BY Fernanda Brenner in Features | 16 MAR 22
Featured in
Issue 225

The Interspecies Mindset Guiding Brazilian Protestors

Fernanda Brenner looks at three activists groups challenging Bolsonaro’s anti-Indigenous government

BY Fernanda Brenner in Features | 16 MAR 22

In October 2021, an unusually dressed group of protesters marched down Paulista Avenue in São Paulo as part of a larger demonstration against far-right president Jair Bolsonaro. A pink river dolphin, a giant sunflower, an anteater and others gathered along the historic thoroughfare, carrying hand-painted signs with straightforward demands, such as ‘Pare o Garimpo Ilegal’ (Stop Illegal Mining), or more enigmatic messages like ‘Dança Cósmica’ (Cosmic Dance) and ‘O Futuro É Ancestral’ (The Future is Ancestral). 

Borrowing from Indigenous, posthuman and nonhuman studies, the showy presence of this makeshift ‘interspecies’ crowd stood out from the more typical forms of political discontent occupying the same space. Spearheaded by artists Rivane Neuenschwander and Mariana Lacerda, A Reviravolta de Gaia (Gaia’s Overturn) is an expanding group of artists, activists and cultural workers publicly demonstrating against the current government. By emphasizing – or, more accurately, incorporating – how humans and nonhumans have always co-evolved, co-existed and collaborated, the group expands the reach, as well as the methods and formal aspects, of political engagement and activism.

A Reviravolta de Gaia demonstration, São Paulo, October 2021. Photograph: Isadora Fonseca
A Reviravolta de Gaia demonstration, São Paulo, October 2021. Courtesy: © Fernanda Brenner; photograph: Isadora Fonseca

Lacerda was among the many non-Indigenous participants of the Indigenous Women’s March in September 2021, around a month before A Reviravolta de Gaia’s first public appearance. During that march, the concrete curves of Oscar Niemeyer’s Three Powers Square shook while thousands of Indigenous women – representing more than half of Brazil’s 300-plus Indigenous communities – chanted through the streets of Brasília. For days, the women protested the government’s controversial attempt to strip back Indigenous land rights, or in other words, to legalize the theft and the opening of their territories to mining operations, livestock and monoculture plantations by instituting a timeframe for the Indigenous land demarcation process, the Marco Temporal, literally ‘time mark’. If approved, the measure would nullify all Indigenous claims to land that didn’t have a physical Indigenous presence when Brazil’s constitution was ratified in 1988 – even if those lands were historically Indigenous. 

In tandem with the Indigenous protestors, the (mostly white) members of A Reviravolta de Gaia also condemned the Marco Temporal when they marched in October. What binds the Indigenous and non-Indigenous activists of these two movements is the shared certainty that the only way out of Brazil’s long-term political and environmental disarray is through a significant shift towards a ‘world in which many worlds fit’, to borrow the Mexican Zapatista Liberation Army’s motto. The protesting plants and animals enact a change in perspective – from exclusively an anthropocentric, extractivist mindset to an interspecies, collective mode of thinking, something that already pervades amongst the Indigenous populations.  

Protest for Parque Bixiga. Courtesy and photograph: © Jennifer Glass
Protest for Parque Bixiga. Courtesy and photograph: © Jennifer Glass

In early December, a few days before A Reviravolta de Gaia’s second outing, I asked Lacerda about her art and activism initiatives in Brazil. ‘When I speak about these initiatives in the first person,’ she was quick to clarify, ‘I’m actually speaking as a compilation of many voices’, echoing the Indigenous Brazilian thinker Ailton Krenak in a 2018 interview in Periferias on the creation of a ‘collective subject’.  When I spoke to Camila Motta and Cafira Zoé in November 2021, the multi-disciplinary artist duo was also reluctant to speak on behalf of the activist initiatives they take part in. Recently working under the name Arquivo Mangue, they have been long involved with the iconic Teat(r)o Oficina Uzyna Uzona. Active since the 1960s, Oficina’s radical experimentalism and artistic legacy are inseparable from its ongoing social engagement and collective practice. An architectural gem by Lina Bo-Bardi, the theatre is located in one of the city’s more storied neighbourhoods, Bixiga. Here, a still-lively cultural scene fills the vestiges of its former immigrant occupations. Bixiga’s multicultural identity remains present in overlooked historical buildings and cultural-heritage sites, such as Oficina – now perceived as obstacles by a growing number of real-estate speculators. 

For the past years, another non-human entity has been guiding the actions of Oficina’s members, alongside a large group of environmental and cultural activists: a paved-over river, quietly running beneath the vast vacant lot adjacent to the theatre. The area is all that remains from an entire block demolished more than 40 years ago by its current owner, a local media mogul. As part of their collective endeavour, the theatre company has been advocating to establish a public park, ‘Parque do Bixiga’, to prevent the construction of two skyscrapers that would damage Bo Bardi’s heritage-protected building and forever compromise its surroundings, including the neighbourhood groundwater. Besides its social function as a space for more community-oriented and sustainable practices, the park would also serve an important environmental purpose: developing a significant green area and restoring the dormant river will help slow down the haphazard, profit-driven urbanization process that’s been ongoing for more than half a century. 

A Reviravolta de Gaia demonstration, São Paulo, October 2021. Courtesy: © Fernanda Brenner; photograph: Isadora Fonseca
A Reviravolta de Gaia demonstration, São Paulo, October 2021. Courtesy: © Fernanda Brenner; photograph: Isadora Fonseca

More than providing some much-needed public space around Oficina – that ever-changing creature, inhabited and transformed by generations of artists and progressive thinkers – the park would reflect the theatre’s highly experimental and political legacy. When talking about these plans, Motta and Zoé bear in mind the theatre company’s non-hierarchical and multi-sensorial approach to live performance and often mention that they are responding to the wishes of the river: treating it and the living creatures that occupy the area with the same respect they do the urban researchers and progressive politicians advocating for Parque do Bixiga. ‘The park is already here and wants to thrive on its own terms,’ Motta tells me. ‘We shall listen.’ Her words echo those of the young Indigenous leader, Txai Suruí, when she addressed the audience at the opening of COP26 in Glasgow last year: ‘The Earth is speaking. She tells us that we have no more time.’ 

Although currently on hold, the Marco Temporal is a threat that might still get voted in the Supreme Court while Parque do Bixiga remains in bureaucratic limbo. Regardless of Bolsonaro and his henchmen or the political anomalies to come, however, a ‘collective subject’ seems to be rapidly gaining traction and prompting proactive responses in Brazil, mindful of Suruí’s warning. 

This article first appeared in frieze issue 225 with the headline ‘The Earth Speaks’.

Main image: Rehearsals for The Bacchae, Teat(r)o Oficina Uzyna Uzona, São Paulo, 2016. Courtesy and photograph: © Jennifer Glass

Fernanda Brenner is the founder and Artistic Director of Pivô, an independent non-profit art space in São Paulo, and a contributing editor of frieze