Women, literature and historic events in the hinterlands of Bahia-BR
Apropriated photographs, documents, newspapers, books
Lecture, projections, Installation

Modern women, arcaic ventures;
The early days of photography at the Sertão;
Family photographs and forgotten memories;
The invisible women of the Canudos’s war;
The short appearance of women in a seminal book of the Brazilian literature, “Os Sertões”, and some considerations on the misogyny of the author, engineer and intelectual Euclydes da Cunha.

Resarch on photography & memory making an intersection between family phototographs, a seminal book of the Brazilian literature ( “Os Sertões”  by Euclides da Cunha), and the dawn of photography in the “sertão”. The narrative is permeated by the attempt to identify traces of the female presence and make sense of their existence within the events.




The focus of my research is my maternal family village, Vila Bela das Queimadas, on the beginning of the 19th century, a rural community in the heart of the backlands of Bahia, a region that began to be explored in the late 1600 century when the “conquerors” broke through the territory decimating the indigenous inhabitants pursuing gold and land control. The place is part of the large dry area that occupy nearly the whole Northeast of Brazil, a territory marked by unproductive latifundia, cyclical droughts and chronic unemployment, indulging the exploitation of peasant labor by landowners. Such situation was aggravated by the recent abolition of slavery (1888), which threw millions of ex-enslaved on the street.


© Mornay. Bendengo Meteorite, 1816

The village was settled around 1815 from two large farms belonged to a woman, the childless widow Dona Isabel Maria Guedes de Brito. After the death of her husband, she settled in the farms, together with a sister. These are the first women to appear in the storyline.

Little is known about Dona Isabel besides her Portuguese name and the sole possession of that vast land, but it is not difficult to infer that she was a bold pioneer in a rudimentary territory. Aiming at the settlement, she donated part of her land to whoever wanted to put down roots in there and made build a church consecrated to St. Anthony, erected after a vision of the saint atop a hill. The donation of land and the building of a church were essential steps for the settlement of the village.

Photography did not exist on her times and there is not a painting or drawing portraying Dona Isabel, so we cannot make out what she looked like. Dona Isabel is our Eve, the first woman with name and surname of the region. Even though there is no clue if she was our relative, yet I consider her the first recorded ancestor of all of us - as much as the indigenous and the African enslaved from whom there are no historic traces left.

    © Mornay. Bendengo Meteorite, 1816    



The most significant photographs taken in the region, in the 19th century, depicted the “Battle of Canudos” (1896-1897), a political-religious movement near Vila Bela das Queimadas, which resulted in a large bloodbath.


(...) The head of the movement, a man known as “the Counselor”, whose preach was a mix of religion and revolt against the misery, attracted thousands of sertanejos and ex-slaves to a place called Belo Monte, best known as Canudos. In his politic-mystical reverie, the ‘Couselor” promised salvation while cast apocalyptic prophesies about the end of the world  deflagrating a movement that became a menace to the supply of labor in the region and, ultimately, a threat to the recent proclaimed Brazilian Republic (1889.

In response, the powerful landowners alied with the Catholic Church (threatened by the rebellious preaching of a layman) pressed the government to fight the movement, claiming rumors that Canudos was aiming to invade neighboring cities and set out for the capital.

It was declared war. The Brazilian army dispatched the 1st expedition (600 men), then the 2nd (1500 men), and the 3rd (2500 men) and all three were beaten by the rebellious, alarming the public opinion of the big cities that demanded the annihilation of Canudos (25.000 inhabitants). The popular claim gave legitimacy to the massacre perpetrated by the 4th expedition (6.000 men), that finally defeated the revolt.

The war lasted a year and ended with 25,000 dead, inclusive 5.000 soldiers, and the total wrecking of Canudos.

© D. Urpia. Canudos before the war.

 © Flavio de Barros. Canudos after the last assault, 1897


The photograph here below, taken by Flavio de Barros, dipicts the women prisoners at the aftermatch. 
Even though the official documents hardly mention, 2/3 of the population of Canudos were women (about 16.000 individuals) and 300 recorded women and children survived the war: these, looking at the photographer, in the picture. Unofficial reports give notice that they were taken to the capital and sold as slaves or prostitutes and then disappeared, leaving no traces behind.
What happened to them?

Drawing on Flavio de Barros’s photograph, 2019

Drawing on Flavio de Barros’s photograph, details, 2019


Mixed media on photograph, 2014

My maternal family had been formed a few years prior the war with a legendary story: the visit of 3 fine-looking sisters to the Vila Bela das Queimadas, Joaquina, Mariana and Isabel. They came from a neighboring village, accompanied by their father for an evening of poetry and music by the local philharmonic orchestra.

Despite the cultural aridity of the region, there were philharmonic orchestras performing in commemorative occasions and special gatherings for the local families, as well as erratic poets willing to recite their poetry.

For some kind of wonder - or perhaps some previous arrangement  - at the end of the visit the three of them were committed with three of the most prestigious local bachelors, three cousins among themselves. The weddings happened in the same day, a year later - two of the new couples, my maternal great-grandparents.

*Let’s not forget that getting married was absolutely important for a “woman of family”, valuating and giving her a place in society. And if the man was somehow powerful, her value raised in face of the community and in everybody’s eyes.



Five years after the Canudos bloodbath, Euclides da Cunha launched his masterpiece “Os Sertões”(1902), an immediate success and still considered a seminal book of the Brazilian literature and essential for understanding the country.

Euclides’s narrative was intensely visual to the point that some of his critics said that he was jealous of the photographer Flavio de Barros and his unique images of the episode, which I disagree. In my opinion, is the book - and not the photographs - that creates the mythological image of the “sertão” flagellated, dramatic and fatalistic, a Brazilian icon that - for then on - academics and artists have never ceased to look for. 

In the 1960’s Canudos was flooded by the Cocorobó Dam.




Taken by Lindolfo Farias, the engeneer who travelled to the village to buid the road connecting Vila Bela das Queimadas to Cumbe (actual Euclides da Cunha city), between 1920 and 1922, these photographs are a rarity, from my grandfather’s archives. Their outstanding historic value have the merit to provide a rather rich chronicle of the village, giving a perspective into the local social relations in the early 20th century.

Looking at them, one can divise the signs of a “desenvolvimentist” wave that took the sertão in that very moment with the construction of roads and dams and other infra-sctructure to allow the access (and explotation) of that remote region.

Moreover, the photographs offer a glympse on several aspects of the life in the village, such as the movement at the reailway station, a church, a busy street market, a Protestant baptism in the river, a police case, a veteran of the Paraguay war and even a strike by the workers of the road, for lack of payment. Nonetherless, the collection of 40 images are a striking document of the historic work and class relations in the sertão, having also the merit to provide an overview on the bourgeois family life represented by a group of stylish children and two couples, one of them accompained by a black servant. 


Lourdes Nonato Marques
The young student - and later schooolteacher - chosen to officially address the prominent intelectual Ruy Barbosa visiting the village as presidential candidate.


Cecy Souza
One of the pioneer teachers of the village and the first black girl graduated by the Normal School.

Zulmira Lantyer
Suffragette and city councillor (1933), the first woman elected in the first election in which women voted and was voted.

(by several photographers)

(by several photographers)

The family house, known as Chalet Lantyer, is a monument built between 1900 and 1906 in French style.