Saturday, 16 January 2021

The 'city' goes to the 'periphery', does the 'periphery' go to the 'city'?

Screenshot from Netflix documentary "Emicida: AmarElo - It's All For Yesterday"

In 2016, Faustin Lyniekula, the Congolese choreographer, was the guest of Lisbon’s biennial festival Artist in the City. Watching his performance “Le Cargo” was the reason why I went to the neighbourhood of Cova da Moura for the first (and, so far, only) time. Many colleagues were there, people whom I normally meet in the city’s different cultural venues. And, of course, the local residents were there too. I remember that moment as an uncomfortable experience. I remember feeling an intruder, feeling that I shouldn’t be there, not in that context.

It has been difficult for me to identify the reason for that discomfort, to put it into words. I have asked myself many times why the feeling was not the same a year before, when I went to the neighbourhood of Pasteleira in Porto to see Aldara Bizarro’s “O Baile”, part of the city’s programme “Culture in Expansion”. These are both neighbourhoods that don’t form part of my usual itineraries, areas with a strong negative presence in the media and, consequently, in our heads. Still, the experience of attending a performance in each one was not the same.

Last month, I had the chance to discuss this with other colleagues in a seminar called “The right to cultural participation: geographical and other peripheries”. It helped me think a bit further. Lyniekula spent time in Cova da Moura, he worked with the local residents. Back in 2016, one Portuguese newspaper reported on this saying that Linyekula identified in the neighborhood “many of the issues that he loves to work on and that are not unfamiliar to him: colonialism, the wounds of war, misery and hunger.” It also reminded readers that the choreographer had shown this piece before in Lisbon, but that now it would have a “special meaning”, because he would adapt it to Couva da Moura. Another newspaper reported that the Artist in the City presented nine performances in the Greater Lisbon area “in theatres and cultural centres, exterior spaces and neighbourhoods that form a frontier between the city and the periphery", like Couva da Moura.

So, “the city” visited “the periphery” on that day, to see how a Congolese choreographer reflected on issues that were not unfamiliar to him. I was part of that “city”, a spectator of a performance on issues that were not truly familiar to me, as well as a spectator of the local residents, equally unfamiliar. Thinking about it, what provoked such a deep discomfort in me was that the local residents were also made to be spectators, as well as the spectacle. A local music group, Batuque “Finka Pé”, performed after Lyniekula - a touch of folklore for the “guests from the city”, perhaps? Lyniekula performed in other cultural venues in Lisbon that year, such as the Gulbenkian Foundation and the Belém Cultural Centre. Noone expected, of course, the residents of Cova da Moura to be there too and see the rest of the work the Artist in the City had to show. Usually, these movements between city and periphery work only in one direction.

Faustin Lyniekula, "Le Cargo", Lisbon / Couva da Moura (Photo: José Frade)

I think that what was different in Pasteleira was that Aldara Bizarro not only worked with the local residents, they were part of the performance, it was for them and with them. I attended and saw friends and colleagues, just like the local residents were there to see their own people. It felt different, it didn't cause me any discomfort. Still, the question of who belongs where, who does and sees what, whether the movement has got at least two directions or only one, is also raised when considering the city of Porto’s “Culture in Expansion”. In the 2020 brochure, the mayor signs a text  that talks about a growing participatory component of the local communities in the work that is being created. It also refers to the development of “new audiences” and a broad participation in the process of artistic creation and experimentation. Culture in Expansion “fulfills the dual cultural and civic intention of taking art to everyone, encouraging all audiences to participate, learn, interact and become a vital part of the city’s artistic life.” Who takes what art and to whom, though? Who decides and what is the kind of participation promoted? Does becoming a vital part of the city’s artistic life mean that the residents of Pasteleira are also expected to attend performances in the city’s municipal theatre? Have they? And are they expected to be there only as spectators or also as creators?

A new mark in this discussion regarding access and cultural participation (as well as systemic racism and the exclusion of certain people from formal, mainstream cultural venues) is the Netflix documentary “Emicida: AmarElo – It’s all for yesterday”. In 2019, the Brazilian rapper gave his first concert in the Municipal Theatre of São Paulo, a place his 80-year-old grandmother had never entered and where younger members of his family would go for the first time. Travelling back in time, Emicida discusses the contribution of black people in his country’s history – including the arts, music in particular – aware that his dreams and battles had started long before he arrived. Seeing that man on that stage, as well as the packed theatre that sang along with him, one can almost visualise the continuous line in history that took him there and feels the great symbolism of the moment. Which becomes even stronger when the rapper thanks the members of the Unified Black Movement, who had protested against racism in front of that same theatre in 1978 and who were among the members of the audience that night.

Emicida talks about his first trip to Africa and visiting the Slavery Museum in Angola. He says that “a distorted idea regarding Christianism made black people believe they had no soul." And he continues: "My mission whenever I pick up a pen or the mic is to return to each one of my brothers and sisters the soul the believed they didn’t have.”

Screenshot from Netflix documentary "Emicida: AmarElo - It's All For Yesterday"

Portuguese curator João Fernandes gave an important interview to a Portuguese radio station last August. After working for the Serralves Museum in Porto and the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, the now director of Instituto Moreira Salles in Rio de Janeiro, said that “In Europe, there is a certain anaesthesia regarding many of the problems on this planet. In Brazil, all the world's problems are very visible when you take three steps on the street. Therefore, being responsible for the programme of a cultural institution is also being very attentive to everything that is happening and taking a position that can make that cultural institution useful, in the context in which it operates. There are a whole series of issues, urgencies, pressures that I feel in Brazil and did not feel in Europe in the same way.”

It's a beautiful thing to say and to do; and it also rings a bell. Because the issues, urgencies and pressures that Fernandes and many others might be feeling when in Brazil are not that different from those surrounding, let’s say, the Serralves Museum in Portugal. It’s up to us, as cultural professionals and as citizens, to be attentive and sensitive, to be humble and able to listen, to wish for our organisations to be useful and relevant. 


Still on this blog

Justin Bieber and the fight against Islamic extremism (2016)

Discussing values, from Brazil to Lebanon (2013)

More readings

Mariana Correia Pinto (2018), Entre os nus de Mapplethorpe e o parafuso: a distância de Serralves a Pasteleira, Público/Ípsilon

No comments: