In the Ministry of Culture, “black is the sum of all colors”

For minister Gilberto Gil, diaspora is a matter of convergence, not dispersion, and needed to develop and preserve African cultural heritage.

By Instituto Gilberto Gil

Text: Ceci Alves, filmmaker and journalist

Gilberto Gil e Zulu Araújo na inauguração do Parque Nacional Quilombo dos Palmares (2007-11-19)Instituto Gilberto Gil

In 1968, Gilberto Gil coined the phrase that is this exhibit’s title, which ended up being a summary for the way he conducted issues of blackness in his life—as well as his way of dealing of Africanities and diaspora as Brazilian minister of Culture (2003–2008).  

Fotografias do livro Ê, Povo, Ê, que teve prefácio escrito por Gilberto GilInstituto Gilberto Gil

Thus, the unity in diversity, a drive in Gil’s life ever since he forged the Tropicália ideals, embedded every pore in the policy to internationalize Brazilian culture during his term.

Gilberto Gil, Patrícia Mourão, Zé Pedrosa, Teotônio Vilela FIlho e Zulu Araújo na inauguração do Parque Nacional Quilombo dos Palmares (2007-11-19)Instituto Gilberto Gil

The biggest emphasis of the “ministartist” was the transversal character of traditional and contemporary diasporic flows, needed to reposition Brazil in the global agenda.

Ministro da Cultura Gilberto Gil, presidente da Fundação Cultural Palmares, Ubiratan Castro de Araújo, ator e cineasta Dody Só e outros na solenidade do 17º aniversário da entidade pública brasileira (2005-09-14)Instituto Gilberto Gil

Evoking the issue of diaspora wasn’t a new political tact adopted by Gil when he took MinC over. Rethinking diaspora, from the point of view of its wealth and the union of complementary opposites it fosters has always guided his path.

Gilberto Gil com músicos africanos no Benim (Janeiro de 1987)Instituto Gilberto Gil

It also sedimented the path of his thinking in other contemporary issues, such as digital culture, environment, and, mainly, the democratization of cultural goods. 

Fotografias do livro Ê, Povo, Ê, que teve prefácio escrito por Gilberto GilInstituto Gilberto Gil

Dispersion, pulverization, divide to weaken and annihilate. The etymology of the word “diaspora” is an immediate reference to these meanings and to sad, regrettable, inconceivable pages of human history.

Fotografias do livro Ê, Povo, Ê, que teve prefácio escrito por Gilberto GilInstituto Gilberto Gil

This referred to those who were enslaved, scattered throughout the world and turned stateless, like the Jewish and black peoples. But in biology, diaspora has a more subversive and resistant meaning: 

Fotografias do livro Ê, Povo, Ê, que teve prefácio escrito por Gilberto GilInstituto Gilberto Gil

They are powerful parts of plants—like seeds, pollen, fruits—that separate from the root organism that generated them to bear fruit elsewhere and thus continue to exist and resist.

Gilberto Gil na abertura de exposição comemorativa dos dois anos do Museu Afro Brasil (2006-10-23)Instituto Gilberto Gil

And it was uniting these two understandings about the African diaspora that minister Gilberto Gil guided the issue as an administrator of the Brazilian Ministry of Culture during most of president Luís Inácio Lula da Silva’s administration.

Fotografias do livro Ê, Povo, Ê, que teve prefácio escrito por Gilberto GilInstituto Gilberto Gil

Gil used the notions of multiculturalism—a branch of Cultural Studies based on the concept of unity for diversity—to talk about and address diasporic vicissitudes.

Gilberto Gil, Zé Pedrosa, Teotônio Vilela FIlho e Zulu Araújo (em pé) na inauguração do Parque Nacional Quilombo dos Palmares (2007-11-19)Instituto Gilberto Gil

Gilberto Gil put Brazil in the international panorama of this debate “as an issuer of new messages, in the context of globalization,” as he states in his anthological inauguration speech.

Ministro da Cultura Gilberto Gil, o presidente Lula e a primeira-dama Marisa Letícia em apresentação após a Conferência sobre Políticas Sociais do Brasil e de Moçambique (2003-05-11)Instituto Gilberto Gil

A country that should appear on the international political scene “with its diasporas and their mixtures,” as he continues to address the issue in his celebrated speech. As head of MinC, Gil has engaged in a real battle for a kind of “cultural decolonization” of Brazil.

Ministro da Cultura Gilberto Gil, o presidente Lula e a primeira-dama Marisa Letícia em apresentação após a Conferência sobre Políticas Sociais do Brasil e de Moçambique (2003-05-11)Instituto Gilberto Gil

He did this by understanding his traditional culture and that of the future as strong and robust. He also fought a battle to reposition the country in relation to the world, on the path of dialogue with diversity. “In this, Brazil has lessons to give… 

Ministro da Cultura Gilberto Gil, presidente Lula, John Kufuor, Pedro Pires, Festus Mogae, Abdoulaye Wade e Stevie Wonder na II Conferência dos Intelectuais da África e da Diáspora (Ciad) (2006-07-11)Instituto Gilberto Gil

"… despite what certain representatives of international institutions and their internal spokespeople say in order to try to atone for their racial guilt and frame us within a framework of hypocrisy and discord…

Ministro da Cultura Gilberto Gil, presidente Lula, John Kufuor, Pedro Pires, Festus Mogae, Abdoulaye Wade e Stevie Wonder na II Conferência dos Intelectuais da África e da Diáspora (Ciad) (2006-07-11)Instituto Gilberto Gil

"… making of our people an interested but self-serving portrait, able to convince only ourselves. Yes: Brazil has lessons to give in the field of peace and in others, with its permanently syncretic, transcultural dispositions…

Gilberto Gil sendo aplaudido por João Paulo Cunha e Francisco Weffort no dia de sua posse (2003-01-01)Instituto Gilberto Gil

And we will not give up on that,” sentenced Gil, moved, in his inauguration.

Ministro da Cultura Gilberto Gil e Angélique Kidjo em show na II CIAD - Conferência de Intelectuais da África e da Diáspora (2006-07-14)Instituto Gilberto Gil

For the “ministartist,” a nickname by which Gil liked to be called during his time as head of MinC, Brazil was one of the main ports to have received the infamous black diaspora caused by enslavement of African peoples.  

Ministro da Cultura Gilberto Gil e Angélique Kidjo em show na II CIAD - Conferência de Intelectuais da África e da Diáspora (2006-07-14)Instituto Gilberto Gil

For this reason, the country had a historical obligation to give a semblance of tolerance and visibility to the issues of reparation regarding these diasporic movements.

Gilberto Gil discursa na II Conferência de Intelectuais da África e da Diáspora (2006-07-12)Instituto Gilberto Gil

He also understood them as an inescapable cultural and socio-political ebb and flow, rich and capable of awakening potentialities and bring together in geopolitical and humanistic terms that which had previously been brutally separated. 

Gilberto Gil com Paulo Souto, Stevie Wonder e grupo de políticos na II Conferência de Intelectuais da África e da Diáspora (2006-07-12)Instituto Gilberto Gil

This is no different from his attitudes in relation to his own blackness. Gilberto Gil’s understanding of himself as a black man pervades his sense of belonging in relation to the history of slavery of the black people versus the abolition that occurred on May 13th, 1888.

Gilberto Gil com Paulo Souto na II Conferência de Intelectuais da África e da Diáspora (2006-07-12)Instituto Gilberto Gil

Such an attitude of political mockery was not assisted by social planning, and so it was far from an “union of races in freedom,” as abolitionist Joaquim Nabuco had wanted.

Gilberto Gil com Paulo Souto e grupo de políticos na II Conferência de Intelectuais da África e da Diáspora (2006-07-12)Instituto Gilberto Gil

In this way, Gil’s diasporic experience positions him in an in-between place in debates about miscegenation. After all, it is intrinsically linked to the awareness of his African origin and of his reconnection, as an identity, to the motherland of Bahia/Brazil. 

Gilberto Gil com Paulo Souto, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva e grupo de políticos na II Conferência de Intelectuais da África e da Diáspora (2006-07-12)Instituto Gilberto Gil

Gil, who, in a text cowritten with friend and anthropologist Antônio Risério, calls himself black-mestizo, puts the discussion of miscegenation, one of the most apparent diasporic fruits, as necessary to revisit the past in search of the invention of a more emancipating future. 

Gilberto Gil visita casa do fotógrafo Pierre Verger, em Salvador (1989)Instituto Gilberto Gil

A messenger between two worlds

Pierre Verger, anthropologist, ethnographer, researcher, and French photographer who was a great friend of Gil’s and settled in Bahia, played a key role in the minister’s understanding of diaspora issues.

Gilberto Gil no Axexé de Pierre Verger (1999)Instituto Gilberto Gil

In his travels around the world - mainly in the departures and arrivals between West Africa and Bahia -, Verger began to notice, delighted, the cultural similarities in the “acts, gestures and ways” (paraphrasing Gil in his speech) between the peoples in both sides of the Atlantic.

Gilberto Gil, Paula Lavigne, Caetano Veloso e Pierre Verger na casa de Caetano (1990)Instituto Gilberto Gil

This compelled the scholar to become a kind of “messenger between two worlds”— as Verger was called in the documentary of the same name by Lula Buarque de Hollanda, narrated by Gil.

Gilberto Gil, Flora Gil e Pierre Verger no Benim (Janeiro de 1987)Instituto Gilberto Gil

The photographer, trying to strengthen and renew these bonds between cultures, organized museums, healed people, carried messages, and, above all, did research on the African diaspora. 

Gilberto Gil recebe homenagem do povo do Benim, ao lado de Pierre Verger, Carybé e Flora Gil (Janeiro de 1987)Instituto Gilberto Gil

His study on the slave trade and the return of many of them to Africa, after abolition, brought to light his main work: Flux and Reflux of the Slave Trade between the Gulf of Benin and the Bay of All Saints from the 17th to 19th Centuries, Gil’s bedside book.

Gilberto Gil com Pierre Verger e Cristina Castro no Teatro Gregório de Mattos (1989)Instituto Gilberto Gil

In it, the minister of Culture found support for his policy of partnership with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in order to forge for Brazil a role as a global diplomatic body for diaspora issues. 

Gilberto Gil, Pierre Verger e Carybé em evento na Bahia (1990)Instituto Gilberto Gil

In this way, he would place national “semiodiversity” (symbolic diversity)—a term he employed in his speech at the ministry in 2003—at the service of unity between the diasporic peoples and the world.

Gilberto Gil é recebido por africanos ao lado de Carybé, Pierre Verger, Vivaldo da Costa Lima, Flora Gil e Mãe Stella, no Benim (Janeiro de 1987)Instituto Gilberto Gil

O ministro da Cultura Gilberto Gil no lançamento do livro A Grande Refazenda (2007-05-22)Instituto Gilberto Gil

In this way, Gilberto Gil proposed, as a political a principle of his mandate, a “great Rebuilding,” [in Portuguese, “refazenda,” which is the same title as one of his albums] that is, an “engagement of all peoples, ethnicities, conditions, and cultures for the reconstruction of a new world order,” one that stems from Africa and the diaspora.

O ministro da Cultura Gilberto Gil discursa no lançamento do livro A Grande Refazenda (2007-05-22)Instituto Gilberto Gil

The basis for this proposal were set in 2007, during the launch of the book A Grande Refazenda – África e Diáspora Pós II CIAD [The Great “Refazenda” – Africa and Diaspora Post-II CIAD].

O ministro da Cultura Gilberto Gil discursa no lançamento do livro A Grande Refazenda (2007-05-22)Instituto Gilberto Gil

The work brings together critics by intellectuals and protagonists of the process of Brazilian ethnic affirmation about the consequences of the II Conference of Intellectuals from Africa and the Diaspora (II CIAD, in the Portuguese acronym), held in Salvador, Bahia in July 2006. 

Gilberto Gil com Paulo Souto e grupo de políticos na II Conferência de Intelectuais da África e da Diáspora (2006-07-12)Instituto Gilberto Gil

In his speech on this occasion, Gil defines the CIAD as a historical moment, "when Africans and afro-descendants from various parts of the world came together for a theoretical reflection, but, beyond that, a physical, soulful experience…

Gilberto Gil na II Conferência de Intelectuais da África e da Diáspora (2006-07-12)Instituto Gilberto Gil

“… about their being in the contemporary, globalized and challenging world, combined with a practice based on the experience of self-determination and historical struggle, towards a degree of development that is no longer just a dream, a possibility, but an inevitable destiny.”

Gilberto Gil e Stevie Wonder na abertura da II Conferência de Intelectuais da África e da Diáspora (2006-07-12)Instituto Gilberto Gil

The II CIAD gathered in Salvador, Gilberto Gil’s motherland, more than a thousand people from forty African countries and the diaspora to debate the African Renaissance and ways of connecting the two shores of the Atlantic Ocean.

Ministro da Cultura Gilberto Gil, Paulo Souto, governador da Bahia, e Ali Mohamed Shein, vice-presidente da Tanzânia, na II Conferência de Intelectuais da África e da Diáspora (2006-07-12)Instituto Gilberto Gil

The event, held by the ministries of Culture and Foreign Affairs, and chaired by Gilberto Gil and Frene Ginwala, former president of South Africa, was the gateway to this cultural policy with a view to the transversal which Gil adopted during his term. 

Gilberto Gil e Presidente Lula na abertura da II Conferência de Intelectuais da África e da Diáspora (2006-07-12)Instituto Gilberto Gil

Gilberto Gil aimed for true socio-cultural and racial inclusion, “without fundamentalism, without hegemonies, without each branch wanting to be the owner of the truth,"” as he told the newspaper Folha de S.Paulo in August 2003. 

Ministro da Cultura Gilberto Gil em coletiva de imprensa na II Conferência de Intelectuais da África e da Diáspora (2006-07-13)Instituto Gilberto Gil

The II CIAD involved intellectuals, representatives of civil society, and political bodies, and at the time crystallized Brazil’s role as a leader in building this new global thinking for African nations and the diaspora.

Gilberto Gil na sede da Organização das Nações Unidas (2003-09-19)Instituto Gilberto Gil

Among other important actions in the issue of Africa during Gil’s term at MinC was a presentation in the hall of the UN General Assembly.

Gilberto Gil com o então secretário-geral das Nações Unidas Kofi Annan, na ONU (2003-09-19)Instituto Gilberto Gil

The invitation was made at the request of then secretary Kofi Annan to honor diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello and the victims of an attack on the organization's unit in Iraq.

Kofi Annan no palco com Gilberto Gil e sua banda no Show da Paz na sede da ONU (2003-09-19)Instituto Gilberto Gil

The concert was also held to celebrate of International Day of Peace. On that occasion, Gil invited Annan, also a black man, to play bongo—a diasporic percussive instrument, considering its Cuban origin—on the song “Toda menina baiana,” written by Gil.

Kofi Annan no palco com Gilberto Gil e sua banda no Show da Paz na sede da ONU (2003-09-19)Instituto Gilberto Gil

They got a standing ovation, and the symbolic strength of this image and this presentation at the headquarters of the United Nations speaks more of the diaspora than pages and pages of speech. It is the political poetic that Gil always brings to his actions.

A Prefeitura do município de Gorée concede ao Ministro Gilberto Gil o título de Peregrino de Gorée (2004-12-07)Instituto Gilberto Gil

And, among the several official trips made by Gilberto Gil to the African continent as “minister of Africanities,” the visit to the House of Slaves in Africa, in Dakar, capital of Senegal, as part of the presidential entourage, stands out.

Escultura da Casa dos Escravos de Gorée (2004-11)Instituto Gilberto Gil

This was the memorable occasion in which president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva asked African blacks to forgive slavery in Brazil.  

Ministro Gilberto Gil, ao lado do presidente do Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, e do presidente do Brasil, Lula, cumprimenta a ministra Matilde Ribeiro, durante visita à Ilha de Gorée (2005-04-14)Instituto Gilberto Gil

During this reparation speech, on the island of Gorée—the departure point for slave ships to the Americas—the president and the delegation were moved. Ministers and advisors cried as they heard this plead for forgiveness. 

Ministro Gilberto Gil se apresenta ao povo senegalês ao lado do presidente do Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, e do presidente do Brasil, Lula, durante visita à Ilha de Gorée (2005-04-14)Instituto Gilberto Gil

The most moved, however, was Gilberto Gil, who, before Lula’s speech, had performed the song “La Lune de Gorée” (1982). 

Gilberto Gil cumprimenta pessoas em sua visita ao Senegal (2004-11)Instituto Gilberto Gil

In French, Gil’s lyrics, wrote in partnership with José Carlos Capinan, use the metaphor of the black skin as a flag signifying suffering.

Ministro Gilberto Gil, Abdoulaye Wade, presidente do Senegal, e o presidente do Brasil, Lula, durante visita à Ilha de Gorée (2005-04-14)Instituto Gilberto Gil

In response to Lula’s request, president Abdoulaye Wade called his colleague “the first black president in Brazil.” At the time, minister of Foreign Affairs Celso Amorim said the request for forgiveness was symbolic, but would go down in Brazil-Africa history.

Gilberto Gil em sua visita ao Senegal (2004-11)Instituto Gilberto Gil

“It is the recognition of a debt. This, for sure, will leave a mark,” said Celso Amorim. Perhaps this was one of the most representative actions of the interlocutions opened by Gilberto Gil.

Gilberto Gil em sua visita ao Senegal (2004-11)Instituto Gilberto Gil

The path would be taken on the way to recognize both Brazilian Africanis and African Brazilianness, a proposal so dear to his ministry.

“La Renaissance Africaine”

Song written by Gilberto Gil on commission for the 2005 Dakar Arts Festival.

Gilberto Gil em sua visita ao Senegal (2004-11)Instituto Gilberto Gil

It’s “La Renaissance Africaine”—the African rebirth, a song/anthem wrote by Gil on commission for the 2005 Dakar Arts Festival. 

Gilberto Gil em sua visita ao Senegal (2004-11)Instituto Gilberto Gil

As Débora Dutra Fantini puts it in her Ph.D. dissertation, titled O Negro é a Soma de Todas as Cores [Black is the sum of all colors], about the building of Africanness in Gilberto Gil’s life and work (from 1942 to 2008):

Gilberto Gil observa instrumento musical, em sua visita ao Senegal (2004-11)Instituto Gilberto Gil

“... This is the high point for Gil’s Africanities—when the songwriter’s transatlantic, miscegenated, modern identity finds a different view on African history, establishing a conciliatory link between continents, which men’s actions…

Apresentaçao de representantes da cultura local do país (Senegal) (2004-11)Instituto Gilberto Gil

“… have separated though centuries. After all, ‘this is Africa and its mission/ the true key to building/ civilizing the world’ [part of the anthem’s lyrics]. Diaspora, here, is seen as a civilizing device…

Roda de capoeira durante a visita de Gilberto Gil ao Senegal (2004-11)Instituto Gilberto Gil

"... Eis aí a inversão: a África não é objeto de ação civilizatória do Outro; ela é também capaz de civilizar o Outro (europeu, americano)”. 

Credits: Story

Exhibit credits

Text and research: Ceci Alves
Editing and copyediting: Carla Peixoto
Assembly: Isabela Marinho
Acknowledgments: Juca Ferreira, Luis Turiba, Maria de Nazaré Pedroza, Adair Rocha, and Sérgio Xavier

General credits

Editing and curating: Chris Fuscaldo / Garota FM
Musical content research: Ceci Alves, Chris Fuscaldo, and Ricardo Schott
MinC content research: Carla Peixoto, Ceci Alves, and Laura Zandonadi
Photo subtitles: Anna Durão, Carla Peixoto, Ceci Alves, Chris Fuscaldo, Daniel Malafaia, Gilberto Porcidonio, Kamille Viola, Laura Zandonadi, Lucas Vieira, Luciana Azevedo, Patrícia Sá Rêgo, Pedro Felitte, Ricardo Schott, Roni Filgueiras, and Tito Guedes
Subtitle copyediting: Anna Durão, Carla Peixoto, Laura Zandonadi, and Patrícia Sá Rêgo
Data editing: Isabela Marinho
Acknowledgments: Gege Produções, Gilberto Gil, Flora Gil, Gilda Mattoso, Fafá Giordano, Maria Gil, Meny Lopes, Nelci Frangipani, Cristina Doria, Daniella Bartolini, and all photographers and characters in the stories
All media: Instituto Gilberto Gil

Credits: All media
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