Can Brazil's Valongo Wharf slavery memorial spark a new conversation?

Slavery ended almost 127 years ago in Brazil. Rio de Janeiro is working to create a new memorial that goes beyond the expected, emphasizing connections between the African continent and Brazil. 

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, The views expressed are the author's own.

The Rio de Janeiro city government, together with neighborhood associations and groups involved with the Afro-Brazilian legacy, is upgrading an existing visitor circuit that could ultimately stand out among all other locations in the world reminding us of one of the biggest tragedies of human history: slavery.

Rio de Janeiro’s project, says Rio World Heritage Institute president Washington Fajardo, will be almost complete by the opening of the 2016 Olympic Games — and will be quite different from any other memorial for this dark historic period.

In Washington D.C. the United States is building the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the Brazilian federal government has similar plans. The United Nations will build a monument to memorialize Transatlantic slavery, which involved 15 million human beings. Philadelphia already has a memorial, which reminds visitors that two slave-owning American presidents lived in a house located there.

Rio has good reason to innovate.

At the height of slavery, several years after the 1808 arrival of the Portuguese court as it fled Napoleon, more than half a million Africans passed through the Valongo area, disembarking from slave ships. Now, the region could become a unique point of reference, both for local residents and visitors.

The Historic and Archeological Circuit Celebrating the African Legacy will include the recently-discovered Cais do Valongo (Valongo Wharf); the Instituto dos Pretos Novos, the final resting place of slaves who died on the journey or shortly after arrival; the recently-restored Valongo Gardens; the José Bonifácio Cultural Center; the Pedra do Sal, now an outdoor samba venue, at the foot of the rock where slaves unloaded salt; and the Largo do Depósito warehouse, where slaves were fattened and sold.

The circuit will also include the Docas Dom Pedro II warehouse, which now houses the Comitê Ação da Cidadania or Citizenship Action Committee, built by the black abolitionist André Rebouças in 1871 – without slave labor, as he ordered.

Mr. Fajardo told RioRealblog that City Hall is focusing on the circuit’s sustainability. The Institute is working with neighborhood partners — brought together by the Curating Work Group for the Urban, Architectural, and Museological Circuit Project. The group prepared a recommendations document, parts of which have been incorporated.

The Circuit will feature a bold memorial that Sara Zewde, a Harvard University landscape architecture masters’ student, helped to research and create. Instead of a statue, monument, building, or wall, the memorial will be the public space between the wharf, the Valongo Gardens, and the warehouse. The current plan is for this space to encourage visitors to sit, walk, and reflect, among trees, shade and light.

“This is a world, and the way it operated, for a long time,” says Ms. Zewde.

Slavery ended almost 127 years ago. But the Valongo Wharf, where slaves landed from 1811 to 1831, reappeared only in 2011, during the Porto Maravilha port revitalization excavations. These also revealed a large quantity of slave belongings, such as amulets.

Remodeled in 1843 so that the Princess María Mercedes of Bourbon-Two Sicilies, Teresa Cristina Maria de Bourbon, fiancée of (then) future Emperor Dom Pedro II, could disembark in comfort in Rio de Janeiro, the wharf was buried in 1911. And then, forgotten.

A break from tradition

Today, the location – part of a region whose history is at the core of Brazil’s African heritage — has the eye not only of City Hall and Afro-Brazilian leaders, but also draws attention from the United Nations.

In 2013, the Wharf was named part of the city’s cultural heritage. The following year, the city began to develop its candidacy for selection as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. UNESCO, the United Nations’s culture and education arm, will announce its decision in the first quarter of  2016.

The memorial will break with Western practice regarding public space, attempting instead to echo the traditions of enslaved Africans’ native lands, says Zewde. The biggest challenge will be to help visitors gain a sense of the connection between past and future, a strong element in many African cultures.

Circular forms and musical rhythms seen today in samba circles, Candomblé religious rituals, Afoxé traditions, and the capoeira dance/martial art, will be part of the memorial, whose visual identity will be selected in a contest to be held this year.

In addition, Zewde notes, the memorial will underscore the connections between the African continent and Brazil, using water and trees – and maybe even a baobab — that slaves would have known in their native lands. She also hopes to recreate the sad passage that slaves trod on landing in Rio, as best as can be done, given the amount of landfill that took place over time. 

“In [the] Candomblé [religion]” says Zewde, “The universe is a tree.”

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