Abdias do Nascimento rua Benjamin Constant,
55 apt. 1104,
Rio de Janeiro, RJ, 20241-150, Brasil, 
tel. 55-21-2507-8051 fax. 55-21-2242-0619 
e-Mail: larkin3@ig.com.br 
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Abdias do Nascimento
The Only Brazilian That I Am Proud Of!

 

Last May 2002, I went to Rio de Janeiro for a few days. Toward the end of my stay, I called Abdias' home and spoke with his wife Elisa Larkin. I asked her if it would be okay for me to come by and give Abdias a kiss. She very kindly said yes. I made arrangements to visit their home within 2 hours time, because my flight back to London was to leave that same day. When I arrived there Abdias was still getting dressed, so I spoke with Elisa for a while discussing our lives and the adventures we had encountered over the past few years, as I haven't seen or spoke to either of them for quite a long time. When Abdias finished dressing, he entered the room and asked: "I am the last one you are seeing, then? You left me for the last moment." I smiled and responded "No, darling, you are the only ONE!" Unfortunately, I had very little time and had not had the opportunity to visit with anyone else. I was most delighted to visit with them; they were, as always, terribly nice and affectionate towards me.

Previously, Abdias and I had built a very strong relationship over the years since our first introduction in the 60's. I met him when he was giving a course about the Black Experimental Theatre (O Teatro Experimental do Negro.), that he founded in 1944, at the Escola de Belas Artes in Rio de Janeiro. I can say that from the very moment I met Abdias, he has never stopped teaching me; one thing he taught me was the right and wrong in society. He was very much involved in combating the Apartheid in South Africa. In fact, I will never forget the time when he did a stage production of poetry and I said poetry with him at the Teatro Santa Rosa in Ipanema RJ, against the Apartheid. That experience on stage was my first. I couldn't even go back for the applause; I was too emotional. Still today I am not sure how I was able to manage it. Abdias was a huge influence on me and he introduced me to the theatre and the love for it. He taught me to respect others, regardless of the colour of their skin or their ethic origins. This may come to a surprise to many of you, but Brazil is a very racist society. Just this week I was speaking with a Brazilian friend, she was telling me how very happy she was that her blue-eyed daughter hadn't gone to live in London or the USA, because she feared her daughter would end up marring a black man! My response to her was that I would not mind my daughter marring a black man. I am concerned that my daughter marries a man that loves her and treats her well; his skin colour is not a concern to me. These are the exact battles of ignorance and prejudice that I remember Abdias do Nascimento fighting against in Brazil. And for this, I consider Abdias do Nascimento the only Brazilian that I am proud of.

I have great respect for black musicians that have broken the traditional mold with great success such as Miles Davis and Stevie Wonder. Among my idols is Nelson Mandela. He was in prison for many years and when the Apartheid finished in South Africa he was released from prison. Without any need for revenge or cold bitterness in his heart, he became the first black South African President. Another black South African that has had a positive influence on my life is Nkosi Johnson. Nkosi was infected with the HIV virus at birth; he became a symbol of the nation's battle against the disease. When his mother died of AIDS, a white couple adopted him. His adoptive mother, Gail, controversially used him to raised funds and campaign for new policies on fighting AIDS. Nkosi raised money for a shelter called Nkosi's Haven; it was a place for HIV-positive mothers and their children to safely reside. Nkosi's story was on TV and his dramatic speech criticising Thabo Mbeki, the SA president, drove me to tears. The documentary "Nkosi's Story" treats neither Nkosi nor Gail as saints, but recognise the hardship of taking such a small child from his black culture. But this woman, Gail Johnson, is a wonderful example to me (to the world) and to the white Johannesburg suburb. She won a bitter battle against anxious parents that were not pleased in having Nkosi at their local predominantly white primary school. Nelson Mandela described Nkosi's death as "an icon of the struggle for life" in the flight against HIV-AIDS. Nkosi was the longest surviving child AIDS victim in South Africa; he died at the age of 12. He spent his short life, calling for sufferers to be treated with dignity and thus became a voice of hope for millions of South African AIDS victims. I still remember him saying (and suppose I always will) "We are human beings…" in this speech he addressed the 13th International AIDS conference in Durban asking people not to shun those with the disease. He said "you cannot get AIDS from hugging, kissing, or holding hands. We are normal human beings! We can walk, we can talk, we have hands, we have feet, just like everyone else." Even now as I am writing this, I am brought to tears remembering this young hero's speech. It is people such as these who restore my hope in the humanity. Yes, these are the people that move me, that make me happy, and that make me believe in the future. These are the people that remind me of Abdias do Nascimento in Brazil. He has a sense of brotherhood, of community and sense of giving back to society, which is an example of thinking that I believe should be adopted by others. People can change their situations, if they truly desire change.

I recall telling Abdias my struggles of trying to be near my handicapped cousin and how my mother that had a stroke and was paralysed in the hospital. Abdias said: "I try to help my brothers." I felt like a worm, because of his universal attitude. I seem to be busy and loss track of time often putting others second to myself. But in my small way, I try my very best to help my brothers.

Abdias is the great man in the Brazilian black theatre. He started and trained the first generation of African-Brazilian actors and brought to prominence the playwrights. Not only was he a writer and a poet but he was a Senator, a statesman that fought for his black brothers. He was the first African-Brazilian member of Congress with a mandate of defending his people's civil and human rights. I noticed that he had a very simple flat for an ex-senator. He obviously did not make a great deal of money from his position as senator; he did not take the position to acquire luxury.

Back at the flat, Abdias and Elisa began to give me a number of gifts, one including a large book of Abdias' painting: ORISHAS: THE LIVING GODS OF AFRICA IN BRAZIL - It is a marvellous, colourful book that contains some of his most recent paintings of the gods. Abdias signed it for me. It reads: "Uma Lembranca para Vera dos Orixas que me inspiram e guiam meus pinceis nesse esforco de recriar hoje as imagens miticas da nossa ancestralidade afro-descendente. AXE! Abdias do Nascimento 19.05.05." Which translated reads: "Remembering Vera of the Orixas that has inspired and guided my paintbrush and forced me to try and today recreate the mythical image of our ancestors Afro-descent. Axe!".

Also amongst the items they gave to me was a catalogue of his last exhibition in Paris: Abidias Nascimento Peintures Afro-Bresiliennes in 02 October 1998 at the Galerie Debret. I felt unexplainable emotions creeping up on me as I watched Elisa packing the items for me to return to London with. Before my emotions had the opportunity to erupt, the two of them led me to Abdias' studio in the flat next door. It was a great privilege to be shown his private room of artistic creation; I felt a loss for words as my eyes scanned across the room admiring Abdias' original paintings, which were hug beautifully throughout the entire studio. As I continued to scan the room, I stopped to fix my eyes upon the window across the room, through it was the most beautiful panoramic view of Rio de Janeiro and all the glories of Baia de Guanabara including the Sugar Leaf Mountain contrasting with a view of a favela! The view, like Abdias' paintings was breathtaking. Elisa deterred my concentration on the outside landscape by pointing out to Adbias that a particular painting he had hung was different in colour than it was portrayed in the book. Abdias did not seem to mind the inconstancy. He said that his painting were always evolving. Then to my surprise he got the painting from the wall and handed it to me. The painting was called "YEMANJA" that is my mother saint in the Candomble; she is an African Goddess of Africa transported to Brazil. Abdias told me to keep the painting and then he signed the back saying: " Para Vera tentando controlar a alegria incontrolavel deste reencontro depois de mais de dez anos sem ver seu rosto, ouvir sua voz, enfim sua presenca iluminada. E que YEMANJA te proteja. ODAIA! Abdias do Nascimento." Which translated reads: "To Vera, trying to control the happiness unleashed by meeting again after more than 10 years without seeing her face, listening to her voice or seeing her illuminated presence. And may Yemanja protect her. ODAIA! Abdias do Nascinmento."

Of course the emotions that I had successfully keep from erupting earlier had once again welled up and this time I could not hold them inside. I began to cry. No one had ever said anything so beautiful to me. In the midst of my tears, Abdias remarked that he sometimes cried in a moving film; I know he said that as a joke to put me at ease. In that moment I also remembered kind words that Abdias had given me in times before. On the 14th of August 1968, when my film, Instantaneo 65, was in the Brazilian Film Festival, the military was in power in Brazil, the film was burned and the festival was closed in protest. Abdias cut this article from the newspaper and sent it to me in London and he wrote: "A cineasta querida e interdicta, con um beijo do Abdias". Which translated reads: "To the darling forbided filmmaker. With a kiss from, Abdias." I also recall seeing his exhibits in 1988, which celebrated the freedom of slaves in Brazil. He gave me his book entitled Povo Negro - A Sucessao e a Nova Republica. In the front flap of the book he wrote to me "Lembranca para Vera da minha peripecia political. Abdias do Nascimento. 31.10.88" Which translated reads: "Rememberence to Vera of my sudden political experience."

We returned to their home and again Elisa began packing for me. She carefully packed my "YEMANJA". Elisa was an expert packer, particularly transatlantic cargo. I left Abdias' home that day with a collection of his books and paintings (strategically packed by Elisa) under my arms. I shall treasure and hold close to my heart these things until the day that I die.

Now in his 88 years, with Elisa patiently looking after him, painting has become his favourite activity. I remember him sending me photos of his paintings in exhibition at The Harlem Art Gallery NY 1969. He fled to American in 1968 from the military dictatorship. While in American he worked as a professor in many American Universities. In his book he says: "Being a grandchild of enslaved Africans, participated in the Brazilian Black Front of the 1930's, the civil right movement of the time, and was imprisoned for protesting against the New State dictatorship in 1937". (I was commenting with my adopted mother D. Hilda how very happy I saw Abdias and she reminded me that her husband Raymundo Ferreira Gomes, was together with Abdias in the protesting of 1937. Raymondo is the one that I have the photos on my site hunting very politically incorrect today go to Verinha Ottoni: click Family then Raymundo pictures. Raymundo senior was so left wing that he named his son Sergei pronounced in Russian, and Sergei has a Sergei son too, not for the same reason).

I was, once again, recently speaking to Elisa and Abdias. I was telling them of my daughter and how she has made me very proud. She has written her University thesis on American Modern Literature on the American Black writer, poet, musician LeRoy Jones, Amurik Baraka, and the problem of the identity Afro-American in the 60's. Yes, I visited only Elisa and Abdias on my trip to Rio de Janeiro in May 2002, but, however, I did see their beautiful son, Osiris Kwesi, a boy in his teens with a head of afro hair. Although one many be different in colour or origin, we need not fear those differences, for under the exterior red blood flows through us all. I am proud to be able to call Abdias my friend.

I went to Salvador in the 60's, working on film music with Gianni Amico While I was there, Abdias invited me to meet some of his artist friends and to collect some paintings and sculptures for his Museum. This gave me the opportunity to meet many of the local artists. "I have a dream" that before I die I will see this Museum come to fruition. So, in conclusion, if you have any stories to share of Abdias please add them to the forum. Also, if you have any ideas for the Museum, or have contributions in paintings or sculpture please write to larkin3@ig.com.br

 

Verinha Ottoni

 

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