Contrasting with these images are several portraits of individuals that Silva has picked out from among the crowd. Two images presented as a pair depict adolescents, one male and one female. The subjects are aware of the photographer, yet they appear pensive and introspective. These images communicate a sense of the subjects’ psychological interiority, their individual fears and hopes. What may be the most striking image in the exhibition is the very first in the series: a portrait of a woman smoking a cigar. Turned towards the camera, she gazes defiantly, and perhaps also playfully, at the viewer. In his famous treatise on photography, Camera Lucida, the philosopher Roland Barthes identified a feature of photographs that he called the ‘punctum’. This refers to an unintentional detail of a photograph that, perhaps inexplicably, captures your attention and ‘pricks’ you. For me, the punctum in this image is the woman’s pair of earrings: two circles of gold or silver coloured plastic beads, each holding a fabric flower. Visually, the light tone and smooth texture of the earrings stand out against the woman’s dark skin. More importantly, there is something poignantly touching about the way the homeliness of the earrings contrasts with the woman’s projected self-confidence.
Silva is adept at exploiting the formal possibilities of the photographic medium – sharp details, rich textures, and subtle tonal gradations. But formal features in Silva’s works are deployed not only for formalistic ends. Characteristic of many the works is their high degree of tonal contrast. Black skin and hair – some finely detailed and richly textured, others deeply shadowed or silhouetted – contrast with bright white clothes, headdresses, and other adornments. ‘Black’ and ‘white’ in Silva’s photographs are not only tonal values; they resonate with the history of racial subjugation of the Afro-Brazilian community in colonial and post-colonial Brazil. The message, however, I take it, of Silva’s images is ultimately not retrospective, but one of hope and progress. The high tonal contrast draws attention to the blackness of the subjects’ bodies as a positive affirmation of racial identity. The theme of hope is perhaps most explicit in the three images at the end of the exhibition depicting doves. The use of doves in the religious practices is, it seems, a curious example of how Catholic influences have been incorporated into the Afro-Brazilian culture. Doves, of course, are a symbol of peace. More specifically, in this context, they appear to symbolise the promise of healing of racial and cultural division. In the final image of the exhibition, we see three children each holding a dove, the wings of one of the doves partly outstretched. The children represent the community’s future; the doves, presumably, will soon take flight.
Silva selected and sequenced the images for the exhibition himself, and he evidently did so with much sensitivity and care. Some images are paired to make a diptych, drawing attention to contrasts among the subjects – young and old, male and female – or formal comparisons. Moving sequentially across the whole, one has the experience of moving through the crowd, catching glimpses of objects, faces, gestures. This has the effect of putting one into the flow of life of the community. The feeling of movement is heightened by the curators’ decision to stagger the images over two levels, creating the visual effect of something like a wave. Taken individually, many of the images are visually arresting and highly evocative. But together they achieve something greater, something dynamic, a collective power, energy, or force: in a word, axé. This, I think, is what Silva’s images are all about.
I highly recommend that you see Ruas, Santos e Axé!, which is on display at the Department of Anthropology (Kotlářská 267/2, Veveří, Brno) until the end of the 2023-24 academic year.