GG: Hello, maestro! How are you? And how are
things going here in the house?
PV: Not too bad.
GG: Is the entire foundation moved in here?
PV: I’m not sure. The books are here, and I have a huge
number of tapes, but there’s no machine to play them
GG: Your recordings from Africa?
PV: Yes. Those are things that I made in Africa.
GG: From your period in Ibadan?
PV: Yes. I was there more than fifteen years.
GG: Were you working at the university in Ibadan then?
PV: I was at the universities in Ibadan, Ifé, and Oschogbo.
GG: Isn’t the river of the goddess Oxum in Oschogbo?
PV: That’s right. And the festival in her honor is celebrated
there on the 5th of August.
GG: And you stayed 15 years?
PV: Even longer, almost 17 years. First I went for a year.
Then I went back again and again. It was better that way,
because I never had time to get settled in. When you constantly
leave and come back, people always say: "It’s great
to see you again!" (laughter)
GG: Did you go there even then because of the Candomblé?
PV: Yes. I received my first grant because I took photographs
of African festivals in Recife.
GG: So you had already gone to Bahia? Were you in Bahia?
PV: I was in Bahia, yes. And I was in Recife in 1947. I came
to Bahia in 1946.
GG: Directly from the Far East?
PV: No, from Peru.
GG: From Peru. Then you traveled to the Far East at an earlier
PV: Yes. That was before.
GG: Why did you go to the Far East then?
PV: That was much earlier, in 1934, during the war between
Japan and China, when I had the assignment to make photographs
as visual material for news reports…
GG: On the war?
PV: Yes, on the war. That’s how I got to know China,
the Philippines, and later Indochina as well.
GG: From 1934 until when?
PV: Until about 1940. Then I traveled to Mexico and different
places in South America. And finally I was sent to Dakar.
GG: To Dakar?
GG: And still as a photo-correspondent?
PV: No, as a French soldier.
GG: As a soldier?
PV: As a French soldier.
GG: I see! That means you had a situation similar to Sartre’s.
You were a soldier, but you were given a special job there.
You did something not necessarily connected to war. You made
photographs. (laughter) You were something like a picture-taking
PV: No, it was nothing like that…Unfortunately, nationalities
can attract absurd situations. Since my father was Belgian
and started a firm in Paris, I was born in France. I studied
French, and I did my military service in France, where they
put a rifle in my hands to kill the Germans with. But had
my father happened to take a train to Berlin, I would have
been born in Germany, and I would have been given a rifle
to kill the French. That’s the way patriotism works.
GG: What made you decide to stay in Brazil? By then you had
traveled the Far East; you were in Mexico and Peru, and you
also returned to Africa. But suddenly you decided to settle
down in Brazil. What impressed you so much?
PV: Bahia has a certain charm, something that you, Gil, probably
don’t notice because you were born here.
GG: Something that other countries lack?
PV: For sure. And in the past it was even more apparent than
it is today. But there’s still enough charm left. The
fact is, I spent five years living in Peru with the Indians.
They’re interesting people but rather reserved. They
have difficulty expressing themselves to other people. And
when I came here, I met open and friendly people. I made real
friends. And the lively atmosphere here! That brought back
fond memories of my days in Paris, when I went to those Caribbean
dance events called Bal Nègre. I often went there on
Saturdays, and I met with all the house servants, waiters
and chauffeurs that let themselves be intimidated the entire
week by dull French people. They drank sugarcane liquor and
danced a lot. It was the same atmosphere you have here during
Carnival, for example with the Samba at the marketplace mercado
GG: When exactly was that?
PV: In 1946, when I came to Bahia. I found that atmosphere
again – I used to experience with people from the Antilles
– and I felt at home here.
GG: On your first day in Bahia, when you arrived...didn’t
you come because of "Jubiaba"? Did you already read
PV: Yes. I did read that book by Jorge Amado. In the French
translation, the title is "Bahia de Tous les Saints."
GG: Did you come here by ship?
PV: Yes. I arrived on the "Comandante Capelo". We
needed ten days to get here from Rio, and it was the steamer’s
last voyage. I checked in at the Hotel Chile. At the back
of the hotel, there was a top-floor space with a wonderful
view of the harbor. It’s still there, only now the view
is totally blocked by a huge building next door. I liked that
place. After that, I rented a space in the new street that
leads to Taboão. That was a picturesque spot as well,
with donkeys wandering by...
GG: And you set up a kind of studio there?
PV: No. That was in the facilities of a morgue, on the third
floor of the building Nina Rodrigues lived in.
GG: Right, I remember that.
PV: Above Piquecs, the forensic doctor. That was the first
time in my life that I lived with dead bodies. (laughter)
GG: How do you explain the phenomenon of uniting the Orixás
in the Bahian Candomblé, which originate from different
regions – Nigeria, Benin and other nations – in
a single phrase: The Bantu Side? Do you believe the Orixás
really have united here in Bahia?
PV: The Nagô-Yorubá make up one part and the
Bantu the other. But they haven’t mixed by any means.
GG: Not even here in Bahia?
PV: No, they haven’t mixed. Because the Nagô-Yorubá
people of the great Candomblés were imitated by the
others. To a certain degree, they were instructors for the
others, who didn’t even know the names of their gods
in their own language, and who simply imitated the Nagô.
That’s why I had a greater interest in the Nagô.
It was more obvious. Most of all, it was because I had lived
with them in Africa, and I managed to go rather deep into
their lifestyle. Thanks to the knowledge I gained there. That
made it possible for me to be with these people without ever
having to ask questions. And because I knew how I had to behave,
I could live with them as though whatever they did was perfectly
natural. When I arrived wearing the neckpiece that Dona Senhora
made – since I underwent the initiation ceremony before
my departure – the people there could tell that I already
understood certain things. Standing before the altar of Xangô,
I called out "Kawo kabiyesi lé;" before the
altar of Oxum, I said "Oraieieo," and before Oxalá,
I said "Epababá". Thank god, it was exactly
what I was supposed to say.
PV: It was all about thinking of oneself as being one of them.
GG: And the trance, the embodiment of the Orixá?
PV: I don’t see that as being an embodiment. For me,
it’s a manifestation of man’s true nature. A chance
to forget everything not related to oneself. Like me being
French and therefore having to kill Germans. All of that is
inside a person, and it exists even before we learn the nonsense
like what I said about nationalities and other forced rules
GG: Did you personally experience this total forgetting of
PV: Unfortunately, no. That’s because I’m too
idiotically French. I’m a rationalist. I don’t
appear in this kind of story, because I don’t believe
in such things.
GG: Why do you call Exú the most human of all the
PV: Because he has flaws. He has flaws and good qualities.
That’s unbearable for a deity.
GG: But so do the other Orixás. Ogum killed and could
be perverse; he raped, and full of regret one day, he decided
to bury himself!
PV: True. The shrewd wash in blood.
GG: And Xangô as well?
PV: Xangô as well.
GG: In that sense, they could all be considered human. So
why do you still believe that Exú is more human than
PV: Because he possesses as many faults as merits.
GG: That’s what characterizes him. That makes up his
PV: And he has that slightly erotic side, something especially
GG: Okay, I understand. But what about something else, Verger?
Namely this book on medicinal herbs. Did you catalog all this
knowledge in Bahia and Africa, but mostly in Africa?
PV: Yes. Mostly in Africa. Not that it really interested me
at first, which made it work out.
GG: Did you get the chance to sample many of these herbal
concoctions? Or did you just collect the information?
PV: I only documented them. I wasn’t really moved by
the subject, and that made it work out so well...
GG: …and because it didn’t interest you, you
simply asked: Why this? Why that?
PV: No. "Why" doesn’t exist in my vocabulary.
GG: I’m sure of that. But tell me now, up to what point...you
said so yourself, that you sensed no joy and had no luck...in
brief, to what extent, in states of trance, did you experience
a complete awareness of reality, a total forgetting of the
Self in the Orixá, a sensation of submitting to pure
energy, and all the rest? And up to what point did you feel
like a rational being, like a Frenchman, like a human being
foreign to such experiences? And today: up to what point do
you feel as if you belong to the world of the Yorubá,
to the world of the Orixás?
PV: I’m more of an admirer. I admire what this religion
was able to do for the African descendants. And I’d
like to use Balbino as an example here. When I first met him,
he was an okra dealer at the marketplace, but also someone
completely satisfied with himself, like he is today. He felt
intimidated by no one and spoke to any person as though he
was speaking to an equal. That’s because Balbino is
a son of Xangô, and that’s wonderful. He’s
not the kind of shy soul who wants to be protected by other
people. On the contrary, he feels capable of protecting other
people himself. Him, someone without a cent in his pocket!
He was a son of Xangô…
GG: Have you experienced this kind of inner calm with other
people? Can you think of a different, typical example?
PV: Yes. Namely a woman, a lady with a certain physical majesty.
She sold fruit at the market. Her fruit stand was labeled
"The Woman Champion," which, of course, said it
all. And she drank only Vencedor wine, whose name translates
to "the wine of champions". I like the taste of
that wine as well. All of this turned someone who was actually
a simple vegetable dealer into a woman of great dignity, into
a woman respected by everyone.
GG: So you believe that this aspect, namely the African culture,
its customs and religions and so forth, has a profound meaning
for the people of Bahia, for the black population of Bahia.
How do see this with regard to the whole of Brazil? Will the
African elements help Brazil to reveal its own identity? What
do you think about that?
PV: What’s interesting is that the individual religions
handle one another with respect. Whoever originates from Xangô
would never despise the person who originates from Oxum, or
anyone else. I originate from Xangô, you from Oxum,
and that’s that. The people here understand and complement
one another without problems. Think of everything that happens
where the Protestants and Catholics clash; they even kill
believers. Abominable things happen there.
GG: And so you believe that this heartfelt tolerance and
anchored understanding, and the acceptance of the other, all
characteristic of African religions, has a fundamental meaning
for Bahia? Do you think these qualities permeate Brazil?
PV: To all appearances, yes. The Catholic murder people who
aren’t Catholics. Here the opposite is true. Here every
person has his saints, his names, his special character, and
each person respects the other. No one comes along and forces
people to believe or not to believe in their ancestors. That
never happens because of the fundamental respect for the other,
including the other’s gifts, qualities and abilities.
GG: And now to your book of photography, Retratos da Bahia,
a beautiful publication that you dedicated to Dona Senhora.
You told me that life was better in the past…
PV: Of course! First of all, because I was younger! (laughter)
GG: (laughter) Do you really believe that it was better?
PV: Without a doubt it was better. In the past, people got
home around five and showered with a calabash because there
was no running water. Then they sat outside on a stool in
front of their houses, chatted with their neighbors, clapped
their hands a bit, and danced a little samba ronda. It’s
not that way anymore. Today people come home in order to watch
commercial TV programs, and no one knows their neighbors.
GG: How did the poor quarter look in the past? On one side,
there was the center of Salvador, Santo Antonio, Carmo, Rua
Chile, Avenida Sete, Barra, Graça, and finally Rio
Vermelho, even then an impoverished district. Did you ever
go to the poor district on the periphery?
PV: Of course I went there.
GG: Where did you go now and then? Were you in Itapoa?
PV: I trekked as far as Amaralina to drink coconut juice by
the sea and stroll along the beach.
GG: There used to be a fisherman’s village in the northeast
PV: But never a road. You had to get there on foot.
GG: And on this side of the peninsula of Itapagipe, there
were places like Paripe and Peri. Did you go to those spots
PV: Yes, I was there. I often went to the island to search
out the "terreiro de Egun." We left on Saturday,
spent all day Sunday there, and came back again Monday morning.
GG: As far as I know, that was the only "terreiro de
Egun." in Brazil then.
PV: Yes. The Egun is well-known.
GG: That’s true. Very well-known. The Egun goes out
on the road at any hour of the day, without problems...
PV: Greeting people and being greeted in return.
GG: Why is there this difference? Why is it far more esoteric
here with us?
PV: Because here we have a fear of dying. But with them, death
is something temporary. There’s no paradise and no hell.
GG: The Christian tradition is missing…
PV: Someone vanishes for a few months and comes back again.
That’s why the son is called baba tundé, "the
father come back". Not so long ago, in Paris, I had the
chance to meet the grandson of someone I used to know, a Mr.
Postigianni. His son is the representative for Benin at the
UNESCO, and, in turn, his son is the reincarnation of his
father. So when he invited me over for dinner, I had the pleasure
of dining once again with my friend, Mr. Postigianni. I even
addressed him with great respect when I said: "Do you
remember me arriving in 1943, and how you met me at the airport…"
GG: And did he remember?
PV: The young man was used to being his own grandfather.
GG: As his grandson.
PV: And the son seemed completely satisfied when he saw his
son playing along with my game. And he treated his own son
with the greatest of respect, because he knew that this young
man was, in fact, his father.
GG: (Laughter) Son and father in one! An incredible story!
Remarkable! What a different world!
PV: It’s important, though, to prevent any feelings
of jealousy that the son might have toward the father. Since
it does sometimes happen that the son is his own father.
GG: Do you believe that this idea of continuity, of reincarnation
from the African perspective, resembles the interpretation
of reincarnation from the Far Eastern perspective?
PV: It’s exactly the same. When I was in Cambodia, I
was excited by the idea of searching out the temple there
and undergoing the initiation to become a Buddhist monk. The
monks can live with nothing at all, apart from a woolen cloth
for clothing and a wooden bowl. In the morning, they went
into the city to ask for rice. The fact that they were given
something was good for the people who performed these acts
of charity, and this also increased their chances for a favorable
reincarnation. So at the same time, one could live and it
was good for these people to be good to you.
GG: But Verger, when you think of how totally different the
Christian outlook is, how do you view syncretism? What role,
assuming there is one, does syncretism play?
PV: Most likely, there is no syncretism. There’s only
an approximation of different ideas of faith. Our friend Balbino
says, for example, when you fill a glass with water and oil
the two fluids never mix. He has moments when he feels deeply
Catholic, and moments when he feels like a true son of Xangô.
Both with the same sincerity. But, like Dona Senhora, he doesn’t
accept other Christians. If someone in the terreiro became
a believer, Dona Senhora threw that person out, because she
didn’t like Jesus-people. Which shows that Catholicism
had a special value for her.
GG: And do you believe that this led to combining the Orixás
with the Catholic saints?
PV: It plays a major role. You only have to compare, for example,
Xangô, the energetic God of Thunder, whose hammering
blows killed people, with Saint Hieronymus, an elderly, bald
scholar reading in a book. The connection that I recognized
was this: that in the images of Saint Hieronymus a lion is
resting at his feet, and at the same time the lion is also
the king's symbol of the Yorubá.
GG: Do you think that these simplifications caused by syncretism
could ultimately mean a complete loss of religious qualities
connected with the Orixás?
PV: No. A person can be as sincere toward one line of faith
as toward another at the same time. When Balbino and I arrived
in Africa, the first thing he did was enter a cathedral and
thank god for a safe arrival. Not much later, we visited a
Xangô temple, where he struck up the tune of a song
for Xangô, and everyone sang along.
GG: Isn’t a personality structured in that way schizophrenic?
Couldn’t it lead to a deep split in the personality
of a believer? One moment, you praise Jesus on the cross;
the next moment, you praise Oxalá. What do you foresee
here? What will these people be like in the future?
PV: I don’t know.
GG: But you have no troubling suspicion, no negative feeling
about all this?
PV: No. Everything is possible and compatible.
The conservation ends with commenting on old photographs of
the City of Salvador da Bahia:
GG: At that time, Bahia had only three to four-thousand inhabitants...
PV: There were hardly any automobiles and everyone rode the
streetcars, those famous streetcars open on the side and named
GG: How did the people react to you as a Frenchman, as someone
from far away, as a foreigner?
PV: I don’t remember. I only know that before the 1950s,
I never noticed any whites in Bahia. I only saw what I found
interesting then. I thought it was a city of blacks. That
is, until the UNESCO asked me to make a few photographs of
people of different origins...that was when I first discover
that there were whites. (Laughter)
GG: Then you discovered the whites! Who were the first whites
you discovered in Bahia? And while completing your assignment,
who were your first contacts?
PV: Students, artists…I was taking photographs for the
book by Tales de Azevedo. He had a negative opinion of the
Candomblé, of African customs, and his text was extremely
unsympathetic toward people of the Candomblé; he writes
about them as being a disgrace for Bahia.
GG: Did you work together with him on the assignment?
PV: Yes, for the UNESCO.
GG: And who exactly were these white? Intellectuals? Artists?
People, say, like Jorge Amado? When and how did you meet Jorge
PV: I met him during my first trip to Brazil in 1940, in Rio.
After that, I met with him in Paris before I returned to Brazil
in 1946. I’d already met Carybé and the architect
Tobias in Rio as well.
PV: I would like to. I have a few things that might be published
GG: What are you currently working on?
PV: That’s hard to explain. I have my papers. But everything
is a bit out of order. I have to sort them out again. And
I’m dead tired at the moment, from lying in bed since
GG: Are you being treated?
PV: I already feel much better now.
GG: Nancy Carybé told me you consulted a doctor.
PV: I went to a Capoeira doctor. He was excellent.
GG: I’m sure that did you a world of good. Of course,
you need someone to look after you.
PV: I need my old papers even more!
GG: "I need my old papers even more!" (Laughter).
What you need is attention and care, so that you can do your
work. Right? So that you can continue your work...precisely
that, maestro! I wish I had the time to come here and talk
to you even more…
Translation from the German version of
Karl Edward Johnson
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