The following excerpts from my book proposal on Afro-Brazilian altars and rituals best describes my twenty-year personal journey. Peter Kloehn
ALTAR BOOK offers a one of a kind collection of color photographs of rare beauty. This extensive project to document Afro-Brazilian altars began in 1987. Now it seems complete and it seeks closure as a 40 to 80 plate publication of stimulating texts and visually vibrant images.
As a scholarly publication, it is unique in that the photographs provide the "primary iconotexts" and the essays supplemental texts reflecting a multidisciplinary approach to understanding the religion and the altars.
ALTAR BOOK offers a publisher an opportunity to place the ''traditional" within a broader conceptual framework to expand context, since the photographs, as visual surrogates, are uniquely positioned to operate on two compatible yet competing levels of perception. The altars are presented as documents of the religion and its sacred art in real time and space; then they are re-presented as simulated art within the space of the "hyperreal".
The book of altars offers a viewer a first "gaze" into the inner sanctum of the temple—sacred space and art distant both in subject matter and geography. On this level, the "gaze", similar to a first encounter with a medieval "Book of Hours", fixes figures within the realm of the "exotic other". It is this distancing mechanism that places the altars (especially those with exaggerated elaboration) on another level to be read as fabricated fictions within a more profane space. Umberto Eco·in Travels in Hyperreality, refers specifically to this aspect of the religion as “a triumph of religious kitsch”- this second level of reception is as valid as the first.
The book’s conceptual design promoting the "precious" can emphasize both realities creating a framework encompassing the traditional and postmodern.
The photographer’s narrative leads the reader/viewer on a personal experiential journey through lands of magic realism with an invitation to share his "impressions" with those of anthropologist and art historians. On this journey, words such as "hyperreal” and "intertextuality" are transposed from theory to practice.
This journey is an original project that began in 1986, in Bahia, Brazil. An "alteration" occurred both intellectually and figuratively, within a tiny room, in a small residential “temple” house, nearly identical to adjacent houses. In the corner was a blue sea goddess (Yemenja) under a cardboard shooting star, to her side a two-tiered platform with statues of Christ and the Saints (syncretism) above the Afro-Brazilian slave deities (Preto velhos), and, directly in front were 3 three-foot blond, blue-eyed dolls in white pinafores waving at the camera (criança). That "first impression" of complete “otherness” cannot be overstated: it was an experience at once intimidating yet exhilarating before an "awe-full" presence of profound power and beauty. It set the stage that for the following years would result in a unique visual record of over three hundred altars throughout South America.
From Bahia, the journey evolved northward for awhile reaching the Amazon, but each subsequent annual trip was directed to the South, eventually to Argentina and Uruguay. No grand plan was in place with each return to each locale to be the last were it not for an indicio, a sign (a new contact or a related story) to continue the following year. The project, like a fictional narrative directed by its internal characters began its own life and the characters were the Orixa, the Amerindian Caboclos, the former slave deities or Preto velhos and the flamboyant and mischievous Exùs.
UMBANDA ALTARS /
Umbanda Altar, Brazil, 1988
Syncretic Altar-Last Supper, Zé Pelintra, and, Caboclo, Recife, Brazil, 1988
The Eye Altar, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1990
Temple of the Sun and Moon, Porto Alegre, Brazil, 1993-4
Umbanda Altar, Porto Alegre, Brazil, 1995
Cave Exú, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1989
Umbanda Altar, Brazil, 1988
Gilded Altar, Montevideo, Uruguay, 1991
Crianças Altar, Salvadore Bahia, Brazil, 1986-7
African Hut, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1990