Friendship as Activism (Amizade como ativismo)
Queer City (17/20)

Friendship as Activism (Amizade como ativismo)

Queer Black artists from London, Toronto, and São Paulo talk about their community-based artistic practices.

This piece opens with excerpts from Ajamu’s journal, talking about his process as an ArtsEverywhere artist in residence working with Black queer communities in New York, São Paulo and Toronto. It then continues with Ajamu in conversation with Cláudio Bueno, Flip Couto, Félix Pimenta, and João Simões.

New York, August 2017

1.1 Not quite got over my jet lag. I am staying at the UTC, in New York. Why do I always find my self at churches when I do not have a religious bone in my body??? Excited to be here in New York, especially since I am attending the House Lives Matters Conference and it is Black Gay Pride week. Michael Roberson is an inspirational preacher. In my head, I am throwing queer glitter at his pulpit. Pato Hebert is not here on this trip, but I can feel his warm spirit. Walked into Harlem today. Walking into all that Black queer history … these conversations are part of this living archive, this history.

1.2 Brandon Hay, founder of Black Daddies,[1] uses the word “stoked” a lot. I am going to steal his word—STOKED. Today I was stoked, stoked to be in a room of Black and brown queer folks and allies from across the sexual and gender divide at the House Lives Matters conference. Today I was stoked as I had the opportunity to break bread and commune (not sure about these religious metaphors, but either way) via the “pop-up” photo studio… these immediate intimacies with kinfolk and familiar strangers.

 Toronto, February 2018

1.3 #room506 — The rituals of setting up lights—turning a room into a studio—always excites me. I was both excited and nervous at the same time. This is an essential part of any creative process.  Flip, João, Cláudio and Félix are simply Fierce. I’m showing my age now, as I know the young Black queer Jedi Knights are not using the word fierce, but these brothers are fierce. I was stoked.

The nourishing conversations, the banter, the playfulness. I was both filled and stoked. I need to learn Portuguese, to grasp the nuances. The politics also resides in the tonality—the inflections—and English at times can make language feel cold when translated. Cannot wait for these to be edited and for others to be privy to our conversations, to find out more about the work these guys are doing. Their work changes and enriches lives. Their work creates space, and takes up space. Taking up space has such negative connotations, but their work is about taking up space, with anger, fearlessness and grace. What a wonderful cocktail of sorts, what a wonderful combination. When this is eventually on-line, I want people to not only to watch and listen, but also to drink, to taste their politic — to be filled and stoked. What they confirmed and re-affirmed in their own way is that particular forms of activism can only be motivated by love and friendship (desire, pleasure, joy, and play are always already enfolded in there). Friendship as activism.

1.4 #room504, Toronto—There is snow outside, it’s deep and cold. Where I come from however, this is T-Shirt weather. I interviewed João and Cláudio via Skype and Félix and Flip in-person. They are here in Toronto to participate in the Black Liberation Symposium. Flip has a terrible cold and his voice is going (he needs some old school Bayrum and Liquid of Life) but he still managed to translate on behalf of Félix. João and Cláudio are partners, and I am going to call Flip and Félix Bristas (Brother-Sister)—love the energy between them. Friendship as a form of Activism … this is what I love about this work: being able to inhabit this moment, this energy, these conversations across time and space. Our work is not a walk in the park and yet these testimonies confirm what Flip calls “radical affections”—for self and for the multiple communities/networks we inhabit. 

This interview took place on February 9th, 2018. Ajamu conducted the interview with Flip and Félix physically together in Toronto, and with Cláudio and João, who joined via Skype from São Paulo.

Flip Couto. Portrait by Ajamu.

What is making you excited about your work right now?

Flip: What is making me excited about my work right now is the possibility to create my work in connection with other people who share [similar] life experiences and knowledge to build communal spaces led by Black LGBT artists fighting for social and political chances in the Black community in Brazil. I feel that being together we will find ways to talk about social problems such as racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, HIV/AIDS crises, and other forms of injustice.

Félix: My connection with people and all the possibilities to be in many places and know many people.

João: It’s not easy to choose one thing to describe this. One, because I truly don’t believe that all our efforts will really change the world. But, at the same time, it’s not possible to give up, because once you open your eyes to the shit of the world, you are never again able to put your head on the pillow and sleep quietly as before.

I think it’s good to be part of a group of people who care about something, who want to change something, who are frustrated with the order and the way things happen. People who are discussing new ways of living, of being, of feeling pleasure. Discussing the world for me is not to find one answer. It’s not about immutable truths.

I think the best part is to be in a movement of things, thoughts, and possibilities. It’s not a way to find one best option to a better world, but to move constantly to rethink the world and ourselves every day.

Claudio: For me it is about learning with people, imagining strategies and alliances for life today, in a country like Brazil, where it is so complicated, especially right now, after the presidential coup and military interventions in Rio (to name just one thing). Some keywords for me, are: learning and experimentation; trying new formats of being together, in order to be immersed and really connected with my time; my context [São Paulo, Brazil]; and my people. Trying to not live in a bubble—though we feel sometimes we are—considering many of our privileges.

Félix Pimenta. Portrait by Ajamu.

What do you need for your activism and organizing to be more dynamic?

Flip: I choose to work in a collective way, because I really believe that this a good way to work. A good environment and structure is the key to our activism being dynamic and reaching more people. But financial problems are always something we face in our activities; making AMEM[2] actions sustainable is necessary.

Félix: Money would make my activism more dynamic as I need money for my actions, my balls, my meetings … for food, my health, and care for the community. Money is very important in Brazil.

João: Thinking about the way we live and the needs we have, the first thing to make it more dynamic, unfortunately, refers to material and financial support. We can see in our reality in Brazil a lot of activists and artists who could not continue with their work because their basic needs were not met (have a house, eat, take a bus, etc.). Of course we have a strong group of friends and people who can help and support us sometimes, but we live in a country that always creates ways to suppress that kind of initiative. Then you have to be part of the labour system, working hard eight or more hours a day, and taking 2 hour buses/trains to go and come back home, and you have to take care of your house or family or partner, and you have to get rest to be prepared for the next day, and everyday that repeats. And when do you have time to be an activist? It’s a privilege for us to do that in our country, but until when?

Claudio: For me, to be more dynamic, we must create at least the basic conditions for people. In Brazil many activists and artists don’t have work; some do not have houses and can’t pay the rent … Given that, I feel we need to find time to be in conversation, not only during exhibition openings or any event, but daily. It’s simple, it’s dynamic. The issue of time is key in order to create simple strategies of being together for long durational conversations and producing strong, safe and brave alliances [as Robert Sember[3] always emphasizes].

João Simões. Portrait by Ajamu.

What is a creative project you have always wanted to try?

Flip: Nowadays I’m working as an artist and a producer, so I’ll say one project for each function. As an artist, I want to direct a piece inviting dancers and artists who I admire and with whom I have always wanted to create. As a producer, I want to work on an international annual festival focused on race.

Félix: It’s a problem because I always want to do many things. Two points: in my professional dance, I want to use my practice and my performance to interact with more people. Nowadays my activism is very directed towards the ballroom community and the Black LGBT community, and projects where I can reach other people, like my family.

João: In Explode! we had the opportunity to try different creative projects. Since the residency, projects such as the performance and workshop by the performer Aretha Sadick, called Vera Verão have given us the chance to be involved in different approaches and languages. I’m not particularly worried about finding a model or a certain way to act in a creative project. For me the most important thing is to be in touch and talk with different people and groups and to see what could emerge from that. This kind of unpredictability—which actually is not so chaotic as it appears, because it is a part of what we are thinking as separate groups and also in our meetings—is the thing that I like to do.

Claudio: I have always wanted to open new conversations with institutions. When we are invited to propose something, I am always trying to change the institutional structure, the institutional frame. In Brazil we still have to be aware that there is racism. The institution is a body. It is a challenge to provoke something within these institutions. It is a long process and this is only one action.

Cláudio Bueno. Portrait by Ajamu.

How has experiencing the work of Explode! impacted/changed your own work?

Flip: Invited by Félix, I arrived at Explode! residency intending to stay one day. In the end, I spent 4 nights immersed in that house with different artists, living, eating, sharing, and learning together. I knew the work of some already, like Ezio Rosa, who had a blog about being Black and gay, Aretha Sadick, and Cadu, who were there exchanging daily, in a very pure way, from breakfast to dinner.

It was an important moment in my activism, as it connected me with more networks and allowed me the possibility to flow.

When I think of networks I see many points. Each one is important … We need to think of plurals, not one thing. Community sounds like everybody is the same. I could spend so much time with Félix, but we are also very different. We can be very connected but yet individual. The notion of individuality is very important.

Félix: In my vision, the difference is when you have a lot of money versus no money. If you have money, your project can reach more people.

In Explode! I made contact with people I did not know before and I figured out that the discussions around sexuality were more clear and open than questions about race. I learnt a lot.

João: It is the openness to learn from each other’s experiences and backgrounds … the ways of thinking and ways of living. Attitude is everything. For me, it is all the possibilities of learning together.

Claudio: There are many things I like about AMEM. When I first met Felix, the AMEM Collective did not yet exist. But it was very impressive how he brought the importance of thinking from/within practices, people, bodies, and politics from the peripheries, especially from the São Paulo outskirts. He really moves things for/with people who live at these outskirts, especially considering a huge country like Brazil and the internal migrations, contexts, and territories.

I met Flip during the Explode! Residency. Félix introduced us. Most people in the house also didn’t know him before, but it was not a limitation for him to clearly and accessibly open the debate and discussion about being HIV+ and how important it is to talk and liberate ourselves from taboos.

I keep learning a lot about how they find ways to love and live together, daily, caring for each other in the collective, but also incorporating new presences.

[1] The Black Daddies Club is a network for Black fathers to come together through forums and events to discuss parenting issues within and across the Black Community in Toronto.

[2] AMEM is a collective of artists, activists, and cultural producers who create a range of events and Black queer spaces across São Paulo.

[3] Robert Sember is an artist, organizer and scholar living in New York. He is also a member of the international sound art collective Ultra-Red.

Filed Under: Articles & Essays

A conversation with

Ajamu is a fine art photographic artist and archive-curator whose work has been consistently shown in galleries, museums and alternative spaces throughout the United Kingdom and internationally.

A conversation with

Cláudio Bueno (1983, Vila Nova York, São Paulo, Brazil). Multimedia artist, curator and professor, holds a PhD in Visual Arts from ECA-USP. He has taken part in national and international exhibitions, residencies, talks and awards.

A conversation with

Félix Pimenta is a dancer, performer, researcher, teacher and choreographer of Urban Dances. Specializing in waacking and voguing, he is a member of IHOW - Brazil Chapter, Father of the "House of Zion, Brazil Chapter," member of the "Amem Collective" and "Cia Urban Concept.

A conversation with

Flip Couto is a Brazilian dancer, performer and producer based in São Paulo, who uses his own body as a political statement. As a gay, Black male who is open about his HIV status, he questions, redefines and creates different layers within São Paulo's cultural scene.

A conversation with

João Simões (Rio de Janeiro, 1979) is a curator, artist, researcher and educator. He founded, with Cláudio Bueno, the Explode! Platform, which researches and experiences notions of gender, race and class, based on cultural and artistic practices perceived as peripheral, also crossing the fields of pedagogy, urbanism and social justice.

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