BrazilCultureSex & Gender

nivia luz, the future of brazil’s spiritual leadership

May 24, 2019
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By Guilherme Soares Dias, AFROPUNK contributor


Ialorixá is a priestess and head of a terreiro of Candomblé Ketu, popularly denominated as a “mãe de santo” (mother of a saint). When Mother Stella Oxossi, 93 years old and one of the most important of the Ialorixá from Salvador, died in December of 2018, a vacuum opened up in the representation of Brazil’s African-born religions. After all, Mother Oxossi was one of the most respected and oldest women at the post. The choice of substitutes generally follows family lineage, but is usually made through a game of shells, a following of the orders of the orixás, the gods of religion.

This is how, in 2015, Nivia Luz was chosen to replace her grandmother, Mother “Santinha de Oyá”, at Salvador’s Terreiro Ilè Asè Oyá. At the time, Luiz was only 32 years old. Nowadays she has begun to emerge as one of the modernizing voices of a religion anchored in ancestry. Hers is a mix of ancestral wisdom with hints of youth and Black power.

Nivia is also a specialist in tourism, studying for a masters degree in a Federal University of Bahia, who enjoys traveling, and using social media. She is a feminist, pro-LGBTQ+ activist and one of the voices in the fight against racism and religious intolerance, because as Brazil is the country of contradictions, the religions with African origins are strongly stigmatized.

“As part of my master’s degree, I study the relationship between the state and the African-matrix religions, from persecution to exaltation. The persecution is because of the period where the terreiros were banned; at the same time, the exaltation happened when there was a turnaround, and the culture of tourism emerged and became an object of commerce, and cultural appropriation,” says Nivia.

The terreiro is the temple of candomble and a house of many cultural manifestations linked to Afro-Brazilian culture. The particular one that Mother Nivia runs, is a multicultural space and headquarters of the Afro Bloco “Cortejo Afro,” led by her uncle, the plastics artist Alberto Pitta. This means that during  Carnaval, Mãe Nivia can be seen sitting in her chair on top of float, waving to the revelers. And believe, that chair really does belong to her. This year, the bloco honored Oxalá, the greatest of the orixás.

“We’re on the streets because this is a political act,” she says. “You are in a contradictory city, where as much as we are the majority, they want to treat us as a minority. And the carnival, for me, is a time to represent the Blacks as they deserve to be represented.”

Besides, the terreiro located in the Pirajá neighborhood, on the outskirts of Salvador, is home to the Oyá Institute, a center for art, culture, and leisure that features about 100 artists participating in percussion, theater, dance, as well as workshops on the use of technology. Nivia strongly believes that technologies should be used as allies of African-born religions. “You have to be careful, but it’s excellent when you use social media as a complaint. It shows the reality of a house of afoxé and deconstructs this perverse image that the other religions have projected on us, ” says Nivia, expressing her worries regarding the prejudice to afro religions.

Before taking that important job of Ialorixá, Nivia had gone on a trip through Thailand, where she was impressed with how local Buddhism brought tradition and modernity together. “I have understood candomblé in this way too, like a philosophy. After all, I am not an Ialalorixá only when I am inside that terreiro, I am Ialalorixá 24 hours a day. That’s a philosophy, That’s my way of life, ” she says proudly.

In this way, diversity matches the religion, because when people talk about tradition and modernity, it is to keep what we have learned — the ancestry, the inheritance of the Orixás — but in line with our contemporary circumstances. We are talking about feminism, homophobic, chauvinist, thinking about these relationships inside the terreiro and in our social relations.

Faced with Brazil’s current conservative government and the attacks suffered by these religions in Brazil, Nivia defends the necessity of thinking about forms of defense. “You do not have to get to the attack, but you need strategies to think about those structures that are no longer elaborate. When someone throws at  me a stone, I can not consider it as intolerance, I characterize it as terrorism, as a very serious degree of violence,” she added.

Nivia shows us that the struggle against religious intolerance must be taken out of the terreiros, and that ancestry is a powerful knowledge that can guide the Black community to a future of freedom and social justice.