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Brazilian Art At Lyman Allyn Reflects A Rebellion Against Slavery

In all the years of the slave trade, about half a million kidnapped Africans were taken to the United States and enslaved.

In Brazil, about 5 million enslaved Africans were put to work on sugarcane, coffee, cotton and tobacco plantations owned by Portuguese immigrants, who eliminated the indigenous people via disease and violence.

The vast gulf between the few haves and multitudes of have-nots gave rise to a culture in which bandits who "stuck it to The Man" were glorified as heroes, elevated to near sainthood and praised in poems, songs and artworks.

An exhibit at Lyman Allyn Art Museum — on loan from National Endowment for the Humanities — focuses on art created by people of northeastern Brazil ("nordestinos") reflecting this reverence for resistance and rebellion, and which explain how African traditional faiths melded with Portuguese Christianity to create a unique religious landscape.

Anastácia is an example of both of these tendencies. The beautiful slave woman rebelled against her owners so frequently that she was punished by being forced to wear a muzzle. She is now revered as a saint in Brazil, if not officially by the Catholic church. Images of Anastácia are ubiquitous in Brazil, always wearing that muzzle.

Zumbi ruled a huge settlement of runaway slaves who defended themselves against the Portuguese with capoeira, a form of martial arts. Zumbi was captured and beheaded in 1695 and is now a national hero in Brazil. So are the bandit Lampião, who was a devout Catholic even as he rampaged through the countryside, and his consort, Maria Bonita.

Antônio Conselheiro, who was arrested by the Catholic authorities for preaching to oppressed people without permission, later founded a movement that was revered by those same oppressed people. The image of the long-haired, wild-eyed religious leader is seen frequently in Brazilian folk art.

The Lyman Allyn exhibit pays special attention to Candomblé, a religion that originated in the early 19th century, a mash-up of traditional African Yoruba, Fon and Bantu beliefs with Roman Catholicism. Candomblé's orixas, or lesser deities, represent elements such as the sea, the hunt, the moon, rainbows and medicine, and have corresponding saints and prophets in the Catholic tradition.

BANDITS & HEROES, POETS & SAINTS: POPULAR ART OF THE NORTHEAST OF BRAZIL is at Lyman Allyn Art Museum, 625 Williams St. in New London, until Oct. 20. lymanallyn.org.

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