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  • Spencer Low

Asian Influence in Portuguese Brazil

Updated: Mar 5, 2023

When I visited Minas Gerais in Brazil more than ten years ago, I made it a point to go to the city of Ouro Preto to check out some of the fine examples of Baroque churches, many of which featured work by the 18th century sculptor known as "o Aleijadinho" ("the Little Cripple").

The Church of Santa Efigênia in Ouro Preto, Minas Gerais, Brazil

There is an incredible amount of detailed wood sculptures, some of which had clear African influences (Aleijadinho himself was the son of an African mother and a Portuguese father). What was much more surprising was the clear signs of Chinese influence, including the historical detail that craftsmen from Macau helped build and decorate many of the churches being built during the Brazilian Gold Rush.

Chinoiserie panel at the Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Ó (the Church of Our Lady of Ó) in Sabará, Brazil

Orientalism and Chinoiserie were in vogue in Europe at the time, but it is important to note the role played by Portuguese trade routes. The ships of the Carreira da Índia (India Route) regularly anchored at Bahia on their way to Goa and Macau, and they would return to Lisbon laden with Oriental goods and products to be redistributed throughout Europe. This commercial circuit of the Carreira da Índia's luxury goods fostered the settlement of Asian-born artists and artisans in Brazil, many of whom made their way to the boom towns of Minas Gerais.

For more information on this little known bit of cultural exchange, here are some useful links (some in Portuguese):

If anyone has further information on the early presence and legacy of Asians in Portuguese Brazil, please drop me a note!

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