The Brazilian photographer celebrates the expression of those who live in constant fear of their lives, in a country where their very being is rejected
In 1928, Brazilian writer Oswald de Andrade published the landmark Cannibalist Manifesto. His experimental text became a key reference for Brazil to understand its cultural roots, while coming to terms with the lingering ghosts of colonisation. Since then, the manifesto – which essentially explains how foreign and domestic influences have created a tangible Brazilian identity – became a theory that then evolved into a widespread movement. The poet Augusto de Campos once famously deemed it “the only original Brazilian philosophy”. Today, it is a fundamental part of the country’s social fabric.
Almost a century and many revolutions later, we see the re-emergence of this philosophy in Brazil through the freshly urgent lens of identity and gender politics. At the forefront of this is the LGBTQ+ community. It recuperates and honours the country’s native arts and culture, and, above all, past and present pioneers, who paved the many ways for Brazilian contemporary expression.
Among them is 24-year-old Igor Furtado. His series, pölýmørphòūš, awash with colourful dyed hair, body piercings and political tattoos, is an example of how contemporary LGBTQ+ Brazilians celebrate their individuality and freedom while also making a stance. In modern-day Brazil, the way a person looks is still associated with one’s sexuality, making every second of their life a political act, in the truest sense of the word ‘queerness’. “My artistic awakening happened when going out in Rio,” says Furtado. “I met people who unapologetically worked with their body and explored all its possibilities. Pölýmørphòūš is the result of those interactions, and symbolises a body that is forever changing, morphing itself to adapt to the tensions and intensities of life.”
Controlling the appearance of an individual has always been one of the ways society and the church have oppressed anyone dissimilar to them. It is a technique well used in Brazil since the Portuguese invasion in 1500: covering the unclothed bodies of Indigenous people and stripping them from their ornaments served as an attempt to slowly annihilate a people and culture. Now, it is understood that those ancient social and identification marks go beyond sheer aesthetics. They are also symbols of power and resistance. In a sense, this is how Furtado’s portraits work too. “Documentary photography has always attempted to immortalise its subjects when such a thing is not possible,” he says. “A photograph is just a millisecond, a fragment of a person’s life. My portraits are not about aesthetics, I am not reinventing the medium. It is about the people, their importance, their story. It provides an outlet for celebration of those portrayed.”
“We live in a world where artists are basically working for free, while delivering artworks that are amazingly undervalued. These works should be in galleries for the creativity, reflections and disruptions they provoke. In the end, we are still serving as cheap labour for Europe and the United States, who continue to come here to steal our riches – only this time, it’s our talent.”
In Brazil, celebrating life is paramount. It is a commemoration that battles against the fact that it is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for LGBTQ+ individuals. One LGBTQ+ person is killed every 25 hours, estimates the Grupo Gay da Bahia (GGB). According to the National Association of Travestis and Transsexuals (Antra), for the past 13 years Brazil has seen the highest number of murders of trans people, the majority of them being people of colour. “Every single day we are reminded that we are not worthy of living, that we deserve to die, and that our art is not museum-worthy,” says Furtado. He recalls the murder of a young non-binary artist named Matheusa Passareli in a favela in Rio de Janeiro in 2018. Chime for Change, a global gender equality campaign launched by Gucci, commissioned Furtado to create a series with Matheusa’s sibling Sabine (also known as Gabe), also a non-binary artist and therapist. “This is why it’s so important to focus on preventing the erasure of our history, our bodies, our trailblazers,” he continues.
In 2017, Furtado founded the project Identidades Marginais (Marginal Identities), which by 2020 had taken the form of an online repository to support and champion experienced and new artists who are overlooked or forgotten in times of artistic attack. Through Identidades Marginais, Furtado interviews and exhibits a rich assembly of creatives, not only united by their nonconforming voices, but also by the convergence of their artistic practices. “They work with what they have, they are not trying to embellish,” he explains. “Europe has never needed to undergo resignification, as we did. They had the resource – stolen from other lands, but they had it. And we just worked with what was possible and at hand”. This “cannibalistic” embodiment of the vibrant yet chaotic images of Brazil helps us to better acknowledge the country’s specificities and strengthen the ties between its complex history and characters. “The fact that we aren’t able to remember and preserve our Black and Indigenous history, that we are only looking forward, never at the past, is certainly making way for regression,” says Furtado.
Identidades Marginais also looks at art disregarded by a colonial idea of formalism, in which a select group of gatekeepers decided what was relevant, what was informative and what was presentable. “Those monoliths who had the power of deciding what was valid to us were the ones allowed to write history,” Furtado adds. Reparation and preservation are the fundamentals of the mission. Black and brown people – despite being the majority – are still underrepresented in all spheres of Brazilian society, including production and assessment of knowledge. Trans people have recently become more visible in artistic circles, but their fight against figurative erasure and systematic extermination is far from over. “We live in a world where artists are basically working for free, while delivering artworks that are amazingly undervalued,” insists Furtado. “These works should be in galleries for the creativity, reflections and disruptions they provoke. In the end, we are still serving as cheap labour for Europe and the United States, who continue to come here to steal our riches – only this time, it’s our talent.”
With his projects, Furtado is “not trying to salvage LGBTQ+’s culture” but pleading for people to trust their own narrative and aesthetic, while committing to rediscover and revere those who came before. “It’s about everyone doing their thing but also being part of a collective movement, generating beauty amongst the wreckages,” Furtado says. And this is the lasting thought. Despite the violence and control, despite a far-right, genocidal government with an openly homophobic president in Jair Bolsonaro, focused on decimating its most vibrant people, there is nothing that can take away the resilience and lust for life of Brazil’s children.
Henri Badaröh is a Brazilian visual artist, writer, curator and editor. Badaröh’s language of choice is subversion and nonconformism, to reach a more inclusive way of working with art and politics whilst taking a stance on the powers that be. Through queer, decolonial and intersectional approaches, he focuses on the dialogues between photography and film, analogue creative practices and new media, image and the written word, Europe and America. Badaröh completed a Masters degree in Film and Photographic Studies at Leiden University, after completing a BA in Photography in his hometown of São Paulo. He lives and works in The Netherlands.