Visual Arts

The Joys and Sorrows of a 19th-Century Brazilian Coffee Plantation

Become instantly transported into the lives of Brazilian coffee plantation workers at portrait artist Chell Vassallo's Terroir: The Taste of a Place exhibit at Galeria Regina.

Hailing from Brazil, where her grandfather worked the coffee fields, Vassallo has sketched in charcoal the faces of people she has met or photographs she has admired, portraying them in this earlier time and place. During the first half of the 19th century, 1.5 million slaves were imported to Brazil to work on plantations, allowing the country to become the dominant producer of coffee in the world by 1840.

All of her pieces exude energy and movement, telling the story of both the joys and sorrows of life on the plantation, often through the eyes of a child. In My Kids, four boys peek around the door, each of his faces showing different emotion based on life experience. The oldest, and perhaps wisest, is demonstrably sad; the next is hopeful; the third is bashfully shy and the youngest, not yet scarred by life, is precocious. In Back Home, one can see the happy joy on the child's face as light streams through the opening door; the day's work is done. In Their Kids, a plump, Caucasian baby is carried on the back of a turban-adorned worker, clearly not his mother.

Vassallo illustrates the mechanics of coffee production with both exactitude and a misty dreaminess. Derriça (detachment) and Abanação (shaking) demonstrate the harvesting process; while the swirling circles of Plantation frame six palms holding picked coffee cherries.

There is more to life than work, and dignity is clearly preserved in these portraits. The Afro-American religion Candomblé is embraced by the plump woman in lace dress, adorned with half a dozen necklaces and rings, a dozen bracelets, and perfectly polished nails. Music serves as both respite from the day's work, as seen in the joyous heaven-cast face of the man playing the stringed percussion instrument in Berimbau, as well as a cover for men practicing martial arts, disguised as dancing, in Capoeira.

Vassallo has capably captured the essence of all her subjects; both Turban #2 and Turban #1 show elegant women, perhaps revered in their ancestral countries, who try to preserve their humanness in their current situation. In the latter, one can see the tan line on her wrist, once her bracelets are removed after a day toiling in the fields. The man exhaling his cigarette in Cafuzo, a racial term for someone with mixed black African and Indian ancestry, is proud and haughty, his eyes gazing out under the lowered brim of his hat.

Also on display are same-sized works by painter Karen Anne Smith; a series of colorful squares rendered in primary and secondary colors, as well as tans, with touches of black in the forms of stick drawings of people and objects. Her exhibit, Abundance of ..., incorporates her "Joe Goodbuddy" characters. Smith provides a worksheet to allow the viewers to follow the clues (characters + objects + color) to interpret their own definitions of abundance, always with a positive spin, and hopefully bringing a smile to their faces.

Terroir: The Taste of a Place and Abundance of ... continue through May 2, at Galeria Regina, 1716 Richmond, open Saturday and Sunday, 12 p.m. to 4 p.m., 713-523-2524 or

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Susie Tommaney is a contributing writer who enjoys covering the lively arts and culture scene in Houston and surrounding areas, connecting creative makers with the Houston Press readers to make every week a great one.
Contact: Susie Tommaney