A photo documentary project about today’s life in Helvécia – a former Swiss-German colony in Brazil that, using slave labor, was dedicated to the cultivation and export of coffee in the XIX century.
200 years ago, immigrants from Germany and Switzerland crossed the ocean to find a new life in Brazil. The king of Brazil offered lands to Europeans who wanted to cultivate plantations and to civilise the country. These colonies were small farms manured by the owner and his family. However, there was one exception: the Leopoldina-Frankenthal colony, that originated the small community of Helvécia. At a time when the institution of slavery was under a strong external pressure, the colony prospered economically and by 1850 became one of the biggest Brazilian’s coffee production and exportation, on the strength of thousands slaves and the support of the Swiss government.
Among landowners, two families stood out from the rest: the Swiss family Flach and the German family Krull. They were the largest coffee exporters and slave owners of the colony. After the colony’s economic decline mainly due to slave abolition in 1888, the name of Flach’s farm lasted and became the village’s name.
Today, Helvécia is home to few families of German and Swiss descent. More than 80% of the population, however, are of African descendants. Both European and African cultures survive in a silent ideological confrontation, where Christian evangelicals still point black culture as evil in their speech.
With Black Helvetia, the Swiss-Brazilian photographer Dom Smaz understands that there are probably as many exploiters as victims of exploitation in his ancestral history. He 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.
Text : Milena Machado Neves
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