This essay is adapted from “Objects of Possession: Photography, Spirits, and the Entangled Arts of Appearance,” in Sensational Religion: Sensory Cultures in Material Practice, edited by Sally Promey (Yale University Press, 2014).


The intersection of photographic documentation and possession by spirits may appear an arcane and obscure convergence. When we examine a widely publicized 1871 trial of an Afro-Brazilian sorcerer in Rio de Janeiro, though, it becomes difficult to avoid the conjunction of this unlikely duo.

In the late nineteenth century, Spiritism, a French movement concerned with the existence of spirits and their relation to human beings, had captivated the Brazilian public imagination: it offered the promise of Afro-Brazilian spirit-possession practices with none of the social liabilities; to the contrary, even if it was not quite respectable, it was thoroughly French, cosmopolitan, and à la mode. Spiritism, alongside titillating reports of Afro-Brazilian feitiçeiros and curandeiros (healers), were everyday topics of newspaper pages as Brazil labored to define the proper limits of religion in the public sphere of the emerging republic. At the same time, many Brazilians debated the question of whether Afro-Brazilians, slaves and former slaves, could become full citizens—accountable, contract worthy, rational, and autonomous, but also sufficiently loyal to the nation that had once enchained them. The expansion of photography, then, was coeval not only with the arrival and expansion of Spiritism in Brazil but also with the gradual emancipation of slaves from 1850 through 1888.

Afro-Brazilians, slave and free alike, were understood as uniquely gifted in the arts of possession and, because also potentially subversive, uniquely in need of interpretation. There were state interests at stake in learning to read possession, in seeing and reforming the secret forces that lay under the skin, and, toward that end, in that inner life’s anthropological documentation. Afro-Brazilians, in the age of gradual emancipation, would require strategic assimilation, containment, or marginalization—and, in any case, expanding police and medical surveillance. What role would photographs play? Would photographic documentation of inner life indicate the sameness and equality of Afro-Brazilians, loyal citizens in the making, or catalog their essential difference as an irredeemable and politically dangerous other, an other occupied by foreign powers? The new truth-telling machine, joined to the emergent social sciences of anthropology and criminology, offered the promise of rendering internal states, mental capacities, even religious sentiments, in visual form.

To set a broad-brush historical frame: in Brazil, emancipation was a long, drawn-out process. While slave shipping was officially illegal after 1836, at least para inglês ver (for the English to see), it continued with only partial disruption from the British navy until 1850. After 1850, the shipment of African slaves mostly ceased, but the institution of slavery and the internal trade in slaves continued, a great migration from the northeastern sugar zones of Bahia and Pernambuco to the burgeoning coffee plantations in the southeastern states of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Slaves who fought in the war against Paraguay from 1865 to 1870 were offered their liberty, but the old institution’s grip began to be loosened only with the 1871 “Law of the Free Womb,” though the law was already hotly debated by 1868. Full emancipation was decreed with the “Golden Law” of 1888. The first of these laws bestowed freedom on the newly born; the second abolished slavery completely. At the precise moment when the Law of the Free Womb was being debated, and then passed, the most notorious nineteenth-century case of illegal fetishism was being tried in Brazil’s capital, Rio de Janeiro.


Here was a subversive “social adventurer,” as he was called, taking over the national body by sabotaging its rational direction and assuming its controls from within, during a period of rupture, the crisis of emancipation.


The case of José Sebastião Rosa, known as Juca Rosa, has been masterfully documented by Gabriela dos Reis Sampaio, and I follow her work closely here, adding notes from my own reading of the archive.[1] First the bare bones: Juca Rosa was born of an African mother in 1834, father unknown. In his early adult years he earned a living as a tailor and a coachman. By the 1860s he had acquired a following as a possession priest of remarkable skill. In 1870 Rosa was anonymously denounced and then, following an investigation and trial, sentenced to six years of prison and hard labor. For a full year prior to his sentencing, the story of the celebrity feitiçeiro was front-page news. The mere name Juca Rosa was a fulcrum for gossip about Afro-Brazilian religions and their place in the emerging nation. Central to the Juca Rosa “event” were issues of class, sex, and race, conjoined most dramatically in accusations of José’s deflowering of several white women and his marriage to a Portuguese senhora. Also present were issues of religion and national identity. Especially noted was Rosa’s “theft” of Catholicism—the fact that he performed baptisms and marriages and used Catholic saints in an African possession religion, taking control of the look of the saints but then insidiously transforming them from within.[2]

That Rosa was routinely possessed by foreign spirits was also a subject of particular concern. As one newspaper article put it, “The sorcerer says he is inspired by an invisible power that is not God, nor any saint known to us.”[3] Another public prosecutor, Antonio de Paula Ramos, summarized the matter as follows: that the defendant presented himself as master of supernatural powers; that, dressed in a “special manner” before the altar of Our Lady of the Conception, he celebrated crude ceremonies and claimed to be inspired and infallible by virtue of this illuminated state—with “saint in the head”—and that, as a result of this special status, he received money and presents. Through claims of spirit knowledge, he “deceived [the] uncultivated, weak and superstitious spirits [of his followers].”[4]

A key part of the accusation, whether under the antiquated legal terms of sorcery or the new ones of fraud, rested on the issue of possession, the moment when Rosa donned a special outfit, assumed a new persona—“saint in the head”—and spoke in a supernatural voice and authority with which he deprived weaker spirits of their rational judgment and autonomy, whether in matters of goods or love. Here was a subversive “social adventurer,” as he was called, taking over the national body by sabotaging its rational direction and assuming its controls from within, during a period of rupture, the crisis of emancipation.

Juca Rosa’s case is unique in the legal files of the period by virtue of its inclusion of a small-sized photograph of the accused, found by the police in the home of one of his followers, and the use of the photograph in the process of acquiring depositions from witnesses.[5]

What can we observe about the photograph? Its material form is that of the carte de visite, the small portrait produced in sets of eight per photo plate and popularized in the late 1860s. The distribution of such photo-cards would have been affordable for someone of Rosa’s resources given his wide network of clients, at least some of whom were wealthy, though the bourgeois pastime of exchanging such cards must have been somewhat unusual for Afro-Brazilians. More surprising than the mere fact of Rosa’s use of photo-cards is the pose he elected to depict and crafted with care. Most cartes de visite exchanged in Brazil offered sober portraits of the subject, almost always alone, in noble dress, and posed against one of several standard backdrops available in the many portrait studios. Portraits of slaves taken during the period had no poses or bucolic settings; rather, they were photographed in documentary, “anthropological” style, in plain unadorned garb and wielding the tools of their labor. Rosa’s photograph, by contrast, portrays him and a companion standing on a proscenium painted with flowers, set against a bare white background, creating a space that is unusually open. The open space is filled by what can only be called a ritual situation or its imitation. A follower, João Maria da Conceição, kneels before Rosa on the proscenium—perhaps in homage, deference, or supplication or to graphically present a ritual hierarchy—and points toward him with a staff. Sampaio finds it likely that the staff was a drumstick called a macumba, as was the drum it struck to call down the gods in ritual events.[6]


The image of Juca Rosa, digitally enhanced and reproduced in Gabriela dos Reis Sampaio, Juca Rosa: Um pai-de-santo na Corte Imperial (Rio de Janeiro: Arquivo Nacional, 2009), 188.
The image of Juca Rosa, digitally enhanced and reproduced in Gabriela dos Reis Sampaio, Juca Rosa: Um pai-de-santo na Corte Imperial (Rio de Janeiro: Arquivo Nacional, 2009), 188.


And yet, despite the action conveyed by the photo, it is silent in its “fact making.”[7] We know that Juca’s clients possessed this photograph and that Rosa also had photos of all his clients. Their uses remain opaque to us. Still, the threats reported by one Leopoldina in her deposition hint that holding images of persons may have been a means of ritually controlling them. On this score, writes Mattjis van de Port, “The ‘photographic real’ was picked up in religious-magical practices, where it came to substitute [for] the body.”[8] Photographs were even used in place of wooden body parts as ex-votos left in churches testifying to the occurrence of miraculous healings.[9] In that spirit, Rosa may have used carte de visite photographs of his devotees as proxies for their bodies. By ritually acting on a photograph for harm or benefit, he would affect the person pictured as well; several depositions state that Rosa admitted as much. Juca Rosa’s photograph may also have served as a bodily proxy that extended his presence and power into clients’ and devotees’ homes.

The photograph held a quite different meaning for the police, as a testament to the performance of illegitimate ritual and potentially illegal practices. For the police investigation and then in the trial, the photo served as visual evidence of Rosa’s possessions, the fact that he ritually engaged African spirits on behalf of clients from whom he then profited, with the issue of profit being key to the accusation of charlatanism.


Rosa never confessed. In his second interrogation, when asked about the special garments, he negated their ritual use.


The investigator and then the public prosecutor seem to have been little interested in the songs that were sung during the rituals, for example, or the foods that were prepared and offered to the saints. No descriptions of drums or icons or food entered the record. Rather, the investigation was resolutely focused on the question of Juca’s posturing as one wielding spirits and able to exact undue fealty from his followers based on that power. Interrogations of Rosa’s ritual family, moreover, emphasized the photograph as well. If the photograph helped to produce new modes of sociality and religious experience, its material form also neatly fit the procedures of “police work” as that bureaucratic system was coming into being.[10] The object’s flat shape and flexible paper construction made it a congenial fit for the hand in interrogations and for the flat, rectangular shape of “the legal file” in the long term.

This quality of the image-thing’s material “fit” in the court file is what still today allows me access to the photograph, unlike anything else that may have been confiscated during Rosa’s arrest. Thus there was a symbiosis between the photo and the surrounding text in terms of filing systems and bureaucratic institutions, two emerging technologies of the nation-state in 1871. The attraction of the photograph—not just as a revelatory thing but also as an archival thing, an evidentiary thing, a neat, compact, and clearly bounded thing—was at least part of what led authorities to focus on it in the case. But what, exactly, did it give evidence of?

At a specific moment in ritual gatherings in the home of one of his devotees (Henriqueta Maria de Mello), Rosa would retreat to a separate chamber in the company of a woman named Ereciana in order to change to his special attire of blue corduroy and silver fringe. Upon reemerging, he was transformed into a powerful authority named Father (Pai) Quimbombo; he would then fall to the floor and be “taken” (tomado) by a range of additional spirits—among them “Santo Zuza” and “Pai Vencedor.”[11] The photograph depicting Rosa wearing the vestments of possession provided the evidence, and it was used to cue verbal depositions by witnesses confirming what transpired. Key to the investigation were descriptions of the process of Rosa’s transformation from rational individual into a person possessed, wearing the garments that appear in the photograph.

Rosa never confessed. In his second interrogation, when asked about the special garments, he negated their ritual use. He claimed that they were a Carnaval costume (“mandou fazer essas vestimentas e as possuía para usar pelo Carnaval”). When asked to explain his possession of the photographs of many of his followers, he insisted it was just for play or a joke (chalaça). And of course, there were no “live” photographs of Rosa in the state most in question, that of being possessed.[12]

Before photographs of live ritual action in photojournalistic style, which emerged in the interwar period circa 1930, something as abstract as spirit possession could be read only from its external visual cues and their narration.[13] Without such an image, inspectors and prosecutors used Juca Rosa’s portrait to try to discern the look of possession—evidence of one who works with a “saint in the head” (santo na cabeça). They found all the requisite parts of the accusatory narrative: “African” garments, primitive acts (indexed by bare feet), the tools for a drumming ceremony, unwarranted social hierarchy, hidden powers (associated with the mysterious sack hanging from Rosa’s belt), and inexplicable Afro-Brazilian self-aggrandizement. Rosa had, after all, gone to a studio and carefully staged this portrait. Who did he think he was?

Why did Juca Rosa have the portrait made? One reason was likely for the solidification of his authority and the extension of his priestly presence. Other additional uses seem likely, especially in view of the small pouch Rosa hung from his belt as a symbol and source of material power. Sampaio points out the similarity to Central African nkisi (a spirit or the object that a spirit inhabits). I think this is not too farfetched given that most enslaved Africans in Rio were taken from that region; Rosa’s mother at least was very likely of Kongo ethnicity, especially given that the name Rosa adopted when possessed, Quimbombo, also suggests a Central African origin.[14] This possible nkisi might change how we think about Rosa’s photos, both the ones he distributed and the ones he collected. A photograph of someone could be used against him or her via contagious magic, much as could a hair clipping, a piece of clothing, or the person’s signature or written name. This is why Rosa had photos of his devotees and clients. Images, understood to contain something of the person they represent, could be used to exert power over someone, for good or ill. Photographs were religious tools that cut in at least two ways: they circulated a public persona, anchored memory, and solidified reputation and pedigree, but they were, and are, also ambiguous, dangerous things that had lives of their own and could be turned against the person so pictured.[15]

Juca Rosa’s contentions that photographic portraits manifest and transmit power were correct, if not necessarily for the reasons given. Wittgenstein’s notes on Frazer’s Golden Bough remind us that it is not necessary to resort to “magical” explanations for the power of photographs, since actions we take toward them contain their own satisfaction—burning, kissing, arranging, or hanging photos creates an experience of emancipation, intimacy, or order.[16] This must have been so for Rosa’s followers, who felt his presence near in his image. Photos circulate beyond the scenes of their making, granting them unintended powers. They make secret things potentially public, and their circulation cannot be easily managed.

For practitioners of subaltern religions, there is a history of the threat posed by photography. For at least a century in Brazil, roughly from 1871 to the 1970s, photographs could be and were used as evidence in police cases against sorcery and, later, fraud. That memory persists in spite of Candomblé’s recent popular acclaim and transformation into national “patrimony.”[17] Photographs were strictly forbidden during my initiation into Candomblé, for example, and photographs of states of possession were always forbidden. That does not mean that photos were completely banned. To the contrary, by 1890 stately portraits of temple founders graced the walls of ritual spaces as indexes of axé (transforming power) in the sense of the authority created by proper lineage, and also as advertisements of a given house’s prestige.


“What does my body know of Photography?,” Barthes began his reflection on the splintering of his person into its images, each of which seemed to “freeze” and carry off a part of him into arcs of actions out of his control.


The Juca Rosa photograph, likewise, was not just a document of past events, it was a vital actor in everything that transpired in the case. It was repeatedly animated by various frames of speech and action. One might even suggest, expanding further, that technologies of recording possession and playing it back to its actors, extending spirits’ possible reach through secondary semiosis, began to play an important role in constituting what it means to “be possessed” in the age of mechanical reproduction. This was certainly true of Spiritism. Allan Kardec, considered the founder of Spiritism, despite his misgivings about the premature promotion of spirit photography as evidence, incorporated photographic terms into his depictions of the appearance of spirits as “an image daguerreotyped on the brain” (in Le Livre des Mediums [1861]). Or, as he wrote in La Genèse (1868), “As thought creates fluidic images, it is reflected in the perispital envelope as in a mirror; it is embodied and in a sense photographs itself there.”[18]

In fact, spirits have never appeared but through techne of their unconcealing, whether bodies, cameras, or computers, and the manifesting materials are always changing, producing spirit possession differently over time. Michel Leiris, writing about the moment in which he took his possession photograph in 1931, describes the subject as a poseur speaking with a “voice like a phonograph.”[19] But was he a poser before the Frenchman pointed his camera at him, or did his spirits begin to “pose” and speak like a phonograph when Leiris appeared carrying gear that would register and reproduce his spirits far from where they were first performed, extending his power to act across time and space almost infinitely?[20] Leiris recorded another moment when the magnesium flash of his colleague Marcel Griaule caused a spirit to appear in response to the apparent military danger.[21]

The spirits and the Holy Spirit are now rendered present and interpolated through the conventions of the photographic view, a process that began in the time of Juca Rosa. These technological mediations of spirits do not diminish their religious significance, but they change it. Recently the anthropologist Katherine Hagedorn explored how Afro-Cubans performing in folkloric shows or documentary films requiring faked Santería rituals are often really possessed by the gods as they attempt to mimic their bodily movements.[22] Hagedorn is interested in how these stagings are infiltrated by the real, but it would seem that we could invert this to explore how “real” possession is increasingly infiltrated by media to become spectacular performance. Barthes’s term “spectrum,” combining spectacle and the return of the dead, as spectre, is fitting.

“What does my body know of Photography?,” Barthes began his reflection on the splintering of his person into its images, each of which seemed to “freeze” and carry off a part of him into arcs of actions out of his control. His body no longer seemed to be quite his own, and it was not. He was, in part, a zombi—his body and its work become the captured property of other masters. Possession priests know this better than anyone, for their bodies are never solely “their own.” The experience of losing ownership of one’s body in both photography and spirit possession presents a symmetry and, at least sometimes, a symbiosis. Through the study of a photograph confiscated in 1871, I have tried to show that photography had dramatic effects on the making and regulation of a certain set of possession practices. Obviously, police, priests, tourists, ethnographers, and others came to know and regard possession differently through the agency of photographs. But, even more, photography and the photographic look of being possessed infiltrated religious practice itself as its meanings were increasingly experienced as if it were seen photographically and verbally narrated in photographic terms. Just as early photography was touched by the traces of spirits, spirit possessions were now summoned by flashbulb explosions, and carefully staged portraits on a proscenium . Possession occurred using photographic techniques that enabled the gods to appear.

If Juca Rosa’s body was confined, its portrait guarded a life of its own. It laid low for more than a century, but now it is going wild:[23] it hails me from a snug berth between old yellowed pages. Seeing an opening, it leaps out and runs, and now the drums are rising. With a single look back from under his silver-fringed cap, Pai Quimbombo burns the case file to dust and heads off to find new stages on which to appear—and act.

Paul Christopher Johnson is an anthropologist and historian of religions who works on Brazil and the Caribbean, and the ideas of “religion” that emerged from those regions. Professor in History, the Department of African and Afroamerican Studies, and the Doctoral Program in Anthropology and History, he is also incoming co-editor of the interdisciplinary journal Comparative Studies in Society and History. Johnson is author of Secrets, Gossip and Gods: The Transformation of Brazilian Candomblé (Oxford 2002), and Diaspora Conversions: Black Carib Religion and the Recovery of Africa (California 2007); and editor of the volume, Spirited Things: The Work of “Possession” in Afro-Atlantic Religions (Chicago 2014), as well as many chapters and journal articles. Currently he is at work on a new book entitled, Automatic: The Mechanization of Religion in Brazil and France, 1870-1940.


[1] Gabriela dos Reis Sampaio, Juca Rosa: Um pai-de-santo na Corte Imperial (Rio de Janeiro: Prêmio Arquivo Nacional, 2007).

[2] Here is an example of the accusation of the “theft” of Catholicism: the lead inspector, Miguel José Tavares, wrote in the opening pages of the case file, “The audacity and perversity of these criminals goes to the point of involving our Holy Religion in its infamous practices, succeeding in substituting it with the most crude and abject superstition” (“A audacia e perversidade d’estes crimiosos chega ao ponto de involver a nossa Santa Religião em suas practices infames, consequindo substituila pela mais grosseira e abjecta superstição”). And, a few pages further on, “Rosa dares to make use of the images and names of the saints of the Catholic Church, in order to take advantage of even the religiosity of his victims, which he transforms into the crudest and vilest superstition” (“Rosa atreve-se a servir-se de imagens e do nome de Santos da Igreja Catholica, afim de aproveitar-se até da religiosidade de suas victimas . . . religiosidade que elle transforma na mais grosseira e vil superstição”).

Not incidental in these discourses is the debate over what constitutes “religion.” We might say it was being worked out in these documents. The defense lawyer, Fillipe Jansen de Castro Albuquerque Junior, rejected the notion that Rosa was guilty based on a what he called a specious opposition between “sorcery” and “religion”: “This fame, this power, these wonders, when tolerated and not suppressed by the police, repeated over many years, will elevate these ‘sorceries’ to a ‘belief ’ or ‘religion.’”

[3] “O feiticeiro . . . para tudo tem poder, porque o seu santo tudo sabe, tudo ouve e tudo conta. . . . O feiticeiro diz-se inspirado por um poder invisível que não é Deus, nem santo do nosso conhecimento.” Diário de notícias, October 2, 1870. In Sampaio, Juca Rosa, 40.

[4] One of these “weak spirits” was Leopoldina Fernandes Cabral, who told Tavares that even when she wanted to break free from Rosa’s influence, she could not because he had threatened her, “telling her that if she does (leave), he, with the spirit that he ruled for good as for harm, would disgrace her and make her end up at Mercy Hospital.” Sampaio, Juca Rosa, 99.

[5] Despite the ample photographic documentation in João Reis’s magisterial 2008 work on the ladino African priest in Bahia, Domingos Sodré, no comparable sort of incriminating photograph—a photograph used in the forensic process of unraveling secret ritual procedures—is present, nor am I aware of any other comparable photograph. João José Reis, Domingos Sodré,um sacerdote Africano: Escravidão, liberdade e candomblé na Bahia do século XIX (São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2008).

[6] Sampaio, Juca Rosa,185-9.

[7] “Silences . . . enter the process of historical production at . . . the moment of fact making (the making of the sources),” not to mention in their assembly in an archive, their retrieval, and their narration. In Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), 26.

[8] Van de Port, Ecstatic Encounters, 87.

[9] Martins, in ibid., 85.

[10] Holloway finds that Afro-Brazilian religions were rarely directly policed in Rio during the nineteenth century except when they intruded on “what the white elite considered a necessary level of social peace and public calm.” Thomas H. Holloway, “‘A Healthy Terror’: Police Repression of Capoeiras in Nineteenth-Century Rio de Janeiro,” Hispanic American Historical Review 69, no. 4 (1989): 645. I would argue that the Juca Rosa case marked the beginning of the problematizing of Afro-Brazilian religions as emancipation neared and those religions would become part of “national” life.

[11] Sampaio, Juca Rosa, 186.

[12] Even two decades later, when Nina Rodrigues, the psychiatrist and first “anthropologist” of Afro-Brazilian religions, brought one young woman into his office during the 1890s and, first inducing hypnosis, caused her to be possessed by a god, there is no photographic record. Given the effort he made to control and document trance states, he almost certainly would have photographed her if he could have, but his documents are accompanied only by stills of statues and ritual implements.

Photographs of trance in ritual action began to be taken after 1930, enabled by higher-speed film, new repeating cameras made by Leica and Rolleiflex, and the flashbulb, a set of advances that generated the birth of “photojournalism.” See Lisa Earl Castillo, “Icons of Memory: Photography and Its Uses in Bahian Candomblé,” Stockholm Review of Latin American Studies 4 (2009): 17. To my knowledge, the first spontaneous photograph of spirit possession occurring in ritual action was published in the ethnographic of Michel Leiris. The photograph was taken in Ethiopia on September 27, 1932, and published in L’Afrique fantôme. Michel Leiris, L’Afrique fantôme (Paris: Gallimard, 1981 [1934], 388, plate 26.

[13] The problem, as Juca’s defense attorney pointed out, was that the police investigation and initial denunciation were all carried out within an antiquated legal framework, namely the Portuguese Filipino Code. Thus the issue of feitiçaria was foregrounded, though it was harnessed to nineteenth-century ideas about social contagion. The modern and “Brazilian” category was fraud (estelionato), hinging on the fact of profiting from the business. The judge agreed with the defense’s argument that feitiçaria was an invalid legal category; nevertheless, he condemned Juca for the full term, based on the fact of his being a “true fraud.” What is the role of the photograph here? Among other things, it serves as a hinge or shifter from the earlier Filipino code outlawing working with spirits to the modern Brazilian Criminal Code outlawing pretending to work with spirits for monetary gain. The new crime was not possession but rather fraud, acting possessed.

[14] From kingombo, the Kimbundu term for okra. The word also appears in Cuba, as quimbombó. See Stephan Palmié, The Cooking of History: How Not to Study Afro-Cuban Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 307-8..

[15] As the culture studies scholar of Brazil Lisa Earl Castillo suggests, the role of photographs is conflicted even in present-day Afro-Brazilian religion. Contemporary participants in Candomblé often seem to understand photographs to not merely represent or copy their subject but to retain the person’s substance. On this score, Castillo cites Barthes, Camera Lucida, on the idea of the photograph as Spectrum, a spectacle that not only recalls but also reconjures the dead. Castillo, “Icons of Memory.”

[16] “To burn an effigy. To kiss the picture of the beloved. This is naturally not based upon a belief in a certain effect on the object which the picture represents. It aims at a satisfaction and also obtains it. Or rather it aims at nothing at all; we act in such a way and then feel satisfied.” Wittgenstein’s comments on Frazer are recounted and analyzed in Stanley J. Tambiah, Magic, Science, Religion, and the Scope of Rationality (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 59.

[17] Candomblé is an Afro-Brazilian tradition assembled from the words, practices and material techniques devoted to cultivating human relationships with powers called orixás, voduns and inquices (nkisi). These repertories were brought to Brazil by enslaved West Africans and Central West Africans of diverse ethnicities, from the 16th to 19th centuries. It took on a relatively unified institutional structure marking it as a distinct “religion” beginning in the early 1800s, and was accorded national legitimacy and protection in Brazil only in the second half of the 20th century.

[18] Both citations appear in Chéroux, The Perfect Medium, 48.

[19] In L’Afrique fantôme, 499.

[20] Compare Barthes: “Once I feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes: I constitute myself in the process of ‘posing,’ I instantaneously make another body for myself.” In Camera Lucida, 10.

[21] Michel Leiris, La possession et ses aspects théâtraux chez les Éthiopiens de Gondar (Paris: Librairie Plon, 1958), 64.

[22] Katherine J. Hagedorn, Divine Utterances: The Performance of Afro-Cuban Santería (Washington, DC: Smithsonian, 2001), 11.

[23] I take the phrase “going wild” in this sense from Birgit Meyer, who writes of Protestants in Ghana who understand portraits of Jesus as possessing the possibility of “going wild” as hidden spirits use the eyes of the painting, even ones of Jesus, as tools for looking at and acting on humans. Meyer, “‘There Is a Spirit in That Image’: Mass-Produced Jesus Pictures and Protestant–Pentecostal Animation in Ghana,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 52, no. 1 (2010): 100-30.

Image from Flickr via Christian Haugen

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