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
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
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! Abdiasnascimento 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! Abdiasnascimento." 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! Abdiasnascinmento."
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 Brazilia
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. Abdiasnascimento. 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 www.verinhaottoni.com: 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, Amiri 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
I went to Salvador in the 60's, working
on film music with Gianni Amico (www.verinhaottoni.com/gianniamico).
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