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Reis Malunguinho: In the Bushes There Is Only One



by Ariana Nuala

Leia este artigo em português aqui.

The effort to give someone a face is an endless movement, an action that is not exhausted because that man represented would be a glimpse of the portrait of that king that does not circulate in a single body and emits echoes.

They try to give the king a face. In their gestures, they sing-paint-draw-draw-sketch the outline of a middle-aged black man, with some apparent scars along an attentive body prepared for war. The effort to give someone a face is an endless movement, an action that is not exhausted because that man represented would be a glimpse of the portrait of that king that does not circulate in a single body and emits echoes. His title of KING is intoned in the plural, a REIS (Kings). His presence declares to attentive people his essence which is imbricated in multiplicity. His creation, the creation of his title, is given in the perspective of malungos, companions, a strong bond built within the vessels that violated and subjugated the lives of various groups such as Bakongos, Kimbundus, Yorubás, among others.

The kings we are talking about, fight so that their people can pass, open trails on their roads, build barbed wire for the enemies, and celebrate drinking cachaça; their common practices are the same cultivated by their community, the quilombo to which they belong. In this way, the kings could also be great queens, in the end, the people called malungo were the ones who sowed that strong bond.

There is an importance of the representation of this King, Reis Malunguinho, as an important historical figure in the counter-colonial struggle in the mid-nineteenth century. His portrait, which is being reproduced, comes from hearsay that emerged during the imperial period: the crown, which hunted this figure for the misfortunes that his power of articulation generated, described him in order to capture him for 100 contos de reais.1 However, its unknown side was so rare that not even those who pursued it knew about it.

Through ignorance of whiteness, we see the attachment to a single image. They were deceived by the strategy of the peoples that integrated the quilombo; they did not perceive that the Quilombo of Catucá, the sacred mato, was not led only by a body, but that it was raised by the plot of so many malungos. The Kimbundu would give origin to the term malungo, which with the whole colonizing process would receive the suffix -inho that, in the Portuguese language, has a semantic value that can be associated with a diminutive value, sometimes also with pejorative value or attenuating negative adjectives; sometimes, showing sarcasm, others, expressing precision. It also appears as a place of delicacy and, even, in an affectionate way.

The Reis Malunguinho, thus written in plural, refers to all those who were Malunguinhos in life: leaders of Quilombo do Catucá who became "enchanted" and today are spirits that act in defense of the people who reinforce their undeath, by practicing their cults in the catimbó—a religion of indigenous origin that porously incorporated traces of Afro-religious cults (e.g., quimbanda). Catimbó is a union of Ka'a = bush and Timbó = white vapor; the term can also be related to the act of smoking a pipe, making smoke.

A quilombo so strong that it snaked through the suburbs of the city of Recife in Pernambuco, growing between the waters of the Capibaribe and Beberibe rivers, cutting through sugar mills and entering the bush that embraced a territory of another Brazilian state, Paraíba, more specifically, the city of Alhandra, where to this day it is possible to find traces of the passage of masters and mistresses catimbozeiros.

It would be absurd to continue to represent Reis Malunguinho as a single body. His drive is felt in the echo of many and makes it impossible to capture his image. The representation of a leader, as happened with Zumbi dos Palmares, could serve Malunguinho as a political and historical figure; however, his active cult only further reflects his wanderings that encompass different personifications and identities.

There is then an immeasurable unfolding of his body-prism, where his reflection is associated with a non-centrality, but it does potentiate the Malunguinhos becoming, which is the recognition that Malunguinho is also me.

Protectors of the key to the seven cities, the Malunguinhos echo in the bush and cross the portals to the swaying of the wind.How, then, can the image translate it?

Here Nothing Is Taught, but Everything Is Learned

"Next to each thing that exists and can be seen, there is always something else that cannot be seen, but is present." This fragment, taken from a text by Nigerian curator Okwui Enzewor, clarifies an idea present in Igbo culture about objects, where the invisible and the performative become in some spheres more important than what is seen.

I ask permission to walk with that Igbo idea so that we can reflect on the act of portraying, on that gesture that permeates the white history of art, which by serving a European elite in the Renaissance period, helped to narcissistically ennoble human beings, giving prominence to individuals, seeking to immortalize them.

Between the 14th and 16th centuries, the perpetuation of Humanism—the entity that valorized certain bodies and overvalued others by dictating difference as the main method of judgment—was constructed using portraits as one of its maintenance mechanisms. Thus, kings and queens were remodeled through the brushes of Renaissance artists with all the poetic licenses allowed; that is, narratives were recreated that privileged Eurocentrism over the creation of iconic images that tried to show an invented reality, leaving out all those who were considered bestial.

It would not be so simple to undo these inheritances, being impossible for a Malungo from the Quilombo of Catucá, in the 19th century, to have his face painted or his bust sculpted by any artist. It is significant, therefore, the restlessness and drive of some contemporary artists such as Dalton Paula, who lives in the city of Goiânia, where he promotes the quilombo-school Sertão Negro Atelier and School of Arts. In 2020, Paula portrayed Reis Malunguinho as a series of other black personalities who were swallowed by a unique history, being removed from an official Brazilian national memory.

Dalton Paula: "Malunguinho" (2020). Oil and gold leaf on canvas, 61 x 45 cm. Photo: Joerg Lohse. Courtesy: Ariana Nuala.

Between blue hues that refer to the tradition of photo painting, and gold leaves as a symbol of royalty, Paula recreates the faces of people who had in their lives an elusive movement as a survival strategy. People who did not have their image portrayed while they were alive, but stories that find in Paula the possibility of appearance through ballast that are mixed with fables and fiction.

I feel that Paula's effort moves away from the portrait that was common in the Renaissance and that accompanied other movements in the history of fine arts found in classic art history books. Paula dislocates the creation of the image, not seeking to repeat what she sees with her eyes but reinventing—almost with eyes that look inward— the references of images to compose her painting, bringing from other places, perhaps invisible, elements that make up her process, but that can even extrapolate the limits of her own realization as an artist.

We can also take a look at another exercise carried out by the São Paulo artist Micaela Cyrino, who in 2020 was invited to portray Reis Malunguinho for the Enciclopédia negra [Black Encyclopedia] (2021), an exhibition held at the Pinacoteca de São Paulo and which, together with the publication of the book Enciclopédia negra: Biografias afro-brasileiras [Black Encyclopedia: Afro-Brazilian Biographies] (2021), portrayed several black protagonists who traveled through some Brazilian territories through terms and visual commissions projected by some artists, including Cyrino.

Micaela Cyrino: "São Paulo" (2020). Acrylic on canvas. Photo: Enciclópedia negra. Courtesy: Ariana Nuala.

Cyrino paints a dark-skinned black person, with a necklace pierced through their trunk, whose material is made of beads in green, red, white, and black colors, with a seven-pointed star. Their face, however, is covered with a square of vibrant yellow tone, which almost blends with the golden sea that fills the background of the painting.

The artist removes the face of Reis Malunguinho in a gesture that maintains the mystery of identity, opening paths to the right to opacity, as opposed to believing that the act of reparation would be the revelation of the absence of their face. In this way, Cyrino gives us clues, although she does not leave us in a single presence. Almost like a hat that covers our heads from strong rays of sun and also hides the gaze when necessary, Cyrino does not allow, then, that all eyes cross the gaze of the Reis.

Signs and Systems, Vision and Experimentation

Several artists have built paths outside the expected and even impossible literalism of what it would be to give a face to Malunguinho. His image in the terreiros de jurema, many times built through plaster—a material that reproduces diverse images in different religions—is often seen in the form of a naked black child with his arms around his legs, as well as exhibiting the form of a young adult wearing a necklace with animal teeth and another with feathers. The figure appears dressed in pants and carries a small wallet and a knife and is generally called Malunguinho Caboclo. We also have the image of Malunguinho Rei, which presents an image of a black man with more pompous clothes, generally in red and yellow, and presents a crown on his head.

These are the most common images in public markets, spaces that sell these images, and which are gifts mainly in Pernambuco. This imaginary helps us to perceive how beyond what is known by the practitioners of jurema, there is also something unspeakable that is not heard, but felt. Thus, these images are not what Malunguinho is, but they continue to be exercises that also mix fiction; not here as something false, but as something that expands or limits layers.

This fact teaches us to understand the complexity of the narrative creation of those who made and make these images, crossing also the artistic processes and leaving us in a dimension of non-finitude, although not infinite either, because it is linked to knowledge and knowledge cultivated within this de jurema cosmology. There is a growing interest in signs and systems, language and symbology, subjectivity instead of representation, vision instead of gaze and experimentation between texts and images.

We walked with Paula and Cyrino, and now I would like to show some other art people who are geographically closer to the imaginary about the sacred jurema in their territory. Natália Ferreira, or simply Nathê, is a graffiti artist and social educator, inhabitant of Jaboatão dos Guararapes; she has been bringing the presence of black women in her graffiti. The artist, painting on an idea of protection that is not limited to the care of the living, brings only the symbol of the bead—an element used by the juremeros—as the incarnation of Malunguinho, in a 158m2 graffiti painted in the Josué de Castro Tunnel, in the city of Recife, entitled Corporificação de Malunguinho Menino (2023). Likewise, the multimedia artist biarritzzz brings in her musical album Eu não sou afrofuturista2 (2020) passages of teachings present in religions of indigenous and African matrixes, but without allowing her artistic process to fall into the demand for transparency and literalism.

Where it should be
The house to live in
In the bush
Of lost entities
Where it should be
The house to live in
In the bush of the lost entities
My teeth are knocked out
Underneath where I stand
Underneath where I stand

(Excerpt from the song "Escorrendo céu pela canela" from the album Eu não sou afrofuturista, 2020.)

Finally, I bring the artist Bozó Bacamarte, born in the city of Recife. Bacamarte grew up in several neighborhoods, among them in Bomba de Hemetério, one of the regions with the highest concentration of candomblé workers and also known for being the base of Maracatu Nação Elefante and for the Bomba de Hemetério Popular Orchestra. In Permanência (2023), the artist articulates a fictional landscape surrounded by symbols and figures found in the cosmovision of one of the faces of jurema. On the table we see three images representing ancient entities such as Master Galo Preto, Master Zé Pelintra, and Malunguinho Caboclo. As well as plates and cups, accompanying the settlements of some entities, stones or okutás positioned above the house: which are spaces of the entities such as Malunguinho himself, the maracás—from where the music of the world can be heard—the preaca as a hunting marker, the crossroads as a sacred place and of confluence between the master knowledges.

In this case, the presence in Bacamarte's painting is composed of beings/entities or, simply, people, as the vegetation may be only figurative botany, however, for some people it refers to the plants used in the rituals of sacred jurema. Differing from the artist's other paintings, this work brings symbolic elements of a ritual, but fabulized as a passage between worlds and teachings. I ask again, then, can the image translate them?