Bandits & Heroes, Poets & Saints tells the story of how African, European, and indigenous cultural traditions have interacted over a period of more than 500 years to form the distinctive culture of this fascinating area of the largest country in South America. Brazil is home to one of the largest populations of African descendents in the world, with more than 75 million people. During the 16th through 19th centuries, an estimated 5 million Africans were brought over to Brazil into slavery, ten times the estimated 500,000 Africans that were brought to the United States. Currently, most of Brazil’s African population live in the Northeast of Brazil where centuries of African, European, and Amerindian cultures have mingled to create a mixture of conventions that help in shaping Latin American heritage.
Supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and Michigan Humanities Council, Bandits & Heroes, Poets & Saints includes nearly 200 works of art by more than 50 artists. Two eminent photographers, Adenor Gondim and Antônio Neto, have helped work on the exhibition, providing photos and video footage showing festivals, ceremonies, and pilgrimages. The exhibition is comprised of three segments that present the history and culture of Northeast Brazil through popular art. The first segment, The Land and its People, reflects on the history of slavery in Brazil, from the rich plantations that produced a wealthy amount of agricultural produce along the coast to the rugged landscape of the inhospitable dry backlands of the fugitive slave communities. The second segment, Expressions of Faith, explores the African-Brazilian religion of Candomblé which combines traditional African roots and Roman Catholicism, while also exploring the evangelical faith of the Northeast. In the exhibition, life-size mannequins of orixás (forged iron symbols of African deities) wearing colorful vestments of Candomblé can be viewed along with actual footage of the Candomblé ceremony in Bahia. The third segment, Poetry, Celebration, and Song, focuses on folk legends and popular festivals of the Nordestinos (People of the Northeast). Also featured in this segment is Literatura de Cordel (Literature on a String), which is a popular form of poetry, retelling stories and legends. These poems are produced by itinerant singing poets who sell their songs in small, inexpensive chapbooks in rural markets and fairs.