Afro-Brazilian Retentions: 

A Reservoir for Deepening Diasporic Knowledge

by Katie G. Cannon


When the Society for the Study of Black Religion (SSBR) announced a 2012 travel-study seminar to Brazil, my response was an immediate “Yes, I want to go.” I was drawn to this extraordinary excursion, and also found resonance in the theme, Traveling the Ancestral Road, because over the years I have created African-centered courses in order to teach seminarians about retentions embedded in the experience of the dislocation and dispersal of Africans as a result of the transatlantic slave trade.  I was also enthusiastic about studying with Dr. Rachel E. Harding. Her book A Refuge in Thunder: Candomblé and Alternative Spaces of Blackness (2003) is a meticulously researched study, a required text in my classes. I welcomed the experience of walking the city streets of Salvador with Professor Harding, benefitting from her wealth of knowledge and fluency in Portuguese, while conversing informally with SSBR colleagues as we moved from one place to another in the countryside of Bahia.

Traveling the Ancestral Road was a major intellectual and life-changing adventure—not only were we introduced to prominent religious, political, social leaders, first-rate interpreters of the Portuguese language and keen travel guides in Salvador, but there is a treasure trove of disaporic knowledge available, when one can see, up close and personal, richly decorated Candomblé terreiros, gold-laden churches, hand-painted tiles, folks in beautiful laced, white hooped skirts dancing in counterclockwise circles, translucent, porcelain-like cowry shell jewelry, and children in rhythmic drum corps marching in the Independence Day parade along narrow, cobblestone streets.

In numerous ways, conversations with members of the Brazilian Candomblé Terreiro do Cobre community illuminated underlying presuppositions about African elements in religious culture. The opportunity to witness the Candomblé Ceremony for the Orisha Xangô Ayrá at Ilê Axé Iyá Nassô Oka, the oldest Candomblé temple in continual existence in Brazil, aligned closely with the signature features in all of my African-centered courses.

Against this backdrop, participating in Dr. Harding’s seminar, Traveling the Ancestral Road: A Journey of Cultural and Religious Exchange to Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, had double significance: first, our visit to the Tanuri Junçara terreiro to hear the lecture, on Art and Aesthetics of Candomblé, by Dr. Jaime Sodré, introduced me to pertinent information for a larger and more engaged discourse about Ethics, Ethnicity, and Architectonic Texts. Second, going to the home of historian/healer/ritual specialist, Elder Priestess Makota Valdina Pinto, for the workshop, Sacred and Medicinal Herbs of Candomblé, provided valuable insights I can add to the section on healing pharmacopoeia in my course, Character, Culture, and Craft in African Traditional Religions. Therefore, in this essay I reflect on my exposure to two avenues that deepened my research database regarding Afro-Brazilian retentions in the religion of Candomblé: architectonic aesthetics and healing pharmacopoeia.

Architectonic Aesthetics

Dr. Jaime Sodré’s lecture, Art and Aesthetics of Candomblé, was spiced with engaging anecdotes and laced with warm humor. Sodré, a Professor at the Institute of Federal Education, Science and Technology (IFBA) campus Salvador, Bahia State University and the College of the City of Salvador, earned a Master’s degree in Theory and History and a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Social History. Based on his repertoire of knowledge about African customs, traditions, and art, Sodré is one of the world’s most renowned researchers of African-Brazilian culture.

The general theme of Professor Sodré’s lecture was to situate Afro-Brazilian art in its socio-historical context and to identify the roots of its material modes and intimate continuities with an Angolan worldview. Even more specifically, focusing on how African ancestry merged with existential life experienced in Bahia, Professor Sodré increased our visual vocabulary by showing slides and talking about perceptive and transformative images intricately carved in Afro-Brazilian sculptures, masks, chairs, and other artistic patterns and designs. The styles and techniques of these creative expressions are transatlantic conduits of mediums and messages, concrete and recognizable entities of both form and function of dialectical retentions of what was and what now is.

Sodré’s presentation gave us the vantage point from which to understand visual politics as categories of cultural truth that are not written narratives, but living aesthetic documents. In other words, this lecture provided intellectual means for us to exegete architectonic texts, non-scribal scriptures that artists receive from the spirit world and express as emblematic objects and mythic images. The range of culturally determined media and materials—selection of designs, colors, dyes, patterns, textures–glass beads, cowries shells, wood, metal, clay, ivory, and fiber—is essentially the same in architectonic texts as the selective reportage of written sources designated as holy.

Origin and age are fundamental to understanding the aesthetic influence of representative art, as well as knowing who can own it, and what it is worth. Artistically, graphic language can be both sacred and profane, beautiful and vulgar. Even when artwork is controversial, there is little evidence, thus far, of a symbolic text being censored or considered too extreme to be included in the Afro-Brazilian eclectic canon. A fundamental understanding is that architectonic aesthetics are nuanced visual statements representing multi-stranded, thickly textured, open-ended pluralist expressions of African people’s memories and movements in the Americas.

According to Sodré, it is precisely because of the artist’s direct access to the spirit world that the meanings of some of the colorful emblems of the Orishas used in ceremonies are concealed from outsiders and the uninitiated. Bahian craftpersons’ affinity with West Africa and Candomblé enable indigenous carvers, weavers, painters, ceramists, printmakers, and sculptors to use their skills, imagination, and special “eyes” to receive visions, to dream dreams, to signify certain religious messages about what is important in the public and private, official and unofficial religious life.

Sodré, who has done major work on Orisha fidelities and ancestral responsibilities, talked about the retention sensitivities of iconographic motifs in Candomblé. Affiliations with orishas, the refusal to split, to dichotomize, to become disembodied with detached remoteness from the divine presence in the daily fabric of life, enable artists to express internal revelations in external modalities. With very few exceptions, Afro-Brazilian art, rooted in the coexistence of religious sentient and cultural specificities, is a strong articulation of diaspora literacy.

Furthermore, I am most appreciative to Dr. Sodré for introducing me to the aesthetics of inventive sculptured totems in the work of a Bahian artist, Deoscóredes Maximiliano dos Santos, popularly known as Mestre Didi. Sodré provided us with a close look at the artist Mestre Didi,[i] who was initiated as a priest in Orisha worship and whose icongraphic figural sculptures are known for their beautiful, asymmetrical balance. Artists, such as Mestre Didi, use multiple approaches in order to bear witness to departed ancestors who are present in the lives of the living. Most significant is that the themes and inferential details in Mestre Didi’s mobile totems defy traditional assumptions about distinctions between humans, animals, and the divine.

In other words, by creating unbalanced inventive sculptured totems, Mestre Didi, as an artist and priest, uses artistic technology to transcend fixed boundaries and to communicate ontology as an uneven vital spirit-force in the realm of divine beauty and existential power. Unproblematic for Mestre Didi is any effort at a counterpoised position. His productive linking of tradition with talent enhanced his ability to create works of art as coherent designs of antithetical equilibrium. The message of Mestre Didi’s medium can be summed up in the metaphysical language of liberation ethics—humans share the sacred force of beingness with members of our species and the wider environment in which we are situated.

Healing Pharmacopoeia

It has been known for centuries that there is an inseparable cultural retentionary link between indigenous religions and medicinal healing found in West Africa, and that this retentionary link and heritage of traditional pharmacopoeia extends across the Atlantic Ocean as a result of the transatlantic slave trade.[ii] Medicine women and men know the names and properties of herbs, trees, roots, seeds, bones, birds, animals and mineral sources. Similar facts are known about other sorts of potent elements found in nature that herbalists use in the cultivation and preparation of healing recipes and folk remedy formulas.

Those of us who teach African Traditional Religions understand how healers work as diviner-counselors, diagnosing illnesses, removing obstacles, and discerning people’s troubles of every sort. They perform rituals to drive away witches, exorcize evil spirits, offer protection from danger, remove curses, detect dishonesty and theft, eradicate aggressive anger, and offer patients safe traveling mercies. A reality I learned early on is that some healers inherit the position of medicine men and medicine women, while others are called via dreams or through a series of spirit visitations.           

On Friday morning, June 29th, when we arrived at the home of Elder Priestess Makota Valdina Pinto for the workshop, Sacred and Medicinal Herbs of Candomblé, it was clear that Elder Makota was well-versed in the rudiments of the healing arts. In the early 1970s, Elder Makota left Catholicism, and in 1975, was initiated into the religion of Candomblé. Throughout her lecture, she integrated her curative knowledge with her role as priestess. She shared with us the properties and uses of plants in religious rites, such as prayers and offerings. Elder Makota can identify which Orisha is making a request of someone, as well as diagnosing illnesses caused by another individual. Even though the core of Afro-Brazilian medical lore is sacred, Elder Makota willingly shared important wisdom with us outsiders, and we are grateful that she considered us worthy of receiving it.

Elder Makota introduced a variety of living plants that are indispensable to life. Some were fresh leaves, others dried roots. Numerous green trees surround her house, transforming energy from the sun into healing vibrations and releasing oxygen into the atmosphere through the mechanisms of photosynthesis. She indicated that her intention is to continue unearthing the healing mysteries embedded in germinated seeds and to catalogue the apothecary of incredibly diverse flora growing in her organic pharmacopoeia in accordance with their utility and significance in the religion of Candomblé.

In describing culinary herbs used for the restoration of health, Elder Makota pointed to instances in which some plants are used for purification, a few mediate disputes, and one or two provide protection against danger, and others serve as energy sources for perseverance against great difficulties. She said, “Every household should have at least one sword plant (what is known in the USA as a snake plant) to ward off evil.”

Echoing throughout her presentation were examples of the mutual relationships and interactions between religious rituals, prohibitions, taboos, and ecological justice. This means that there should be no separation between what we believe and our embodied styles of life. Religious people need to be good stewards and become more resourceful regarding our planet. Elder Makota asked, “What is earth?”  Immediately she followed her inquiry with this answer, “Earth is a packet of healing energies, created by God for life. We need the soil, sun, water and wind. If there are no leaves, there is no earth.”  Elder Makota’s message was clear: “We can no longer ignore how our negative behaviors affect humankind and the rest of nature.”

Intrigued while listening to Elder Makota, I remembered how in the past when I talked with medicine women in my hometown in rural North Carolina, they too were well versed about the various ways plants provide us with essential healing oils and curative seasonings. For instance, it is worth mentioning that in 1959, I witnessed, first-hand, one of our local healers, Ms. Lottie, perform the ritual of talking the fire out of my body.  As a pre-teen, I was seriously burned while using a steam iron. When Ms. Lottie completed the ritual of talking the fire out, the pain of my burn vanished. There was no scar, no inflammation, not even a blister in the spot where my flesh was burning only moments before. Medicine women, like Ms. Lottie and Elder Makota, know how to distinguish between seeds and fruit that are toxic and poisonous and those that restore health and wholeness. As naturopath-herbalists, they know how to treat illnesses by extracting medicinal drugs from flowers, tree-barks, stems, leaves, and roots.  Elder Makoto articulated it this way, “The smell and shape of a plant will tell you what you can use it for. Also, your eyes will tell you what plant is good for you.”

However, it was Elder Makota’s prophetic articulation of an earth ethic that made my visit with this particular sacred healer different from all others. In Salvador, Bahia, Elder Makota presented her usable, botanical wisdom within an expanded view of our moralscape. She reminded us that the Afro-Brazilian retention of effectively treating illnesses with medicinal properties of plants is essential to our ongoing existence. She said, “The time it took to create this planet, the process the planet has to go through takes a long, long time. Some plants have not evolved. We may be destroying things that have not yet come to life.” Actualizing responsible earth ethics is not only necessary, but is a mandate for genuine doers of justice.

Elder Makota’s conclusion is prophetic. The focal point of her lecture is that humankind will self-destruct, if we continue contaminating, corrupting, and genetically modifying living organisms. Within the shifting matrix of the world’s powers and principalities, it is high time for us to rethink what it means to participate in wholistic common action for the well-being of the common good. In other words, if planetary healing is mandatory, more work needs to be done to place human health and earth wholeness into a balanced interactive relation to each other, in order to extend the horizons of both.


Traveling the Ancestral Road was an intense cultural immersion experience, wherein each day of our journey was like seeing through a prism the reflection and refraction of precious Brazilian gemstones. The richness, rigor, and breadth of our daily agenda, cast off light in many directions, creating a variety of meaning-making encounters that increased my conceptual sensibility to artistic beauty, to the healing arts of Candomblé, to live dance and talking-drum performances. All of this dramatically deepened my understanding of Bahia as the capital of African culture in the Americas.

This reservoir that increased my diasporic knowledge consists of exposure to an array of conceptual and thematic African retentions, as well as elements of cultural reciprocity in the daily lives of Afro-Brazilian women, men and children. The growing-edge here is that, participating in this study-seminar enabled me to grasp the prominence of mythical iconography, wherein, before, I had only read about it. This new mindset loosened presupposed, conventional knowledge about spirit possession in indigenous religions, sharpened critical reflections about imperialism and the enslavement of Africans by Portuguese enslavers, and heightened appreciation for the gifts of healing present in the African American context.

In order to create a more provocative learning environment when I teach African-centered courses in the future, I will integrate mental and visceral knowledge regarding ritual repetitions and festive arts with innovative methods that bridge these two realms, so that students can obtain answers to research questions that expand our intellectual discourse about Afro-Brazilian religious, social, political, and cultural realities.

Previously, in each African-centered course, we viewed documentary films and video clips about African Religions in the Americas, along with reading and analyzing weekly required texts. When local museums presented African exhibits, we took field trips. With a commitment to keep my memory green about life-lessons learned during this 2012 seminar, Traveling the Ancestral Road, my task is now to create processes of learning that will enable students to hear a multitude of voices performing and to see with new eyes Candomblé’s sharing of votive food with visitors during festal assemblies.

For a greater awakening of diasporic discoveries and imaginative possibilities, it will be worthwhile for us, as co-learners, to participate in a variety of meaning-making artistic expressions. Furthering the medium of performance pedagogy, I will now invite seminarians to make their theological perspectives tangible, by writing creative commentaries, crafting feeling-pictures, composing fragmented collages, etc., so that silences can be heard and graphic literacy can be brought to life. Moreover, I will expand the course requirement of annunciation-celebration, by providing opportunities for us to listen to talking drums and pay closer attention to documentaries that include spirit-possessed choreography. Of course, to state these pedagogical changes another way is to say, I will encourage students to investigate African religions via non-hierarchical, multiple entry and exit points, and expand the range of knowledge-sharing via sources available in cyberspace.

Furthermore, I note that amidst the busyness of our 21st century technopolis, I will create a digitized educational component on earth ethics. Hopefully, by mixing-and-matching generative surges of sustainable possibilities with interdependent, harmonious trajectories, seminarians can become informed participants in the environmental justice movement. In turn, we can reduce our destruction of non-renewable natural resources and expand our consciousness as humans, who are not only dependent on plants for medicine, but also for food, beverages, shelter, clothing, tools, and fuel. In essence, the bottom-line, organizing question is this: How are we affected daily by the pollution in our air, water, and soil, pollutions that cannot be dispersed, diluted, decomposed, recycled, nor stored in some harmless form?

To sum up, this travel seminar to Salvador, Bahia provided me with distinct sites of data for my Afrocentric courses. New questions emerged about varying constellations and connections between Brazilians who make up the largest African diaspora in the Americas, indeed in the world, and people of African ancestry in the United States of America. In essence, Traveling the Ancestral Road expanded my territorial horizons, enlarged my religious consciousness, challenged codes of meaning within my eco-justice-faith formation— deepened my African soul.


[i] Mestre Didi is the son of Maria Bibiana do Espirito Santo (“Mãe Senhora”) who was Iyalorixá of one of Bahia’s most important Candomblé terreiro communities – Ilê Axé Opô Afonjá – from 1942-1967.

[ii] See, also Manoel Raimundo Querino, The African Contribution to Brazilian Civilization, translated by E. Bradford Burns, Arizona State UP, 1978; Shelia S. Walker, ed. African Roots/American Cultures: Africa in the Creation of the Americas, Rowman & Little, 2001.

Katie Geneva Cannon is Annie Scales Rogers Professor of Christian Ethics at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.