Photography at the interface of history and identity, By Mudi Yahaya


Reading Time: 6 mins read

There has been a lot of academic work on the cultural ties between Brazil and West Africa but not a lot of work has been done on the social, economic and political consequences that still linger from the historic relationship between Brazil and West Africa.

There is a deep disconnect on this level and this is obvious by just trying to travel from Nigeria to Brazil. I can tell you first hand that it is a logistic and bureaucratic nightmare that exposes that fact that the ties between Brazil and West Africa today are still very cosmetic.

It took a very concerted effort by the German consular here in Recife, Mr Johannes Bloos; the German consular in Lagos, Nigeria, Mr Weert Boerner; the German Foreign Ministry in Berlin; and Mr Vitorio Jose Barros Da Silva from the Brazilian Foreign Affairs Ministry in Pernambuco to get me here today, and for this I am indebted in gratitude.

Considering these unfortunate and unnecessary hurdles between Brazil and West Africa, it is a little wonder why West African’s don’t know enough about their brethren in Brazil and vice versa, beyond the obvious cultural and spiritual connections.

Culture and spirituality are quite important but these are clearly not the whole nuanced story. This was meant to be a short speech but I would crave your indulgence to listen to me for a few extra minutes because I don’t represent myself alone but the voices of many in Africa, more especially as this is an August occasion and a huge opportunity to begin a serious conversation about a subject that affects all our lives till this day.

The subject of what some describe as the “triangular trade” is a topic that immediately makes all of us anxious and uneasy; indeed, slavery is not the most palatable subject to discuss.

But it is in these sorts of instances that art provides a unique intervention in informing socio-political discourse, facilitated by the innovative role played by intellectuals and artists and their influence in the making of shared meanings.

With arts in all its forms and productions, we can observe and experience aspects of socio-political life that we cannot possibly do in any other way.

This evening is even more special, because Germany and Brazil are connected to the two most important historical events that have defined and which continue to define black identity and black memory.

Slavery over the Atlantic Ocean was the first event. Brazil was the nation that took in the greatest number of Africans into slavery and the last in the West to fully outlaw the practice.

According to trustworthy estimates, 670,000 Africans, mainly from Nigeria (my home country), Ghana, the Republic of Benin, Senegal and Angola perished en route to Brazil, where 4.8 million slaves were shipped and sold.

Even despite being formally abolished 133 years ago, this crucial component in the development of Brazilian society is still raw.

Three main players combined their forces for more than three centuries to create and sustain this abhorrent trade: powerful Brazilian buyers, who were particularly active in the ports of Salvador and Rio de Janeiro; numerous European Atlantic traders, who were in charge of over 9,000 slave shipments from the West African coast to Brazil; and African society’s ruling classes, which engaged in internal conflicts in an effort to capture, enslave, and sell their opponents.

The second event was the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885, which was an important factor in hastening the colonial expansion of European powers into Africa and was often referred to as the West Africa Conference or the Congo Conference at the time.

The “scramble” to colonise the African continent in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries resulted from the ambition of many European countries to gain riches and power through the extension or founding of their empires during the era that Western historians refer to as “New Imperialism.”

Brazil is a very important country in this regard because not only was Brazil the last country in the world to abolish slavery but the history of Brazil is intertwined with the narrative of slavery.

Slavery was the backbone of the Brazilian economy for 350 years. Millions of Black Africans and indigenous peoples were enslaved to build Brazil.

Brazil has made an effort to ignore its history and the consequences of the slave trade for the past century.

With the ECOAR exhibition, photography offers a window into the past, historical moments, and forgotten locations. Our perception of culture, history, and the identities of the individuals who appear in them can all be influenced by photographs. 

Studying the diversity of human experience enables us to recognise and appreciate shared cultures, ideas, and traditions as significant by products of particular historical periods and locations. 

One can test one’s own morals and values by reviewing photographs and reading about particular people and situations.

This process can be compared to some actual challenging circumstances that people have encountered in difficult times. It can be motivational to look at those who have faced and conquered hardship.

The big question I am sure is on the minds of many is why talk about “slavery” in this day and time? How does the topic of the slave trade connect to our contemporary consciousness?

The answer is quite obvious if one bothers to ponder a bit longer. The trans-Atlantic slave trade was the largest forced migration, mass displacement and exploitation in history, and incontrovertibly one of the most inhumane.

This extensive exodus of Africans, spreading to different areas of the world over a 400-year period, was unprecedented in the annals of recorded human history.

Here again we note that Brazil and Germany share parallel histories of mass migration and immigration. Between 1700 and 1800, Brazil imported 1.7 million slaves from Africa, and the Atlantic slave trade was further exacerbated by the 1830s coffee boom.

Between 1890 and 1919, more than 2.6 million immigrants arrived in Brazil. Arrivals from Portugal, Spain, Italy, Germany and Japan made up the largest group. Before 1930, immigrants arrived in Brazil from over sixty different countries.

In Germany, after World War I, the “Century of Refugees” officially began. After the October 1917 Russian Revolution, hundreds of thousands of people fled to the Weimar Republic to avoid the civil war that followed and the Soviet system that was put in place.

Tens of thousands of Eastern European Jews who sought refuge in various parts of Eastern Central, South Eastern, and Eastern Europe from pogroms and anti-Semitic developments suffered the same fate.

After the National Socialists came to power, Germany once more became a state that opposed asylum, just like it had done prior to World War I.

The “Iron Curtain’s” opening of the “Eastern Bloc” states’ changed political structures, with the fall of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1989–1990. The “opening” of the “Iron Curtain” had a significant impact on the migration trends in Europe. Applications for asylum increased dramatically in Germany, particularly from Eastern, Central Eastern, and Southern Europe.

In 1988, migration to Germany crossed the 100,000 mark; in 1989, the year of the European Revolutions, resettlings in Germany rose to about 120,000; in 1990, migration reached 190,000 in unified Germany; and in 1992, these flows reached nearly 440,000 people.

Today migration is a contentious global political conversation and many might be alarmed to know that there is a direct correlation between the slave and the migrant; war and human trafficking.

The slave was taken by force, both physically and morally, from human history and from ties to family and land. In the case of the migrant, both the livable and the moral categories of rights-bearer are forced beyond the migrant’s reach.

An extractive supply economy and a hierarchical human ordering are the fundamental similarities that shape both the slavery and migration phenomena.

Politicians, decision-makers, and numerous non-governmental organisations have been referring to human trafficking as the modern-day version of transatlantic slavery since the year 2000.

The portrayal of human trafficking as slave trade aligns with a longstanding school of thought that defines slavery as the conversion of human beings into commodities.

One of the American Anti-Slavery Society’s founders, George Bourne, stated in 1845 that the unique wrong of slavery is that it “reduces persons to things.”

Human trafficking in the modern era is thought to be akin to modern slavery because it treats people like nothing more than commodities to be used for financial gain, ignoring the boundary between people and things that is essential to their dignity and well-being.

Risks of mass displacement, human trafficking and exploitation are linked to war as is the case with slavery. 

These interconnections are critical to note and be conscious of in today’s world, where we are living witnesses to the wars in Ukraine, Palestine, Southern Sudan and the unfortunate

Mediterranean’s sea tragedies that insistently occur off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa


I leave you with two Yoruba proverbs. The first is: “Òn


à ló jìn

rú ní baba”; in other words: the slave came from a home as well, he is simply far from it; implying that, “the disadvantaged is human, as well.”

The second proverb is: “

rú kan nií mú’ni bú igba

rú”; “It’s one slave who will cause two hundred others to be reproved”, implying that, “An indiscretion by one, invariably smears all”.

This is the text of the remarks made at the opening of the ECOAR Exhibition in Recife, Brazil on the 1st of November. 








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