Pierre Verger and the construction of Candomblé Nagô's "purity"
Heather Shirey (University of St. Thomas)
Paper short abstract:
The Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé was repressed in the early 20th century; a shift occurred in the 1940s, when scholars and Candomblé leaders emphasized connections to West African traditions. Pierre Verger’s photographs participated in the construction an image of Candomblé as a “pure” African religion.
Paper long abstract:
Following his arrival in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil in 1946, Pierre Verger produced thousands of photographs relating to Candomblé, including intimate portraits, seemingly spontaneous photographs of key ritual moments, and images of the religion's material culture. Two years after his arrival in Bahia, Verger embarked on a series of trips to West Africa, intending to capture evidence of enduring links between the two continents. In the resulting publications, Verger juxtaposed photographs from West Africa and Bahia as evidence of formal connections between Yoruba traditions and the particular 'nation' of Candomblé known as Nagô. Today, scholars from across the disciplines examine the transformation of Candomblé Nagô: while it was marginalized and even repressed in the early twentieth century, it has evolved into a recognized religion believed to have maintained strong connections to West Africa over space and time. A growing body of scholarship examines the pivotal role of scholars (Bastide, Carneiro, Landes, Herskovits) and leaders of the elite Candomblé communities in the construction of of Candomblé Nagô. Complementing this literature with a critical analysis of Verger's photographs and methods, I argue that Verger created a canonical visual representation of Candomblé Nagô, codifying a persistent image of its relationship to Yoruba traditions.
Constructing and Contesting Imaginaries: Anthropology, Photography, and the Histories of Durable Visual Tropes