A Conversation with Pierre Verger
Interview by Gilberto Gil on February 8, 1996, three days before Verger’s death
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 on. (laughter)
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 date?
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 soldier.
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 modelo.
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 it?
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 of conduct.
GG: Did you personally experience this total forgetting of the Self?
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 Orixás?
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 the others?
PV: Because he possesses as many faults as merits.
GG: That’s what characterizes him. That makes up his true nature!
PV: And he has that slightly erotic side, something especially human.
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.
Quetzaltenango (Guatemala), 1939 (n° 15729)
Vinh (Viêt Nam), 1938
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 of Amaralina.
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 as well?
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 after constellations.
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 Amado?
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 one day.
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 two years.
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 the interview: Karl Edward Johnson
ASX CHANNEL: Pierre Verger
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