Exploring strength and humanity in Virginia de Medeiros’ portraits of São Paulo’s housing activists

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Nine photographs from Guerrilheiras – a portrait series of female activists captured in their personal environments – are currently on view at Nara Roesler gallery, New York

On 23 November 2012, the former Cambridge Hotel, located in the central region of São Paulo, was occupied by the Movimento Sem Teto do Centro (MSTC): a 20-year-old network of housing activists. The group defends the rights of residents – commonly referred to as “squatters” – in São Paulo’s crumbling abandoned buildings. Following eight years of abandonment, today, the building houses around 500 people, and is considered one of the biggest occupations in Latin America. 

After living on the 15th floor of the hotel for three months during a residency program in 2016, photographer Virginia de Medeiros was still unsure about how to narrate her observations of the activist group. Between conversations with the group leader, Carmen Silva Ferreira, and other women working as drivers, seamstresses or janitors, she realised her camera could serve as a “shield for their struggles”. During her residency, de Mederios witnessed the women’s day-to-day struggle for visibility while standing up for their family’s right for shelter. In the meantime, MSTC was undergoing an effort to expand into another 14-story building, Ocupação 9 de Julho, which had remained empty for decades after the Brazilian Social Security Institute evacuated. The efforts paid off, and then-mayor Fernando Haddad eventually passed a law that protected the occupants’ rights and initiated an open call for enrollment to settle into the building.  

The artist ended up following the group for two years, documenting the women for her portrait series, Guerrilheiras. The images were first unveiled in 2018, in an exhibition titled Alma de Bronze, at Ocupação 9 de Julho. Photographs were hung across the buildings’ different units, while the top floor exhibited the video installation, Quem Não Luta tá Morto (Those Who Won’t Fight Are Already Dead). “These women work and live on the margins of society, and the images suggest different understandings of femininity and female struggle,” de Mederios says. “[They] understood that art could be a tool that acts in favor of the movement, just like other support they received from journalists, architects or filmmakers.”

© Virginia de Medeiros.
© Virginia de Medeiros.

Nine of 13 photographs in Guerrilheiras are currently on view at a group exhibition, On The Shoulders of Giants, at Nara Roesler gallery in New York,  Each photograph shows a group member within her intimate surroundings, illustrating the daily juggle between supporting the movement and their personal lives. 

Marineide Jesus da Silva, a driver, gazes hopefully into the distance, while Sonia Mabel B. Barreto, who is originally from Peru, stands with her children and husband in their kitchen, wearing the uniform of their favorite football team. Leonice Penteado Lucas, a baker who sells her cakes at Ocupação 9 de Julho, is captured with her bolinhos – a Brazilian desert – which she considers as her contribution to the cause. Dressmaker Maria das Neves Pereira, who makes clothes for the group, stands proud among piles of fabric in her studio.

© Virginia de Medeiros.
© Virginia de Medeiros.

Stoic and dignified, the women radiate vigour, while emphasising their humanity and depth. The effortless sincerity seen in each picture stems from the artist’s interviews with her subjects about their everyday lives. The photographer encouraged them to open up about their occupations and asked the women: “What is your fighting tool?” Their responses, which ranged from motherhood, baking, and pure activism, informed the final portraits.

This same emotional commitment to her subjects informs her wider practice. For her three-channel video Sergio e Simone (2007-2014), she followed a trans shaman throughout a decade, and for her 2015 video, Cais do Corpo, frequented Rio de Janeiro’s Praça Mauá district for a month to document the area’s sex workers. In the process of observing, she builds a psychological connection with her subjects. And, along the way, the artist witnesses her own transformation behind the lens too. “Each project is a process of self-construction, and shows what is not finished within ourselves,” she says. “The work is not about the other but about an encounter with another.”

Guerrilheiras by Virginia de Medeiros is currently on show as part of a group exhibition, On the shoulders of giants, at Nara Roesler gallery in New York until 24 August 2021.

Osman Can Yerebakan

Osman Can Yerebakan is an art writer and curator based in New York. His writing has appeared on T: The New York Times Style Magazine, The Paris Review, The Guardian, New York Magazine, Brooklyn Rail, BOMB, Artforum, Artnet, Playboy, Architectural Digest, and elsewhere. Osman previously organized exhibitions at venues that include the Queens Museum.