Coffee from Helvécia

Curated by Marcelo Rezende und Eduardo Simantob
29 Aug 2017 - 28 Jan 2018 | Johann Jacobs Museum

One of the 19th century’s largest coffee plantations, located in northeastern Brazil, was squarely in Swiss hands. Today’s Helvécia bears almost no traces of the forms of life and community it once gave rise to while the encounter between European migrants and African slaves or their freed progeny remains to be properly understood and digested.

More than a hundred years later, another coffee plantation would become the setting for a social experiment: In the late 1930s, Brazilian architect and writer Flávio de Carvalho (1899-1973) founded an independent republic for “naked people” (i.e. those who reject categorization by social or ethnic affiliation, nationality, gender, etc.) at Fazenda Capuava.

The exhibition focuses on forms of community that emerge from migrant destinies, slavery, demand for goods, working conditions and utopian fantasies. Exhibits including Brazilian archival documents, watercolor paintings from Pinacoteca and artefacts from the Museu Afro Brasil in São Paulo, and a contemporary video- and textile piece by artist Denise Bertschi shed light on a key chapter in the history of Swiss colonialism and global interconnections.


Concept: Marcelo Rezende (Director of the Archive of the Avant-Gardes in Dresden) with Eduardo Simantob

In cooperation with Pinacoteca São Paulo and Museu Afro Brasil, supported by Aargauer Kuratorium, Goethe Institut, UFSB-Universidade Federal do Sul da Bahia.


Credit: Bosset de Luze, Fazenda Pombal, Colonia Leopoldina in Bahia, between 1820 and 1840, drawing watercolor on paper, 36,3 x 61,1 cm, collection of Pinacoteca do Estado de Sao Paulo in Brasilien, donated by Fundação Estudar, 2007


Notes on “Coffee from Helvécia”

by Marcelo Rezende

It was mid-May in the year 2014 when a 140-year-old book of notes arrived at Bahia’s Museum of Modern Art in the city of Salvador, brought by one descendant of the narrative. Its crinkled pages skimmed the history of Colônia Leopoldina (1818), the first accomplished settlement run by Swiss Germans and Germans in Brazil—a very profitable endeavor for decades, thanks to the riches brought by coffee and the misery of slaves forced to toil there.

Situated on the southern tip of the state of Bahia, the adventurous settlers arrived at a time when one-third of the population consisted of slaves traded in a continuous flow from Africa. The land was experiencing regular slave uprisings, and local farmers lived in constant fear of violent reprisals.

They had come to bring added know-how to plantations, to convey a European model of civilization, and to explore the land in its full, economic capacity. One of the many legacies of this first, organized enterprise in Brazil is the legend of Helvécia. It tells of slaves working under a different regime: they were allowed to have families, to learn a trade (such as carpentry) and enjoy some rights.

This is the narrative offered by the masters.


Colônia Leopoldina was named after the Austrian wife of Pedro, heir to the Portuguese Crown. It was a complex of 51 plantations (fazendas). One of them, Helvetia, became the district Helvécia, and later a quilombola (maroon) community. After the economic cycles of sugar cane and gold, coffee was to become the new jewel of the nascent, independent (1822) Brazilian empire.

According to Hermann Neeser, author of A Colônia Leopoldina (1951), the legend of the involuntary utopia in Helvécia derives from an account by Carlos Augusto Toelsner, the medical doctor there (1850), and Brazilian descendants of the colony. The testimonies show no record of violence, no uprisings, no “regular” enslavement rules among the 200 masters and 2000 slaves of Leopoldina. There was no counter-narrative to refute them.

Swiss artist Denise Bertschi headed to Bahia in search of the oral history of Helvécia, to confront the blind spots in this historical entanglement. The result is a dramatic, delirious sewn textile drawn from written and oral recollections of the facts. An unfinished memory, to be found in a ruin.


“Every ruin carries a memory of the unfinished, and a proper archaeology can only be made under a wild gaze to the past,” Brazilian artist Flávio de Carvalho (1899-1973) noted in the 1930s. A man of multiple talents (architect, painter, designer, writer, performer and much more), De Carvalho offers more than just a thesis about history: he also left a ruin of his own—a ruin of utopian reverie in the shadow of a coffee plantation.

Fazenda Capuava was the most radical moment in his repertoire. In 1938, De Carvalho took over a bankrupt coffee farm in the south-eastern state of São Paulo and decided to turn it into an autonomous, modernist republic where everything was permitted, including new architecture, experimental designs, and unconstrained sexual mores. It was De Carvalho’s own country. The place was abandoned after his death, becoming yet another footnote to the failure of Modernist utopia under tropical sensuality.

De Carvalho was among the first generation of Brazilian modernists to emerge in the 1920s. A group of writers and artists reacting to the high-speed industrialization, they tried to find Brazilian answers to universal questions: an identity that could go beyond and through European heritage, and in doing so come to terms with its own cultural vertigo. The Johann Jacobs Museum presents glimpses of Flávio de Carvalho’s quest among recollections of Helvécia and pieces from Pinacoteca and Museu Afro-Brasil: a set of reactions to the Brazilian jigsaw of slavery, modernism, and a mix of European obsession and African sensibility. Works on view include Mask by artist and curator Emanoel Araújo. His sculpture fuses Europe, Africa, violence and delirium, creating an image locked in its own mystery: the Brazilian maze.


The artist’s archive is housed in a documentation center at the University of Campinas (Brazil). The selection of images and text fragments shown here derive from various artistic and architectural projects, including Flávio’s trip to the Amazon rainforest in search of a white goddess (or so the docu-fiction script tells us) and designs for a coffee monument that was never built. His guestbook lists visitors to Fazenda Capuava, where Flávio founded a modernist “republic.”

These two, 19th-century porcelain dishes show depictions of Brazilian life and were modeled after originals by French painter Jean-Baptiste Debret (1768-1848). Debret, a disciple of neoclassical painter and former revolutionary Jacques-Louis David, traveled to Brazil starting 1816 and helped local authorities found an art academy in Rio de Janeiro. Back in Paris, he published his Voyage Pittoresque et Historique au Brésil in 1831: a multi-volume publication detailing everyday life in Brazil including the slave economy, the social life and the flora and fauna of the vast country.

The Brazilian sculptor (1926-1962) blends various influences, including the constructivist elements of modernism and the local woodcarving of the Carrancas (bow figures on ships in the great rivers
of Brazil, strongly influenced by Portuguese baroque) and the shapes of Nigerian and Angolan masks Agnaldo knew from books and exhibitions.

This massive iron structure served to punish defiant slaves. It was fixed at the neck and jaw-level. These devices were usually forged by the slaves themselves.

These wooden objects are votive offerings, with each one representing an individual vow. A person’s arm hurts or is injured, but is miraculously cured by the Madonna (or another powerful spiritual figure) after intense prayer. A symbolic replacement of the body part – some artfully carved, others less so – would be hung in the church or chapel as a sign of gratitude.
The imaginary catalogue of wooden votive offerings includes every kind of human body part, as one might imagine. The curator chose to limit himself to arms for this exhibition, as these were plantation people’s primary work instrument.

This childlike figure, an amalgam of fables from three cultures, is a magical being popular in Brazil – a joker who appears and disappears at will, playing pranks. He has one leg, three fingers on his hand, a small tail and smokes a pipe. Legend has it that he lost the other leg doing capoeira (a danced martial art with African roots). His red cap can be traced to clothing worn by Jesuit missionaries. Saci-pererê was first documented in the 18th century; his name derives from the Tupi-Guarani languages and means “indigenous child.” 20th century readers know Saci-pererê from Monteiro Lobarto’s children’s stories and comic books by Maurício de Souza.

The dolls were made in various eras of the 20th century, as indicated by their clothing.

The round piece of solid wood was used to beat the palms of a child’s hand. In this case, the hole in the center prevents air pressure from softening the impact.

Similar to Agnaldo, Araújo’s semi-relief combines various, indeed actually incompatible forms that, loosely speaking, echo the baroque and industrial age. The smoothness of the geometric construction – its modernism emphasized by its choice of primary colors – is directly juxtaposed with a black, almost raw wooden surface penetrated by iron nails. The nailed areas push this surface into the third dimension, forcing further proximity to the modernist construction. A silvery chrome forms a zigzag pattern across the nails, which are hammered into
a grid.

These colorful carts are used to sell coffee or cocoa in the streets of Salvador da Bahia. Brazilian pop music booms from the integrated loudspeakers. The vehicle is decorated with elaborate images of Salvador – including the modern passenger elevator that connects upper and lower cities and baroque church facades dating from the time of the Portuguese colonial rule. Adding to this are saints and their erotic counterparts, popular musicians, immortal football gods and so on.

These three watercolors by Swiss painter Jean Frédéric Bosset de Luze (Geneva 1754-1838) were created at the beginning of the 19th century and document the founding phase of the “Leopoldina” colony.
Two of the images show a topographical view of the grounds, while the third watercolor – rendered entirely in brown hues – tries to capture the atmosphere. The eye is drawn along a wide, shady path to the manor house (shown here with an open door), while the outer edges of the picture show idyllic work scenarios: on the left, a woman of presumable African descent offers another African-origin laborer a calabash to drink from, and a group of workers harvests coconuts on the right.
What is fascinating about one of the topographic drawings is the detailed legend that fills the entire lower half of the picture. Basic components of the plantation are named in a handwritten list that – due to the abundance of information – becomes ever-narrower towards the bottom: 1) the warm kitchen, 2) the coffee storage, 8) and 9) manor houses, c) a path bordering the orange trees g) a field with aloe vera plants, h) a field with cassava (a plant whose starchy tubers are an important staple food), and q) a small port.
The water features a lightly-drawn arrow in pencil indicating the direction of the river.

Installation by Denise Bertschi

Artist Denise Bertschi has contributed various pieces to this exhibition that can be understood as a group of works. The video installation with three monitors (shown on the lower level) documents the situation in modern-day Helvécia in southern Bahia. The small settlement is now a state-recognized quilombo – a settlement founded by former or escaped slaves.

Its unusual name goes back to the colonial era. The fazenda was part of a large colony called “Leopoldina.” Founded by Swiss and Germans in 1818, it quickly developed into one of the world’s largest coffee plantations. This would not have been possible without the approximately 2000 slaves that toiled there.

Now the coffee boom days are long gone, and Swiss machinations in Bahia seem a distant memory. History appears overgrown, a circumstance that makes the objects and things even vaguely remini- scent of that period even more striking: an orange tree points the way to a long-forgotten cemetery said to be shared by both whites and blacks. A porcelain shard hints at the opulence of former manor houses. A disused port recalls ships bearing slaves and cargo.

Today, Helvécia lies in the middle of an area used to cultivate eucalyptus, a very invasive plant introduced to Brazil at the beginning of the twentieth century. The plant grows quickly and yields a lot of wood, but leaches the soil.

The textile work by Denise Bertschi extends around the edge of the table in the museum’s large hall. The embroidery is based on various documents from the heydey of Swiss colonialism, including correspondence between public authorities in Bahia and Bern, emblems of the Swiss consulates in Salvador and Leopoldina, and a list of belongings in the estate of a Swiss plantation owner who died at Leopoldina. The list includes not only 100 kilometers of coffee plantations, but 150 slaves as well.

The tropical archives holding Bertschi’s finds are not suitable places for storing such documents. Instead they contribute to transforming paper into aesthetic nature, and dissolving history. The half-decayed letters and documents consist mainly of holes – not unlike the elaborate, hole- ridden St. Gallen embroidery that went into mechanical production at the start of the 20th century. Brazil was among the first to buy these new embroidery machines. In fact, St. Gallen embroidery can be found in the white festival clothing worn during Condomblé ceremonies. While the precarious archives seem to be on the side of those who would seek to suppress colonial history, its memory lives on in artistic access and appropriation.

Though the heyday of Swiss coffee plantations has clearly come and gone, stories told by Helvécia inhabitants continue to testify to the painful memories of slavery. They paint a different picture of life on the plantation than the consistently positive reports and descriptions found in official archives and libraries.




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