CIHA 2016 in Beijing

34th World Congress of Art History

About History Press Release Sessions Schedule Activities Participants Venue Discussion Registration Closed


CONDURU, Roberto
Releasing mistakes: the monument to Zumbi in Rio de Janeiro

Session 15 Creative Misunderstanding

State University of Rio de Janeiro


In 1988, anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro (together with the architect João Filgueiras Lima) built in Rio de Janeiro a monument to Zumbi, one of the African-descendants’ heroes in Brazil. The monument allows us to observe how, in artistic appropriation, ancient meanings still reverberate and new ones are superimposed, as well as how creative postcolonial dialogues between South and North intrude in the discussion on repatriation of works of art.

Zumbi was born free in 1655 in northeastern Brazil, but was captured and enslaved by the Portuguese colonizers. Later, he escaped the oppression and conquered the leading position of the Palmares quilombo, the biggest and most enduring hinterland settlement founded by people of African origin. After having resisted for years the Portuguese attacks, he was captured and killed in 1695, becoming since then a symbol of black pride, resistance and freedom.

As there is no visual record of Zumbi, Ribeiro decided to represent him according to a sculpture belonging to the British Museum, a brass head of a ruler, which was produced probably between 1300s and early 1400s in Ife in the current Nigeria. The original form was enlarged from 36 cm to 3 meters and cast in 800 kilograms of bronze.

It can be questioned to what extent the choice of the sculpture to be copied still relies on naturalistic and technological criteria for judging artworks. Without respecting ethnic particularities, Ribeiro represented Zumbi as Yoruba, when he was from Bantu origin. And he was strangely connected to Egypt by the pyramid designed by Lima to underpin the head.

However, what would be wrong has thought-provoking connotations. Wearing a crown composed of glass beads and a feather, Zumbi is represented not as slave or warrior, but as a leader related to African ancient myths. Although the monument can be associated with head trophies, recalling the beheading of Zumbi by his enemies, it also refers to the importance given to the cult of Ori (head) in the Afro-Brazilian religions and in that sense it can be understood as a public urban altar. Both, the relativizing of his origin and the connection with Egypt, refer Zumbi to pan-Africanism, which was then debated and disseminated by the black movement. Therefore, Ribeiro and Lima deepened Zumbi’s historical significance, awarded him a divine aura, turned him into an aesthetic symbol, besides transmuting a relic of European colonial power in a sign of artistic and socio-political liberation.

CONDURU, Roberto

Professor of Art History and Theory at the State University of do Rio de Janeiro since 1995. Former president (2007-2010) and current vice president of the Brazilian Committee of Art History. Visiting Professor at the Southern Methodist University, Dallas (2014); Guest Scholar at the Getty Foundation, Los Angeles (2012). Some books published: Pérolas Negras - Primeiros Fios (EdUerj, 2013), Coleção Gilberto Chateaubriand, 1920-1950 (Barléu, 2011), Jorge Guinle (Barléu 2009), Arte Afro-Brasileira (C/Arte, 2007), Willys Castro (CosacNaify, 2005). Some exhibitions curated: Vontade Construtiva na Coleção Fadel (Museu de Arte do Rio, Rio de Janeiro, 2013; with Paulo Herkenhoff), Incorporation – Afro-Brazilian Contemporary Art (Centrale Electrique, Brussels, Belgium, 2011-2012), Perles de Liberté – Bijoux Afro-Brésiliens (Grand Hornu Images, Hornu, Belgium, 2011-2012; with Françoise Foulon).