"Mameluca" Woman as a Concubine
Dutch Brazil, Netherlands (1641)
oil on canvas
265 × 157 cm
National Museum of Denmark
This Week on MedievalPOC: Eckhout’s series on Dutch Brazil
Albert Eckhout was a Netherlandish still-life painter commissioned by John Maurice, Prince of Nassau-Siegen, to paint the plants, animals, and human beings that inhabited the newly colonized Brazil.
This series is among the first European paintings that were brought back to Europe of the “New World”; their purpose being to attract funding and interest in travel to these places, and to encourage the wealthy to invest in colonization. The accuracy of these paintings remains hotly contested in Art History circles. There is a notable lack of accountability regarding asking the Indigenous peoples of Brazil their opinions on this series. Indeed, many of the American and European “scholars” who bother to teach the history of these paintings insist that the ethnic groups depicted here have “died out”.
Too many academic environments treat these paintings as if they exist in some kind of vacuum, separated by a sterile layer of “objectivity” from the lives of Brazilian people today.
Considering what is going on in Brazil RIGHT NOW, and how the racial strife and economic issues can be traced directly back to caste systems and social conventions created by colonization and exploitation, it is disingenuous at best and colluding with oppression and violence at worst to teach Art History in this manner.
Art does not and has never existed outside of context.
This panting of a Brazilian woman who is a mixture of Portuguese and Indigenous Brazilian (“Mameluc@” is translatable to “Mestiz@” in Spanish, “mixed” or Mulatto” in English) may seem demure to a modern viewer, but in context it is meant to titillate and assure a (preferably wealthy) male viewer of her sexual availability and willingness to cater to male desires for sex, food, fertility, land, and conquest:
The Mameluke Woman is depicted as a coquettish concubine in garb that is quite non-European (not only with the loose fitting dress, but because she apparently isn’t wearing a girdle or underclothing). Her raised dress and exposed leg suggest the sexual “profitability” of native people to the conquering Dutch. In fact, these mameluke women (a mixture of Indian and European blood) were stereotypically seen by the Dutch as being promiscuous and sexually available.
There terms do not disappear into a void when we come to modern racial constructs and how they affect the lives of real people in Brazil today.
The coordinator of the Black Consciousness group at the University of São Paulo (USP), Haydee Fiorino, says that for women, the burden of discrimination is even greater. “Black women are always doing subordinate work. Or they are seen as the wife of the carnival, the lecherous mulatto, who only gains visibility in the carnival and then goes back to her place, sweeping the floor,” she added.
Protests against racism are happening throughout Brazil, and younger and older generations are joining together in order to combat the injustice the impositions of class and caste systems by colonizing forces have left in their wake.
The coordinator of the Movement New Quilombo, Race and Class, Honorius Wilson da Silva, said the event is part of a continued mobilization to combat discrimination in the country “We are here to say that racism is everywhere, but we are also everywhere. We are the majority of the population, ” he said.
During this week, I will be presenting quite a few of Eckhout’s paintings, preferably with as much context as possible, and including the words and deeds of modern Brazilians, who are affected by the legacy of colonization that these paintings are all too often removed from. As an American, my own point of view certainly affects the way I talk about these works. As an Indigenous American, I am all too familiar with how the legacy of colonization leads to shattered cultures and degraded circumstances for those of us who were here before. It is my goal to prioritize the voices of Brazilians of color who have been silenced and erased, or viewed through the lens of the Other by European art and media.
Casta/Caste system in the Americas, with sources (134 terms or castes in Brazil alone) (English)
Núcleo de Estudios Afro-Asiáticos (Portuguese)
Monica Bowen, European Art Historian and Professor (English)
More from Bowen
Two white people argue over whether or not Brazilians are cannibals at NY Times
Afro-Europe, Brazilian Protests (English)