‘tales of the orishas’ comic book tells us about the violence against afro-brazilian religions

October 25, 2017
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By Beatriz Miranda, AFROPUNK Contributor

Brazil, 1891. You are black, a daughter or son of former slaves. Probably a shoeshiner or a fruit seller, if you are a man. Most likely a housemaid, if you are a woman. You never went to school – and neither will your kids. Your culture is the most repugnant expression of barbarism. Dancing samba can get you arrested and so can your religious practices, “satanic rituals” that disrespect the Kingdom of God. At this time, “Freedom” is nothing but a word in official documents.

Brazil, 2017. Designer Hugo Canuto creates a comic book inspired by the mythology of the Orishas, gods and goddesses worshiped in Afro Brazilian religions like Candomblé and Umbanda. In “Tales of the Orishas”, these divine entities have to face the most intriguing adventures and challenges in order to fulfill their great duty: bringing peace and justice to their community.

This is one of the first time that Brazilian Orishas have been represented in a comic book. This is one of the first time Brazilian Orishas have been represented in pop culture as powerful superheroes worthy of admiration.

Planned to be released in 2018, Canuto’s project has been causing excitement among many groups. Followers of Afro Brazilian religions cannot wait to read it to their kids and supporters of Afro Brazilian culture would love to see the books in school classes. What’s more, Canuto’s initiative has been the subject of numerous articles, both in national and international news outlets.

The fact that “Tales of the Orishas” has been a frequent topic of discussion on both social media and in the news before its official release is a big deal. Actually, a huge deal: the reason people are so astonished with this comic book is because much of Brazil’s 1891 scenario still remains. The social repercussion of “Tales of the Orishas” teaches us that, when it comes to religious freedom, Brazil lives in the past.

The twenty-first century seems to have never arrived for followers of Afro Brazilian creeds. Verbal abuse, physical aggression and persecution are part of the daily life for many who adore the Orishas. The fear of violence makes many people hide who they actually are: “I used to say I was Catholic”, says Regis Lembadimungo, a personal trainer who runs a Candomblé center in Caxias, municipality in Rio’s State.

Born in Bahia, the Brazilian state with the largest number of self-declared black people outside Africa, Canuto has been curious about the Orisha culture since he was a kid, when he first read “African Legends of the Orishas”, book by French photographer and ethnologist Pierre Verger.

Aware of Brazil’s tough reality for the Afro religions, the former architect believes that “Tales of the Orishas” is a shout out of resistance that can help to deconstruct some stigmas: “Brazil is a racist country where the mainstream media builds an extremely stereotyped image of the African descendent population. “Tales of the Orishas” aims to break this mindset by presenting the Orishas as the archetypes of strength, courage, beauty and wisdom”, says Canuto, who, as a sign of respect, asked Candomblé authorities for their permission before starting the comic book.

According to data released by the Federal Bureau of Human Rights, the crime rate related to religious intolerance against Afro Brazilian creeds has grown 36.5% since 2016. Rio de Janeiro’s state recorded 32 cases of attacks in the last three months. In Bahia, 98 cases occurred in the last 4 years. São Paulo saw 27 violence acts against Afro Brazilian religious centers this year.

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – SEPTEMBER 17: Protestors dance at a rally against religious intolerance on September 17, 2017 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. A number of houses of Candomble, an Afro-Brazilian religion, have been vandalized recently in Rio state. Candomble, brought to Brazil by enslaved Africans, was once banned in the country and is still considered problematic in some religious circles. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

“We live under a veiled dictatorship that wants to annul all and every memory from our origins and heritage. It is scary that people have literally been stoning Candomblé’s practitioners in the 21st century”, says Gleide Cambria, choreographer whose grandmother runs one of the oldest Candomblé centers in the South of Bahia.

If intolerance against these religions has been frighteningly increasing, this has a lot to do with the growing influence of Pentecostal and Neo-Pentecostal churches in Brazil, some would say. Not only have churches been sprouting in every single corner of the country (including in former slave refugees and indigenous villages), but many pastors have been taking over in Brazil’s legislative and executive powers, like Rio’s new mayor Marcelo Crivella, a bishop who has already published a book that calls African religions’ gods “filthy spirits”.

Because of the emerging “Pentecostal wave”, some Babalorixás, Yalorixás and Yaôs (the male authority of Candomblé, the female authority and the practitioners, respectively) are being threatened (including death threats) by the “evangelized drug trafficking”, which consists of drug gangs that adhere to a fundamentalist interpretation of the Holy Bible. On YouTube, it is not hard to find videos where Babalorixás and Yalorixás are forced to break all of the sacred objects in their centers.

Recently, authorities from Afro Brazilian religions started the campaign “Liberte Nosso Sagrado” (Set Our Sacred Free) in Rio de Janeiro. The movement wants the return of sacred objects from Afro Brazilian rituals that have been confiscated by Rio’s Police since 1889. Yes: since 1889, when Brazil’s criminal code prohibited all expressions of Afro Brazilian culture, like capoeira and samba. Only a few months ago, the objects continued to be showcased in the Police Museum as “black magic”.

I wish I could say that Brazil’s 1891 scenario is only a stinky memory. That, now, Brazil is a laic State where the abominable atrocities from slavery are over. But, in my country, blacks are still “ugly monkeys”, Candomblé authorities are “the Devil’s servants” and the Afro Brazilian culture is “way too vulgar”.

“Why is our culture so condemned and the Western culture so adored? Why is Thor a hero and Xango (Orisha of Justice) a devil? Why is it easier to find a comic book inspired by the Nordic mythology than by the Yoruba myths?”, reflected Canuto during “Tales of the Orishas” creative process. There was never such a thing as “religious freedom” for Afro Brazilians – mainstream institutions and ruling groups would never really allow it. In Brazil, belonging to Candomblé or Umbanda still means to be imprisoned by a discourse of violence.

In a society where Orisha is tabu, no wonder why portraying them positively is such a big deal. Thus, Canuto’s comic book plays the noblest role of art: by inviting people to experience the Afro Brazilian world through a different perspective, it works as an agent of criticism and transformation. “This work aims to show that all these stories are part of who we are. Brazil’s pillars are based on this millennial culture that came with our African ancestors”, concludes Canuto.