Black Helvetia
Project info

One day soon, Dom Smaz is going to return to Helvécia, because he promised Dona he would bring by some good tobacco for her pipe. Dona Cocota is 102, the oldest resident in her village in the Brazilian state of Bahia. as a midwife she has participated in the births of more than 300 of Helvécia’s citizens.
But why the name? Helvécia is the Brazilian form of Helvetia – the Latin name for Switzerland. this question also intrigued Dom Smaz, who spotted the village while studying a map of the area surrounding Texeira de Freitas, one of Bahia’s largest cities whose expansion was based on the timber trade. the photographer was born in Lausanne, Switzerland, to a Swiss father and a Brazilian mother. in 2006 he spent several months in Rio de Janeiro, discovering photography as a means to process his intense first-time impressions of the metropolis – its beauty and harshness, its magic and mercilessness. Having been raised with two such different cultures, he was inevitably drawn to exploring the question of his own identity: it quickly became clear that he must go to Helvécia.

The Krull brothers, Domingo and Ednilson, have blue-green eyes. their surname, too, identifies them as descendants of German settlers. today Helvécia is home to three families of German and one of Swiss origin. more than 80 percent of the population, however, are of african descent – in other words, their forefathers were slaves.
the early 19th century saw a wave of emigration from Germany and Switzerland to Brazil, after King João VI of Portugal had fled to the colony to escape Napoleon’s troops. he opened the
colony’s ports, lifted the prohibition on foreign trade and actively recruited settlers. in 1817, the wedding of Austria’s crown princess Leopoldina and the heir to the Portuguese throne took place in Rio de Janeiro. soon afterwards Leopoldina’s Swiss-born confidante, Johann Martin Flach, established the plantations Helvetia I and Helvetia II in the Leopoldina-Frankenthal colony. at that time, slavery was already frowned upon in most of Brazil – but not there: in the early 1850s, Helvetia was responsible for almost 90 percent of Brazil’s coffee production on the strength of around 2000 slaves. When the Brazilian government decreed the abolition of slavery in 1888, it took a whole year for the news to reach Helvécia. Understandably enraged, the slave population rebelled and expelled the majority of european immigrants.

Today Helvécia is recognised as a ‘quilombo’ – a term used to describe hideout settlements for escaped slaves. communities with this status receive special government funding. in many ways the village is an embodiment of the impact of european immigration and slave trade on Brazil’s history and culture. however, what sets Helvécia apart from other quilombos is that it was not, in fact, a refuge for escaped slaves, but that its slave population actively rid themselves of their masters. perhaps this is why there is a palpable sense of pride among Helvécia’s residents, and it also explains why the proportion of black citizens is atypically high compared to other parts of Brazil.
Despite this, in cultural terms the european heritage still plays a dominant role: many women choose to straighten their hair, and the lighter someone’s skin tone, the closer they are to the beauty ideal. in a similar vein, every January Helvécia celebrates the Day of St. Sebastian with a reenactment of the crusades – a peculiar spectacle with fantastical costumes that draws thousands of visitors to the otherwise quiet village.
At the same time, Helvécia has a vibrant capoeira scene: the mixture of dance and martial arts, whose origins are attributed to slaves, is taught at a school whose reach extends far beyond Helvécia. Nevertheless, more and more evangelical sects are spreading through- out the village, whose priests – even if they are black themselves – are trying to convince their audience that african traditions are the incarnation of evil.

Years ago, the old train station used to house a village museum. But in the course of a renovation, these testaments to the past ended up being scattered in all directions. so today it is predominantly Helvécia’s quilombo status that provides its inhabitants with something of a collective identity. even many of the older residents are not exactly sure where the name of their village comes from – and so they were all the more amused to learn about their Swiss-Brazilian visitor’s intentions: to introduce their village to the people in the original Helvetia, who are also mostly unaware of their alpine country’s colonial history. Dom Smaz takes the view that there are probably as many exploiters as victims of exploitation in his ancestral history. With the project Black Helvetia, the photographer also hopes to help foster an understanding of how deeply waves of global migration, whether voluntary or not, inevitably shape a local culture – in the past as well as the present.

Olaf Stefanus / LFI - Leica Fotografie International