If you walk on the streets of a European or American city and randomly ask some people – or friends – is Brazil a racist country? I bet 7 times out of 10 they’ll answer: “Definitely not! It’s so mixed, so colourful. I love Brazil.”
Well folks, real life is a bit different from the Rio Carnival and all those beautiful plumed shaking booties.
In 2013 Brazilian dancer Nayara Justino was selected as the Globeleza Carnival Queen but many white – and black – people – objected that choice because in their opinion she was ‘too black’ to be the queen. Many people came on her Facebook page, calling her ‘monkey’ and ‘darkie’. As a result, Globo – the biggest Brazilian television network – ripped her off the crown, despite having been chosen after a public vote, and replaced her with the less popular but lighter-skinned Erika Moura.
Some time ago while surfing on Afropunk I discovered an elegant, sophisticated and bold project, Dúdús, created and run by 18-year-old Brazilian dedicated activist, stylist, cultural producer/organizer and art educator Gabriel Hilair.
Dúdús is a community and creative platform born from the desire to give exposure to Afro Brazilian artists who find it hard to stand out and be recognised in the local artistic scene.
Gabriel now lives in Sao Paolo, but he was born and raised in a little town called Itajubá, with a population of approximately 100.000, in the southern region of the Minas Gerais state. He has chosen the cosmopolitan way and, subsequently, “I’m currently unemployed, living off my friends’ help and freelance jobs, that rarely lasts much,” he revealed.
Tell me something about Itajubá and your family.
Itajubá is located in the Serra da Mantiqueira, a mountain range that extends throughout three brazilian states: São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais, where my hometown is.
In Brazil, country built on a foundation of slave labor and black people exploitation, race defines class, the same way as the rest of the world, but specially on those countries with an history of slavery.
The outskirts are places where former enslaved black people, as a result of race gentrification, are thrown since the post abolition period in Brazil, and in Itajubá, not even in this places the majority of the population is black. Itajubá is a white city because it is a rich city, and vice-versa.
There resides Helibras, UNIFEI, ranked tenth engineer school of the country and now a federal university; and also a private med-school and others private universities that elitize the city and, in consequence, make the city less black day by day.
We, black people, are the only populational group in Brazil that doesn’t know our origins and one of the greatest crimes against our people was the theft of the very possibility of knowing our origins. The site Forebears, that shows the origin of the family names, says that “Hilair” is French, therefore, I carry the name of the family that certainly enslaved my ancestors.
My knowledge about my genealogy begins with my grandparents: by mother’s side, a white household woman and a black factory worker, and by fathers side, a white household woman and a black truck driver – not by coincidence white women and black men, but because racial whitening of the population is still in force in Brazil.
I lived only with my grandmothers and my grandfather by mother’s side. With my grandmother by mother’s side I lived until my 10 years old. With my other grandmother I still have contact when I visit my hometown, because she is still alive with 80 years old.
My grandfather by mother’s side, not by chance the person with the blacker skin within my family and from whom I inherited the name Hilair, lived only until I was 12.
Lastly, I am a single child of black parents, my mother an assistant manager and my father a former factory worker and a waiter nowadays.
You moved to Sao Paolo almost a year ago. It’s a huge city and if I’m not wrong it is the opposite of Rio de Janeiro: very white, it’s considered a city of business and fashion, and the cost of living is very high. Why have you moved there?
You’re not wrong, São Paulo is indeed a white city. In light of that, I reaffirm the fact that race defines class. In spite of São Paulo being at the country with the largest black population outside of Africa, as my hometown, it is a white city because it’s a rich city and vice-versa.
By that means it is also the city of fashion, as you well described, and I moved here because I received a job proposition as a fashion producer and also because of the request for lectures and art-education workshops that, by that time, made me travel here almost every week.
What do you love the most about your culture?
For me to be here today giving this interview, millions of black people have had to be kidnapped from Africa, brought here to Brazil, be enslaved and killed. Because of this, my body is marked by the struggles of a marginalized collective of people throughout history.
To speak about this collective is a responsibility I have chosen to embrace, but reaffirming that I am a cultural producer and not necessarily using it as a theme. Therefore, the collective is what I love the most about my culture, because the African thinking and its unfoldings in African diaspora countries like Brazil makes sense only in the collective and not in the individual level.
You are a member of Brazil’s militant intersectional black movement. When have you began getting into activism? How difficult is it in Brazil to be an activist and to raise your voice against racism, gender discrimination and to talk about identity?
Back on 2015, with 16 years old, I wrote on Facebook my first text about stand point, protagonism and privilege, an “Open Letter to the Whites Pro-Black Movement” – originally Carta Aberta Aos Brancos Pró-Movimento Negro – in the course of a week it has more than ten thousand shares and went viral.
I became a collaborator to Revista Fórum, a brazilian magazine that was printed monthly for 12 years and nowadays is only accessible digitally and is one of the most importants Brazilian independent media sites.
Since then, I never stopped. I started to be requested to discuss racial issues in Brazil, and despite I just became of age, I have travelled trough my country as a lecturer, to participate in debates and give art-education workshops.
I have chosen to speak about racism and LGBT phobia to face and comprehend what I live and, because of the visibility, I was harassed and received death threats. In light of that, my activism is on a hiatus, because I am afraid of getting out of my house and face the world.
The more conscious I get, more I realize how devastating and constant are the acts of violence we suffer, and it seems that out of my room there’s not a single day without pain, hard time and derangement.
In Brazil, We, black people and LGBT people, especially those active in militancy, don’t die only by murder: we have depression.
In your opinion, why does Brazil suffer from racism and colorism? And why many black Brazilians feel ashamed to be black?
In Brazil, there’s a hegemony of white people that give privilege to themselves in despite of the black people: there were no slaves ships filled with whites, no denial of rights from the white people and there was no slavery, of almost 400 years, of white people in my country, and because of that we suffer with racism.
After the abolition of slave labor, the immigration of european people was encouraged and because of its goals, besides of the economic ones, that was the whitening of the brazilian population, we suffer with colorism so this oppression system can still be active today.
That being said, black Brazilian are ashamed of being who they are, because, in service of the white people that uses us as a servil mass, we grew seeing ourselves enslaved on schools textbooks, without heroes, black personalities or black teachers and with the only black people in school and television being in subaltern jobs positions.
What does it mean to be black and gay in Brazil?
In July last year, when I was 17 years old, the homophobia have become unbearable in my house and looking for shelters I have found center of refuge that received LGBT people, but no one that welcomes minors, not where I lived nor in other brazilian states.
Unfortunately, I’m no exception, a lot of LGBT young people, black and poor go through this and the LGBT movement in Brazil doesn’t reach us, in spite of sharing the effect of the LGBT phobia. The guidelines defended by the LGBT movement are concentrated on things like equality on marriage and other urgent matters like shelters for young LGBT are not even debated. Something simple, but essential for many young people with difficult relations in family because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
I was lucky to have friends that could shelter me until I could get on my feet again, but my burden was that I was in the streets, prostituting myself to survive like many others, just because the LGBT movement doesn’t work through the lens of race and class, or killed, because every 12 minutes a black young person is murdered in Brazil, country that has one of the higher rates of murder against LGBT community.
Dúdús is indeed a creative platform born from the desire to give voice and visibility to blacks artists. Tell me more about it.
Dúdús, in yoruba, means “negro, black, dark” and is also the name of the collaborative platform that was born from a Facebook group, created in April last year, to gather the attractions of the second editions of the event Ocupação Preta [transl: Black Occupation] that I organized in Itajubá.
Due to the encounters that the group provided, we kept it active even after the end of the event and consecutively other black artists were included and started to post ideas and projects searching for opinions and a way to implement them.
Like that, through mutual help or crowdfunding they started to become real, and in July, I created a page on Facebook and a profile on Instagram to publish the works.
We continued to mobilize ourselves to gather resources to execute projects from black young creators, we divulge black artists and their works, even those not necessarily helped and financed by the Dúdús, not only brazilians but those from the african continent, because the power of connection of digital media is a powerful tool to “hack” the diaspora and connect us with our origins, and some time ago we helped our followers to choose amongst the best art exhibitions with black artists in São Paulo.
Since the release, I have been interviewed by Folha de São Paulo, in an article that was published also by Geledés – Instituto da Mulher Negra; by VICE Brasil, and I was in a list of 25 black women to keep an eye on in 2017, by the website Blogueiras Negras; I appeared a couple of times on AFROPUNK, that wrote the first article about Dúdús, and in the Revista Traços de Brasília.
The platform is open to receive projects and works from any black person, especially in visual arts, though we work in different fields: photography, fashion, short films, music videos, performance and sound experiments.
What role does fashion play in your life?
To dress myself, to dress black people and to do photoshoots with them is a way to spread my principles, reconstitute mine and their social representation as black individuals, is a way to provoke and, in light of the hostility enforced at our bodies through aesthetics, is a constant political act.
Taking into account the invisibility, the mockery and stereotyping of black people in fashion, those are the aspirations that surrounds me and these driving forces that I, through this important aesthetic tool, resignify our black bodies in the world.
Indeed, I believe that one of the most effective ways to confront racial and gender discrimination is through arts and creativity. Since you are a public speaker, what difference have you noticed between the two ways?
The difference between these two ways is due to the fact that whilst the black intersectional movement represents me both symbolically and politically, the art and creative world makes me invisible.
While amongst black LGBT militants I’m seen as a potential brother, even if they withhold the unconventional way that I dress and the unconventional places that I attend, in artistic and creative environments is not uncommon that my presence instigate in others the impulse to check their belongings or look for safety.
Are you working on some new projects?
Yes. I was invited by the artist André Niemeyer to produce an exhibition with black artist at Casa da Luz, a cultural center in São Paulo where his atelier is located, and is a place for parties, exhibitions, debates, courses and others activities. I’m also writing the script for a short film called Hackqueers da Diáspora that documents the black people and LGBT that, with the help of social media and creativity, hack the diaspora and connect to each other and to our ancestrality.
What would you suggest to your fellow black Brazilians who feel marginalized and struggle to find their place in the Brazilian art/fashion and creative scene?
Because I’m black, I can’t love, I can’t show sensibility or even affection and I have to be strong at all times. I was physically and psychologically abused since I was born and I repressed within me any kind of affections and fragility that could show that I’m sensitive and, therefore, human.
The pressure on the black individual that apparently doesn’t feel anything and handles everything well is a remnant of a colonial and slavery thinking that we are objects and not people: being strong is not good for us as black individuals, because being strong is denying our humanity.
Because of my will and need of talking about it, I create in order to deal with those weakness that I can’t have because I’m black.
Because of that, I would suggest to my fellow countrymen is to allow themselves to be weak, so we can be strong together, and create, so, as said by Diane Lima, my biggest referencial on the afro-brazilian creative scene, “the creative process is a place of power because is a place of choices” and through it we can choose to heal, free ourselves from the shackles that the racism inflicts on us and negotiate our humanity.
Cover image | (c) Gabriel Hilair x GRIOT (c) Murillo José – All the images and videos | Courtesy of Gabriel Hilair
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Visual and performing arts, culture and music, traveling: I could just live on this. Graduated in International Cooperation and Development, I am an indipendent Culture Curator and Producer, and Artistic Director of GRIOTmag and Spazio GRIOT.