Image: Benjamin Currie/GO Media
“So she cut off his pinga with a machete?”
“Ave Maria. Well, I would have done the same thing also; men have no respect sometimes.”
I exploded into laughter as my companions shared the local town gossip while I listened, completely enthralled. The topic at hand was philandering men and unforgiving women. We were sitting inside a door frame that offered some protection from the equatorial sun positioned directly above us, our backs pressed against the delicious cool of the brick walls. It was the kind of scorching heat that turns distant landscapes into blurry, shimmering mirages. To my left was a middle-aged Afro-Brazilian woman who had stopped by to take a sip of water and catch up with the elderly woman between us, the one I had also traveled to see.
Three black women were engaged in conversation, our hands suspended in various positions of expressive dialogue; our heads bowed towards one another. One was wearing a floral headwrap, the other had her hair tied in a low ponytail, and another had box braids tucked under a snapback worn backward. The woman with the head wrap was the toastmaster, an Afro-Indigenous artist who had delivered the punchline, and whose dark skin was speckled with tiny black freckles. Her name is Dona Cadu and, at 99 years old (her birthday was in April), she is most likely one of the oldest ceramistas in Brazil, and one of the most important. I had traveled from Salvador to meet this woman whose pottery can be found in homes, terreiros, and artisanal stores along Brazil’s Northern coast.
I first heard of Dona Cadu two years ago from a store owner in Salvador who sold earthenware for Candomblé ceremonies—Afro-Brazilian spiritual celebrations with music, dance, food, and communion with orixas (spirits). Her name is familiar across the cultural landscape of Brazil, and her work has been prominently featured at art fairs across the country. Last year she was the subject of the documentary Recôncavo Baiano, which premiered in France at the Connaissance du Monde film conference, where 200 of her pieces were also auctioned. In Brazil, she is best known for her large clay bowls which are used to make popular dishes that require hours of simmering over an open fire, foods like moqueca, a seafood stew. Her bowls are also used to carry offerings for orixas and to decorate homes, being both striking and utilitarian. Sometimes she will smooth the rim with a round pebble and then polish to add a glossy sheen, but more often she leaves the visible ridges as proof of human touch.
About four hours before this afternoon exchange, I had been standing opposite a rundown gas station waiting for a bus. Dona Cadu lives in the small town of Coqueiros, God’s own little acre, with a name that translates to coconut trees. I had to take a three-hour bus ride from Salvador to the municipality of Sao Felix, which is how I ended up in front of the gas station. The two and a half hour wait for the second bus was pointless and I ended up taking a car share on a 30-minute ride through densely wooded hills and pastoral scenery. I wasn’t sure of her address but when I gave the driver her name, he immediately knew where to take me. “Dona Cadu is very famous, heh?” he responded. I nodded as my chapped lips and parched throat cursed me for not bringing water.
When he dropped me off in front of a garage, a woman came to meet me at the door, smiling and unsurprised by the arrival of an uninvited guest. She beckoned me inside and after exchanging “Bom dias” and “How are yous?” I asked if Dona Cadu was home. She gestured towards her left where I saw a small woman sitting cross-legged on the floor. She took up such little space that my eyes missed her at first. She was surrounded by dry, shallow, clay bowls and working on another one. She looked up at me, her eyes kind, curious and welcoming.
Molding clay into pots, plates, pans, bowls and then carefully etching her name into each one is something Dona Cadu has done since she was 10 years old. “My neighbor taught me and, after 15 days, I was already making better things than her,” she tells me chuckling softly.
We were sitting inside the garage-which doubled as a studio-with her granddaughter, Veronica, and her assistant Rodrigo, both of whom help with the pottery business. (Veronica’s sister was the woman who had led me in when I first arrived.) After her apprenticeship, Dona Cadu continued working with her teacher until she moved away. “When my neighbor left, it was just me and I continued making what I had been taught,” she says. “It was more difficult for her to work the older she got, so by the time she moved I had already been doing most things on my own.”
Dona Cadu is a patron of sorts for young black women artists, and her homestead is a testament to that successful symbiosis between passion and talent. Most black artists are hyperaware of the elusiveness of fair financial compensation, but Dona Cadu has spent a lifetime navigating landmines, and she’s still achieved the holy triad: her passion is her talent and she’s been able to profit from it, taking care of herself and her loved ones. Part of the reason is that she genuinely loves what she does.
“My favorite thing about the process is touching the plates,” she says as she gestured her hand towards the bowl she is holding. “Touching and shaping them makes me very happy.”
Dona Cadu also refuses offers that promise her so much more than she needs. “This artist from Portugal came to see me last year because he wanted to take me there so I could show my work. They always come to ask me to go somewhere.” As she speaks, her eyes look at the work she’s finished, deciding what still had to be done. “I said no,” her lips pursing to show both annoyance and disinterest. “It’s too far away and I don’t want to go. So I just gave him some pots to show there instead.”
Coqueiros is in the state of Bahia and Afro-Brazilians from this part of the country have a distinct way of speaking. It is slow, melodic and peppered with terms of endearment like querida (dear) meu bem (honey) and mi amor. After about 10 minutes together, Dona Cadu was already calling me meu anjo (my angel) and the ease and familiarity of our dialogue reminded me of my own kin back home in Zimbabwe. As I checked my recorder to make sure it was still running, she turned her attention towards my notebook where I had been sporadically jotting down some notes.
“Is there a lot of money in journalism?” she asks. I mustered up a laugh. She offered a half smile, “Nao ne?”
I described the heart in your stomach reality of being a freelance journalist. She followed along, staring at me intently. The precariousness of success she understood, and the love of a passion she could relate to, but it was my life outside work she was unclear about.
“So you are alone? Your parents just let you leave your home and come here? Are you married? Do you have children? Do you want children? Who cooks your food?” The questions came rapidly as her brow wrinkled in confusion. I giggled, even though absolutely nothing was funny, and she stared because she knew that nothing was funny. Instead, she patiently waited for my reply.
I felt as though I was in an ancient council, explaining my life choices to my elders. My responses were not altogether satisfactory but we were able to table my life trajectory until further notice. As we talked, customers came to buy her pieces. Others left empty-handed if she didn’t have enough of what it was they wanted. Neighbors walked by, and all would call out good morning, give a wave, or tip a hat before continuing on. Dona Cadu knew everyone and responded to them by name.
Her home lies right on the bank of the vast Paraguaçu river, and she’s been here ever since she was 22 years old. “I moved to Coqueiros right after my husband and I got married.” Before that, she lived in Sao Felix, where her parents, their parents and, as far as she knows, her entire family had placed roots. Both her parents worked on a farm; her mother in the house and her father on the grounds. She is one of six siblings, and all have passed on except for one younger brother who lives in Salvador. “He is a baby. Muito joven,” she says. He is 76.
As an Afro-Indigenous woman, Dona Cadu carries the lineage of those whose land was violently usurped by the Portuguese, and also of those who were forcibly removed from their own lands and transported to Brazil. “I don’t know which Indigenous tribe I belong to but my father always told me that was a part of my culture,” she says. “My husband was also Indigenous.”
The women in Coqueiros are known for being skilled ceramistas, and this was apparent in my walk through the town. The homes I passed had pottery placed outside by the door, advertising the wares. It’s a career that’s dominated by women much in the same way as it is in the West African country of Nigeria, the birthplace of Ladi Kwali, one of the most famous and influential potters in the world. Kwali was from the Gwari region of Northern Nigeria, where pottery is regarded as a matriarchal tradition, passed down through women. Countries like Ghana and Mali also share similarly gendered stratifications. Pottery was historically viewed as labor linked to the home, food preparation, religious celebration and conversations with nature and the spiritual realm; spaces historically reserved for women. The transatlantic slave trade saw almost five million Africans forcibly brought to Brazil, the majority of whom came from West Africa. Nigerian culture is evident in towns located around the city of Salvador, which was one of the first slave ports in the Americas. Here, there are unmistakable links that culturally tie Afro-Brazilians to West Africa, and women like Dona Cadu pass on ancestral knowledge.
In Coqueiros, the sound of flip-flops slapping on cobblestoned streets dominate the afternoon landscape. The men spend their early mornings fishing, rising with the dawn. They come to shore in the afternoon to sell their lot and maybe, depending on the season, head back out to cast their nets, or call it in and while away the rest of the day on their verandas, drinking icy, cold cerveja. The women stay home, waking up early to make breakfast and plan for the day’s chores. Children have two options; they go to school, or take on the trades of their mothers and fathers. Dona Cadu’s own routine is simple. She wakes up at four in the morning to the chirping of her two birds whose cages hang just outside her room. She has breakfast and then heads out to her garage to begin working. With both Veronica and Rodrigo’s help, she aims to finish at least 50 pieces a day. Around noon she takes a short rest; by that point, she will have already been up for eight hours. “I don’t really eat lunch,” she says. “My girl, sometimes I get so busy I forget. I do like eating feijoada (black bean stew).” She wakes up again in the mid-afternoon to survey the day’s work and then have dinner.
“When my husband was alive, I would go fishing with him sometimes. The fish he caught we would clean and then cook at home.” He passed away about 20 years ago and she hasn’t been back on the water since. “One day, he caught this large fish. It was almost as big as our canoe, and he was scared to kill it. It was moving around and jumping so much until he finally killed it,” she adds with a laugh.
While we spoke, she was slowly shaping what would become a mid-sized serving bowl. To her right was a bucket full of brown water, which she was scrubbing onto the clay bowl with a smooth, white pebble. Watching her hands gently move up and down in a circular motion was hypnotic and soothing. She was joined by Veronica, the only one of her grandchildren who is following her grandmother down the ceramista route. “I started when I was 11,” Veronica tells me. She is now 29, with a six-year-old son.
Rodrigo, Dona Cadu’s assistant, was also born in Sao Felix but his family lives in Coqueiros. “We were all born in Sao Felix because Coqueiros does not have a hospital,” he says. “Back in the day, children would actually be born at home, but now there are more cars available to take people to the maternity ward.” He is one of the few men in the area who does what’s understood to be a women’s vocation.
Together, Dona Cadu, Veronica, and Rodrigo work side by side for hours. They lobby jokes back and forth as Dona Cadu listens, laughing in the moments when she’s not far off, deep in thought. During a lull in the conversation, she cries out in momentary distress. “Oh no! I forgot to prepare the plates for that young girl to take to her mother.” She places her hand on her chin as she quietly chastises herself for forgetting to complete a customer’s order. “I am so busy stressing about other things, I forgot to do something important. And Rodrigo forgot to remind me.” “Ai misericordia,” she adds with a rueful laugh.
As the day goes on the daughter-in-law of a friend will come asking for a cure for a swollen and oozing back sore. “Clean it with hot water and put some aloe vera oil on it. Come back and show me tomorrow,” Dona Cadu tells her. We are sitting outside and a neighbor walks by, clearly inebriated by the hot sun and bottles of Skol. “He is such a drunk,” she whispers to me as soon as he is out of earshot. “It’s so early and he is already bêbado. Do you drink?” she asks. Responding that I do but only in moderation seems foolish, so I just offer a flat-out no. “Good. Me, I just drink agua and smoothies,” she says. “Sometimes I will have a small can of Pepsi. But just a small one.” We drink water a few hours later as the story-telling neighbor arrives and entertains us with tales of cheating husbands.
I returned to see Dona Cadu a few days after the first visit, and the sun was beating as mercilessly as before. When I arrived, she was baking her pottery outside on the riverbank. Rodrigo had piled finished bowls into a pyramid-like heap, covered them with bamboo, and then set the pile on fire. The bowls would slowly harden underneath the bonfires, and once done, they would be left to cool and then varnished. Today, however, there was a problem: the wind was not cooperating. A northern breeze was igniting the fire too quickly on one side, causing the bowls underneath to lose their red tint and black soot to bloom across their surface. Dona Cadu worriedly observed the fire, walking around the blaze and trying to see if there was a way to stop too many of the bowls from losing their color.
“Ai meu filha estamos agora nas mãos de deus. Não há nada que eu possa fazer agora.” My girl, we are in the hands of God now. There is nothing more I can do, she says, looking closely at the fire with one hand on her hip, and the other raised to the sky to see if the wind showed signs of changing direction. They would have to start all over if the wind continued this way and that meant hours of work blown away. She walked away, her body leaning slightly to the left, and we sat down, playing a waiting game with nature.
“My work has always been hard and there has never been a time when it was easy for me. People come from all over, France and Portugal, to buy it, but it is still very difficult. Muito difícil….” she leaves the thought hanging and looks back at the fire, now petering off, black ash collecting on the ground. She has sustained her family by relying on nature’s providence; a relationship so tenuous I feel compelled to ask her what she is afraid of. “I am not afraid of anything.” Nothing? “Nada. I am not afraid of water, spiders, snakes, flying, getting hit by a car, nothing. If it’s my time to die, that’s up to God. And there would be nothing I can do to change that.”
The wind had mellowed down but, forever capricious, nature was still keeping Dona Cadu on her toes, as grey clouds congregated above. “I heard it was going to rain today on the news,” she says, looking at the sky with a worried expression on her face. “I hope it doesn’t rain until my work is done.” Before I got on the bus heading back home, she handed me a giant plastic bag. I looked inside and found mangoes. “To make smoothies,” she says.
Tari Ngangura is a journalist and photographer based in Brazil. She documents black lives around the globe; their histories, legacies, and movements. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, New York Magazine, Hazlitt, VICE, Noisey, Catapult, The Fader, Flare Magazine, Gusher, and Rookie Mag. You can find her on Twitter @FungaiSJ.