27th March 2019
Obrigado São Paulo
LIFT’s Artistic Director Kris Nelson reflects on his recent trip to Brazil’s MIT Festival in São Paulo – of being submerged in its beautiful urban architecture, the warmth and generosity of the people he met and the defiance and unity of the artists he saw and heard from.
Saudades is an expression in Portuguese to describe a deep emotional sense of nostalgia or profound longing for an absent something or someone that one loves. I think it’s the sensation I felt when I left Brazil after a week in São Paulo. Invited to attend MIT, the Mostra International de Teatro de Sao Paulo’s Brazilian platform featuring over a dozen companies from across the country, I encountered leading artists from their performing arts scene working with staggering urgency and power. Attending the festival gave access to a cityscape that is a glorious mess of concrete confusion and architectural marvels – pockets of quiet and beauty amid roads swarmed by seas of cars and a dazzlingly adrenaline-filled nightlife. I was excited by the city, challenged by the artists I had spoken with and moved by the work that I had experienced, no wonder it felt hard to leave.
Brazil’s political sphere has lurched hard towards the right and that hard right expounds a particularly virulent brand of populism with art in the crosshairs. In the wake of left-wing president Dilma Rousseff’s 2016 ousting and impeachment, Brazil’s latest election declared live artists and theatre-makers as enemies of the public and used and misconstrued their work as campaign fodder. Four of these artists, Elisabete Finger, Maikon K, Renata Carvalho and Wagner Schwartz, became the target of a vicious and strategic campaign used to inflame the radical right and turn the tide of the election.
During a roundtable (organised by Portuguese producer Rui Silveira of Something Great which represents Brazilian projects in Europe), a few of the international delegates were fortunate enough to hear what happened from the artists involved:
It was a series of scandals. Theatre maker Renata Carvalho’s Brazilian production of Scottish artist Jo Clifford’s The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven saw massive protests escalate across its tour of Brazil in 2017 and 2018. The piece was smoke bombed, censored and Carvalho banned from performing the role of Jesus because she is Trans. Maikon K’s performance of DNA of DAN, where he stands motionless in a transparent bubble at the National Museum in Brasilia caused alarm. His set was destroyed by the police and he was detained by military police for committing an act of indecency. And you’ve probably heard the stories of Wagner Schwartz, the artist who made a project called La Bête for the Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo. Paying homage to Bichos by sculptor Lygia Clark, he lay nude on stage and audiences were invited to bend and manipulate his body. Collaborator Elisabete Finger came with her young daughter to see the installation. The previous audience member had positioned Wagner’s body in an uncomfortable position, and Finger and her daughter decided to re-manoeuvre him into a gentler pose. Someone filmed Finger’s daughter moving Wagner’s hand and foot. It was posted. Nothing happened. Two days later, right-wing and fake news outlets across the launched a viral campaign showing the video with inflammatory headlines. Police and political interrogations conflated the responsibility of parenthood with art making (and decried Schwartz and Finger as a depraved example of what not to do.) Nude became naked and, as Wagner said, “I became Brazil’s most famous paedophile.”
As they told their story, with humour and warmth deflecting some of the lingering pain, the artists described a devastating period of intense media scrutiny. Their names, their work, their entire lives were dragged through social media and the press. There were death threats. Gruesome memes made by evangelical groups. It was a breaking point for the artists, the headline event of the culture wars and potentially a turning point for the election. Then President-elect Jair Bolsonaro decried artists as getting rich off the public purse and used the incidents involving these four to pander to the religious right and inflame sentiments against women and the LGBTQ community. It was an earthquake.
Amid the fray, Carvalho, Maikon K, Finger and Schwartz had been sending messages of solidarity to each other and publicly stood by each other on social media. When the Schwartz story broke, they then organised a silence campaign where none of them spoke to the press for weeks despite a constant barrage of attacks from right-wing and even mainstream media and countless social media users – both in Brazil and internationally. Weeks later they broke their silence. They were interviewed together in a major national magazine and told their side of the story.
It was an act of enormous courage. Another earthquake. In solidarity with each other, they reclaimed their public identities and redefined their stories.
Just after the attacks, at the end of 2017, they were invited by Festival Curitiba to make a new work, forming for the first time as a collective. When deciding what to call themselves, they came upon the idea that their lives had become public domain. The idea became the name for the collective and their project Domínio Público. When they Googled it, the first thing that came up was an image of the Mona Lisa. An iconic art piece much maligned by the public, target of protests and political conjecture and which became a symbol and subject matter for the group’s first piece.
What inspired me about theDomínio Público story was the artists’ determination not to yield, their solidarity with each other and their ability to be alchemists. They transformed the impact of very personal public scandal into a piece about the Mona Lisa as subject and misogyny, disinformation, political hyperbole as its themes and redirected the attention away from themselves and onto an artistic concept that indirectly exorcises what happened to them. It’s brave and it’s clever and it sounds like interesting art.
From my conversations in São Paulo, it’s clear to Brazilians that this Culture War has only begun. The Ministry for Culture has been cut, experimental artists are continually scapegoated as signs of an amoral society, the right wing is using homophobic, transphobic, racist and anti-artist rhetoric with chilling propagandist flair. Added to this are proposed legislative overhauls that would reform taxation so corporations can’t benefit from giving to culture and, more broadly, but of equal concern to artists, remove protections from vast swaths of the Amazon opening it up completely for mining and forestry exploitation and devastating the territory of Indigenous peoples.
Given this sense of deep uncertainty, every artist I spoke with wondered about the viability, if not the safety, of them practicing contemporary performing arts in Brazil. Yet in the face of these great doubts, many people I spoke with also described a kind of confidence in Brazilian society – Bolsonaro only won half of the popular vote, and despite the dark, “medieval” rhetoric, they were determined to take a stand, to reach the other part of the population and uphold the basic liberties now at stake. Resilience, playful irony and determination abounded.
As a festival, MIT is certainly taking a stand for freedom of expression. Co-directors Antonio Araujo and Guilherme Marques have made a platform to ensure that artists can embrace risk and be courageous. They conclude their opening statements in the festival brochure by saying ‘Let us not retreat; we are like this’ and ‘It is courage and utopia that continue to move us and keep us going.’ Inspiring words and words they lived by. The programme brought together artists whose work challenges the current political climate and carves out room for interrogating political ideas. There was a lot to see. MIT’s programme unflinchingly addressed the country’s uncertain political climate. Artists from across the country presented works taking on Amazonian futurism, ecological battle cries, cutting colonial criticism, dissections of Brazilian race politics and eroticism in defiance of the right wing.
The platform welcomed artists from across Brazil, it was clear that the issues of the day did not just affect the metropoles of Rio and São Paulo. Their international programme brought outside perspectives which also delved into concepts becoming taboo in Brazil’s culture wars; Milo Rau’s Five Easy Pieces which fundamentally challenges what young people are allowed to talk about in art; MOTUS’s MDLSX – a powerful and unconventional memoir about gender and trans identity. There was an active off-festival – one highlight being coletivA ocupação’s When It Breaks It Burns which UK audiences can catch, alongside Motus’ MDLSX in May 2019 at Transform Festival in Leeds and at Contact in Manchester.
I was there with support from MIT, LIFT’s Commissioning Circle and the Goethe-Institut (as part of LIFT’s involvement with Echoes of the South Atlantic – a forum focussing on connecting South Atlantic artists and ideas to Europe – more on that soon).
It felt important to be there; to learn about what’s happening in Brazil; to understand how artists there are refusing to be instrumentalised in a culture war and making work that defies illiberal rhetoric. It felt important to bring their stories back. Populism is attempting to engulf the country’s cultural, civic and political spheres, and artists, despite having the biggest target on their backs, are the boldest about offering alternatives to the right-wing, evangelical tide.
Echoes maybe with what’s happening here on our own soil? Possibly. Our populism is a global one, and also totally British. It also needs an antidote and all of us at LIFT are convinced that the cure comes through cultural expression and it is ours to offer. Especially when it breaks taboos, unsettles the status quo and cultivates freedom.
Maybe that’s why I felt that sensation of saudades. I felt an urge to act. I felt an affinity. I felt great respect for and solidarity with MIT and the artists, anxiety about what the next few years may bring them and fast friendships with people who I admired. It made it hard to leave. For certain, LIFT stands by Brazilian cultural makers and artists in these tricky times and takes their example as a beacon for what we need to work on here at home.
If you’d like to read more, here are some references: