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Allegorical inspirations of a hat-altar

Renata Menezes
p. 133-138

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Children’s Ward costume hat, GRES Estação Primeira de Mangueira, Carnival 2016

Children’s Ward costume hat, GRES Estação Primeira de Mangueira, Carnival 2016

Source: Photo by Luiz Gustavo Alves with art from Leer Martiniano. Collection Ludens, National Museum, Universidade Federal of Rio de Janeiro

1The hat chosen is somewhat peculiar since it was a carnival accessory. It came from the 2016 parade of the Estação Primeira de Mangueira samba school, more simply known as Mangueira, one of Rio de Janeiro’s oldest and most traditional samba schools. The object formed part of the “hail Cosmas and Damian” costume worn by 50 girls and 30 boys from the children’s wing, a costume described in the text presenting the parade as follows: “Popular saints cherished in Brazil […]. One of the most popular ways to commemorate the saints is the traditional practice of distributing sweets. In celebrating the ‘child saints’, Mangueira presents a playful and fun version of the protective saint[s] of children.” A carnival costume related to worship, then, whose hat mimics an altar. I chose this hat to contribute to the celebration of 25 years of Etnográfica precisely because of its capacity to connect debates on materialities to questions about religion and culture and about the ludic and the sacred, themes mobilized in my work.

2Though present worldwide, samba schools are considered typically Brazilian manifestations, one of the results of the African diaspora which, over the 20th century, acquired spectacular dimensions, attracting the attention of the media, tourists and enthusiasts. During Carnival, each of the school’s parades develops a narrative through rhythmic dance, singing in unison the lyrics of the samba-enredo, the arrangement of the percussion section, and the visual spectacle of the floats and costumed wings or alas, based on the enredo – a kind of plot or libretto. Creating the visual design and enredo is the task of the carnival designer, the carnavalesco, or of a carnival team, which, since it involves a competition, entails a huge responsibility.

3That year, Mangueira presented the enredo “Maria Bethânia, the apple of Oyá’s eye” in homage to one of Brazilian popular music’s lead singers. Bethânia’s religious connections to Candomblé – as well as her initiation to Orixá Oyá or Iansã – and to Catholicism, an example of “religious syncretism”, became central threads of the narrative. One of her devotions were Cosmas and Damian, which explains the use of the costume by the children’s wing.

4It was during my research on reciprocity, urban flows and the inter-religious relations surrounding these saints that I first came into contact with the costume. As mentioned, the festival held in the saints’ honour involves the distribution of small bags of sweets to children on the streets every 27th of September. But although I found references to this practice in specialized literature, gaps remained that I sought to fill with the backing of my team. To this end, I turned to the conventional methodological repertoire of anthropology of religion, such as participation in religious ceremonies, interviews, collaboration in festivals of worship, analysis of the composition of offerings and ex-votos, and photographing and filming of rites. I also was attentive to “embodied” modes of religious know-how – what in the 1960’s-1980’s was often termed popular religion (or religiosity) and today could be called “lived religion”, “intangible heritage”, “traditional knowledge” or “non-institutionalized religious behaviour”. In other words, distinct modes of understanding and making something socially-definable as religion.

5Part of the implicit nature of the devotion to Cosmas and Damian derives from the fact that they are more often worshipped in Rio de Janeiro and the rest of Brazil through African-origin religions. Over time, they shifted away from their Catholic avatars to assume the contours of the ibeijis, beijadas, erês or crianças – entities of Umbanda and Candomblé. Religions which are marked by orality and secrecy, partly as initiatory religions, but also because they became more discrete as a form of self-protection: over the centuries, they had become the targets of persecution, racism and religious intolerance, the effects of which are still suffered today, despite religious freedom being a right assured by Brazil’s Federal Constitution. Religions which are fundamental, however, to the formation of the nation’s culture and society. To comprehend the characteristics and relevance of this worship, I also turned to music, cinema, popular sayings, family photos, almanacs, newspapers, calendars… And I eventually arrived at the parades of the samba schools as a repository of representations of saints and devotions, since many of them focus on religion, or contain religious references, and various schools have featured Cosmas and Damian in their parades. However, it was in the Mangueira school that I found the hat.

6The first contacts were through the media, because I was not present at the parade, but its repercussion was considerable since Mangueira won that year’s competition. Watching the children’s wing, I was immediately enchanted by its complexity and the skill of the samba school’s carnival designer (carnavalesco), Leandro Vieira, in creating it. Gradually I noticed more details.

7The 80 children participating in the wing were divided into pairs with each pair sharing the same coat, a way of representing the twinhood of the saints, popularly known as “two-two” (dois-dois). The fact that the homage to them was made by children converged with the practice widespread in Catholic worship whereby the “protected” recognize and thus praise their “protectors”. But in a subtle way the wing also referred to the historical process of rejuvenation of the saints who, as they joined the Afro-Brazilian pantheon, turned into children. This can be seen through the study of the evolution of their statues in the country: gradually they lost the image of adult men, sometimes bearded, associated with them in the Old World and became younger.

8In their hands, the children carried green and pink balloons, representing Mangueira’s colours. Their movement during the parade evoked the childish buzz of the streets on Cosmas and Damian Day, when joy, the feeling socially prescribed for the occasion, should prevail. These children wore glittering hats on their heads, like the one in the photo accompanying this text. These hats imitated the altars in honour of the saints, like those encountered many times during my fieldwork. However, these were “carnivalized” altars, assembled using a carnivalesque syntax that manipulates forms, colours and materials to allegorize whatever one wishes to express.

9The hat was like a top hat without a brim, whose crown, decorated in white and gold and covered with satin ribbons, laces, sequins, beads, pompoms and plastic tubes, evoked the ornamental care taken over the altars at saints’ festivals. On top appear the figures of Cosmas and Damian, made from acetate: they are coloured neither in the green and red of Catholicism – representing their martyrdom and their work as doctors – nor the baby pink and light blue of Umbanda – associating them with childhood. On the heads of the carnival children, they became mangueirenses, decorated in green and pink, colours also used in their halos, metamorphosized into lollipops. The altar was completed with sweets and fairy cakes, made in cold porcelain, as well as glass beads representing marbles, since sweets and toys are among the gifts typically dedicated to the saints. The composition also evokes the decorated cakes commonly eaten in their festivals.

10What I saw was astonishing. The children’s wing simultaneously represented the saints themselves, the childhood they protect, the type of offerings made to them, and the specific features of their festival. I remembered Edmund Leach on the power of condensation of ritual symbols, as three years of ethnographic endeavours found themselves vividly materialized before me.

11My initial admiration became a feeling of incompetence for having spent so much time and energy discerning and comprehending what, in that context, looked so obvious. More calmly, though, I realized that I had perceived the many allegorical levels of the composition only because of my ethnographic experience, which had afforded me access to the repertoire of the religious universe in question. The “complex reading” of the hat and the wing resulted from the encounter between two processes of producing allegorical narratives: the carnivalesque and the ethnographic. Narratives in which fragmentary references amassed, connected and became entangled to evoke different senses of reality. And the hat emblematized this encounter.

12Afterwards, I became more attentive to the connections between religion and Carnival and explored the samba schools in new research projects. A change in perspective that the hat may also symbolize, since, at the end of 2016, I received one as a donation to the laboratory I coordinate at the Museu Nacional/UFRJ, the Laboratory of Anthropology of the Ludic and the Sacred (Ludens). As a collection item, it was sometimes used on the course Anthropology of Materialities as an example of the kind of heterodox ethnographic object useful to the study of devotion. The outcome of collaborations I had established in the world of Carnival, its life in the collection proved ephemeral, however, since the hat was destroyed in the tragic fire that swept through the Museu Nacional in 2018. The photo published here was taken from another example, still “in use” on an altar of the Mangueira do Amanhã infant samba school in the Mangueira warehouse in samba city. There, in its own way, it continues to protect children.

13Given the relations constructed with the artists-artisans of Carnival, I hope to acquire a new hat for the Museu Nacional. The piece will be significant, not so much due to the aura of a unique object, but because of its capacity to maintain active the flux of relations that underline the anthropological metier, as well as adding to the collection something of the enchantment produced by Rio’s samba schools.

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Título Children’s Ward costume hat, GRES Estação Primeira de Mangueira, Carnival 2016
Créditos Source: Photo by Luiz Gustavo Alves with art from Leer Martiniano. Collection Ludens, National Museum, Universidade Federal of Rio de Janeiro
URL http://journals.openedition.org/etnografica/docannexe/image/12745/img-1.jpg
Ficheiro image/jpeg, 227k
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Referência do documento impresso

Renata Menezes, «Allegorical inspirations of a hat-altar»Etnográfica, Número especial | -1, 133-138.

Referência eletrónica

Renata Menezes, «Allegorical inspirations of a hat-altar»Etnográfica [Online], Número especial | 2022, posto online no dia 22 dezembro 2022, consultado o 28 janeiro 2023. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/etnografica/12745; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/etnografica.12745

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Autor

Renata Menezes

Department of Anthropology, Museu Nacional, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

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CC-BY-NC-4.0

Creative Commons - Atribuição-NãoComercial 4.0 Internacional - CC BY-NC 4.0

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