Axé Bahia: The Power of Art in an Afro-Brazilian Metropolis at the Fowler Museum


Axé Bahia: The Power of Art in an Afro-Brazilian Metropolis at the Fowler Museum

By Jing Cao January 30, 2018
The Fowler Museum at UCLA’s exhibition Axé Bahia: The Power of Art in an Afro-Brazilian Metropolis presents portraits of contemporary Black subjectivity from a multigenerational cohort of Brazilian artists. Centered around the majority-Black city of Salvador—the capital of the state of Bahia and the third-largest city in Brazil—the exhibition foregrounds Afro-Brazilian identity, presenting works from artists who are often excluded from narratives of Latin American or African diaspora art. Axé Bahia is part of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative to enhance the visibility of Latin American and Latinx art in California.

The exhibition opens with Goya Lopez’s site-specific installation, Afro-Bahian Senses (2016), a set of five cascading lengths of fabric whose festive colors belie motifs of shackled men and muzzled women interwoven among musical instruments and bountiful harvests. Bold, beautiful, and accessible, these screen-printed cloths represent Afro-Brazilian history and heritage. But they also run the risk of commodifying this heritage as an easily digestible souvenir for Bahia’s tourist economy.

Helen Salomão. Igbagbo (Fé) (Faith), 2015; photograph. Courtesy of Helen Salomão and the Fowler Museum at UCLA.

Caetano Dias’s arresting installation, The Ravings of Catherine (2014–2017), named after the first indigenous Brazilian woman to marry a Portuguese colonist, uses brown sugar, ox blood, and resin to cast a jumble of decapitated heads that tumble forth from an unfinished wooden table. While visually effective, Dias’s engagement with the materiality of slavery inevitably invites comparisons to Kara Walker’s A Subtlety, the Domino Sugar factory sculpture, in a U.S. context, and, perhaps less obviously, works such as Ai Weiwei’s A Ton of Tea or Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Pad Thai, all of which use fetishized materials—sugar, tea, pad thai as shorthand for racial or ethnic identities.

In contrast to Ravings of Catherine, Dias’s Janiele’s World (2007)—a washed-out video of a girl hula-hooping on a slab of a suburban neighborhood to a music-box melody as her world spins around her—offers a different window to Bahian identity. Like the portraits of Bahian women by Helemozão or the street-art stencils by Alex Igbo—two of the youngest artists in the exhibition—Janiele’s World depicts the Bahian girl as the center of her universe. As the camera rotates around her, tracing the orbital movements of her hula hoop, we see Bahia from her perspective.

Caetano Dias. O Mundo de Janiele (Janiele’s World), 2007; video; 3:58 mins. 

The curved walls of the exhibition map out chambers of interiority and exteriority. They partition the large-scale, spectacular works on the exterior walls from the more intimate objects, videos, and photographs encased within. These spiraling walls evoke the peeling away and layering on of identities that we perform, depending on who is looking, what they know of our history, and what they assume about us.

Robert Farris Thompson translates “axé” as the power to make things happen.1 Endowed with a legacy of stereotypes, caricatures, and fetishized materiality, the artists in Axé Bahia create, subvert, cannibalize, and combine a complex legacy of picturing Afro-Brazilian identity. The result is a nuanced portrayal not only of a particular community in northeast Brazil, but also of a desire to be represented not as how others see you, but as how you see yourself.

Axé Bahia: The Power of Art in an Afro-Brazilian Metropolis is on view at the Fowler Museum at UCLA in Los Angeles through April 15, 2018.


  1. Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy (New York: Random House, 1983).

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