Friday, December 26, 2014

Life Through Museums - Recife

The best way to discover the secrets of a big city is through its museums. In these wonderful places you will see all the history and culture of its humanity.

Only within the hallowed walls of a museum can we trace the history of a civilization and have an idea of how it worked.  Recife was founded by the Portuguese in 1537 and is the home of several artists, musicians and writers; it is also home of more than 20 museums.

The History of Recife and Pernambuco is unique. During the centuries of colonization, Pernambuco saw millions of immigrants and slaves from all over the world flocking into the state.  As a result, it is a diverse land with an array of cultures, religions, languages, colors, flavors, and histories that make up its intricate heritage.

This cultural melting pot has become a regional hub for museums and galleries. These are accurately depicted in the many specific places that are scattered throughout the city, inviting the tourist and the locals to discover and rediscover the individual and collective memory of the city.

A museum can be a fascinating place, and no one is the same as the next. Several museums have become so famous that they are destinations in themselves attracting millions of visitors who flock from across the world to view their exhibits.

The "Instituto Ricardo Brennand" museum

Inaugurated in 2002 by the Brazilian collector and businessman Ricardo Brennand , one of the most important names in contemporary exhibitions in Brazil, The Brennand Museum is a mock-medieval building exhibiting art collected by the Brennand family, that displays around 2,000 pieces of ceramic works, paintings, manuscripts, sculptures, weapons and much more.

The Institute holds a permanent collection of historic and artistic objects of diversified sources, ranging from the early Middle Ages to 20th century, proceeding from Europe, Africa, Asia and America with strong emphasis in objects, documents and artwork related to Colonial Portuguese and Dutch Brazil. The task of preserving the memory of the Netherlanders' moment of glory in Brazil has been adopted by the Brennand family at the beginning of the 19th Century.

The museum also houses one of the largest collections of armory in the world, with 3,000 pieces, the majority of which was produced in Asia and Europe between the 14th and 19th century and the largest private collection of Frans Post's paintings from the 17th century Dutch colonial period in Pernambuco.

The Brennand Museum is headquartered in a castle-like set of structures, named "Castelo de São João". The complex is surrounded by a huge garden endowed with artificial lakes and a number of large-sizes sculptures such as “The lady and the horse” by the Colombian artist Fernando Botero, considered one of the living artists who are most recognized and quoted in the world from Latin America.

The museum also offers a beautiful park area for walks and a cafeteria - a great day out for the whole family.

Nearby the Institute, Ricardo's cousin, Fransisco's marvellous sculptures and paintings can be seen at the Francisco Brennand’s Ceramic Workshop (Oficina Francisco Brennand) - in fact, the cover photo for the article shows what awaits you at its entrance.

Kahal Zur Israel Synagogue

The Jewish museum and cultural center is the oldest one in the Americas, dating back to the 17th century. Founded in 1630 by Jews who were once expelled from Portugal and settled in the Netherlands, this museum is part of the Pernambuco historic heritage.

Kahal Zur Israel (Rock of Israel), flourished in Recife from 1636 until 1654, when the northeastern portion of Brazil was taken back by the Portuguese. The less tolerant Portuguese expelled the Jews, most of whom went to Suriname or the Caribbean island of Curaçao. A small group settled in New Amsterdam, nowadays New York City, marking the first Jewish presence in North America. It later moved to the Upper West Side, where it is still called "The Portuguese and Spanish Synagogue."

Based on old maps, archeological excavations uncovered the remnants of the synagogue, including the original Mikvah - a bath for religious ceremonies - under six layers of floors. The restored synagogue reopened in December 2001.

Since then it has become one of the main stops on the city's tourist circuit and its archives attract scores of Brazilian and foreign historians.

There are four synagogues in Recife but many Jews choose to celebrate their weddings and Bar Mitzvahs in the Kahal zur Israel because of its symbolism. The synagogue is also at the center of a broader cultural renaissance. In November of every year, a Jewish festival offering dance, cinema, and food, from Gefilte fish to fluden, attracts around 20,000 visitors.

The place where the first synagogue of the Americas was once situated has recently been identified and its structural foundations located under the large houses, numbered 197 through 203, on the street known as Rua do Bom Jesus, previously Rua dos Judeus (Street of the Jews) in Old Recife.

The Museu do Estado de Pernambuco (The State of Pernambuco Museum)

This historical and antropological museum created in 1929 has a wide and varied collection of pieces that are striking references in Pernamnuco's state history and includes panels about the battles of Monte Guararapes and Tabocas.

The museum collections contain over 12 thousand works of art which invite the visitor to a journey into the local history, from pictures of the Brazilian Colonial Period as well as the Dutch invasion (1630–1654), to those of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Currently the collection of the State Museum has more than 14,000 items, adding important collections that are distributed in the following categories: Archaeology, Indigenous Culture, Dutch presence in Pernambuco, Sacred Art, Afro-Brazilian culture, Iconography, Furniture, Porcelain, Crystals and Painting, with Canvas.

Periodically the museum hosts the “Salão de Arte Contemporânea de Pernambuco”, when emerging artists are selected to represent the new generation of local professionals who will help maintain and shape the new profile of the local art scenery.

The Museu da Cidade do Recife (Recife City Museum)

 This 'Fort of Five Points', built by the Dutch in 1630, is the symbol of the Dutch resistance.

The museum stands out in its collection containing iconographic documents of importance to the preservation of social and urban history of Recife.

Also it houses pictures, reproductions of old paintings (painted by Franz Post) and objects that describe Recife since the period of Dutch rule, such as over one thousand antique photos, tableware, Portuguese and French tiles, among other pieces.

The memory of the cultural capital of Pernambuco is represented by about 150 thousand images and pieces from old houses and the Church of the Good Lord Jesus of the Martyrs, now demolished.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Guaranda Carnival

One of the most famous popular festivities on the yearly calendar of celebrations in Ecuador is the Carnival staged in the central Andean city of Guaranda, capital of the small province of Bolivar. What makes this particular Carnival famous is the intensity with which the local population takes the fiesta, joined by thousands of national and international visitors, and also the particularities which make it different from those that are celebrated elsewhere in the country or abroad.

Guaranda is a quaint city, located in a fertile Andean valley, on the western slopes of the colossal Chimborazo Volcano, Ecuador’s highest mountain, rising to over 21.000 feet above sea level. The scenery that surrounds the colonial style city and its condition as important crossroads for the commerce between the Andes and the Ecuadorian Pacific Coast, make it interesting in many ways.  It is also known as the “City of the Seven Hills”.

Unlike more traditional Carnival celebrations, basically “imported” by the European cultures which conquered the Americas in the late 1400’s, the Guaranda Carnival claims to have its own ancestral roots, those of the Pre-Hispanic cultures which inhabited the present-day territory of Ecuador before the arrival of the Incas or the Spaniards. According to history, local legends and traditions, the Carnival was celebrated to honor Mother Earth and nature, who they worshipped. The central character was the Guaranga Cacique or Lord, who presided over the entire celebrations. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived, they introduced their own version of Carnivals, basically originated on the Roman festivities, which later were located by the Roman Catholic Calendar as a prelude to the period of Lent, the Holy Week and Easter Celebrations.

The Guaranda Carnival is a fantastic display of joy, colorfulness, music, dancing, eating and drinking. People literally abandon themselves to the pleasures of partying for several days without stop and leaving aside any other matters or concerns. Bright costumes, symbolic masks, parades, singing and sharing the traditional drinks and foods of Carnival with relatives, friends, neighbors and even strangers is the norm. The celebrations feature intense sessions of throwing each other water-filled balloons, water buckets, perfumed water, flowers, talcum powder, flour and other elements, while one single “official” song fills the air continuously day and night. The festivities are a reflex of the profound syncretism or blend between the indigenous cultures, traditions and cosmology and those that were brought by the European conquerors and the Catholic religion.

The Guaranda Carnival kicks-off with the “grand entry” to the city of the “Taita Carnaval” (“Taita" is the kichwa word for “Father”), which occurs around ten days before the actual festivities. It is an impressive parade, presided by a prominent male member of the local community, who represents power, wealth and, in this case, is also the provider of happiness, presents, and food and leads the party spirit. His characterization earns him the respect and gratitude of the massive party-goers. As in most indigenous-rooted rites, the Taita or Father is accompanied by a “Mama” or Mother, in this case the “Mama Carnaval”, who joins in presiding over the lively rituals, which include dressing-up in representative costumes and disguises with painted faces or masks and vociferously chanting the Carnival song to the beat of drums, flutes and panpipes. Parading through the city’s main streets, the exuberant caravan is escorted by musicians, bands and poem readers who recite verses which also fuse the indigenous with the European, producing dramatic samples of the “mestizo” culture.

A basic element of this festivity is the spirit of sharing. As in past epochs, when the local tribes prepared abundant food and beverages for the visitors from the surrounding areas, the concept of sharing with friends and strangers alike the food, the drinks and the joyful party spirit has been preserved up to these days. The signature beverage of the Guaranda celebration is the “pajaro azul” (meaning blue bird), a strong alcoholic concoction made of sugar-cane based fire-water and local herbs which give the drink its bluish coloration. The more indigenous rooted prefer to stick to the ancestral “chicha” drink, a fermented maize-based brew. Food includes roasted guinea-pig, potatoes, maize and pork prepared in many traditional and certainly delicious ways.

The main festivities last up to a whole week, from the 26th February to the 3rd March in 2014, and are also related to the ancient celebrations around the Spring Equinox, to which the Carnival is usually very close in time. It takes some three and a half hours to reach Guaranda from Ecuador’s capital city of Quito, on a very scenic drive south along the Pan-American Highway, passing Ambato and then taking a southwestern branch of the Pan-Am. So, if you have the chance, don’t miss the opportunity of being a part of this amazing celebration already included in Ecuador’s inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage expressions.