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Essays on Paula Rego

Maria Manuel Lisboa

5. Brave New Worlds: The Birthing of Nations in First Mass in Brazil

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On Easter Sunday in the morning our captain decided to go to mass and preaching… and he ordered all the other captains to go on their boats and do likewise; and so it was done. He ordered that a […] goodly altar be raised, and he caused a mass to be said to us all […]. And there, beside the captain was the flag which he had brought with him from Belém, which had always been raised high together with the New Testament… Whilst we listened to mass and the preaching, as many people again came to the beach, with their bows and arrows, who, much at their ease and playfully and gazing at us, sat down.
Pêro Vaz de Caminha, Letter to His Majesty Don Manuel concerning the discovery of Brazil
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
That has such people in’t!
William Shakespeare, The Tempest

Unexpected Visitors

1Nationality, nations, and Portugal specifically, are always at the heart of Paula Rego’s work, sometimes indirectly but often directly. More often her works address her motherland’s sea-borne imperial and colonial adventures in non-specific ways: When We Used to Have a House in the Country, fig. 1.2; Departure, fig. 2.8; The Cadet and His Sister, fig. 2.9; and The Soldier’s Daughter, fig. 2.11, to name but a few. The work to be discussed now, however, addresses one particular aspect of Portugal’s imperial adventures: namely the discovery and colonization of Brazil in 1500, and the implications of this moment of contact for colonizer and colonized alike. And as one would expect from this artist, when addressing any matter of unconsenting possession, at the heart of her work we find a woman’s plight.

2Rego painted First Mass in Brazil in 1993 (fig. 5.2) one year after the fifth centenary of Columbus’s arrival in the Caribbean in 1491. The picture borrows both title and composition from the famous painting of 1861 by the Brazilian artist Vítor Meirelles (fig. 5.1).

Fig. 5.1 Vítor Meirelles, First Mass in Brazil (1860). Oil on canvas, 268 x 356 cm. Museu Nacional de Belas Artes, Rio de Janeiro. Wikimedia, public domain,​wiki/​File:Meirelles-primeiramissa2.jpg

Fig. 5.1 Vítor Meirelles, First Mass in Brazil (1860). Oil on canvas, 268 x 356 cm. Museu Nacional de Belas Artes, Rio de Janeiro. Wikimedia, public domain,​wiki/​File:Meirelles-primeiramissa2.jpg

Rego’s painting features two different settings: an indoor scene inspired by the house of her nanny in Ericeira, in Portugal and an outdoors Brazilian setting depicted by what could be either a picture on the wall or a view from a window, offering a visual paraphrase of Meirelles’ work. Meirelles picture, in turn, was inspired by Pêro Vaz de Caminha’s letter of 1500 — a short passage from which is quoted above — addressed to Don Manuel I, King of Portugal, in which he chronicles his arrival on a Portuguese ship in a new land, first named Terra de Vera Cruz (Land of the True Cross) and subsequently Brazil, after an indigenous tree, Pau Brasil (now extinct). At the forefront in Rego’s picture we see a pregnant woman lying on her side on a bed, surrounded by a turkey on one side with a woman in a blood-stained apron standing above it. Other items include two dead fish on a trunk at the head of the bed, a ceramic duck, a small statue and two dolls (or possibly one doll and one small, half-mummified body) lying on their backs on an overhanging shelf.

Fig. 5.2 Paula Rego, First Mass in Brazil (1993). Acrylic on paper laid on canvas, 130 x 180 cm. Photograph courtesy of Marlborough Fine Art, all rights reserved.

Fig. 5.2 Paula Rego, First Mass in Brazil (1993). Acrylic on paper laid on canvas, 130 x 180 cm. Photograph courtesy of Marlborough Fine Art, all rights reserved.

3This painting marks a crucial stage in Rego’s thematic trajectory over the decades that followed, heralding a growing preoccupation with the female body in scripts characterized by violence within a framework of personal, national and sexual politics. From the mid-nineteen nineties onwards, even more emphatically than previously, the bodies of women will acquire particular significance in this artist’s work, whether in animal/bestial form — the Dog Women, figs. 1.12 and 6.14) and Dancing Ostriches cycles (fig. 3.22) — or with a focus on love, sexuality, illness and pain (Moth, fig. 4.32; Love, fig. 4.34; Bride, fig. 4.35); or on reproduction, including childbirth and abortion (First Mass in Brazil, fig. 5.2; The Crime of Father Amaro: The Coop, fig. 3.12; Untitled Abortion cycle, figs. 4.3–4.5; 4.14; 4.15; 4.24–4.26; 4.30; 4.31; 4.37; 4.38; 4.41; 4.49; and Life of the Virgin Mary series (figs. 7.1; 7.3; 7.9; 7.10; 7.11; 7.12; 7.19; 7.20).

  • 1 It is worth noting that in Portuguese there are two word for ‘Indian’: ‘indiano’ (a native of India (...)

4The theme of maternity in Rego’s work, seldom a happy one, will be the paradigm through which, in First Mass in Brazil, the nature of childbirth will be inscribed within the historical-political context of Pedro Álvares Cabral’s discovery of Brazil in 1500. June Hahner has referred to Brazil as a ‘country without a memory’ (Hahner, 1990, xii) and in a detailed account of the struggle for women’s rights in the period between 1950 and the 1980s she finds, at the centre of a struggle that proved to be highly complex, an obsession with the figure of the mother as the origin or creator of both self and country. The mother emerges as a complex figure in Portugal from its earliest beginnings as a nation — which involved a son’s rebellion against his mother — and in Brazil, a country whose self-image as a miscegenated nation has involved the killing of a series of mothers, be they the black slave woman, the indigenous índia1 or the white angel in the house.

5Thus, if the mother (land) to be invented anew under the guise of recuperating an imagined pre-existent reality prior to contact with European sailors was the America to be recovered by the Romantic drive to ‘local colour’, the finding of that mother (imagined as untouched, or virginal), was to be rendered possible only through the act of kinslaying: the Oresteian spilling of the blood of that other first, Eve-like European mother, now to be Oedipally discarded, whilst nonetheless, at times, of necessity resuscitated.

6The origins of Brazil as an independent nation have a basis in two family romances worthy of both Sophocles and Freud. The first harks back to the birth of Portugal in the twelfth century as the outcome of a series of rebellions by a son against his Galician mother and his Leonese cousin; the second as the consequence of the insurrection of a Portuguese son against his royal father in the nineteenth century.

7In the case of the first, events unfolded as follows:

8Don Afonso Henriques, who would become the first king of the new nation of Portugal in 1143 was the son of Henry, Count of Burgundy and Teresa, the natural daughter of King Alfonso VI of León and Castile. He was probably born in 1109. Henrique and Teresa reigned jointly as count and countess of what was then the County of Portucale (Condado Portucalense) until Henry’s death on 22 May 1112 during the siege of Astorga, after which Teresa reigned alone. In an effort to pursue a larger share in the Leonese inheritance, Teresa joined forces with Fernando Pérez de Trava, a Galician count, but the idea of an alliance with Galicia was unpopular with a lot of the nobility of the Condado Portucalense including its chief cleric, the Archbishop of Braga, who feared Portucale being absorbed under the Galician Archbishopry of Santiago de Compostela. In 1122, Afonso Henriques, aged fourteen, made himself a knight and in 1127 rebelled against his mother, sent her into exile in Galicia, and in 1128 took control of the county of Portucale. On 6 April 1129, Afonso Henriques proclaimed himself Prince of Portugal or Prince of the Portuguese. Following an overwhelming victory against the Moors in the battle of Ourique on 25 July 1139 he was proclaimed King of the Portuguese by his soldiers and in 1143 wrote to Pope Innocent II declaring himself King of Portugal. This is the date generally accepted as the date of independence, recognized as such by the King of Léon. Papal recognition, however, was only granted by papal bull by Pope Alexander III in 1179.

9By the end of the fifteenth century Portugal had already claimed a vast empire that stretched down the eastern and western coasts of Africa, and along territories across southern Asia to India; across the Atlantic was the territory that became Brazil, discovered in 1500. For much of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, following the interregnum of Spanish rule between 1580 and 1640 in the aftermath of the death without an heir of King Sebastião, Brazil’s enormous wealth in gold, precious stones and agricultural resources constituted the basis of the Portuguese economy. When the Napoleonic armies, under Junot, invaded Portugal in 1807 and reached Lisbon on 30 November, they found that the royal family and the entire court had left the country and set up in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. Following the defeat of Napoleon, the Portuguese king, Don João VI, returned to Portugal in July 1821, leaving his eldest son, Don Pedro as regent in Brazil. On 7 September 1822 Don Pedro rebelled against his father and declared Brazil independent, with himself as emperor.

10This second turbulent family romance set the pattern for what to this day remains the ambivalent relationship between Portugal and Brazil. At its heart is a dilemma that has shaped the curious two-faced cultural and political phenomenon that, throughout the last two centuries, has driven a Brazilian search for national identity contradictorily shored up by a paraphernalia of imported European references. The latter included the country’s purported endorsement of European (i.e. non-American) liberalism in the face of ongoing slavery, of continuing race and gender enmity, and its touted search for national heroes and heroines side by side with an enduring fixation on overseas (European/Portuguese) models of physical and spiritual worth.

11A dilemma not unlike that embodied by this artist whose British title (Dame Paula Rego) and international themes notwithstanding) sees herself as being Portuguese to the core.

12The narrative of Brazil as a miscegenated nation of harmoniously mingled indigenous native American and European (Portuguese) blood — from which blacks, brought from Africa as slaves, tended to be conveniently erased — is perfectly encapsulated in Brazil’s foundation literature, for example the Indianist novels of José de Alencar, the most famous of which is Iracema of 1865 (fig. 5.3)

13The novel is a fantasy of Amerindian-European miscegenation, offered as the fantasy foundation text of a new Brazil, born of blood-mingling, not bloodshed. Iracema, the eponymous heroine, whose name, not insignificantly, is an anagram of America, is, in a replay of the paradigmatic European nostalgia for the Virgin Birth, the vestal priestess-mother of her tribe, the Tabajaras, and keeper of the secret of the magic potion, the jurema, which ensures her tribe victory in war against other tribes. Iracema, however, falls in love with Martim, a newly-arrived Portuguese soldier and sailor to whom she surrenders her virginity, her hieratic power and thus, too, the safety of the tribe. In due course Iracema, abandoned by Martim, gives birth alone to a son, Moacir (whose name means ‘child of suffering’) and, having obediently lent her womb to the patrilinear white imperative of generational continuity, she dies, leaving behind her a son who, with his father’s help, will become the exemplary specimen of an empire builder. Martim himself will remain exactly what he always was, the agent of a conquering European arrival whose presence is now doubly reaffirmed: first through the death of the American Iracema (and therefore, presumably, of an Iracema-like, native America); and second, in her absence, through the whitening of a racially amnesiac son with just enough indigenous blood in his veins to please the natives and sustain the novel’s status as a foundation text, but not enough viably to secure the continuity of the line that died with his mother. Iracema, too, remains what she always was: sweet, fertile, destructible, and at last dead.

Fig. 5.3 J. Medeiros, Iracema (1884). Oil on canvas, 168.3 x 255 cm. Museu Nacional de Belas Artes, Rio de Janeiro. Wikimedia, CC BY-SA,​wiki/​File:Iracema.jpg

Fig. 5.3 J. Medeiros, Iracema (1884). Oil on canvas, 168.3 x 255 cm. Museu Nacional de Belas Artes, Rio de Janeiro. Wikimedia, CC BY-SA,​wiki/​File:Iracema.jpg

14Whether or not Paula Rego was familiar with Alencar’s novel, the theme of the female body commandeered by the interests of patriarchal and empire- or nation-building interests is one of the preoccupations that has informed her work from early on, as discussed elsewhere in chapters 3, 4 and 7. But never more so, as regards the indictment of masculine imperial endeavours, than in the image to be discussed now. Both Rego’s First Mass in Brazil (fig. 5.2) and Vítor Meirelles’ painting of 1861 to which it refers (fig. 5.1) echo the first moments of contact between Portuguese navigators and priests on the one hand and the indigenous peoples of the world newly encountered. Pero Vaz de Caminha was the official who accompanied the fleet of Pedro Álvares Cabral and was charged with providing an official report of the voyage, to be delivered to the Portuguese king. His Carta (Letter), the inspiration for both Meirelles’ and Rego’s paintings, offers a narrative at least partly characterized by mutual wonder and initial good will:

This same day, at the hour of vespers we sighted land, that is to say, first a very high rounded mountain, then other lower ranges of hills to the south of it, and a plain covered with large trees. The admiral named the mountain Easter Mount and the country the Land of the True Cross. [The inhabitants] are of a dark brown, rather reddish colour. They have good well-made faces and noses. They go naked, with no sort of covering. They attach no more importance to covering up their private parts or leaving them uncovered than they do to showing their faces. They are very ingenious in that matter. For all that, one of them gazed at the admiral’s collar and began to point towards the land and then at the collar as if he wished to tell us that there was gold in the country. And he also looked at a silver candlestick and pointed at the land in the same way, and at the candlestick, as if there was silver there, too. One of them saw the white beads of a rosary. He made a sign to be given them and was very pleased with them, and put them around his neck. Then he took them off and put them round his arm, pointing to the land, and again at the beads and at the captain’s collar, as if he meant they would give gold for them. We took it in this sense, because we preferred to. If, however, he was trying to tell us that he would take the beads and the collar as well, we did not choose to understand him, because we were not going to give it to him. They seem to be such innocent people that if we could understand their speech and they ours, they would immediately become Christians, seeing that, by all appearances, they do not understand about any faith… May it please God to bring them to a knowledge of it, for truly these people are good and have a fine simplicity. Any stamp we wish may be easily printed on them, for the Lord has given them good bodies and good faces, like good men. I believe it was not without cause that He brought us here. Therefore, Your Majesty who so greatly wishes to spread the Holy Catholic faith may look for their salvation. Pray God it may be achieved with no great difficulty. (Caminha, 2010 [1500], 8–9, italics added)

Paula Rego’s rendition of these foundational events, however, picks up the real tragedy of the European encounter with the indigenous peoples of Brazil, which both Caminha and Alencar view through a rose-tinted lens: a narrative of occupation, early enslavement and death brought about by war but even more so by disease (infection by agents such as measles, influenza and the common cold, never previously encountered by native Brazilians and therefore often lethal to them). Mutual goodwill — at least initially — notwithstanding, death came to Brazil on the European ships of conquest: specifically, in Iracema and in Rego’s work, translated into a universal language, namely the death of women in childbirth.

Little Strangers

15In Rego’s First Mass, the pregnant woman — or girl, since, as in the later abortion and Virgin Mary images (figs. 4.3–4.5; 4.14; 4.15; 4.24–4.26; 4.30; 4.31; 4.37; 4.38; 4.41; 4.49; figs. 7.1; 7.3; 7.9; 7.10; 7.11; 7.12; 7.19; 7.20) age, and age of consent are moot points — is overlooked by a turkey, the latter a European import from the Americas, itself framed by two lilies. The lily, as discussed in previous chapters, is a polyvalent symbol of phallic power, female fertility, pain relief in childbirth and funereal ceremony. It also denotes virginity as the flower brandished by the Angel Gabriel in standard depictions of the Annunciation, such as figures 2.2 (Lotto), 4.42 (Crivelli) and 7.2 (da Vinci). The turkey, in its turn, as well as alluding to the spoils of empire, has been variously associated, through rites of fertility in certain tribes throughout the Americas, with female fecundity and with male virility. The association between purity, sex, fertility, virility, childbirth and death is reinforced by the woman (midwife) in a blood-stained apron against the backdrop of the image of European disembarkations in new worlds. Together, all these may allude to the birth of children and nations achieved through occupation and carrying a price tag of dead mothers. A man’s progeny and empire may coincide with a woman’s arrival at a dead-end. Not necessarily an outcome often envisaged by Paula Rego, who, as suggested earlier, whether by means of drag, narrative revisionism or fantasies of misandry, more frequently replaces narratives of female death with the alternative of male elimination. But even in her world, as suggested by First Mass in Brazil (fig. 5.2), women are sometimes defeated by the conjoined interests of war, religion, trade and territorial/phallic conquest (the Portuguese maritime discoveries), all neatly brought together in the tropical vision of deflowered, parturient mothers and the sons whom, in dying, they gave to foreign gods and empires.

16In First Mass the pregnant woman lies with her head resting on a sailor’s garment decorated with nautical symbols. At her head, as already mentioned, are two dead fish, aligned with a crucifix on the wall, beside what is either the view from a window or, more likely, a rendition of the Meirelles painting in which conquest and conversion are fused together. But even if the fish, an icon of the early crypto-Christians under Roman persecution — and here presented in dead form — being dead, signal the artist’s resistance to theological and territorial triumph, other more problematic associations (problematic from the point of view of dying mothers) can also be seen to operate in this complex image. Thus, for example, the fish, a water creature, can also be associated with uterine concerns in an image concerned with the birth of sons and nations brought into being at the cost of pre-existing lands and mothers. And when it comes to it, both this indigenous mother and these Christian fish may end up dead — but as we all know, mothers are irreplaceable (in Portuguese mães há só uma: there is only ever one mother) whereas there are always plenty more fish in the sea, even if not of this original Brazilian breed, now as dead as that name-giving Pau Brasil tree.

17Water is the habitat of fish, Christian and otherwise; it is that of humans, in the womb; it is the oceanic barrier between known and unknown worlds; and it is that with which hitherto unknown peoples can be baptized into the Christian faith, thus ceasing to be themselves. It is also the backdrop to the picture within this picture, in which, against a seascape crowded with the ships of the navigators and on a beach called Porto Seguro (‘safe harbour’), the new territory of Vera Cruz (True Cross) ousted what had been there before. In this new world, as depicted by Rego, white men and priests, observed by gathered natives, kneel at the foot of a gigantic cross and perform for the first time in this new world the ritual — the Christian Mass — in whose name they will lay claim to the bodies of the land and the woman, for the purpose of ensuring their own presence and continuity.

Goodbye and Thanks for All the Fish

  • 2 Brazil was the last country in the Western hemisphere to abolish slavery, in 1888, and is still one (...)

18As noted before, this image, uncharacteristically for Paula Rego, could be seen to record a woman’s defeat at the hands of a variety of statuses quo and their interests: gender, religion, empire. All are neatly subsumed under the socio-political drive shared by both Portuguese and Brazilians alike (from their separate national beginnings to the present, through a variety of political set-ups, stretching from absolutist monarchies, via slavery and dictatorship, to supposed — but, both in terms of gender and race, still persistently unegalitarian — democracies2).

19In Rego’s work, however, in the end, there may be some room left for revenge: or, in the immortal words of Douglas Adams in the last of his The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy quartet, ‘goodbye and thanks for all the fish’. In First Mass, the fish, Christian or otherwise, are dead, echoes of the macabre dolls displayed like tomb statuary on the shelf above, along with the picture supposedly depicting a metaphor for national birth. The latter, with all its associated interests (military, mercantile and missionary) in this image becomes overshadowed by intimations of an end foretold. The Portuguese first landed in Brazil on 22 April 1500: spring in Europe, but in the southern hemisphere the beginning of autumn with all its associations to nature’s decline. 22 April is the end of the Zodiac month of Pisces: dead fish and waning constellations, together with the religion they represent, may not be the best of omens for an empire, the Portuguese, which, like all its predecessors and successors, had an ending imprinted into its very beginning. Or so it might be, if Rego’s jinx took effect.

20Also on a shelf, to the left of what appears to be a statue of a dancing native deity itself aligned with the figures of Indians in the overhanging painting, is a duck, a creature that also carries ambiguous associations: in some cultures a sacrificial animal, it can also signal conjugal harmony, but on the portals of churches it signifies unwelcome scandal-mongers.

21What we have here, then, as in Alencar’s Iracema, is a medley of good fortune and misery: on the one hand happy marriages and soon-to-be-born children; humans and their Creator; a returning sailor and his girl; Europe and America known to each other at last; but on the other hand the clash of religions and cultures; discord within individual creeds; abandoned brides and unborn children; colonial mothers rejected by their colonized offspring. In the case of Portugal, a nation that came into being when a son turned on both his metaphorical father (in fact his cousin, Alfonso VII, king of Léon and Castile) and on his biological mother (Dona Teresa, countess of Portucale), one might argue that what goes around comes around; and so Brazil as an independent nation in its turn came into being when Don Pedro, heir to Don João VI, king of Portugal, turned on his father and unilaterally declared independence from Portugal with himself as emperor.

22What these various oedipal beginnings leave unclear, however, is the position of the mother as object, never agent, in polymorphous family and national romances. Traditional historiography and cultural narratives almost always sideline the mother without whom, however, nothing could have come into being. Where is the mother, both loved and rejected, unavoidable but forgotten, dangerous and therefore elided? It takes an imagination as uncompromising and iconoclastic as that of Paula Rego to offer alternative narratives to gainsay those enshrined in canonical renditions.

23In Rego’s painting the mother-to-be lies with her back to a picture, itself the trompe l’oeil of a window open onto the historical inaugural moment of a nation, Brazil, about to be born in European consciousness but in the future to be lost by Portugal. If a back turned on something signals rejection, the turkey, some of whose possible connotations have already been detailed, acquires a few additional ones. The turkey, a bird indigenous to the Americas and imported by Europe as one of the spoils of empires that purported to Christianize the new worlds, became itself the traditional fare in European Christmas celebrations. In the New Testament Nativity story, Mary’s immaculate conception atones for Eve’s, tainted by sin, and Christmas, the celebration of the birth of the Saviour, is celebrated by eating the provenance of empire. Mary, Holy Mother, did not experience childbirth in pain (although as a matter of fact, according to Paula Rego, as discussed in chapter 7, figure 7.3, she did). Be that as it may, in First Mass in Brazil, it would appear, the trope of childbirth in pain is reinstated. Eve’s special punishment in Genesis at the origins of the human race is present here too, at the moment of the birth of a new nation, the motif for ambivalent maternity being a trope also found in other foundation narratives: Sophocles (Jocasta and Oedipus) as well as the rest of the Ancient Greeks (Homer and his Helen, Aeschylus and his Clytemnestra, Euripides and his Phaedra and his Medea), and also in Alencar’s Iracema, already mentioned.

24In that novel, as in Rego’s image here, the animal metaphors replicate the power distribution in the colonial narrative: Poti, Martim’s Indian friend, betrays his tribe for friendship, as Iracema had done for love, changes his name to António Camarão (Anthony being the patron saint of Lisbon and the prawn — camarão — an edible tropical crustacean) and converts to Christianity. Depending on the narrative, yesterday’s ancestral bully (the swan that raped Leda, the carnivorous T-Rex that terrorized its Jurassic contemporaries) becomes today’s comestible delicacy (modern day’s chicken, turkey, or in royal banquets, swan). And in Rego’s image, the blood on that good homemaker’s apron may after all come not from parturition and its afterbirth but from nations that, in conquering and being conquered, sacrificed their women but in the process lost themselves.

25In this painting by Rego, as in others before and after it, deception is the order of the day: what at first glance would appear to be a window, door or mirror (as in Time: Past and Present; The Policeman’s Daughter; The Company of Women — figs. 1.8, 2.13, 3.1) is more likely a picture. And one, moreover, which, while echoing Meirelles’ prior work, distorts it with intent, since in Meirelles the sea barely figures and the navigators’ ships not at all. In Meirelles, then, the foreign status of the priests and sailors is omitted — they might always have been there rather than being newly-arrived intruders — while in Rego it is emphasized. And centrally, in Rego, a mother quite unlike those dead or invisible ones in traditional foundation texts, here lies in a Portuguese (rather than Brazilian) context — the house of the artist’s nanny in Ericeira, Portugal — against the backdrop of a landscape that isn’t real but is simulated (a picture within a picture). The setting of First Mass was the house in Ericeira, Portugal, where, when the future artist was a child, a mother who was not her mother but a nanny stepped in, the real mother (Rego’s) being not dead but absent, busy frying other, more interesting foreign fish. And this accumulation of semantic layers returns us to those dead fish but also to other symbols with similar sea-faring, imperial associations, discussed elsewhere (the colonies in When We Used to Have a House in the Country, fig. 1.2; the old sailor in Time Past and Present, fig. 1.8; the sea shell and the little boat in Mother, fig. 3.19).

26Finally, this picture, both thematically and visually (notice the models’ poses and the chromatic dominance of blood red) harks back to preoccupations of women’s physical suffering broached directly and indirectly in other works (Love, fig. 4.34; Bride, fig. 4.35) and as a central theme in later ones (abuse of religious and sexual power in the Father Amaro series, figs. 3.1; 3.2; 3.4; 3.5; 3.7–3.9; 3.12; 3.14; 3.19–3.21; 3.23; 3.27; Nativity, fig. 7.3 in the Virgin Mary cycle; the Untitled Abortion Series, figs. 4.3–4.5; 4.14; 4.15; 4.24–4.26; 4.30; 4.31; 4.37; 4.38; 4.41; 4.49, in at least one of which (fig. 4.25) the rivers of blood of abortion echo those of traumatic childbirth in First Mass).

27In Paula Rego, in any case, blood, like iconography, has unfathomable origins and multiple semantic possibilities, like the blood on the apron of the figure contemplating events from on high in Rego’s picture here: good wife and mother readying the family’s Christmas meal? Midwife ushering in the next generation of empire builders? Abortionist helping an unwilling mother cut short unwanted male lineages? Lamenting mother weeping for a sacrificial mater dolorosa or female Christ? Pagan priestess, arms stretched out in blessing or menace, engaged in a profane sacrifice that challenges the rituals of the Christian priests that very moment disembarking in a new world? Is the blood that of a virgin miscarrying or aborting the Son of God?

  • 3 See for example David Brookshaw, Paradise Betrayed: Brazilian Literature of the Indian (Amsterdam: (...)

28In Alencar’s novel, Iracema is the talismanic virgin of her tribe, whose virginity had guaranteed the protective power in war of the magic jurema potion, but she surrenders her virtue to Martim, the Portuguese warrior, condemns her own tribe to extinction, bears Martim a son and promptly dies. The new Brazil her son supposedly represents may be technically miscegenated but its Indian mothers are dead and the black slave labour upon which the nation was built was erased both in literature and art.3 Not unlike the hundreds of thousands of infanticides, illegal abortions and resulting maternal deaths which over the centuries helped preserve the illusion that sex is always consenting, takes place within marriage and produces children who are always wanted.

29Alternatively, we have the dark scenarios of children (and nations) either born or sometimes unborn, to mothers who may or may not survive, possibly begotten without consent, sometimes upon what are no more than chubby-cheeked children — the girl in First Mass, the school children still in their school uniform in the abortion pictures (figs. 4.3–4.5; 4.14; 4.15; 4.24–4.26; 4.30; 4.31; 4.37; 4.38; 4.41; 4.49) — by an assortment of conquering men and gods (figs. 4.19; 4.20; 4.21).

30Paula Rego’s picture introduces meaningful changes to Meirelles’ original, the most salient being the introduction of the sea and ships, absent in the work of the Brazilian artist, who simply depicts large groups of Indians observing the activities of the priest in what appears to be an entirely unconcerned way. In Rego, in contrast, in the picture within the picture, a few figures of native Americans hide behind a tree and observe the proceedings of the newly disembarked arrivals. And within the space of the room depicted, the recumbent figures of a suffering woman, a lifeless doll, an unidentifiable body, two dead fish, an inanimate duck, a turkey possibly about to be slaughtered, and blood of unknown origin, add to a narrative that portends much, but almost certainly not a happy ending.


1 It is worth noting that in Portuguese there are two word for ‘Indian’: ‘indiano’ (a native of India) and ‘índio’ (American Indian). Some historians have suggested that when Columbus arrived in the Caribbean in the belief that he had arrived in India, the Portuguese already knew that there was land there — discovered possibly fortuitously by a ship blown off course: ‘an error that discovers a continent’ — and they also knew that it was not India (land of the ‘indianos’), which they had earlier reached by sea via a route that followed the contours of Africa from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. Nonetheless, the people of the Caribbean came to be called ‘índios’. As the narrative runs, the Portuguese already held extensive territories down the East and West coasts of Africa and around southern Asia all the way to India, and when land was discovered in what came to be known as Brazil, they were unable to extend their imperial ambitions across the Atlantic to the newly discovered continent. When Columbus announced the discovery of a new land the Spanish and Portuguese agreed to carve up the globe along a line on the map: everything found to the left of the line would be Spain’s, everything to the right would be Portugal’s. The Portuguese, so the story runs, pressed hard for the longitude points demarcating the line to be shifted further west, including what, at that point, appeared to be nothing but water. This was agreed at the Treaty of Tordesilhas in 1496. Six years later Pedro Álvares Cabral, a Portuguese navigator, announced that he had discovered new land. Under the line drawn at Tordesilhas, what became known as Brazil, encompassing the largest part of South America, fell under Portuguese control.

2 Brazil was the last country in the Western hemisphere to abolish slavery, in 1888, and is still one of the most economically unequal countries in the world. A strong link persists between race and poverty. See, for example, Carlos Gradín’s paper, ‘Race and Income Distribution: Evidence from the US, Brazil and South Africa’, presented to the World Paper Series of the Society for the Study of Economic Inequality (ECINEQ 2010–179), August 2010,; Oxfam’s report on the same topic, ‘Brazil: Extreme Inequality in Numbers, n.d.,; Statista’s data on income inequality in Brazil: ‘Gross income distribution of tax payers in Brazil in 2015, based on average monthly income (in Brazilian reals)’, Statista,; and Claudini Pereira’s paper, ‘Ethno-racial poverty and income inequality in Brazil’, Working Paper No. 60, November 2016,

3 See for example David Brookshaw, Paradise Betrayed: Brazilian Literature of the Indian (Amsterdam: CEDLA, 1988); Ria Lemaire, ‘Re-reading Iracema: The Problem of the Representation of Women in the Construction of a National Brazilian Identity’, Luso-Brazilian Review 26.2 (Winter 1989), 59–72; Maria Manuel Lisboa, ‘Admirável Mundo Novo? A Primeira Missa no Brasil de Paula Rego’ in João Cézar de Castro Rocha (ed.), Nenhum Brasil existe: pequena enciclopédia (Rio de Janeiro: Topbooks Editora, 2003), pp. 73–91.

Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 5.1 Vítor Meirelles, First Mass in Brazil (1860). Oil on canvas, 268 x 356 cm. Museu Nacional de Belas Artes, Rio de Janeiro. Wikimedia, public domain,​wiki/​File:Meirelles-primeiramissa2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 57k
Titre Fig. 5.2 Paula Rego, First Mass in Brazil (1993). Acrylic on paper laid on canvas, 130 x 180 cm. Photograph courtesy of Marlborough Fine Art, all rights reserved.
Fichier image/jpeg, 55k
Titre Fig. 5.3 J. Medeiros, Iracema (1884). Oil on canvas, 168.3 x 255 cm. Museu Nacional de Belas Artes, Rio de Janeiro. Wikimedia, CC BY-SA,​wiki/​File:Iracema.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 38k


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