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Shared Stories – Mississippi to Brazil

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

By guest contributor Shalina Chatlani

Growing up in Mississippi is a collection of sensory experiences. My youth was spending hours in an untamed backyard plucking honeysuckles from a lattice and tasting the morning’s dew, sitting at a soda fountain overwhelmed with smells of blue vinyl and chocolate malts, and sharing a cold brew coffee on a hot afternoon with a loving stranger, who would endlessly tell stories about the old days and express hopes for the future. It’s no wonder that some of Mississippi’s most famous authors, Welty for instance, have dabbled in both written word and conventional art forms as a way to communicate an awareness of the sensory within the true “southern experience.” There’s no doubt that Southern artists, whose memories have been embedded within themes of racism, socioeconomic struggle, and prejudice, have a remarkable talent for telling a story of the state’s both quirky and tragic history within the simplicity of the images they capture.

Thomas D. Clark, a native Mississippian and historian, once wrote that the state’s most defining characteristic is the “enjoyment of folksy and humorous stories,” a form of abstract narrative art that has a purpose of expressing the the concrete reality of everyday life. The point of the artwork, therefore, is to tell a story of the culture, the people, the music, the war, the loss.

There’s a comfort in this reminder of the past, and a caution for the future that the state’s millennials have heeded, which compels me toward visiting the Mississippi Museum of Art every time I return home and looking upon the images with a swelling in my heart.

It’s for this same reason, as I spend my time studying abroad in Brazil, I have sought out artwork with similar themes of the Southern struggle. And, I’ve found that Brazilian artists have recounted stories which parallel those of Mississippi: a history of slavery, perseverance of the down-trodden classes, a rich African inspired culture that shines through jazz and samba music, and a friendly Carioca population that absolutely loves to share tales.

One of my favorite paintings in the permanent exhibit at the MMA is by Miriam Weems, a piece entitled Stars Under the Stars (2001). The piece, pictured below, captures the jubilance of Jackson’s population and a characteristic love for music that, despite years of discrimination, manages to bring all races together in a celebration that encourages the crowd to “jam y’all.” While the technical aspect of the piece is simple with broad brushstrokes, the colors are loud and joyful; the singers, both black and white, coexist in literal harmony and reveal a tale of coming together. Most importantly, I think that this painting captures just how quirky and fun Southerners can be. The vibrancy of the painting is a reflection of the Mississippi spirit, which is quintessentially hospitable, imaginative, and even a bit crazy.

I’ve noticed since my arrival in Brazil that Carioca people are similarly attached to music, spending weekends organizing in large warehouses with a grandiose samba band. The gathering that is depicted in the one above happens everyday in Rio de Janeiro, where Carnival, similar to Mardi Gras, weaves a golden thread throughout the culture.

Samba, a rhythm and fast paced dance and music, is a large part of Carnival in Rio, and it was originally a term for the dance parties thrown by African slaves during the colonial period. Now embraced by the entire population, Samba tells a story of black culture and pride, just as Blues music recounts the struggles of African slaves in the South. Carnival is an example of histories converging, and it is reflected in a great deal of Brazilian artwork.

This painting above entitled Caboclinhos (1952) hangs in Rio’s Museum of Fine Arts and is by a famous Brazilian artist named Djanira da Motta e Silva. Caboclinhos is a traditionally native dance that has become an important part of Carnival. In this painting, the artist depicts how the music brings people together, with all races participating in the song. Moreover, she highlights the value of a native art form within Brazilian culture. It’s interesting to see the artist’s point of view on coexistence, particularly since the piece was created in the 1950s, a time when even in the United States, the idea of integration was not looked upon with favor. Here, the characters are shown to be happy and thriving, perhaps even using the music as an abstraction from the reality of Brazil’s past and history of slavery.

Just as in Weems piece on Mississippi’s population, the high spirited nature of Carioca culture shines through. Walking through Rio’s streets, often lined with small samba bands and percussion groups, evokes the same sentiment for me as when I listen to an impromptu jazz concert in New Orleans or hear B.B. King on the radio back home. It’s really exciting to see so much value in Rio’s artwork for Afro-Brazilian culture, with images that remind me so much of Mississippians and all their interesting stories.