Shrove Tuesday, for the 1998 carnival parade. I arrived with half-a-dozen other amigos de Verger to join the throng of União da Ilha’s carnival supporters. Standing out from the crowd was Milton Cunha, Ilha’s extravagantly-attired carnavalesco, the architect of this homage to Verger. A mulato of commanding height, Milton was dressed in skin-tight black leather in the eighty-degree heat. On his head he wore a helmet with pair of bright red horns—a reference to the colours and accoutrements of Exú, trickster intermediary of the orixás, a figure who acquires a lurid, demonic aspect in Umbanda and the other half-Christianized appropriations of African religious systems that are practised in Rio.
Milton Cunha was making a last-minute inspection of the floats he had created. Among them was a Mount Rushmore-sized sculpture of Verger, carved from Styrofoam, and a giant model of a single-lens reflex camera, recognisable as Verger’s 6 x 6 cm Rolleiflex, magnified to the power of a hundred. There was a group of near-naked dancers pirouetting atop the viewfinder. Two languid youths lay stretched out on projecting spars like jaguars, their limbs dangling above the groundlings. In the midst of this kitsch extravagance Milton had succeeded in retaining vivid glimpses of the Vergerian aesthetic: the lounging youths formed exactly the kind of tableau that, in life, might well have caught Verger’s eye.
We, the amigos de Verger, were in the rearguard of the parade, where any amateurish mis-steps on our part would be less conspicuous. We were kitted out in our carnival costumes, all white, with an ethereal portrait of Verger screen-printed on the front, and on the back an image of the shaved, painted and befeathered head of a Candomblé initiate. As the clock moved towards the hour of judgment in the Sambodrome some of us there, including myself, were still struggling to master the lyrics and rhythm changes of the song we were to sing in the parade. Errors on our part would be mercifully obscured from the scrutiny of the crowd by the army of sambistas in front of us, but they might not escape the eyes and ears of the judges.
The samba enredo—the story-samba–is composed each year by the most talented lyricists and musicians of each samba school. It is the text of carnival, the thread that unites the costumes, the floats, the dances and the rhythm of the drums. The title of União da Ilha’s samba was Fatumbi, A Ilha de Todos Os Santos (Fatumbi, the Island of All Saints). It combined a reference to Verger’s Yoruba name, Fatumbi, with a fusion of the cursive name of the school—Ilha—and that of the city where Verger lived, Brazil’s first capital, which enjoys the full name of São Salvador da Bahia de Todos os Santos, and is known in Brazil variously as “Salvador” or “Bahia”. The composers of the samba were three stalwarts of the school, Marco André, Almir da Ilha and Mauricio 100; the singing was led by a Pavarotti-sized baritone named Rixa. The task of keeping a thousand-strong chorus in synchrony as the parade turned the corner into the sambadrome was down to pairs of compositores assigned to each wing.
Dancing backwards into the light, they whipped us into a frenzy of repetition. Vem ver, vem ver, our song began, a bateria arrepiar:
Come see—the drums will make you tremble…
Shine down on us, divine gift!
A child of destiny, born in thrall to Ifá
Crosses the sea with our Island.
The vessel is a slave ship
With the orixás on board…
Giving himself to them completely,
He is consecrated as a diviner.
The white man becomes a magician.
Verger—the child of destiny—our song explained, had crossed over, from the Old World to the New, and, before that, from the culture of his birth to that of Africa, a moral domain epitomized by Ifá, the Yoruba spirit of divination. While in Africa he had become a magician, homem feitiçeiro.
Negro chora, negro ri, ran the chorus of the samba
Black people lament and laugh
Love, oh love
Black is the race and black the cry
Black people are so handsome
And Fatumbi was their photographer.
This voyage that Verger made, we sang, muda sua trajetoria—it changed the course of his life. It was after this journey that he settled in Bahia and became an adept of Candomblé:
He changes course and comes away,
Making Bahia his home.
And becomes a son-of-saint of Mãe Senhora…
Mãe Senhora Iyá Nassô. Photograph by Pierre Verger
Mãe Senhora Iyá Nassô at Ilê Axé Opô Afonjá
Mãe Senhora. In the city of Salvador, in the world of Candomblé, Mãe Senhora is a name to conjure with. But down the coast in Rio, amongst the Cariocas, in the flag-waving, dancing crowd that lined the terraces of the Rio Sambadrome, there were fewer who would have fully understood the reference to the redoubtable woman who was Verger’s mentor and protector.
A dignitary of Bahian Candomblé until her death in the 1970s, Dona Maria Bibiana do Espirito Santo, better known as Mãe Senhora Iyá Nassô, was the presiding priestess at the most celebrated terreiro in the city, Ilê Axé Opô Afonjá, the House of the Power of the Sign of Xangô. It was she who had put Verger’s red house in Vila América under the protection of Xangô (a god who is patron not only of fire, but also thunder, forked lightning, justice and money—and a few other things besides).
Verger lost his own mother when he was in his twenties, and he spoke of Mãe Senhora with a wry reverence. Strictly-speaking—pace Marco André and the co-authors of our samba enredo—he was not in fact her filho-de-santo, that is to say, her initiate or “son-of-saint”. It was earlier, in Benin (aka Dahomey), rather than Brazil, that Verger went through the full-scale initiation into the religion of the Yoruba. But soon after he settled in Bahia, he became a frequenter of Mãe Senhora’s terreiro, along with a number of other Bahian artists and intellectuals. In due course she appointed him to one of the posts in the elaborately Yorubafied hierarchy reserved for patrons of the temple. In Verger’s case this was the role of Oju Obá, the Eye of the King (“King”, here, being an honorific term for Xangô himself). So to his Yoruba name, Fatumbi, he added the title Ojuobá.
Verger with the Brazilian novelist Jorge Amado and the Argentine-Brazilian artist Carybé
The portrait that Verger made of Mãe Senhora, swathed in bounteous starched crinolines and flowing brocades, is an arresting study in matriarchal hauteur. It is an act of homage different from any of the other pictures that he took, either of celebrities or lounging youths. And he always spoke of her—unlike many of those he knew—with respect and affection. He was not completely under her sway, however. Once, when I was driving across town with him, he pointed out to me the site of another Candomblé temple near Afonjá.
“I used to go there to make Mãe Senhora jealous,” he told me. “It was the only way I could get her to tell me her secrets.”
He resisted the influence of his mentor in another respect. Although Mãe Senhora dedicated him, as well as his house, to Xangô—that is to the patron of her own terreiro—Verger came, finally, to serve another orixá. This was Oxalá, the father of the gods (the Yoruba Òrìşàálá or Obàtálá). Oxalá eclipsed Xangô as Verger’s principal orixá (in the Candomblé phrase, his dono-da-cabeça, the “possessor of his head”). Although his house remained painted red for Xangô, Verger’s own clothing, by the time I knew him, consisted, almost invariably, of a flowing tie-dyed white African-style shirt with blue patterning. This conformed to the sartorial conventions of Candomblé iconography, where the figure of Oxalá is dressed mainly in white, and also to the customs of Verger’s adoptive city of Salvador, where, on Fridays, many of the inhabitants don white clothes in Oxalá’s honour, imparting an ethereal glimmer to the streets at dusk.
Thus the final float in Ilha’s Carnival homage to Verger, which portrayed him in cadaverous old age, had him swathed in white and silver, his thirty-foot high head surrounded by a canopy of light that turned out, when you got used to the brightness of the light, to be a representation of a giant flash bulb. Fatumbi Illuminado Encontra Oxalá, read the inscription (Fatumbi, Radiant, Comes Face-to-Face with Oxalá). In this last tableau Milton Cunha, the carnavalesco, had excelled himself. It was a vision of blinding whiteness: the photographer, the magician of light, the Eye of Xangô, caught at the point of death, passing through the lens of his own camera into the brightness of eternity. Even Verger, with his dislike of carnivalesque kitsch, would have been moved by this.
Verger’s friend and protégé, Pai Balbino Daniel de Paula in the 1970s. Photograph by Pierre Verger.
The light in the Sambadrome
In the ceremonies of Candomblé there is a percussive signature specific to each orixá. This is employed to invoke the possession trance among the adepts of that particular divinity. At a certain point in Ilha’s samba-enredo that night, as we passed through the vortex of the Sambadrome, there was a cunning alteration in the drumming of the bateria. At this point, it seemed to me, moving in the rearguard of the parade, the rhythm of the drums modulated from that of Oxalá into that of Xangô, Verger’s other orixá.
It was a year or two since I had been in a terreiro. My memory of the drums was blurred by time. Maybe I was mistaken, but in the fantastic light and noise of the Sambadrome, with a hundred drummers surrounding us, as that beat began, I felt myself transported in an instant back to Salvador, to the Saturday night drumming rituals in which candomblézeiros become possessed by dancing African gods. And as we passed through the canyon of spectators that night I saw in my mind’s eye—and felt in my limbs—the transe-en-danse that had intrigued and detained me years before in Salvador, as it had intrigued and detained Verger decades before that, when he first visited Brazil.
Candomblé beguiles the unbeliever. It is partly because no one asks the question “Do you believe?” Like most African and African-derived religions, it is system less of creeds than observances and manifestations. At its heart is a dance, a visible leap of faith, a wordless submission to possession by a deity, a religious experience so spectacular and all-absorbing that the question of belief may be considered otiose.
The Brazilian singer and composer Caetano Veloso, a native of Bahia, makes this point in a song called “Milagres do Povo” (“Miracles of the People”). The song is an evocation of the middle passage from Africa to Brazil and the reinvention of spiritual traditions by slaves in the new world. In the song he pays characteristically elegant tribute to Verger’s role as Ojuobá, the eye of Xangô–the title he had been given by Mãe Senhora—as the observer and chronicler of the cultural endurance of Afro-Brazilians.
Quem é ateu, Caetano sings, in his limpid tenor, e viu milagres como eu…
Atheists who’ve seen miracles, as I have done
Know that where God is not, the gods
Don’t disappear; they multiply.
The gods don’t give up; for the sovereign heart,
Cannot be confined by slavery,
Cannot be confined by “No”.
So much “Yes” can never be confined:
That dancing Yes
The Yes of sex
The glorious Yes
That arches across our history
Ojuobá came here—and he saw this.
Verger’s vision of black Brazil was imbued in this way with love and with learning. Both in its beginning and its end, it was a vision of an ideal. For him Salvador was the place where black people had contrived to redeem the history of slavery, wresting dignity and a degree of power out of the cruelty and humiliation of the slave trade. There is a Brazilian television documentary about Verger that includes an interview —on what turned out to be the penultimate day of his life—in which he mentions a long-time friend and former protégé of his, the pai-de-santo Balbino Daniel de Paula. Verger explains that Balbino, although he was an illiterate okra seller in the market in Salvador when they first met, showed no sense of social inferiority. And this, Verger tells the interviewer, was “because he knew he was a son of Xangô”.
For Verger the miracle of the people, the preservation of African belief systems in the new world, held out the promise of redemption, of reconciliation between black and white, between the peoples of the African diaspora and the descendants of their former masters—including exiles like himself—who were also indirect beneficiaries of their involuntary labour. The inversion of social relations in the terreiros of Salvador da Bahia extended, in his vision of things, to the entire city.
Here a reservation needs to be made. Verger’s understanding of Afro-Brazilian culture was evidently profound—and sincere—yet it could also be said to be partial. Race relations in Salvador, as the Bahian historian João José Reis pointed out in an obituary of Verger in the Folha de S. Paulo, cannot accurately be portrayed in the way Verger was wont to do, as a meeting of calm waters, the redemptive coexistence of different cultures. Despite the ubiquitous African flavour of Bahian culture, political and economic power there still rests, as it does in the rest of Brazil, with os brancos, with white elites.
Verger was by no means sentimental about human nature. He applauded, for example, what he described as the moral realism of Candomblé, with its acknowledgement of the universality of malice. But his own asceticism—and his tendency to what might be termed nostalgie de la bidonville—could blind him, on occasion, to the economic reality of the lives of the poor, black inhabitants of his adopted city.
Verger, then, lived the life of Candomblé and performed its rituals; he officiated at hundreds of Candomblé ceremonies. His life’s work was to record and celebrate the religion of the orixás. He both observed and participated in this world. In what sense, though—and to what extent—did he believe in it?
It was a question that had arisen in the mind of his first academic patron, Théodore Monod, then Director of the Institut Français d’Afrique Noire, who is quoted in The Go-Between.
“Ce n’est pas tout de même pas,” wrote Monod, “pour que Pierre Verger se convertisse au paganisme que j’ai obtenu des bourses d’étude pour lui” (I didn’t get scholarships for Pierre Verger so he could convert to paganism).
For adherents of Candomblé the question of formal belief may be beside the point, but in the western tradition, in the tradition Verger sprang from, it is hard to avoid. Had it really been, as we sang of Verger in the carnival samba, “Se entrega por inteiro…”?
Giving himself completely
He is consecrated a diviner.
The white man becomes a magician.