Helvécia. A Forgotten Colonial History
21 October 2022 - 8 January 2023
In its photographic exhibition "Helvécia. A Forgotten Colonial History", the MEG lifts the veil on a little known aspect of Swiss history. Although Switzerland has never had countries under its domination, it has nevertheless collaborated with colonial powers in the appropriation of foreign lands and in the practice of slavery.
The MEG exhibition presents the encounter with the inhabitants of Helvécia in Brazil, at the crossroads of a quest for identity and a research on the past of this former Swiss colony.
Within the framework of the exhibition opening, the MEG organizes 3 free guided tours Friday, October 21 at 5 pm, 6 pm and 7 pm, IN FRENCH ONLY.
Speakers: Chantal Courtois, curator of the exhibition, MEG; Dom Smaz, photographer; Milena Machado Neves, journalist.
The exhibition was created in close collaboration with the photographer Dom Smaz and the journalist Milena Machado Neves, co-authors of a research on the village of Helvécia in Brazil, their country of origin. It all started with the couple's encounter with this village in the state of Bahia, whose name and origin triggered a growing interest. During their interviews with the inhabitants of Helvécia, Dom and Milena collected testimonies of their daily life while trying to question the past of the village. Their approach is based on photographic and audio-visual documentary as well as the presentation of historical archives.
Helvécia is a former German-Swiss colony originally named Leopoldina and whose current name keeps the memory of one of its plantations named by a Swiss settler. Founded in 1818, Helvecia developed with the cultivation of coffee of which it produced more than 90% for the state of Bahia until it became one of the most important coffee exporters in Brazil in the middle of the 19th century. This success was due to the large-scale exploitation of enslaved people, a practice supported by the federal government of the time, as revealed by some archival documents. In 1888, the law abolishing slavery in Brazil sounded the death knell for the colony. Since then, the enslaved people have remained on the lands abandoned by their owners and in recognition of its past, the community of Helvécia was granted the status of a former quilombo* in 2005.
*A quilombo in Brazil is a village formed by runaway slaves in remote inland areas. The particularity of Helvécia lies in the fact that once the settlers had left, the slaves settled in the same place until today.
Beyond the Swiss colonial fact, the inhabitants of Helvécia, the most legitimate representatives of this painful past, tell more about themselves than they evoke the buried past and its rare vestiges. It is through these encounters that Dom Smaz and Milena Machado Neves fully achieve their objective by sharing with us the living portrait of a village whose singular history refers us at the same time to that of the whole of Brazil.