By Ricardo Nascimento and Cinézio Peçanha
For the majority of capoeira practitioners, as for the majority of scholars, there is little doubt about the African character of this art form: the possible African origins of capoeira have always been of great interest to masters, activists, practitioners, intellectuals, artists, folklorists, researchers and people generally interested in Afro-Brazilian cultural practices.
As Matthias Röhrig Assunção (2005) highlighted, the encounter between the Luso-Angolan painter Neves e Sousa with the Brazilian folklorist Câmara Cascudo and Mestre Pastinha are at the origin of the myth. Their dialogues made the representation of engolo, as illustrated in the Neves e Sousa paintings, a possible origin of capoeira. As a ritual practice of the Nyaneka-Nkhumbi people in the South of Angola, engolo – also known as the zebra dance – became an object of artistic and ethnographic interest of the painter Neves e Sousa during his travels in the provinces of colonial Angola.
The paintings by Neves e Sousa and the dialogues followed by exchanges of letters, that took place between him and Câmara Cascudo, resulted in publications by the two authors that position engolo as an ethnographic finding explaining the African monogenetic origin of capoeira. These images, exhibited in galleries and museums in Brazil and abroad, and published by the scholar TJ Desch-Obi (2008) in his book, functioned like a certificate of the Africanity of capoeira. Therefore, the point of departure of the engolo myth inevitably starts with the epic encounters and dialogues between these three characters: the Luso-Angolan painter, the Brazilian folklorist and the Brazilian capoeira master.
The details and nuances of these meetings, places and particularities are unknown to us; we only know of their multiplying effects, as the story of engolo was appropriated ever since as a foundational myth by the Afrocentric narrative of capoeira. One aspect of the outreach and scale of these effects can be verified in the dissemination of the iconographic symbols of engolo by capoeira Angola collectives, where the GCAP – Grupo de Capoeira Angola Pelourinho was the first to make use of the zebra image as a form of representation of the Angolan fight (Peçanha, 2019).
What we know today, and which is uncontroversial truth, is that these encounters, the mutual interests and the exchanges generated by these interlocutors were able to produce more precise narratives about the African ancestry of capoeira. If until then its Africanity was known and speculated about, from now on it was possible to identify a specific African ancestor, the engolo, characterized and disseminated as the zebra dance.
The ultimate proof of this relation is given by the information provided by Neves e Sousa and incorporated in the books of Câmara Cascudo (1967 e 1972), and the images of Neves e Sousa published in 1972. These encounters and dialogues materialized in a particular finding identified by the researchers Cinézio Peçanha e Ricardo Nascimento: the letters send by Neves e Sousa to Câmara Cascudo, archived in the Câmara Cascudo Institute, in Natal, and the documents from an exhibition about the painter in the Museum of Contemporary Art of the Federal University of Ceará, in Fortaleza. In the letters, Neves e Sousa tells us passages of his daily life, his trips, writes intimate messages of affection, describes landscapes, cultural practices and African rituals that had been enquired about by Câmara Cascudo, and that were subsequently published in some of the latter’s books. Neves e Sousa’s letters have, moreover, a curious particularity, as they were made up by a combination of writing and figurative drawings that help to elucidate the messages.
It is important to realise that the letters represent historical documents of high value and its scope reach well beyond the exchanges and dialogues about capoeira. The letters provide us with tracks of political, cultural and esthetical perspectives of intellectuals and artists of the time, as well as allowing an understanding of how these subjects understood and interpreted the Afro-Lusophone Atlantic. As historical documents, the letters exchanged between Neves e Sousa and Câmara Cascudo cover a period that goes from the Portuguese colonial and pos-colonial period in Angola, from the 1960s, when they met, right through the seventies, with the end of the Salazar dictatorship, until the 1980s, when the Lusophone post-colonial sphere is reconstituted.
In a telegram dated 31 July 1986, Luiza Albano Neves e Sousa paid homage and sent a message of condolence regarding the loss of the master Câmara Cascudo, bringing to a closure a cycle of dialogue via letters between the families. If we take into consideration the quantity of letters, the time span during which they were written and the qualitative focus of their imagery and written contents, we can conclude that they constitute documents that allow to analyse, through the narratives of intimate and intellectual lives of the two families, the social and political relations of the Afro-Lusophone Atlantic and its populations of this particular time period.
It’s important to state that the letters by Câmara Cascudo to Neves e Sousa were not encountered, but indices of their whereabouts can be found with the widow of the painter and in his archives, kept in Portugal, where Maria Luiza Neves de Sousa deposited great part of the painter’s estate. Albano Neves e Sousa, Câmara Cascudo and their families, ever since their first encounter, were great friends, exchanging letters and maintaining relations of familiar intimacy and cordiality. The letters written by Neves e Sousa to Câmara Cascudo relate to various topics. Generally, Neves e Sousa wrote about his trips to Africa and his family life with Luiza, talked about his exhibitions, asked for common friends, exchanged cordialities and affection, always referring to his friend as “Uncle Cascudo”, in a relationship that denoted proximity, respect, and a relationship of extended family affiliation.
We have doubts if engolo is in fact the possible and only African ancestor of capoeira. The certainty we have, and we bring to this reading, is that the impact of engolo in capoeira and in the Afro-diasporic culture reflects its symbolic power in the imaginary of the practitioners of capoeira who until then did not glimpse an existing African ancestor for their art, and from here stems the iconographic potential of the images that were produced by Neves e Sousa. Among the messages of the Luso-Angolan painter to the Brazilian folklorist, the letter of July 20, 1964 brought one of the first descriptions of engolo, at the request of Câmara Cascudo, who then quotes it in his book. In addition to the detailed descriptions, as usual, the letter presented the painter’s famous drawings, illustrating his narrative.
It is important to mention that the descriptions of the engolo as well as the references of the relationship with capoeira appear in only one letter we found, but it suggests that engolo was the object of a face-to-face dialogue and debate between the two friends. However, in all other missives, the countries of Lusophone Africa, their peoples and landscapes, are described using a poetic and romantic language as resource. Recalling that the letters were produced in a hybrid format between writing and drawing, we were struck by the combination of soft iconographic features, suggestively represented in black and white, which accentuated a picturesque and idealized imaginary of the African continent. Although the letters refer to experiences of a period of conflict in Lusophone Africa, the vehement contestation of Portuguese colonialism and clashes of the colonial war, Neves de Sousa rarely expresses feelings of disgust and repugnance towards Portuguese colonialism. However, his poetic tone and light trace speak of an ambiguous love for Africa that served as a source of inspiration.
We know today that Neves and Sousa, would have heard about Câmara Cascudo even before meeting him. The folklorist was conducting a research on food in Brazil and, convinced of the gastronomic connections between Brazil and Africa, he travelled to Angola in 1963 in order to learn more about food habits and local gastronomy. It was on this occasion that they met for the first time. In an interview with the widow of Neves e Sousa, Maria Luiza Neves e Sousa explains the meeting between these two characters, which marked the beginning of a long friendship:
It is important to note that relations between Neves and Sousa and Câmara Cascudo were part of a territorial triangulation involving the Lusophone Black Atlantic, sewing dialogues between Brazil, Portugal and Lusophone Africa. We are talking about a period when Freyrian ideas of racial democracy and Luso-tropicalism were at their peak. The folklorist and the painter, in their personal and professional instances, were part of a vast circle of intellectuals, enthusiasts of the Lusophone popular culture and who exchanged ideas and impressions about their findings in their respective countries, particularly involving Lusophone Africa and Brazil.
In the letters addressed to Câmara Cascudo, where the painter provided him with information about Africa – by demand and on the former’s request it seems – it was common for Neves and Sousa to refer to African or Portuguese ethnographers and researchers, both known to them, whom the folklorist could also ask for extra data for his research. Thus, names like Ário de Azevedo, José Redinha or Oscar Ribas, all of them characters from the Portuguese colonial world who worked in African countries, will appear in the missives exchanged between Neves and Sousa and Câmara Cascudo, letting us know the connections between these interlocutors and their common interests. Ário de Azevedo, for example, was an agricultural engineer of Portuguese origin, born in Maputo, and was a researcher at the Junta de Investigação do Ultramar, which collected much data on the colonies. José Redinha was an ethnographer and employee of the Portuguese Administration in Angola, he was director of the Dundo Museum, participated in several ethnographic expeditions to collect materials for the museum and knew the local languages as well as the community leaders of the villages. Like Neves and Sousa, Redinha had drawing skills that were much appreciated and useful in his ethnographic travels.
Neves and Sousa also maintained strong ties with Jorge Amado, exchanging some letters with him. The writer prefaced one of Neves e Sousa’s important books – Angola in Black and White, dated 1972 – and introduced some of the painter’s catalogues, such as the exhibition held at the Arts Museum of the Federal University of Ceará, in 1979, in the city of Fortaleza. In the open letter to Neves e Sousa, made in a preface in the painter’s book, Jorge Amado makes the following description:
In this quote we can observe that there was a proximity between the two interlocutors and an intimacy of Neves and Sousa with elements of Afro-Bahian culture, among them, capoeira and the figure of Mestre Pastinha. We would like to draw attention to the fact that the characters we mentioned circulated in intellectual, but also artistic and academic circles, were participants in the construction of an imaginary of the Afro-diasporic cultural universe, even though they were driven by a Lusotropicalist premise of a mild colonization and non-existent racism.
This intellectual milieu, which involved several actors from different parts of the Portuguese-speaking world, suffered from a tropicalist Lusocentrism that sought to accentuate Portugal’s role in the construction of a transcontinental space. This was not at all the case for Câmara Cascudo, since Brazil was no longer a colony. However, in a way, his research pointed to the Freyrian perspective of racial democracy in which the African contribution to the construction of national identity was a nodal point. The same cannot be said of Neves e Sousa and his relations with the colonial empire:
The work of Neves e Sousa is thus appropriated as a flag both for the promotion of the Portuguese colonial empire in a broader sense, and for those who, living in Angola (Portuguese or their descendants), consider it a vehicle of particular visibility of the colony, accentuating its idiosyncrasies (competing quickly with an idea of emancipation and independence from the metropolis). However, the terms in which this appropriation takes place reveal the clear ambivalence and ambiguity of the configuration of an image of the Portuguese colony in Africa (and in Angola in particular) and the resulting misunderstandings and conflicts. (PEREIRA, 2011, p. 237)
We understand that this contextualization is important to understand the nuances of the meeting between Câmara Cascudo and Neves e Sousa and between the latter and Mestre Pastinha. It is important to pay attention to the the context that gave rise to the encounter and the exchanges between these agents, mainly its meanings and intrinsic motivations. They were not just paintings: for Cascudo, it was the material that allowed him to complete his work and positioned him as an important folklorist; for Neves e Sousa, it was the social and cultural relevance of his authorial work as a painter beyond the appreciative and aesthetic domain; and, for Mestre Pastinha, it was proof that capoeira Angola was indeed African.
AMADO, Jorge. Prefácio. In: CASCUDO, L. C. Dicionário do Folclore Brasileiro. 3. ed. Rio de Janeiro: Tecnoprint, 1972. p.1.
ASSUNÇÃO, Matthias Röhrig. Capoeira – The History of an Afro-Brazilian Martial Art. London and New York: Routledge, 2005.
DESCH OBI, T. J., Fighting for Honor: The History of African Martial Art Traditions in the Atlantic World, Columbia: South Carolina Press, 2008.
CASCUDO, Luis da Câmara, Folclore do Brasil (Rio de Janeiro:1967).
CASCUDO, Luis da Câmara. Dicionário do Folclore Brasileiro. 3. ed. Rio de Janeiro: Tecnoprint, 197
NEVES E SOUSA, Albano Da Minha África e do Brasil que eu vi… Luanda: Lello, 1974.
PEÇANHA, Cinésio Feliciano. Gingando na linha da kalunga. A capoeira Angola, Engolo e a construção da ancestralidade. Tese de doutorado multiínstitutcuinal e multidisciplinar em difusão do conhecimento. UFBA, 2019.
PEREIRA, Teresa Mattos. Uma travessia da colonialidade: intervisualidades da pintura, Portugal e Angola. Tese (Doutoramento em Belas-Artes) – Faculdade de Belas Artes, Universidade de Lisboa, Lisboa, 2011.