Activist and artist.
THE INSPIRATION TALK
HELLO BEAUTIFUL, COULD YOU TELL US WHERE YOU ARE FROM AND WHAT YOU WERE DREAMING OF DOING WHEN YOU WERE GROWING UP?
I was born in Rio, in Duque de Caxias, a rural kind of area in Baixada fluminense, but I moved out of Brazil when I was 1 year-old and lived all around the world… First in Latin America: Bolivia, Chile, travelling around… And I moved back to Brazil when I was already a teenager. So my first language is actually Spanish and my second language is Portuguese.
It was an interesting childhood because I had to find myself in a completely different culture even though I didn’t really know what my culture was like. I had a very special link to Brazil because I would still come on vacation to visit my family here, my grand mother, my aunties… It was always an adventurous thing to come back; I remember how excited I was each time. Exploring those different, yet very similar cultures during my childhood was very interesting. For example in Chile and Bolivia there are a lot of indigenous cultures with different dialects like Quechua. I would speak Quechua when I was little and it was so weird! (Laughs). But it opened me up to differences and cultural patterns that were so alive to me at that time.
As a child, I loved dancing. That was my main thing. I still remember the first song I ever danced to. I was maybe 3 or 4 years old. It was a song from this singer XUXA. A very popular Brazilian singer within the children in the 80s/90s. She had this kids' show but was actually really mean to them (laughs), of course it was all for the show. She represented the “perfect” woman; she was blond, tall, skinny, and had this very interesting sexiness to her but very child-like at the same time… So twisted! You have to see it. And a whole crew, the Paquitas, accompanied her. It was every little girl’s dream to be a Paquita. They had these really cool clothes… Anyway, that is what I remember: I liked dancing to that kind of music. That is the only thing that I knew I wanted to do. One time I went to a theatre in Bolivia where they were rehearsing a play, when a song from the Beatles started to play. And I started dancing. All of a sudden everyone stopped around and was like “how is she doing this, how is she moving this way?” (laughs). I was just dancing and having fun. It was very intuitive for me. I was 7 years-old.
So when I grew up, I went to a dance school but soon realized that people didn’t dance enough in those schools (laughs). At the University I went to, there was a lot of theory and other disciplines trying to make sense of movements… Which didn’t make any sense to me! Movements are innate, kind of divine to me. So I went to NYC and started dancing in a dance company in Brooklyn, and that was when I realized I could really do anything I wanted to. I could set my mind to whatever and just explore it and see how I feel about it. And if I don’t like it anymore, then I just move to something else.
TELL US WHY YOU DECIDED TO MOVE BACK TO RIO AFTER THAT.
So after 5 years in NYC I moved back to Rio because I wanted a break from it all. The whole lifestyle was too hectic for me, and the cold... (laughs). So I moved back and I found a lot of good things in Brazil. I was exploring so many things and here people don’t have that kind of mentality. So I realized people maybe needed to hear some of the experiences I had gone through. And that’s when I decided to stay.
I didn’t continue with my dancing career because of the financial instability, which made it really hard for me. I needed to earn money, which eventually forced me to put my dancing career on the side and be more practical about my life. So I started working with Fashion and different things that could give me a better positioning financially. And it was really positive, it taught me a lot about the industry. So I created a whole project around the aesthetics and spiritual aspects of the head wrap and how they come together to empower women.
I WATCHED YOUR TED TALK ABOUT THAT. YOU WERE TALKING ABOUT IDENTITY AND HOW IT DEFINES YOU AS A UNIQUE PERSON. HOW WOULD YOU DEFINE YOURSELF AS AN INDIVIDUAL?
I don’t have a definition for myself. I think that is something that has been haunting me for a long time because people always ask me this question and I want to run away every time. But I have come to accept that this is just not how I operate. And there is just no real definition of what I do.
LISTENING TO YOUR STORY, I WOULD SAY THAT YOU JUST GO WHERE YOU FEEL LIKE GOING… YOU ACTUALLY LISTEN TO YOURSELF. DO YOU FEEL BRAZIL IS A PLACE WHERE YOU CAN REALLY LIVE YOUR INDIVIDUALITY?
I don’t think it is easier in Brazil, especially because it is such a newer concept here, people really struggle to define this kind of individuality. And I also don’t think it’s easier in NYC but there is a higher concentration of people that are doing this kind of thing. There are artists and people moving there with a dream who end up frustrated because they couldn't achieve it and so they become something else by default. So I could say everywhere is like that and it’s up to you to make it happen. And if it doesn’t work the way it is supposed to, it’s okay too. We are all like this at the end of the day. We are all multiple people. We don’t have one talent only.
Also it depends on whom you are talking to. There is a freedom that only certain people have here. And people like me, don’t have that freedom, in their own country.
SPEAKING OF WHICH, I TALKED ABOUT THE BRAZILIAN DIVERSITY WITH MARYAM WHO EXPLAINED HOW HER AFRICAN ORIGINS WERE PERCEIVED IN BRAZIL, OFTEN AS A POLITICAL STATEMENT. YET ONE STILL FEELS A STRONG LACK OF REPRESENTATION OF ALL THE PEOPLE WHO MAKE BRAZIL. HOW DO YOU EXPLAIN THIS?
Well we live in a very segregated society here, where race and social class come together. Right now, having the freedom of wearing an afro is something that people are taking as a political stand because back in the day when I had my afro (10 years ago) you couldn’t get a job with one. You couldn’t walk down the street without being completely ridiculed by people who would literally shout at you and say “You are so ugly! Comb your hair!” and things like that. So you understand why people are standing up now. The freedom they have gained with the momentum of Internet and globalization and people really uniting in the USA, in South Africa, in Brazil… It is coming to a consciousness that is very collective. People use that as a way to express themselves and express their freedom; their freedom to be, their freedom to represent themselves and their communities. But it wasn’t always like that. This is why I told you that it depends on whom you are talking to. If you are a black person and you come from the suburbs like me, you don’t have a choice. You can’t just study law for 8 years and then tell your parents “actually I’m just going to become a dancer!”. There is no choice. If you go to school and your parents have invested everything they have for you to study, you will have to maintain yourself and your family and help carry a legacy that sometimes has never been there before you. You will be the first one to accomplish those kinds of things. If you are a poor person and need to work to maintain your family, how are you able to go to school from 9am to 8pm? It’s impossible. Finally now, people have the quotes system enabling a percentage of people to have equal opportunities in regards to education.
IS THAT PART OF WHY YOU DECIDED TO CREATE PROJECT TRIBE*?
Project Tribe was created by me and another woman from the USA. She came to me with a proposal which was a whole different thing, called Project Unicorn, which I thought wasn’t really realistic. As I was already working with head wraps, I suggested we should use that as a unifying element allowing women to share their stories and find their truth in each other. The head wrap can be the materialization of this concept; you take this flat fabric and make it a 3D sculpture on your head with your own hands. The concept is so magical that women will love to be a part of it.
So I worked on a PowerPoint presentation on what it could look like and came up with the name “Project Tribe”; a tribe of women who are coming together to express themselves and their truth. And that was how the project was born. I was involved in it for two years, developing the concept and making sure it was running as something alive. It worked really well, thanks to women sharing their stories, sending photos, participating in so many levels… But eventually I started having a lot of conflicts with that other woman from the project, because of social media desires and this whole “followers” thing… It was all so unreal to me, because in the process of Project Tribe becoming this huge thing, I was selected to go to Nigeria for a documentary series called “Brazil DNA Africa”. They would take my DNA, analyze it, determining where I come from and then taking me back to my mother land. So imagine this kind of experience and how transformative it can be. After I was told I come from the Yoruba tribe which actually makes these head wraps, I was shocked because I realized I was manifesting my heritage without knowing it. When that information came to me, the pieces came together. It was insane. And I decided to explore it as much as I could. So obviously I went to Nigeria and it was one of the most transformative things that ever happened to me. It made me who I am, even more.
So when I got back from Nigeria, I realized that the other woman’s mind was kind of twisted as she was more focused on getting followers than anything else. I was coming back from this deep experience that allowed me to see who I was in essence to be confronted with what "followers" could think of me and how this mattered more than who I was. It made no sense to me anymore. It had lost its meaning. So I said to myself that until I found a balance between those two worlds, I needed to disconnect. That is how I let go of this incredible thing I had created. It was difficult.
*Project Tribe no longer exists in its original form.
SINCE THIS AWAKING EXPERIENCE YOU HAD IN NIGERIA, HOW DO YOU CHOOSE THE PROJECTS YOU WANT TO BE INVOLVED WITH?
Now, I try to surrender because I realized whatever I want will just come to me, but I really have to focus my intention in what I want. When I travelled to Nigeria, I visited this school of ancestral arts of “mama” Nike Okundaye, a Nigerian artist who has been granted the highest position of authority in indigo dyeing. The tribe I come from, the Yoruba tribe, has this really beautiful indigo fabrics that could be described as designs telling stories. And the way they do it is through an all-natural process with leaves from the indigo tree which are fermented with cacao, coco ash, which becomes this paint solution used to draw on the fabrics and dye them. When I saw that, I fell in love with it! Imagine a free school for people to learn these ancestral cultural practices. I went there in October and filmed everything, and my dream would be to go back in January, stay a whole month to learn how to make it myself. I want to become a bridge between those two cultures.*
(*editor's note : as wished, she returned to Nigeria in January 2017).
NOW THAT YOU REALLY KNOW YOUR ORIGINS, I WAS GOING TO ASK YOU: DO YOU FEEL ON A MISSION TO HELP YOUR TRIBE DEVELOP THEIR ART AND BRING IT HERE WHERE YOU LIVE IN ORDER TO BUILD THIS BRIDGE?
I want to build a bridge culturally, through art. There is no interest on my part to being an influencer in any way towards economy or politics because I feel that is something that is already very poisoned. The only way it will change is when the whole humanity finds a different way of existing in those terms. My desire is to use this art that I manifest externally through my ancestry so people understand the positive aspect of my culture. I want to show the world that we have technics, we have technology - ancient technology- that has been there for centuries, just telling our stories, narrating who we are and the contribution we make to the world.
I think that is something that I would love to do because often people in the diaspora are looked as inferior and not capable of expressing any of those traits, and it is not true.
EVEN THOUGH YOU SAID YOU WERE NOT INTERESTED IN BECOMING SOME KIND OF INFLUENCER, ONE CANNOT DENY YOU HAVE A VOICE AND PEOPLE ARE LISTENING TO IT… WHAT IS THE MESSAGE YOU WANT TO PASS WITH THAT CULTURAL BRIDGE YOU ARE AIMING TO BUILD?
The message is already there. Most of the time I think we have to find our identity, individually. I am only able to say this because I found mine but I am at an early stage and I am still exploring it. And for that, I consider myself lucky. Not a lot of people have had that experience and maybe they will never. I feel, no matter where we come from, we have lost ourselves in the concept of what humanity is without knowing exactly how to manifest our innate humanity.
LET'S TALK ABOUT IDENTITY: I FEEL WHENEVER I TALK TO BRAZILIAN PEOPLE, THEY ALWAYS LIKE TO HIGHLIGHT THEIR (EUROPEAN) ORIGINS EVEN IF THEY DON’T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT THOSE COUNTRIES. AND EVEN IF THEY ARE GENERALLY PROUD TO BE BRAZILIAN, THEY SEEM TO TAKE MORE PRIDE IN TALKING ABOUT THOSE FOREIGN ORIGINS THAN THE COUNTRY THEY WERE ACTUALLY BORN IN. WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT THAT?
To me that is the most basic thing. When I hear people say “I have an Italian passport” I always say to myself “this person is very desperate” because their vision of the world has been implemented in them from this outsider’s perspective. They become desperate to identify with that “foreign” thing that has been sold to them as the best thing in the world. You know here everyone thinks Europe is paradise. I get a bit angry also because it means you are lucky enough to know where you are from when I can’t say that because my heritage has been stolen from me. Slavery was such a long time ago that no one even cares about it anymore but what about the millions of people who have been killed or suffered from it? What about their names? What about their origins? What about their language? What about their connections to the people who came from the same places? That has been completely erased and those are the people I come from. Imagine how angry that makes me when someone flags their Italian passport and brags about how amazing they are because they are European, in my country. To me this desperation is a very sad thing as well because I see that we are really lost as a society. Half of us don’t even know where we are from, why we ended up here and what is going on with our heritage. The other half of us think they are from Europe. How schizophrenic is that? And then you wonder why politics are this way, then you wonder why people don’t give a f*** about environment in this city. All these different things are related and it all comes down to your identity. If you really knew where you were from, you would appreciate it and understand your surroundings, you would learn how to relate to people around you in a true way and relate to the environment and the nature in a more respectful way. It is all broken. So there is no way we can actually make sense of this because everybody is broken.
ARE THERE ANY WOMEN/ROLE MODELS THAT MOTIVATE YOU TO DO MORE?
It is a very interesting question because I don’t have any, and it is not because I don’t appreciate women around me or women in history. I admire them, understanding that they’ve become who they are because of their own desire to live their fullest life. And that is a very unique experience. Even if I say that I look up to Angela Davies because I want to be like her, it’s impossible! To me it is very utopian to have this kind of thoughts because I know I am my own muse in that sense.
I THINK IT IS AMAZING FOR SOMEONE TO SAY THAT YOU ARE ABLE TO FIND YOUR MOTIVATION TO GROW, WITHIN YOURSELF.
Some people have these ideals because they just cannot envision what they can become. So it’s not even about confidence, it’s about ignorance. It’s about not knowing. Ignorance is not a bad or a good thing; it’s just a state where you don’t know. And if you don’t know, you can’t transcend. That’s how I see it: sometimes people can’t see that there is no limit and therefore they need something to represent what they aspire to be. It helps you transcend, somehow.
But I do have people that inspire me (laughs). Nike Okundaye, this woman from Nigeria that I told you about. She is highly inspiring to me. She is this beautiful woman, amazing person, she’s an artist and has got this beautiful art school in Nigeria where she teaches women and young people this ancestral culture… She is amazing!
THANK YOU FOR SHARING YOUR STORY, BEAUTIFUL.
©Ana Monteiro for "turban" pictures