Ham’s Redemption

Ham’s Redemption, in Portuguese: A Redenção de Cam (pronounced [ɐ ʁɨ.dẽ.ˈsɐ̃w dɨ kɐ̃w]); is an oil painting made by the Spanish painter Modesto Brocos in 1895. The work was painted while Brocos was teaching at the National School of Fine Arts of Rio de Janeiro.[1]

Painting by Modesto Broco

Ham’s Redemption
Portuguese: A Redenção de Cam
Artist Modesto Brocos
Year 1895
Medium Oil on poplar panel
Subject Branqueamento
Dimensions 199 cm × 166 cm (78 in × 65 in)
Location Museu Nacional de Belas Artes, Rio de Janeiro

The artwork deals with the controversial racial theories of the late nineteenth century and the phenomenon of the search for the gradual “branqueamento” of the generations of the same family through miscegenation.[2]

The work earned Modesto Brocos y Gómez gold medal at the National Salon of Fine Arts in 1895 and shows the direction of Brazilian art in the late nineteenth century.[3]

. . . Ham’s Redemption . . .

The painting is the fruit of a moment of post-emancipation,[4] marked by the adhesion of racialism in the public sphere and the “necessity” of actions in relation to the destiny of the black and mixed population in the free and republican order.[5] The painting alludes to the first book of the Bible, Genesis, chapter 9. In the episode, Ham exposes the nudity and drunkenness of his father, Noah, to the brothers Shem and Japheth, and therefore is condemned by the father to be a slave along with his son Canaan, who is cursed as “the servant of the servants”.[3] Noah prophesied that he, Ham, would be “the last of the slaves of his brethren.” Ham was pointed out in the Bible as the supposed ascendant of the African races. Faced with this, in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Christians used the biblical passage to justify slavery in colonial economies.[6]

The painting shows a kind of way to reverse the “curse” (being Afro-descendant), whitening the characters.[7] It is noticeable the realism present in the work, which brings gradations of colors between the three generations of the characters. The baby is the whitest, followed by the father, sitting next to the mother, who holds the child in her lap. In the left corner of the screen, the one with the darkest skin is the grandmother, with her hands raised to the sky in thanksgiving.[8] By being born white, her grandson was freed from the “curse” of being black, since her daughter, a mulata, married a white man.[8]

Seated are the child’s mother, who carries her on her knees, and a man with crossed legs, supposedly the white husband and responsible for the “bleaching” of the offspring. We can note that this gradation of color follows from left to right, showing miscegenation in its entire process. Here, it is not only a question of cultural and racial elimination, but also of the need for progress that, in Brocos’s eyes, would come only through the “laundering” of the population and the approximation to European culture, eliminating and ignoring other ethnicities and customs.[9]

This denial of African culture becomes apparent when we notice the robes of the female characters; since both women wear Westernized clothes and not costumes that may to their origin.[10] The seated woman’s body is covered in clothing, making it look more European than African.[10] Here is an idea of black women’s adjustment to Christian morality and an ideal of a “whitening reproduction”.[10] In addition, it is notable that the two characters who do not have white skin are women: the mother and the grandmother, establishing a color opposition to the baby and the father.[9] The whole composition is strengthened when the viewer realizes that the ground on which the man treads is stone, showing an “evolution” in relation to what women tread, which is of land. Once again, the white-skinned European is represented as superior, and this becomes explicit even in the pose in which the man, with his back, looks at the rest of the scene.[9]

The position of the hands and looks between the characters brings coherence to the message that Modesto Brocos wanted to pass.

There is also the theory that the mother (sitting in the center of the screen) would be the representation of the Virgin Mary and the baby, the baby Jesus.[11] This is due to the blue color of the shawl in which she is enveloped, as it alludes to the mantle used by the Virgin Mary.[11]

The period in which the work was produced was marked by intense scientific mobilizations ); however, in referring to the biblical episode narrated in the book of Genesis, The Redemption of Ham seems to bet more on religion than on science to corroborate its perspective. There is, in the work, a perspective of religious court rather than a “scientific” look.[12] The work reflects the racist ideologies of the time by showing the laundering passed by the family as something to be praised by themselves. As Tatiana Lotierzo and Lilia Schwarcz point out in the article “Gender Race and Whitening Project: The Redemption of Cam” the women of the painting – the black grandmother and the mulatto mother – are disposed as if there was voluntarism from them in the process of laundering which sought to extinguish its own ethnic group. The work became the mark of an era that, imbued with a racialist thought, left indelible marks in the Brazilian tradition.[13]

. . . Ham’s Redemption . . .

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. . . Ham’s Redemption . . .

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