Indo-Portuguese Iconography in the New World

In Jorge Lúzio’s essay “The Orient and the New World: The Carreira da India and the Flows between Asia and Portuguese America,” he traces the movement of Asian cultural objects, mainly religious ivory carvings, to colonial Brazil.  Rather than mapping the flows of Asian immigrants, Lúzio focuses on the way art objects, which preceded the physical migration of their makers, carried with them across the Atlantic a distinctly “Asian” memory and imagination and created an “Asian intercultural presence in the Brazilian arena” (Lúzio, 46).  The Carreira da India was considered the most important route for the great navigations.  Between the 16th and 17th centuries nearly one hundred ships traveling from Goa to Lisbon also anchored in Bahia, and many of these journeys made calls to the African costal colonies as well, generating the multiculturalism of the Portuguese Empire.  In addition to destabilizing cultural and ethnic lines, “the Carreira da India was responsible for the commercial integration that decentralized Mediterranean economic activity and created cultural and mercantile links among new people” (Lúzio, 37).  But rather than creating a cross-regional community among the different sites of Portuguese colonization, by the 17th century Bahia and Goa became rivals for political and economic power in the Portuguese Empire.  Lúzio’s essay on the circulation of ivory carvings and the consequent presence of Asian material culture in Brazil calls for further questions regarding the authenticity of idealized notions of Asia in Latin America and the role multiculturalism plays in dispersing dominant Western ideology.

Before Portuguese missionaries caught on to Indian ivory art’s ability to implant Catholic culture in the New World, sailors who performed vessel maintenance in the Port of Salvador came into contact with Asian material culture.  Both legal and illegal merchandise arrived in the Port of Salvador, thus introducing to Brazil Eastern goods, an experience of otherness, and a dialogue between civilizations regarding artistic, cultural, and economic connections between Asia and Portugal.  While the ivory figures’ baroque technique and non-European ethnic facial features indicate the presence of the Indian craftsman, what ultimately disseminated throughout Portuguese America was Catholic religiosity through an iconography seen as both sacred and exotic.  And although, as Lúzio suggests in this essay, these events of maritime expansion brought diverse areas of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans closer, this imagined proximity creates an illusion of familiarity, causing an Orientalist phenomenon in Brazilian colonial cities rather than contributing to genuine cross-cultural understanding.

When Portuguese Jesuit missionaries transformed Oriental Christian ivory images into vectors that integrated once disparate artistic languages into a Christian-Hindu cultural hybridity, the concepts behind an Asian aesthetic were lost in translation. The visibility of Asian facial features and styles of dress and hair in these Indo-Portuguese religious iconographies did not appear to subvert the Catholic agenda in any way.  The “cultural mosaic” that was Portuguese India and widespread cultural hybridity did not seem to lend itself to a circulation of diverse beliefs and cultures, but made the catholic agenda more palatable for a colonial audience.  It served as a way for non-Europeans to see themselves in Christian iconography, and erased any subversive ideology circulating in India.  The strategic circulation of images representing a particular “other” has historically functioned to essentialize their role in building a stronger and better and Brazil.  While articulating their usefulness to the empire or nation-state, these images simultaneously engender “positive” qualities as markers of difference and foreignness.  During slavery, black bodies were constructed as excellent physical laborers and athletes due to their innate strength in order to rationalize their status as slaves.  During industrialization and the rise of capitalism following emancipation in Brazil, East Asians became essentialized as excellent intellectual laborers.  Rather than suggesting an individual brilliance often attributed to white European subjects, both African and East Asian stereotypes stem from a dehumanizing conceptualization of their propensity for production.  We can consider this trend when considering the “the dissemination of aesthetics and concepts that became the modus operandi of the imagined memory of the peoples of the Southern Portuguese Orient in Brazilian colonial spaces” (Lúzio, 47). Similarly, Indian creators of ivory figures in Goa became very much removed from the object once it began to serve as a vessel for propagating the religious ideology of Europe.  If multiculturalism suggests the mere presence of cultural objects and people from a far off region, then the Portuguese Empire succeeded in creating a multicultural Brazil.  The presence of foreign objects and immigrants alone, lacking context beyond a Western-mediated understanding of their culture, is incapable of generating any positive growth in or of a nation characterized by diversity.