The shock of the nude: Brazil's stark new form of political protest


If ever there were a city where disrupting traffic felt like a political act, it would be São Paulo. Its 15 million inhabitants routinely take an hour to drive across town and can waste a month per year just getting to and from work. So when the dancers of Cia. Les Commediens Tropicales step in front of the moving vehicles on Avenida Paulista, sashaying in their bright party dresses and sombre suits to a jazzy Brazilian beat, it feels like an act of defiance.

In a street-theatre intervention entitled (See[]Have) Adrift, they lie on the tarmac, flirt with drivers and hitch lifts on the sides of trucks, turning the cars into reluctant dance partners. It’s the same when they snog on the pedestrian crossing in same-sex couples (with a nod to Banksy’s kissing coppers) as hooting taxis squeeze past.

“We love the fight between the public and the traffic,” performer Carlos Canhameiro tells me later, remarkably uninjured. “The street belongs to you.”



‘The street belongs to you’ … (See[]Have) Adrift. Photograph: Guto Muniz

If there are politics even in this breezy piece of Brazilian street theatre, it is doubly the case elsewhere in the 10-day Mostra Internacional de Teatro de São Paulo (MITsp). Under the directorship of Antônio Araújo, the festival is squaring up to an era of right-wing populism with a celebration of otherness, difference and resistance.

More often than not, this resistance manifests itself in the naked body. In show after show, nudity takes on a political role. In part, this is a reaction to the censoriousness of the evangelical movement that helped sweep Jair Bolsonaro to power last year. In part, it is a response to the president’s intolerance of feminism, homosexuality and even the country’s famous carnivals. Standing before us undressed, the performers seem to say: “I am here. I exist. Do not deny me.”

Transpofágico (Transpophagic Manifesto)



‘My body always comes before me’ … Renata Carvalho in Transpofágico (Transpophagic Manifesto). Photograph: Nereu Jr

That is the case, for example, in Isto é um Negro? (Is This a Black?), a joyful show about skin colour that defies you to ignore the flesh under discussion – not sexualised just present. Created by graduates of the School of Dramatic Art of the University of São Paulo, the first-hand stories of discrimination, informed by the legacy of colonisation, are angry and agitational. But there is also compassion, as Tarina Quelho’s production asks the audience to share the things that turn “us”, a group of individuals, into “us”, a collective of common interests. In a time of division, the simple act of coming together in a theatre can seem like a gesture of solidarity.

In Brazil, the threat to expression is real. Artists are aghast at the swingeing cuts in a country that has dissolved its ministry of culture. They are also fearful of the drive towards censorship. Last year, trans performer Renata Carvalho received death threats and lost bookings after she performed the Brazilian version of Jesus, Queen of Heaven by Edinburgh playwright Jo Clifford. That’s why, in Transpofágico (Transpophagic Manifesto), she stands naked before us as a “travesti”, in a blend of autobiography and polemics about a life spent under constant scrutiny. “My body always comes before me,” she says, choosing to put her body firmly before us now, even stepping into the auditorium to let the audience touch. Several opt to hug her instead.

To an outsider, political meanings are not always obvious until you remember that, whatever else, a man like Bolsonaro would detest having to watch this sort of thing. That is unquestionably the case with Lobo (Wolf), a gloriously extravagant feast of male nudity that carries an arresting message of female empowerment. It begins like some masochistic gym class, with 16 naked men running in circles, sweaty and breathless, crashing into each other before collapsing into a writhing, orgiastic heap. It’s only then that writer and director Carolina Bianchi asserts her control, shooting from the hip (she carries two guns) and turning for moral support to Artemisia Gentileschi, Emily Dickinson and Mary Shelley. They are, she tells me later, “women who have this obsession with death and violent things – not just women who talk about flowers”.

Colônia (Colony).



The psychological effects of colonisation … Renato Livera in Colônia (Colony). Photograph: Nereu Jr

The thrilling show culminates with the men passing a globule of saliva from mouth to mouth. With the audience packed tightly on three sides, these are bodies that cannot be wished away or made invisible.

Giving shape to the invisible is what so many of these productions seek to do. You see it in Colônia (Colony), in which actor Renato Livera fills a blackboard with notes on the psychological effects of colonisation. And you see it in the excellent Altamira 2042, in which Gabriela Carneiro da Cunha turns a meditative jungle sound installation into a documentary study of people displaced by the ongoing construction of the massive Belo Monte hydroelectric plant on the Xingu river, a tributary of the Amazon. Warning of environmental catastrophe ahead, she sees the rainforest region of Altamira as “the energetic centre of a world war”. In a polarised world, it feels like the naked truth.



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