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Fostering creativity in Brazil’s neighbourhoods

Neighbourhoods

Lucy McMahon, a contributor to Creative Spaces: Urban Culture and Marginality, published by the Institute of Latin American Studies, reflects on the challenges for creativity in Brazil’s favela neighbourhoods.

‘We create, we are not already created (Nóis é cria, não é criado)…
The heart saying ‘beat’ at every slap of suffering. In the same scene, we are born, we die. Every time. Even in childbirth there is a force that wants to give up.
…Why so many children? Because you’re going to kill some of them.
…The invitation of the body that dances and creates is for you to slide into the place from where life bursts forth…’
Programme note for Cria*
Alice Ripoli, Choreographer

‘Let’s celebrate the victory of the ‘cria’…
let’s dance the victory of the ‘cria’
the game will change
we are the nation of diversity of gender, race and thought’

Lyrics from ‘Vitória dos Cria’ –  Nyl MC ft MC Carol Félix

In Brazil’s peripheral neighbourhoods, the word ‘cria’, which has no idiomatic English translation, refers to those born and brought up in the community. Literally ‘created in’, it conveys both the creative expansion and the rootedness of what it means to ‘grow up’ in a place. It has even been used by artists from Rio de Janeiro’s fringe areas – Nyl MC’s ‘Victory of the Cria’ and the dance company Suave’s ‘Cria’, a touring production, that powerfully depicts favela life through funk, passinho and contemporary dance.

Jair Bolsonaro’s government is working hard to circumscribe and funnel ways of knowing towards its own agenda, whether this is removing references to black and indigenous Brazilians in school textbooks, ordering a commemoration of the dictatorship, or denying climate change. Underfunded but vibrant initiatives from and by the ‘cria’ are constantly interrupting these attempts.

There is PretaLab e Coletivo Di Jejê’s research marathon to get more black women represented on Wikipedia, a solar powered rainwater irrigation system being piloted in Rio’s Santa Marta favela, or the daringly political lyrics of Mangueira’s winning carnival block in Rio, which celebrates heroes from black and indigenous history. In an interview about the role of black women in technology, Silvana Bahia, PretaLab’s director, recalled a line by the musician Chico Science: ‘one step ahead, and you’re no longer in the same place’. She used it to explain the spacial significance of initiatives that make even small steps towards opening up ways of knowing and seeing the world, both for the individual but also to the world that they inhabit.

Academics and other theory-makers have a conflicted relationship with the creation of new ways of knowing and seeing the world. On the one hand, there is great investment in the idea of spaces and ideas that we do not yet know about, that could be ‘captured’ or ‘discovered’, then analysed into new theories of change.

Fascination with the Latin American ‘new’ among professional social scientists has obvious colonial resonances. The pursuit surely provokes such anxieties as: Another world is possible, but how do we define it in a way that gives us a pioneering role in its creation? Will it be of publishing value in our academic journals? Can we witness or identify change, without having to also reflect on the ways our own positions may have shifted?

A truly honest openness to the ‘new’ is perilous. Any encounter with something that we perceive to be ‘other’ may shake the ground from which we sought it in the first place. By this I do not (or do not only) refer to the rise of the ‘alt-right’, which claims the status of ‘alterity’ in ways that disrupt any comfortable commitment to (self-proclaimed) marginalised voices. Rather, any interest in creative marginality must begin, if not also end, with a deeper questioning behind the very way in which we start looking for the new. What assumptions are already wrapped up in what we are looking for, and where we are looking?

In terms of what we are looking for, the Brazilian examples mentioned above demonstrate the critical importance of opening up new ways of knowing. Yet the way in which we do this is littered with risks of tunnel-vision: the voices we might privilege, the moral overtones we might impose, the jump to ‘outcomes’ that are only measurable within current paradigms, and the easy slip, within a culture of consumerist built-in-obsolescence, towards celebrating anything new as ‘good’.

Paul Merchant’s post, ‘The pitfalls and potential of urban creativity’, points to many examples of these risks. Not to mention the licence that ‘newness’ gives us to avoid historical excavation. To use the terminology of Niall Geraghty and Adriana Massidda’s chapter, as we celebrate the energy of newly liberated desires, we remain entirely capable of interrogating the conditions under which we were (or are) denied such desires, such as the legacies of slavery, extractivism, or fascist urban planning.

In terms of where we are looking, my own understanding of the marginal and the centre changed while listening to artist James Bridle’s recent radio series, Ways of Seeing. In contrast to the use of grand, imposing buildings to establish power structures, as in Geraghty and Massidda’s discussion of Puerto Madero’s skyscrapers, Bridle explores the architectural invisibility of power today. His compelling example is of two satellite dishes perched on top of London’s Hillingdon hospital, which channels billions of dollars of private finance from the London stock exchange. ‘For a rent of a few thousand pounds a year’, Bridle explains, ‘the conveniently invisible machinery of private finance perches atop the crumbling infrastructure of the welfare state’.

In her account of Bolsonaro’s first months in power, Jan Rocha recounts a series of tragedies that were all ‘avoidable if safety precautions had been taken seriously’. Rocha’s account of the corruption, legal loopholes and links to death squads in Brazil’s current administration provokes a reflection on the possibility that the ever-derided social welfare and legal state may itself constitute part of the new margins. At the very least, deconstruction of the state by white 1980s French philosophers can no longer be a starting point for contemporary understandings of hegemony.

Creative Spaces: Urban Culture and Marginality in Latin America, sustains the contradictions, hopes and perils associated with the paradigm of ‘creative marginality’ as discussed above. It does so through two commitments, which are perhaps made possible through an unusually interdisciplinary approach.

First, a commitment to the idea of creativity as ‘practice’, as a never-to-be-completed process, as essentially in movement. Any enquiry into creative marginality would be highly stilted and contrived without a commitment to this movement, such that it risks upending the foundations of how we know, see and explain the world. Indeed, the very last paragraph of the collection describes a scenario where: ‘Confronted with such radical alterity… the viewer is forced to question the very foundation of their own perceptions, and the emotions of disquiet and discomfort rapidly turn to terrifying affect…’

Second is a commitment to the contextualisation of creativity within particular spaces and times, as multiple interweaving histories are ever being re-written in the architectural and cultural fabric of cities. We might see this as a recognition of the vitality of the ‘cria’; growing upwards and outwards just as roots delve down into deeper and more complex stories of where we are, where we come from, and the multiple places we might be going.

Lucy McMahon is a choreographer, dance teacher and data analyst working at a young people’s charity in Cambridge. Previously a human rights lecturer at the University of London, she has undertaken research projects in China, Cuba, India and Brazil, which focused on women’s access to justice, protest, state violence and the politics of dance. Her chapter in Creative Spaces: Urban Culture and Marginality in Latin America is entitled, “On ‘real revolution’ and ‘killing the lion’: challenges for creative marginality in Brazilian labour struggles” (SAS Publications, 2019). It is available open access or paperback.

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