Customs and Costumes: Carlos Julião and the Image of Black Slaves in Late Eighteenth-Century Brazil

by Silvia Hunold Lara


The identity between slavery and dark skin has been studied in a variety of ways, but less attention has been paid to the manner in which those social meanings were constructed and operated under specific circumstances. Addressing this question, this article takes as evidence a set of drawings and paintings in watercolour by Carlos Julião, depicting figures and scenes from late eighteenth-century South Central Brazil. The first objective is to take iconography as historical evidence, carefully evaluating and deciphering meanings according to its internal logic and programmatic composition. This has seldom been done in Brazilian historiography. On the contrary, in recent years, several studies on colonial Brazil have accepted Julião’s paintings uncritically as evidence throwing light on slave experience and everyday life. Reified and removed from their original context, they have thus been used naively as if they spoke for themselves or could be read in a direct and transparent way. In fact, as this article will try to show, this is far from the case.

Secondly, the analysis being tried here deals with a period in which the subject has only rarely been visited. In the context of the eighteenth-century Portuguese empire, racist ideology was not yet predominant, granting us access to a type of reasoning and a logic of thought in which the differences and inequalities among men and women were not necessarily tied to ‘racial’ origins or justified by reference to scientific knowledge. Inquiring into that logic and reasoning and trying to decipher its procedures and political implications, we hope to throw light on the process by which racism struck deep roots, growing so vigorously in Brazil.

Finally, this article seeks to understand how the imperial gaze perceives the colonial condition and is aware of the presence of slavery. Taking as evidence a set of images portraying dark-skinned human figures and looking through the screens that prevent us from seeing them clearly, Silvia Hunold Lara discusses how these images can be used to construct a historical interpretation of the slave condition and, more specifically, of the body of the slave in late eighteenth-century Brazil.

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