Boxes and sacks on their backs; trolleys and carts in the shafts; goods in, packaging out. From Praca Republica down to the Mercado Municipal non-stop. Men with loads from here to there, or then a woman with a cart. Cardboard is money. Flattened boxes piled high, she’s struggling up the incline of the Praca Patriarca. There’s plenty of Patriarca down here, famous men in bulky statues. But no time to stop. Brazil football t-shirts Made in China needed now. VW vans pull up loaded down porters waiting. From Unskilled Supermarket trolley to carts with crafted wooden wheels. And as the sun goes down it’s downmarket, the plastic bag on the shoulder, thrown-away beer cans is money.
This is the old centre of Sao Paulo, Centro, hot and humid, heavy rain and thunder at the drop of a hat. After a flight from a wintry Europe this was Brazil, fast and speedy. Between Republica and Praca de Se it’s all walking streets composed of a layer of white flinty ‘Portuguese stone’, daytime crowded, buzzing, load carriers, shoppers, office lunchtimers Here are offices; juice bars; torn posters showing the 50-60% rise in the price of potatoes and rice; banks; derelict buildings with elaborate stucco facades; and shoe shops. Shoe shops everywhere. Selling the same shoes. Not that long ago and the gap between the shoe’d and the shoeless spoke not just of class but servitude. Brazil was the last country to officially abolish slavery and the statue at the Tribuna de Justicia do Estado de Sao Paulo, the grim face under a helmet was the ‘stern white man’ in person.
At night this ‘downtown’ empties out except for the street sleepers and people squatting those derelict buildings , and, here and there, whole squads of police. Any building in legal use has its entry crowded with private security. The dominant soundtrack is of helicopters but these are mostly not those of the police – recognizable as everywhere by repetitive circling – but of millionaire commuters. If the apparent and self-perpetuating security-Keynesian nature of the city –and most other areas of huge Brazil – reflects staggering inequalities of wealth, the helicopter for which there is a waiting list of two years, is a key indicator, speaking of the inequality of time. In a city of 20 million where it might take two to three hours to get to a low paid job – as a security guard likely as not – and the same to get back home, public transport is, with housing, the most felt and politically active area of life. The unexpected riots of June last year were sparked by a rise in bus fares: not just unexpected but ‘un-Brazilian’, the violence of it. On the street you get the point of the ’un-Brazilian’, the good humour in endless queues, and the considerate choreography on crowded streets, how could it have been ‘vuiolent’? But then seeing the razor wire on top of the walls of the city’s main cemeteries it looked like a case of the cultural construction of anxieties.
I’m here with the Viennese visual artist Ines Doujak to research something extra to what we already plan to exhibit at the Sao Paulo biennale that starts at the end of August and are settled into a residency in a building at the heart of this old city. Or rather not ‘extra’, but to extend the scope of our long term Loomshuttles Warpaths, a voluminous and properly multi-media work on textiles, their global production and consumption over the last 1000 years. The risk, that we will research and come up with nothing is lessened in that the present themes of the work are carnival and transport, and we arrive a fortnight before Carnival and live on top of the hand drawn carts and trolleys that look like the dirty secret of global trade with its seemingly all-powerful, comprehensively computerized logistics.
We had a large room on the 6th floor of the residency in the Praca Patriarcha at the heart of this old city, and were immediately warned that it was a dangerous are at night. We had a wonderful view, a mish-mash of buildings, little domes and a building modeled on the Empire State Building which for six weeks or so had been the highest such high-rise in the city. At the top there was a tall glass hexagonal, and on top of that a state of Sao Paulo flag and flashing red light, that looked like it was a lighthouse for the helicopters cris-crossing the sky. On our blind side was the square itself and adjacent to it one side of the road the city of Sao Paulo’s prefecture containing the mayor’s office and on the other one of the city’s many viaducts, the Viaduto do Cha. It was under this bow-shaped concrete bridge that, the day after arriving, though still half asleep, we picked up on a tip that an all woman carnival group, a bloco, would be rehearsing. The bridge is at one end of a long mix of grass, trees and that flinty flooring, the Vale do Ahnangabau. At first it seemed like nothing much was happening, a few drummers rehearsing, and at with side where the bridge is lowest street sleepers, looking-after-each-other transsexuals. As in the rest of the area some were laid down on flattened cardboard boxes, others had those tents that require no ropes and can be put up anywhere.
The next two or three hours were as some Brazilians say, super-nice. It became clear that there were different groups of women, bass drums; snare drums ; shakers and cow bells; and dancers, and they were rehearsing in groups to come together and make sounds that you could not dance to. They are the Ilhu Obá do Min. True that life is not just a rehearsal but it can sound positively smug when you see are better still, part of, a rehearsal like theirs. Our knowledge of Candomblé was limited but we knew enough to see that the dancers performance were related some times to Exu, sometimes to Xango. Only then were they augmented by one or two men, stilt walkers extrordinaire, one especially who truly danced on them. Meanwhile a singer with mike, amp and speakers set up under the viaduct was adding voice to the mix.
It’s not Rio or Salvador, there’s no big deal Carnival but over the next couple of weeks local blocos, big and small, take to the streets, bringing with them crowds big or small. Mostly, like the Oba do Min, drum-based but some brass bands like the one that set up stage among the skateboarders of the Praca Roosevelt. The Oba do Min, as it turned out were massive on the night, but that was two weeks later and by then we’d spent an evening at a Candomblé terroire and been introduced to the truly inspiring Casa do Povo.
The terroire was open to the public only on Monday evenings and we had just the one chance because for the forty days from Carnival, the members would be taking stock of themselves. And the doors closed.The cross-overs between Candomble and Catholic Christianity do exist but how and in what forms would take serious inquiry and experience. That this does happen, though the church is resisting canonizing Anastasia, the cruelly-masked and gagged slave who has become revered in the last 40 years or so, is perhaps what will help the church survive Evangelical colonialism. From seeing them preaching in the Praca do Se on Sundays, you wonder how these Evangelicals attract anyone: white men with angry faces close up to the Holy Word screaming at their followers among the street drinkers and dancers attached to CD sellers. But they do, the statistics say so, and the signboards are everywhere, Old Testament in style, or Pentecostal.
The street face of the terroire was narrow and bland brick. Still city-blindfold, we went by taxi with the Seville-based artist-curator Pedro Romero and would have been asking if we’d got the right address except for there being a small queue on the pavement. Pedro’s approach was sardonic; we were in-for-a-penny-in-for a-pound. Inside were men and women all dressed in white and with every variety of skin colour. They were very kind, found translators and at a small desk we paid 1Euro Fifty and got a ticket with a number and a colour code. Inside was packed. Rows of chairs on either side and the rest of us standing and down the sides small clusters of people in white and a visitor There was to be a ceremony later, an important figure coming from Angola but in the meanwhile what our tickets meant was that in due course we would enter one of the clusters and receive advice. Pedro’s audience was quick, as a green I had a wait. There were no vacant chairs by now the place was heaving and we all listened out for our colour-number combination coming from another lady in white. My counselor was Father Anastasios who had, and the sound of my translators laugh confirmed the obvious, once been a woman. My request was simple, how to stop saying I Should all the time. Father Anastasios who might also have been blind had slim wrists and a beautiful touch. We held hands and pressed herbs. Either what she said, or what the translator said she had said, was bland but I felt good. Better than when I had come. As we went out for fresh air and a beer, the queue had become huge. People of all sorts coming to hear something, perhaps with a long term relation with one of the ‘advisors.’
It was practical and popular, nothing exotic, friendly too as is the resolutely secular Casa do Povo. On our first tour given us by Benjamin Serrousi, one of a younger generation wanting to give the Casa new legs, the dilapidated magnificence of the modernist building came to life, and the knowing that it contained a library of some 5000 books in Yiddish covering the whole of the last century, Rosa Luxemburg included, made it already awesome. Not just the books, but a still existent and regular Yiddish choir. The Casa is located in the Bixigea district, just north of the Prace da Luz, still in the Centro, an area of sweatshops quite separate from those around the Mercado Municipal. Like Spitalfields and Whitechapel in London, the schmutta business here was one of Jewish immigrants who made and gave substance to the Casa. Like east London as they became more prosperous many moved out into Higienópolis, one of the leafier parts of the city with their security-gated condominiums. Now the cut-and-sew business is, like Los Angeles, mostly Korean-owned with immigrant Latin American workers, mostly Bolivian, though a rumour suggested that there were even Bolivian bosses with ‘illegal’ Chinese immigrant workers.
This demographic shift is one of the many changes the Casa has lived through. The idea for such a place of culture began at a conference held in Paris in 1937 by Jewish organizations to the left of the Bund. As described by police reports of the time the Congress was ‘an old Communist Party trick to use so-called non-partisan’, while no Jewish organization in the USA attended but instead claimed that “Jewish communists are the inveterate foes of Jewish tradition”. From the Congress, with a shrewd awareness of the catastrophe to come, the call went out to the diaspora to establish institutions that would keep alive non-Zionist Jewish culture: that they should make schools, newspapers and theatre. There were already such cultural groups in Sao Paulo. The decision to make a building specifically to house all these activities and to open up to the wider community of the area came after the war and boosted by the arrival of European survivors it was also to serve as a memorial to those who died in the Shoah. Since then it has survived military dictatorship; a loss of members after Khruschev’s denunciation of the Stalinist past; and political attacks from both Zionists on one side and the Brazilian Communist Party on the other.
I was lucky enough to interview 87 year old Hugueta and a much younger Lillian, both still involved in the continuity and refreshing of the institution. We had also heard from other people not directly tied to the Casa how important it had been both politically and culturally: its basement theatre had been at the forefront of modern and avant-garde theatre both in Yiddish and increasingly in Portuguese; with a constant programme of seminars; and it had been a source of refuge during the military dictatorship to many, even though its newspaper had been closed down and some of its own members had been ‘disappeared’. The school had been set up by Elisa Kaufman, voted as a Communist councilor in the late 1940s but banned from taking her seat, and held lessons in Yiddish and Portuguese. Lillian had attended as a pupil in its last years had, she said, been truly formative. When she and other pupils had moved on to state schools at 14, they were recognizable as a group, as the students who would always be asking Why? Located on the flat roofed top floor of this wonderful building, the school rooms around a playground up in the sky are now the toilets of pigeons. Down in the basement, the theatre still looking grand despite the ruination caused some years ago by flooding. The building itself on the street of three rivers is indeed on top of underground rivers. At the time of the flood there was no money for a pump to deal with an overflow caused by a failure of municipal sewage system cleaning. Now there is a pump, but the costs of repairing will be immense. The Casa was recently offered a lot of money by the Jewish Agency but the board refused, knowing that their independence and outgoing utopian ethos would be swallowed up. Instead they had continued their engagement with the neighbourhood, changed as it was, by making photograph posters of many local residents, posters that were visible in the streets that are full of Korean supermarkets.
Meanwhile back closer to home in the Vale do Ahnangabau two black-skinned men were suddenly surrounded by cops on horseback and with guns. We are not strangers to the use of police horses in Britain, but it was here concentrated on individuals. The two men had their hands up behind their heads seemingly before the actual arrival of the horses. It had happened to them before but one was frightened of the horses and both comprehensively compliant; the police and their guns here are dangerous, more people have ‘disappeared’ in recent years than during the dictatorship. In this situation there was an additional arrogance of position, two of the cops staying on their horses while the others did body-searches, looking like a photo of Portuguese police in their tricorns on horseback beating down with long truncheons on the heads of peasant farmers protesting eucalyptus plantations.
At around the same time, close by, a demonstration of a thousand people against the holding of the football World Cup and its costs was attended by 1200 police and 200 people were arrested. Despite several of them being journalists, the mass media had settled on a strategy of allusions to a demonized ‘black bloc’. Unlike Rio, where the event is being used as in other cities like Beijing, Delhi and Johannesburg for the business of class cleansing, in Sao Paulo the World Cup was a focus protest. In the climate of a government desperate for the Cup to succeed as a global spectacle and a military police unreformed from the time of the dictatorship, a demonstration of only one thousand seemed suicidal. The most exuberant and popular demonstrations outside the Mayor’s office which were not attacked by the police, heavy though their presence, were those of MTST – the movement of the roofless – campaigning on both the issues of housing and public transport from a self-organized tent-city base that they had titled in internationalist sprit Nova Palestina. One Arts Professional claimed many were paid to demonstrate to which -even if true – to one could only say and why not, why shouldn’t very poor people be paid. But then some Arts Professionals are very keen on not paying performers in the name of dedication to the craft. More to the point, it seemed clear that if the World Cup were to be a focal point of protest about the lack of public services for the poor, it will need to be based in such groups as the MTST.
A curator friend had told us about a Sunday night gay men club in the area behind Republica in the direction of Sta Cecilia. Working class, friendly and fabulous dancers he said, and how it closed at midnight because all the men had to catch the last Metro out to the outskirts which are the inner outskirt as the Metro which is owned by the State rather than the Municipality of Sao Paulo does not reach out into ‘favelas’ (which, by-and-large are not ‘shanty towns’) and the clumps of high-rises far out on the tangle of highways out of the city. There was a vague plan to go there to the club on the rua Regio Freitas. It hadn’t happened when, out looking for something to eat after the place we had in mind turned out to be, on a dead Sunday, closed, we had, unknown, been directed in the direction of what we found to be the broad Viera de Carvalho. On dead Sunday the place was buzzing. Up and down the few bars and then into the free triangular space at one end hundreds, it seemed like thousands of men out flirting, talking, kissing and drinking. A collectively good mood. That we found again when we did get to the club, two heterosexuals in a properly gay club where the great dancers did a ever-changing two and three-man version of the jive and it was cool. It did end at midnight too, this was it, the night out and giving it the finger in the process. A party on dead Sunday.
The temptation is always to make a big deal out of such moments and crush them in the process but there it was, like everybody there was able to have a good time with very little money and that the good time was being made by everybody. In the time we were there it seemed that in a situation of constructed paranoia and real fears there were so many and varied instances of what could be called self-organisation. Call it civil society and it would be dead in the water. Though, in the ways things are, attempts at something beyond the given can for whatever reason, run out of steam or, cynically, become less chic, the World Social Forum did for a short period do what needs to be done, and it is no coincidence that it should have begun in Porto Alegre where self-organisation had real political consequences. Back at the Casa do Povo, its newspaper Nossa Voz was about to be published again for the first time since it was banned by the dictatorship: seminars were filling the ballroom where on other days dancers practiced. What they paid for use of the space helped with the upkeep but also helped get the place place was buzzing. And then a lively debate was held as to whether a Bolivian artist could perform a ch’alla ceremony for the building in this now Bolivian area. A determinedly secular board was skeptical, was this religion, but perhaps aided by a description of Eduard Galeano, how the ch’alla was a key part of the political university of Bolivian miners, it went ahead and brought a large and enthusiastic crowd.