The Valongo Wharf in Rio de Janeiro, where around one million enslaved Africans disembarked during the transatlantic slave trade, has opened to visitors after a years-long refurbishment project. The $400,000 renovation ensures that the wharf will retain its Unesco World Heritage status, after several setbacks prompted speculation that it would not be completed in time to meet its contractual obligations to the cultural arm of the United Nations. Unesco calls the wharf “the most important physical trace of the arrival of African slaves on the American continent”.
The wharf, which was granted Unesco status in 2017, was rediscovered in 2011 during a citywide revitalisation project ahead of the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics, when construction workers uncovered several cobblestoned slabs in the port. In later excavations, archaeologists recovered around 1.5 million artefacts from the former marketplace where enslaved people were bought and sold, including smoking pipes, copper coins, ceramics, amulets, horns and shells.
To be inscribed on the Unesco World Heritage List, a site must present “cultural or natural significance which transcends national boundaries”, as well as “meet certain conditions and have an adequate protection and management system to ensure its safeguarding”, a Unesco representative for Brazil tells The Art Newspaper. There have been just three examples of sites losing their World Heritage designation since Unesco was founded in 1945—Oman’s Arabian Oryx Sanctuary (delisted in 2007, when Oman reduced the size of the protected area by 90%), Germany’s Dresden Elbe Valley (removed in 2009 due to a four-lane bridge project) and the Liverpool Maritime Mercantile City (delisted in 2021 because of waterfront development).
Unesco originally mandated a 2018 opening of the Valongo Wharf to the public. In 2019, a management committee (required by Unesco to monitor efforts to preserve the site) was formed but met only twice before it was dissolved by the administration of then-President Jair Bolsonaro. In 2021, Brazil’s National Institute of Historic and Artistic Heritage (Iphan)—the federal department that manages cultural sites—voted to keep the committee dormant. The project stalled, and Unesco continued to extend the deadline.
A breakthrough for the Valongo Wharf came in March 2023, when Iphan officially revived its management committee with support from the administration of Brazil’s new president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known as Lula. (Lula also boosted the cultural budget and reinstated the previously eliminated Brazilian ministry of culture.) The committee now includes 15 institutions and 16 agencies from the federal, state and municipal levels, including the Brazilian Institute of Museums and the Palmares Cultural Foundation—a state-owned organisation that promotes Afro-Brazilian culture.
The committee has been “very active over the past few months, overseeing activities such as the recent renovation work on the site”, the Unesco representative says, adding that Unesco is constantly on the lookout for any potential risks to the integrity of the site. “To our knowledge, no such threats affect the Valongo Wharf today.”
The wharf’s overdue renovation was completed swiftly after the committee was reinstated, transforming the site into an open-air museum with the addition of lights, surveillance cameras, sculptures, hydraulic pumps to prevent flooding across the 350-metre-long site and educational kiosks created by Ynaê Lopes dos Santos—a historian who specialises in race relations in the Americas and a professor at Rio’s Fluminense Federal University.
“Valongo is a portal that allows a critical review of Brazilian history,” Lopes dos Santos says. “It’s a history that is polyphonic and that, on the one hand, tells of the racism that structures the country, while at the same time emphasising how Africans and their descendants were fundamental to the economic, cultural, symbolic and material construction of Brazil.”
At the Valongo Wharf’s unveiling in November, several Candomblé priests performed a purification ritual and anointed the space with flowers and other materials with spiritual significance.
Archaeology of slavery
The Valongo Wharf operated as a marketplace, where enslaved people were bought and sold, starting in 1811. It served this purpose until 1831, when the trafficking of enslaved people was banned in Brazil—although it continued illicitly for several more decades at other ports. The wharf was renovated and renamed the Empress Wharf in 1843 to welcome Teresa Cristina of the Two Sicilies, the fiancée of the Brazilian emperor Pedro II. It was paved over in 1911 and had been buried under urban development ever since.
A selection of the artefacts recovered from the Valongo Wharf will be exhibited in a new museum that is scheduled to open in 2026. The museum will be housed in a port warehouse across from the wharf that was built in 1870 by André Rebouças, one of the first Brazilian engineers of African descent. (Rebouças, an abolitionist, is credited with modernising ports across Brazil, and with designing a sanitation system in Rio that ended the practice of using enslaved labour to manually transport sewage.) The museum remains unnamed after an initial proposal to call it the Slavery Museum was widely rejected in 2023.
Afro-Brazilian history uncovered
Early last year, the Lula administration introduced a ministry entirely devoted to racial equality. It is spearheaded by Anielle Franco, the sister of the late politician and human rights activist Marielle Franco, who was assassinated in 2018 by former military police officers associated with Bolsonaro. The department largely focuses on strengthening cultural projects related to African heritage. One of its first major endeavours has been working on the Valongo Wharf and its forthcoming museum.
In 2023, the Museum of Afro-Brazilian History and Culture announced a $4m project intended to increase tourism around the Valongo Wharf in downtown Rio, an area known as Little Africa. In addition to the wharf, the neighbourhood contains several other important historical markers like the Pretos Novos Cemetery, a mass grave where around 20,000 enslaved people were buried before the site was closed in 1830. Like the wharf, the cemetery had been submerged under modern development for over a century. It was rediscovered during a residential renovation in 1996, and now holds a cultural centre managed by the Pretos Novos Institute for Research and Memory that includes an exhibition space devoted to contemporary art and artefacts unearthed on the property.
In a ceremony inaugurating the Valongo Wharf, the Iphan president, Leandro Grass, said that his agency would prioritise projects related to African cultural heritage in its budget. “We are working so that African culture is valued,” he said. “It’s a strategy to combat racism and racial inequality in this country.”