Decolonial Brazil: other stories

The story of Maria Cambinda

By Museu Histórico Nacional

Maria Cambinda (front) (1801/1900) by UnknownMuseu Histórico Nacional

The exhibition Brasil decolonial: other stories is a realization of the National Historical Museum and the project ECHOES - Modalities of European Colonial Heritage in Entwined Cities

Logo for Maria CambindaMuseu Histórico Nacional

It consists of artistic and textual interventions in the long-term circuit of the MHN, with provocations and proposals for other readings on themes and objects related to the African Diaspora in the history of Brazil told by the MHN.

Seventeen interventions were carried out along the long-term exhibition circuit at the MHN, launching problematic perspectives and creating new possibilities for reading. 

Among them, we chose Maria Cambinda as the mark of this exhibition, due to her journey inside the Museum: from an allegorical illustration of the African continent, it now occupies its proper place, representing black protagonisms in Brazil.

Maria Cambinda (right side) (1801/1900) by UnknownMuseu Histórico Nacional

Maria Cambinda

The research that resulted in the “rediscovery” of Maria Cambinda in the collection of the Museu Histórico Nacional justifies her choice as a symbol of the “Brasil Decolonial: other histories” exhibition.

Maria Cambinda (back) (1801/1900) by UnknownMuseu Histórico Nacional

Object of the aphrodiasporic culture of the Minas Gerais city of Ouro Preto, it lost space and identity in the institution to the point where we believed that it was no longer in the MHN.

This exhibition aims to share with the public a little about the history of this doll, which is also a mask and became a sculpture. 

Maria Cambinda (left side) (1801/1900) by UnknownMuseu Histórico Nacional

From a decolonial perspective, we retrace its paths and missteps at MHN, building other possibilities for reading and interpreting the black agency of the Brotherhood of Our Lady of the Rosary of the Blacks of Ouro Preto (MG).

Church before restoration (1928) by UnknownMuseu Histórico Nacional

Maria Cambinda arrived at MHN in 1928, through the donation of the then judge of the brotherhood, Odorico Neves to Gustavo Barroso, then director of MHN, when he inspected works in the church of Our Lady of the Rosary of the Blacks of Ouro Preto, at service to the Government.

Church after restoration (1930) by UnknownMuseu Histórico Nacional

There was a time when the Church got rid of what was not directly linked to Catholic worship, such as Maria Cambinda, donated together with a crown and scepter from the Reinado da Irmandade celebration and a drum known as Caxambu.

Selecta Magazine (1930) by UnknownMuseu Histórico Nacional

Gustavo Barroso wrote the article “Memories of slavery”, published in the “Brazilian relics” section of Revista Selecta, on 05/28/30, dedicated to the  Antônio Prado Júnior Room.

Antônio Prado Júnior Room (1930) by UnknownMuseu Histórico Nacional

The room's name not only paid homage to the then mayor of the City of Rio de Janeiro, federal district, but above all to his father, Antônio da Silva Prado, an abolitionist politician from the Empire, who worked in the drafting of abolitionist laws.

Maria Cambinda appears in the photo of the room, which was actually a small passage hall, but is not mentioned in the report. Maria Cambinda is seen in profile, to the right of the image, on the living room floor.

Luiz Gama Room (1939) by UnknownMuseu Histórico Nacional

In the Tourist Guide Rio de Janeiro and surroundings, published in 1939, this room appears under the name of “Luís Gama Room”, a black abolitionist intellectual, who as a lawyer freed more than 500 slaves.

There is a detailed description of the objects displayed in this “small hall”,  but the described doll does not appear identified as Maria Cambinda.

Article by Mário Barata in Revista da Semana in 1941 (1941) by UnknownMuseu Histórico Nacional

Revista da Semana, no. 20 of 05/17/1941, where the historian, museologist and art historian, Mário Barata, published an article on Afro-Brazilian art.

Article in Revista da Semana in 1941 (1941) by UnknownMuseu Histórico Nacional

It was thanks to this article, “Arte Negra”, that we were able to visualize and identify Maria Cambinda in the MHN collection.

Article in Revista da Semana with Maria Cambinda photos (1941) by UnknownMuseu Histórico Nacional

The article features two photos of Maria Cambinda accompanied by the following caption: “Maria Cambinda mask used by black people in processions in Ouro Preto [...] The nose and hairstyle are very interesting”.

Article about centenary of Rio Branco law, also known as the Law of Free Birth (Lei do Ventre Livre) (1971) by UnknownMuseu Histórico Nacional

Exhibition celebrating Law of Free Birth 100th anniversary

Maria Cambinda was in this commemorative exhibition, according to the image reproduced in the article of the newspaper Diário de Notícias, on September 29, 1971. 

However, she seems invisible since the headline only talks about the instruments of torture and the image's caption tries to deny racism existing in Brazil: “The black race has been so mixed up in Brazil that almost everyone has a little of it in their blood.This contribution certainly avoided racial discrimination in our country”. 

Nothing was said about Maria Cambinda in the article.

Goddess of Fertility recordMuseu Histórico Nacional

After a long time preserved in the MHN Technical Reserve under the name “Goddess of fertility”, which made it difficult to identify as Maria Cambinda, the object was displayed as an allegory of the African continent in the first showcase of the module “Portugueses no Mundo”...

Portugueses no mundo (2010/2013) by DesconhecidoMuseu Histórico Nacional

...along with other objects from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries that represented the maritime expansions and the places where the Portuguese arrived between the 15th and 16th centuries, such as America ("India Jupira", 20th century) and Asia (Potiche Chinese, 18th century)

Maria Cambinda (right side) (1801/1900) by UnknownMuseu Histórico Nacional

With 110cm in height and 21cm in width, the mask has a hole below the waist, which must have been made to better fit the face of the wearer.

After all, the doll probably went out to the street accompanied by players and dancers passing from door to door, begging for alms and talking about the feast of the Reign of Our Lady of the Rosary of the Blacks at Ouro Preto.

Maria Cambinda (front) (1801/1900) by UnknownMuseu Histórico Nacional

The bust of the mask was painted a lighter color than the wood, making a slight contrast with the underside.

This is an indication that the underside of the mask was hidden behind a cloth or straw garment that decorated the doll and also concealed the player's face.

Maria Cambinda (left side) (1801/1900) by UnknownMuseu Histórico Nacional

The carving of the hair and nose Mário Barata considered “very interesting”

Maria Cambinda (head - front) (1801/1900) by UnknownMuseu Histórico Nacional

On Maria Cambinda's head, we can see the design of a crown of thorns and also holes close to the ears, which could serve both to pass some fabric ornaments and to fix earrings.

Maria Cambinda (front) (1801/1900) by UnknownMuseu Histórico Nacional

And so, we place ourselves in front of the sacred and the profane that can be present in the uses of Maria Cambinda in the festivities of the Brotherhood of Our Lady of the Rosary of the Blacks of Ouro Preto.

More than an allegory to the African continent, Maria Cambinda is a vestige of the history of resistance to slavery, solidarity and sociability of the black people of Ouro Preto, who worked in the Brotherhood of Our Lady of the Rosary of the Blacks of Ouro Preto.  

There, they found health care and funerals, as well as the chance of liberation through mutual help to buy manumissions.

Credits: Story

Curatorship: Aline Montenegro Magalhães

Exhibition assembly: Adriana Bandeira

Text and research: Aline Montenegro Magalhães e Solange Palazzi

Maria Cambinda photos: Jaime Acioli

Illustration of Maria Cambinda: Éricka Abreu

Curatorship of the exhibition “Decolonial Brazil: other stories”: 
ECHOES Project team: Brenda Coelho, Fernanda Castro, Flávia Figueiredo, Valéria Abdalla, Keila Grinberg, Leila Bianchi Aguiar e Márcia Chuva

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Related theme
Black history in Brazil
Explore the history, arts, and culture of Afro-Brazilian experience
View theme
Google apps