African and Afro-Brazilian ethnology, Brazil National Museum (Digital Restoration)

The collection of African and Afro-Brazilian ethnologyof the National Museum was made up of approximately 700 objects. It encompassed both specimens produced by people from different regions of the African continent and testimonies of the cultural manifestations of the descendants of African peoples in Brazil. The nucleus of African objects was mostly constituted between 1810 and 1940, referring in its origin to the collections of the Portuguese and Brazilian royal families, later enriched by other legacies, purchases and transfers. The Afro-Brazilian collection, in turn, was formed between 1880 and 1950, from a core of objects transferred from the deposits of local police forces (responsible for confiscating them, when the practice of candomblé was prohibited in Rio de Janeiro), to which was added the important collection of Heloísa Alberto Torres, consisting of items purchased from the most important Candomblé terreiros in the Recôncavo Baiano throughout the 1940s.

The core of African ethnology encompasses, for the most part, pieces produced in the 19th century by African peoples on the west coast, encompassing both ethnic groups that had no contact with Brazil and others historically related to the African diaspora in that country. It includes artifacts for everyday use (props and braids), ritual objects (masks and statuettes), musical instruments (flutes, rattles, drums, lamellophones), hunting and war weapons, etc., in addition to pieces that stand out for their historical value or for the context in which they were acquired – such as the set of gifts offered to Prince-Regent Dom João VI by King Adandozan, from the former Kingdom of Dahomey (now Benin), between 1810 and 1811, which formed part of the inaugural collection of the National Museum. The centerpiece of the ensemble is Daomé’s throne, probably dated from the 18th to the 19th century, a replica of the royal seat of Kpengla, Adandozan’s grandfather. Completing the set of gifts is a war flag of Dahomey (showing the victories of King Adandozan in the wars against his enemies), the pair of royal sandals, choir bags, a walking stick, royal shakes and a tobacco plate.

Also in the context of artifacts of African origin, the museum preserves ritual masks from secret societies of the Yoruba and Ecoles, examples of basketry from Angola and Madagascar, ceremonial sticks from the Côkwe, musical objects acquired from the King of Uganda, anthropomorphic and zoomorphic religious statuettes, specimens of alaka(African fabrics made on a loom and imported from the west coast to Brazil). Finally, the collection donated to the National Museum by Celenia Pires Ferreira, missionary of the Congregational Church of the city of Campina Grande, in 1936, stands out. The collection consists of objects of domestic and ritual use, collected by the missionary during her stay in the Central Plateau of Angola between 1929 and 1935.

The Afro-Brazilian ethnology group documents habits, beliefs and production techniques of the descendants of African peoples in Brazil, as well as the history of slavery violence, religious repression and the forms of social organization of black communities in the post-abolition period. The african-Brazilian religiosity is the aspect most amply illustrated in the collection. Most of the religious objects were originally found in spaces known as Zungus or Candomblé terreiros, places of worship for the inquices (Bantus), orixás (Yoruba) and voduns (Jeje Mahi). Such temples were constantly invaded and their objects were confiscated and taken to police deposits, as material evidence of the practice of rituals then forbidden. At the initiative of the former director of the museum, Ladislau Neto, these objects started to be transferred to the institution, after recognizing the historical, sociological and ethnological importance of such a collection.

A second important set of objects in the Afro-Brazilian ethnology collection comes from the donation made by Heloísa Alberto Torres, an anthropologist and former director of the National Museum. During her trips to Bahia in the 1940s, Heloísa acquired a series of objects in the main candomblé houses in the Recôncavo region, in addition to examples of handicrafts, textile production and popular culture, namely the orixás sculpted in wood by Afonso de Santa Isabeland cedar sculptures with oil paintings acquired at Ateliê da Rua Taboão. The collection also includes pieces made to order by the National Museum itself, to appear in the Brazilian Regional Ethnography Room, part of the Permanent Exhibition of the National Museum in 1949 (first permanent exhibition of Afro-Brazilian objects and cults, with the aim of presenting the regional differences in national culture), such as rag dolls dressed in orixás costumes.

Kumbukumbu: Africa, Memory, And Heritage

Africa is a continent that encompasses over 30 million square kilometers, distributed throughout 54 countries and nine territories, with more than a billion people speaking around a thousand different languages. The continent possesses incalculable wealth in diamonds, petroleum, and various minerals, which exploitation contributes to the largest economic and social contrasts in the world. Since in antiquity, Africa was part of the longest and most important commercial routes, and, through them, came in contact with distant peoples and cultures. In the 7th century, Arabian caravans brought Islam to the North of Africa; in the 15th Century, Christians arrived at the Atlantic coast, and, from the end of the 17th Century on, the growth of the Atlantic commerce of slaves led to the largest forced migration in modern history. The expansion of colonial Europe over Africa in the 19th-20th Centuries ruptured the dynamic African history and established new political and economic patterns that were sustained by military force, alliances with African elites, and the implementation of European standards of modern life. In mid-20th Century, the victorious independence movements began to change this panorama.

The collections that form the Kumbukumbu Exhibition of the National Museum presents various objects acquired by means of donations, purchases, and exchanges. Many were obtained during dramatic periods in African history and evidence the protagonism of Africans, Brazilians, and Europeans throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries, in diplomatic relations, slavery, colonial conflicts, civilization projects, and scientific studies. They are objects that were brought from different parts of the continent between 1810 and 1940, with the addition of other objects that either belonged to, or were produced by Africans or their descendants in Brazil, between 1880 and 1950. Besides the pieces’ beauty and anthropological significance, the exhibition is of historical importance due to having one of the oldest African collections in Brazil. We present here some of these pieces.

Section I: Africa, Past and Present

Africans are integrated in the modern world, but preserve habits, beliefs, production techniques, and rituals that are very old. Amidst many peoples and languages, they combine their differences with practices and habits that are today generalized all over the continent. The sophisticated work with metallurgy, the art of wood, music and its instruments, manual weaving, and various types of art, are all marks of the African cultures that are today admired all over the world and appropriated by contemporary Western culture. The fabrics are valuable and easy to transport, and, because of this, have already been used as a trading currency between merchants, who would use them to buy and sell other products all over the continent. Among the most valuable fabrics in sub-Saharan Africa are those made of loom and dyed in several colors in the traditional wells of African dyeing units. Musical instruments are, maybe, the strongest examples of the circulation of the African peoples’ cultural goods. Among the most widespread instruments, there are a great variety of drums. The lamellophone, or the marimba (also known as sanza, kisanji, mbira or kalimba), on the other hand, are little known today, but were greatly appreciated in the past, including by enslaved Africans who were brought to Brazil.

African fabric.
Also known as “cloths of the Coast.” Are loom made, in the Western coast of Africa. Bought by Heloísa Alberto Torres in Salvador, Bahia, in 1953.

Uganda Drum
Made of Zebra skin.
Bought to the king of Uganda by Jorge Dumont Village, and donated to the National Museum in 1926.

Gélédé Mask
Gélédéé — secret female society of the Yorubá language peoples.
The masks were and are still used by men during dance rituals to approach everyday life themes. Many are topped with adornments.

Head Rest
It was believed that, in resting the head on this support, it was possible to communicate with their ancestors.

The teeth stand out, with a deformed tip that is commonly used by the local population.

“Weapon taken from rebelled Africans in colonial conflict in Senegal. The marks on the handle indicate the deaths committed by its owner,” according to the piece’s entrance record at the National Museum.

Pipe Bowl

Sculpted Elephant Tooth
Exchange with Berlin museum in 1928.

Probably made out of ebony, a type of dark wood that is very rare today. Used among the Swahili language peoples on the Eastern coast of Africa.

Section II: Diplomacy Of Friendship, Brazil-Dahomey (Benin)

This is one of the oldest collections of the National Museum. It arrived in Brazil in 1810, even before the Museum’s creation, which was in 1818. It is an outcome of diplomatic relations between the Kingdom of Dahomey, which is currently Benin, and Brazil. In the year of 1810, the king Adandozan of Dahomey sent many presents to D. João, Prince Regent of Portugal, who, in the occasion, lived with the royal family in Brazil. These were objects of his personal use, some of them having been for the restricted use of the King and the dignitaries of the kingdom. Knowing of the Treaty of Friendship and Alliance between Brazil and England, which in 1810 established the gradual end of the slave trade, the Dahomey embassy tried to negotiate with D. João privileges for the slave commerce in Brazil. At the time, the Kingdom of Dahomey was in war with neighboring peoples, and thus, had many prisoners, becoming one of the largest slave exporters to the Americas.

In coming to brazil, the ambassadors brought presents as well as a letter from the king Adandozan, which is today kept at the Historical and Geographical Institute of Brazil. Some of these gifts are in display. Highlight is given to the throne, which has always been exposed at the National Museum, and the flag, which shows images of prisoners and decapitated people. Sending messages through means of drawings on fabrics was an ancient practice in the Dahomey reign. The flag registers Andandozan’s victories in wars against his enemies.

It was called zingpogandeme (king’s seat) or zinkpojandeme (seat with braided decoration). Rare copy of the throne of the king Kpengla (1774-1789), grandfather of Adandozan. Gift from Adandozan, King of Dahomey, to the Prince Regent D. João in 1810.

Royal Sandal

Tobacco Bag And Leather Bag
Made of leather to transport tobacco slabs.

War Flag
Made of raw linen, with black and red cloth applications.

Pipe Case
Made of wood.
Gift from Adandozan, King of Dahomey, to the Prince Regent D. João in 1810.

Section III: The Peoples Of The Equatorial Forest

For over a thousand years, the equatorial forest – cutted by the Congo and the Lualaba rivers – was occupied by nomadic and gatherer peoples, ancestors of the current Bantu peoples. They began to migrate from the center of the continent to the West, until they arrived at the Atlantic coast. On the way they began to mix with local peoples, teaching agriculture and metallurgy and establishing new settlements. Those who remained nomads in the forest became pejoratively known as pygmies. This set of peoples occupy today the entire forest and its surroundings (Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, The Republic of Congo, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Angola). Despite a linguistic proximity, they have very distinct cultures and social organization. From this region came the slaves that are known in Brazil as congos, loangos, and angicos.

During the colonial occupation, European explorers, especially art scholars and traders, took objects from these peoples’ material culture, collected them, and disseminated them across the world. The first African ethnographic and artistic collections that we know of today were created this way. The objects presented here belonged to the peoples that inhabited the territories that were occupied by the Germans (current Cameroon), Belgians (current Democratic Republic of the Congo), and French (The Republic of Congo). Almost all of them arrived at the National Museum through exchanges, in which indigenous objects from Brazil and African objects were traded by museological institutions.

Figure of male ancestor. Guardian of ancestors’ tombs.
Generally carries a horn between his hands, where magical substances were kept. Exchange with Berlin Museum in 1928.

Representation of status and power. Decorated handle with brass tacks.
Used in prisoners’ executions. In the 20th Century, this practice became outlawed in the Belgian Congo, and the knife began to be utilized only as a ceremonial dance object.

Representation of human figure associated with magical practices.

Generally covered with antelope skin.
Used in funerals and rituals of initiation of the extinct secret male society, Ngbe.Some have horns on their heads. The round mark on the side of the face is a drawing of the old system of graphic signs called nsibidi.

Representation of human figure associated with magical practices.

Section IV: Colonial Warfare

The National Museum’s collection of African weapons offers us study possibilities that go beyond the functional idea of “attack and defense.” They invite us to think of them as carriers of power and stories. We cannot conceive of them only as instruments of war, hunting, or other activities related to everyday survival. Some of them are ritual objects and denote the social status of the individual who detains it. They all possess a cutting or perforating metal part. Metallurgy was a technology created by the Bantu linguistic root peoples, today represented by more than 500 ethnic groups distributed all over sub-Saharan Africa. The set of weapons displayed were collected in the 19th Century and almost all come from the Zambezi River Valley. The region, rich in minerals, permitted the abundant use of some metals, such as zinc and copper — and the binding formed by the two, which gives origin to brass. The work with brass wire is present in most of the weapons at display in the Kumbukumbu room. There are references that this technique was developed by the Shona, a Bantu root ethnolinguistic macrogroup. The Shona were the largest group to settle in the Zambezi Valley. Today, these weapons, adorned in brass wire, are greatly appreciated by the Western market of African art.

Hammers with a blade similar to a “duck beak” were of Nama (or Namaqua) origin, a people that inhabit the territories of Namibia, South Africa, and Botswana. In the first years of the 20th Century, the German, then colonizers of Namibia, expelled the Nama and the Herero from their lands. In 1904, after a series of conflicts, the German army advanced over the territory of these populations, who were practically decimated (many were made prisoners or slaves). More than 70% of the people expelled from Namibia died of hunger and thirst in the desert, unleashing the first genocide of the 20th century. As such, the set of these weapons evidences another type of power: the power affirmed by colonial domination. The “weapons” were taken from their original peoples during the European exploration of the African continent and suffered a process of resignifinition. It stopped being a symbol of bravery, courage, and resistance, to turn into a representation of the inferiority of the conquered. It became a “primitive” piece of contemplation. Today, it is fundamental that museums decolonize their collections so as to “liberate” the objects and their histories, opening up space for the occupation of other narratives.

Used by the Namaquá.
There are small circles carved on the wooden handle and decorative details on the blade.

Used in wars or by people in positions of authority.
It possesses a triangular blade and a wooden handle, adorned with braided brass wires.

Weapon of prestige.
Blade fitted in the wood handle covered by a brass wire weft.

Section V: Angola After The Atlantic Slavery

The territory that today corresponds to Angola exported over three million enslaved people to Brazil between 1530 and 1850, when the Atlantic trade was officially abolished. In Angola, slavery endured until 1878, year in which it became prohibited by the Colonial Portuguese legislation. However, in practice, slavery extended there until 1910. Angola remained a colony of Portugal until 1975. During the colonial period, the local population was submitted to forced work, very similar to the times of slavery, and also to a compulsory process of “assimilation,” which intended to instill in the Africans European cultural standards. Besides colonial employees, Catholic and Protestant missionaries of many nationalities established themselves in several parts of the country to convert the peoples of Angola to the Christian faith, in collaboration to the process of assimilation.

The objects presented here represent distinct peoples of Angola: the Tchokwe (or Quiôco) and the Ovimbundu. The Tchokwe (situated to the North and East of the country) are recognized by their exquisite work on wood and are world-famous in the art world. Here we have exemplars of batons. Although they look similar, the batons have various functions. The most simple are the clubs, used in hunting as a hand or propulsion weapon. The adorned batons are used as ceremonial objects. The Ovimbundu objects represented the everyday life of the peoples of the Central Plateau of Angola and were donated to the National Museum in 1936 by the Pernambuco teacher and Protestant missionary in Angola, Celenia Pires Ferreira. The collection includes, in its majority, objects of domestic use and adornment.

Wood Doll

Topped by bird. Ceremonial use.


Section VI: Africans In Brazil

The presence of Africans and their descendants in Brazil is marked by the violence of slavery and post-abolition. We present here objects that show how the Africans established themselves and recreated their world from the end of the 19th Century on, in particular in Bahia and Rio de Janeiro. We have objects from the old Candomblés of Rio de Janeiro, known as zungus or “fortune giving houses”. There they worshiped Inkices (bantu), orixás (yorubá) and yodels (jêje-mahi). Persecuted, these houses were invaded and had their objects confiscated by the police and used as material proof of the practice of rituals that were prohibited at the time. The frequenters of these houses were persecuted and arrested. Knowing of the existence of these objects at the Court Police, the director of the National Museum then, Ladislau Netto, throughout the decade of the 1880s, began to ask to have them sent to him for his studies. The National Museum, then, formed a collection that contains old techniques of metallurgy and of wood art, material examples of religious practices of this last generation of Africans and their direct descendants.

We also have a collection of objects of Candomblé Nagô from Bahia, formed in 1940 and complemented in 1953 by the anthropologist Heloísa Alberto Torres, who was at the time director of the National Museum. The Candomblé Nagô was elaborated by enslaved Africans of Yorubá language, brought to Bahia. The wooden sculptures, representing the orixás, were sculpted by the artisan José Afonso de Santa Isabel.

Oxum ritual object.

Xangô Representation
Religious use.

Hoop Bracelets
In Africa they were valuable for their weight in metals and used as currency for trade.

Oxossi ritual object.

Strand of beads
Museu Nacional

Bead Thread
Religious use.

Symbol used around the neck by members of the Ogboni society.

In Nagô Candomblé, it was used by people of lower hierarchy.

Rag doll dressed in the attire of women of Candomblé in the years of 1920.
Captured at the Feira de Santana, Bahia.

National Museum in Rio de Janeiro
The National Museum, linked to the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), is the oldest scientific institution in Brazil that, until September 2018, figured as one of the largest museums of natural history and anthropology in the Americas. It is located inside the Quinta da Boa Vista park, in the city of Rio de Janeiro, being installed in the São Cristóvão Palace.

The Museu Nacional/UFRJ is part of the Ministry of Education. It is the oldest scientific institution in Brazil and the biggest museum of natural history and anthropology in Latin America. Founded by D. João VI in June 6th, 1818, and initially based in Campo de Sant’Anna, it served the country to promote the cultural and economic development of the country.

Originally named Museu Real, it was incorporated to the Universidade do Brasil in 1946. Currently the Museum is part of the academic structure of the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro. The Museum located at Paço de São Cristóvão from 1892 — residency of the Brazilian Imperial Family until 1889 — gave to it a distinguished character if compared to other institutions of the area. It is the same place where the royal family lived for so many years (where D. Pedro II was born and the First Republican Constitutional Assembly happened), and today is the interface between memory and scientific production.

The National Museum housed a vast collection with more than 20 million items, encompassing some of the most relevant records of Brazilian memory in the field of natural and anthropological sciences, as well as wide and diverse sets of items from different regions of the planet, or produced by ancient peoples and civilizations. Formed over more than two centuries through collections, excavations, exchanges, acquisitions and donations, the collection was subdivided into collections of geology, paleontology, botany, zoology, biological anthropology (including the remnants of Luzia’s skeleton in this nucleus)., the oldest human fossil in the Americas),archeologyandethnology. It was the main basis for the research carried out by the academic departments of the museum – which develops activities in all regions of the country and in other parts of the world, including theAntarctic continent. It has one of the largestlibrariesspecializing in natural sciences in Brazil, with more than 470,000 volumes and 2,400 rare works.