Every February 2, the city of Salvador in Brazil celebrates Iemanjá, deity of the sea and motherhood, who is the most-worshiped Yoruba goddess in the country. During this commemoration in 2016, as hundreds of thousands of devotees prayed to this orisha in an hours-long festivity that always takes place on the beachfront of the Rio Vermelho neighborhood, Cintia Maria, a regular goer, felt deeply bothered.
“The high number of white-skinned Iemanjá representations stirred my attention. I thought, ‘how come, in the 21st century, haven’t we accepted that an African deity is Black,’” Maria recalls to Refinery29 Somos.
This February 2, Maria, a cultural producer, and her work partner Jamile Coelho, a filmmaker, hope that the historical whitewashing of Iemanjá will no longer go unnoticed. Both Black women head Salvador’s Museum of Afro-Brazilian Culture (MUNCAB), and with 2023 marking the centenary of Iemanjá Day in Salvador, MUNCAB has, for the first time, produced a Black Iemanjá sculpture, gifted to the fishermen’s colony of Rio Vermelho (where Iemanjá’s altar stands) for the festivity.
"How come, in the 21st century, haven’t we accepted that an African deity is Black?"
Made of metal, marble, glass resins, and shells imported from Indonesia, the half-woman, half-fish sculpture reclaims the Blackness of Iemanjá — a goddess that, despite its African origins, has been whitewashed throughout Brazilian history.
In Salvador, Brazilians began celebrating Iemanjá Day in 1923, when fishermen from this Northeastern city, considered the Blackest outside Africa, started offering gifts to the goddess of the sea to demand fish abundance. The festivity gained popularity over the next few decades, especially between 1930 and 1950.
“The increased interest of foreign researchers, [like the French photographer Pierre Verger and the American anthropologist Ruth Landes], and Brazilian artists, [like musician Dorival Caymmi and romancist Jorge Amado], in Afro-Bahian culture, and the consequent shift in the [racist] tone of the local media, helped make the Iemanjá festivity an appealing touristic event,” says Sarah Nascimento, Ph.D., a professor of anthropology who concentrates on Brazilian racial relations at the Federal University of Bahia.
While the deity is celebrated all over the country, Salvador’s Iemanjá festivity remains the most famous, with up to a million people attending every year.
“It is the mother that fights for its children, the mother that sustains and feeds the world wherever she is, whatever her shape and image look like.”
According to Vilson Caetano, an anthropologist who was brought onto the project to share his expert insight for the production of the sculpture, there are many reasons why Iemanjá is not only the most popular orisha in Brazil but throughout the Americas, where she is called Yemayá in Spanish-speaking countries like Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic.
In addition to being an orisha whose sect, originally from the Yoruba Empire of Oyo in Nigeria, arrived in the Americas in the sixteenth century due to the transatlantic slavery flux, Iemanjá represents “the mother of everyone.” “It is the mother that fights for its children, the mother that sustains and feeds the world wherever she is, whatever her shape and image look like,” Caetano tells Somos.
With the historical dominance of Catholicism in Portuguese-colonized Brazilian society, enslaved Africans and their descendants started associating Iemanjá with appearances of the Virgin Mary. “It was a resistance strategy for Black enslaved populations to preserve their traditions,” Maria, MUNCAB’s president, says.
But the state-sanctioned persecution of Afro-diasporic religions didn’t end with slavery. Nascimento notes that “it was only after the 1970s when candomblé temples no longer needed the police authorization to carry out religious activities.” Still, the whitewashing of Black orishas persists: European-looking saints, like Our Lady of Navigators and Our Lady of Light, are often understood as “synonyms” for Iemanjá, and their images prevail over Black Iemanjá representation.
"When people start accepting that an African goddess is Black, we will have taken a big step toward racial equality."
While religious syncretism did play a role when the worship of African deities was persecuted and criminalized by the state, Maria believes that the continuation of syncretism in the present day is doing a disservice to Black Brazilians and the country’s anti-racist movement. For instance, of all the Iemanjá images that devotees take to the February 2 celebration in Rio Vermelho, the vast majority mimic Our Lady of Navigators. “Who benefits from the massification of a white, straight-haired Iemanjá representation,” Maria asks.
This is why she and Coelho worked to produce the Black Iemanjá sculpture for the centenary celebration. On the countdown for the 100th Iemanjá Day in Salvador, Rodrigo Siqueira, the visual artist who made the sculpture, highlights the symbolic importance of MUNCAB’s initiative.
“Being able to rely on Black references in Salvador’s public spaces provides representation, both for locals and for tourists, who aim to experience the real history of this place. It also uplifts the Black men and women who are devotees of Iemanjá,” Siqueira tells Somos.
For Maria, the Iemanjá festivity symbolizes the celebration of Black culture’s resistance. The new sculpture, likewise, represents the affirmation of Iemanjá’s Black identity.
“The fact that Iemanjá is Black should be redundant. But the cruelty of racism makes people question it," she says. "When people start accepting that an African goddess is Black, we will have taken a big step toward racial equality.”