Note from BBT: When you learn of stories such as today’s feature, you wonder, what other hidden black figures does Brazil have in its past? Well, as black history and African history have long been ignored in public and private schools alike for centuries, I would imagine that there are probably thousands of stories of important and influential Afro-Brazilians that most of us have never heard of.
If the problem is bad in the US, it is infinitely worse in Brazil. Without even doing any research on this topic, I can assure after having spent years in the American education system myself, American students can spend 12-20 years in the best schools and never learn anything about the contributions of African descendants in these institutions. The most one might hear about the enslavement of Africans and at most, maybe something about rosa parks and….what’s that’s preacher’s name? Oh yeah, Martin Luther King.
In Brazil, if black people learn anything about important black people, even they will probably learn about MLK. Brazilian schools have never discussed any of the nation’s black heroes such as abolitionist/lawyer Luis Gama, activist/poet/painter/politician Abdias do Nascimento, engineer André Rebouças, writer Machado de Assis, union leader Laudelina de Campos Melo or many others. In some cases, people may have heard about these people as streets, avenues, freeways and the sort have been named in their honor. But then people aren’t taught that these people were black.
Nowadays, recognition of the accomplishments of Brazilians of African descent is being demanded by people who recognize that, if they don’t make it important for others to know these names, no one else will. Which brings us to the story of the architect known simply as Tebas. Having lived in São Paulo for a whole now, I’ve looked at some of this works and didn’t know who was responsible for them. With the creation of a new statue in his honor, now tens of thousands of people will know his name as well.
Black architect in slave-era São Paulo, Tebas is honored by Google
By Diana Carvalho
“Tebas, a black slave / Profession: Masonry. He built the old Cathedral / In exchange for the letter of freedom / Thirty thousand ducados that Father Justino gave him / He made his dream come true / Hence the old Cathedral / That today is the ground zero of the city / I exalt the singing of my people / His legend, his past, his present “.
The samba that carries the above verses was written in 1974 by the singer and composer Geraldo Filme (1927-1995), who at that time already claimed the memory and contribution of the architect Joaquim Pinto de Oliveira, better known as Tebas, in the architectural and historical change of the 18th century downtown region of São Paulo.
Enslaved until the age of 57, Tebas carved the foundation stone of the São Bento Monastery, was responsible for the facade of the Igreja das Chagas do Seráfico Pai Francisco church, for the tower of the first Catedral da Sé (Cathedral) and for the construction of the Chafariz da Misericórdia, demolished in 1866, which was in front of the Igreja da Misericórdia and became the first regular public water supply in the city, channeling the waters of Anhangabaú. On June 30, Google paid homage to the architect with a Doodle.
Born in 1721 in Santos, in São Paulo state, Tebas was a slave to the Portuguese and master of works of Portuguese contractor Bento de Oliveira Lima, who brought him to the capital at a time when civil construction was expanding. Skilled not only in masonry, but also in hydraulics, Thebes was required mainly by religious orders to ornament different churches. The architect even had in his nickname, an expression to classify something well done, or someone who knows how to do everything: “So-and-so is a Thebes, does everything”.
Records organized by the writer and journalist Abilio Ferreira in the book Um Negro Arquiteto na São Paulo Escravocrata (A Black Architect in Slave-Era São Paulo) (2019) show that Tebas conquered his freedom between the years 1777 and 1778, with the death of Lima, and only after the conclusion of the renovation of the main tower of the Cathedral of São Paulo, which took eight years to complete.
“We are talking about 110 years before the abolition. It was another time, there were no abolitionist campaigns. It was a poor São Paulo, where the gold cycle began, creating a passage path between Rio de Janeiro and the hinterland. It was in this period that Thebes lived, being freed because of his talent. As much as he has been hidden by history, and is being rediscovered now, we know that he survived and here we are talking about him,” said Abilio Ferreira in a live chat promoted by the Arquitetas Negras (black architects) project.
Thebes died at the age of 90, in January 1811, and was buried in the Church of São Gonçalo, located in Praça João Mendes, downtown São Paulo. More than 200 years after his death, Tebas’ contribution to the history of architecture was finally recognized, in 2018, by the Union of Architects in the State of São Paulo (Sasp).
Book of Tebas
For Maurílio Ribeiro Chiaretti, president of the union, in an article published in the book Um Negro Arquiteto na São Paulo Escravocrata, Tebas was one of the few enslaved to become literate and attain manumission through the recognition of the value of his work. “His price was not measured by his physical strength, but by the mastery of a technique. He improved, in the cities of São Paulo and Itu (also in São Paulo state), technologies that enabled him to capture the religiosity of the time, imprinting his personal mark on the works, as evaluated by the architect Benedito Lima de Toledo. “This expression of religiosity”, says Toledo, “is what transformed him into an architect and his works into art.”
In addition to the book organized by journalist Abílio Ferreira and released by him, Carlos Gutierrez Cerqueira, Emma Young, Ramatis Jacino and Maurílio Chiaretti, some itineraries of memory in recent years have highlighted the importance of Tebas for São Paulo architecture and the history of the city. In the last edition of the Jornada do Patrimônio, the actor Ailton Graça played Thebes in a procession.
”Joaquim Pinto de Oliveira is yet another among countless Africans and African descendants who, in addition to being mainly responsible for the nation’s wealth through the work of three and a half centuries, were decisive for its maximization and for the Brazilian civilizing process, thanks to the immense cultural, scientific and technological legacy brought from the African continent. The difference between Tebas and the others is that a series of accidents and zeal of individuals, in addition to oral history – passed down from generation to generation and materialized in Geraldo Filme’s samba – prevented the erasure of his history, therefore part of the history of the city, state and country” – Ramatis Jacino, PhD in Economic History at USP and professor at UFABC in an excerpt from the book Um Negro Arquiteto na São Paulo Escravocrata
Facade of the Igreja da Ordem Terceira do Carmo Church, in downtown São Paulo, has arches and ornaments on the stone facade made by the architect Joaquim Pinto de Oliveira (1721-1811), better known as Thebes
Last year, on November 20, Brazil’s Day of Black Consciousness, Clóvis Bevilácqua square, located in the center of São Paulo, got dedicated to Thebes, recognized for his work 200 years later.
Built by the artist Lumumba Afroindígena with the participation of the architect Francine Moreira in the development, the work was made in iron, stainless steel and concrete bar, with a total height of 3.6 meters.
Thebes statue, Clóvis Bevilácqua square
“It’s a work made by black hands, black heads, paying homage to a black personality. I don’t see not being an Afrofuturist, it opens the way for a new time,” says Lumumba, according to Casa Vogue. “We have a team of 90% black people involved”.
Due to the lack of visual references to Tebas’ appearance, Lumumba took a more conceptual approach to sculpture. “I created that mask with a protractor in front, over the eyes, which symbolizes, in addition to architecture, time. It took 200 years for him to be recognized,” explains the artist.
“We need to bring up black personalities that have been made invisible and erased, and that our sculpture opens the way for so many other tributes,” completes Francine, the architect.