It’s odd that it took a trip to the theatre for me to really notice her. After all, she’s been hanging around, my little inky friend, for five years. There I sat at the back of a theatre just beneath the booth, 6,000 miles from my home and a little nervous because I’d agreed to this but suspected I might not like it. No, really, I’m serious. It’s not about ego; Una is my baby and though I’ve shared her with the world she is precious to me. Besides, writing and drawing a graphic novel is a solitary pursuit while making theatre is an exercise in mutual trust and collaboration so I had no idea whether this was going to work, and in a way that kept the integrity of the original work intact. As you’ll know if you’ve read Becoming Unbecoming, I’m against spectacle in narratives concerned with violence, but how do you avoid spectacle in a theatre piece? I had no idea. I only knew that the photos I’d seen of young women in red dresses performing the play in its early development were so beautiful they’d reduced me to tears.
It began with a website message from a young woman named Mileny on behalf of a youth theatre group from Mauá, São Paulo. I was intrigued. I’m cautious about giving permission for people to use my images and writings but this non profit-making project in a country where violence against women and girls can accurately be described as an epidemic and there is little support is truly exceptional. Besides, Brazilian feminist activists need all the help they can get so if my work can make a contribution to their efforts I feel that’s a massive privilege. There are only 74 refuges for victims of domestic violence in a country of more than 200 million. Rape in Brazil is a crisis that seems insoluble, though a discussion has gathered speed since a group of men were videoed raping a teenager in a favela of Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and there was a public outcry. However actual support and justice for victims is in short supply; as recently as July 2018 a law was enacted in Rio de Janeiro to facilitate better treatment of victims of rape and in 2017 São Paulo state policy was changed so that all police stations would help victims of rape rather than just the designated ones (São Paulo city previously had just nine designated stations). The situation is further aggravated by poverty and racism and a political situation that is deeply worrying.
So Mileny and I began a slow and patient correspondence in which she acted as an english speaking go-between for the collective, the theatre director Felipe de Galisteo and myself. I threw into the mix the few people I knew in Brazil that I hoped would help us get the project off the ground – my Brazilian publisher Nemo, part of Grupo Autêntica and the journalist Carolina de Assis and began to think seriously about whether I was really going to take a long haul flight alone to meet and work with a group of strangers. Slowly we worked out the details together, the group decided on a name, Coletivo Rubra, set up social media accounts and started crowd-funding for my trip. I started trying to learn Brazilian Portuguese. I had a little help from a Paulista facebook friend but mostly I learned from Netflix. 🙂 Fortuitously, I had written into my current arts council project a budget for a foreign trip so I was able to pay for my own flights. Thanks to ACE, Nemo and our many supporters in São Paulo I arrived safely on 23rd October 2019 to find the smiling faces of Allie, Larissa and Felipe waiting to greet me and drive me to Mauá.
Mauá is a municipality of São Paulo that sits just outside the mega metropolis of São Paulo city. The scale of the city is difficult to comprehend, especially for British people like myself, accustomed to our little island. My home town (Leeds, population 789,000) is the second largest city in England (excluding London, after Birmingham. Manchester has 534,000). My family’s home town, a large market town joined seamlessly to Leeds, has a population of 22,000. Mauá is one of a number of ‘small’ towns joined seamlessly to São Paulo city and has a population of 468,000. São Paulo city has a population of 12,176,000 with a greater metropolitan population of 21,571,000. The only other cities I know intimately are London (8.9million) and Barcelona (1,620,000) so the first time I got a good look at ‘Sampa’ from the roof of the municipal art gallery it was a bit of a shock.
Mauá has its own specific character and I wanted to get to know it to have an insight into the theatre group and their audience, so one day I asked my designated tour guides Mileny and Ana if we could spend the day doing typical things around Mauá. “We wouldn’t do things around Maua”, they said. “There’s nothing for us here. We’d go into Sao Paulo.” Ok, but if you couldn’t go into Sao Paulo, what would you do in Mauá? Well… we had the best day out and my guides told me I’d helped them see Mauá through new eyes. We went to the mall, we went to the ‘self service’, admired the crochet on the market stalls, met Mileny’s grandmother, surprised Kamila at work and saw the famous shouting evangelist woman outside the dentist, down the street from the cake shop and the caldo de cana stall where I was stung by a sugar-crazed bee the following day. Amazingly, I’ve never been stung by a bee before so I had no idea whether I’d react. (I come out in enormous lumps with mere mosquito bites so I feared the worst.) My kind host Felipe peered at me anxiously outside a chemist while we waited to see if I would keel over. I didn’t, thankfully.
Ah, but what about the play? It didn’t disappoint. I think perhaps the photos (Credit to Felipe Castelani) speak for themselves but I want to say how much it meant to me that Coletivo Rubra took such care of my work and one another. In any group of young people there will be those who have been affected by the various crimes and violence explored in the book and Coletivo Rubra are no exception. Their sensitive approach to the material was exemplary. Their attention to detail extraordinary. In the theatre they even projected an English translation for me. I feel they may have improved on certain aspects of Becoming Unbecoming’s visual metaphors in the process of transformation into performance. In the days after the show I enjoyed profound and interesting conversations with Felipe de Galisteo and members of the group about how we can continue to improve the work and it was an enormous privilege to witness their performance which left me in awe at my own work. It’s rather good, isn’t it? What a wonder to revisit it this way.
We will continue to work together. I came home with my bag stuffed full of zines made by the collective which revisualise their stage play into drawings – an interesting cycle of transformation. I’ll produce a PDF from this material for printing by Coletivo Rubra in Brazil and Una in the UK. I know my visit drew attention to their project; City dignitaries turned up to the performance and they’ve been invited to perform at other theatres and festivals. We have already made various amendments and improvements together, staying in contact through social media and WhatsApp. I’m pretty sure I’ve made friends for life and these lovely young people and their kind, gentle, bearded director have given me a new appreciation of Una and all she has done for me and the world. It’s a beautiful thing. Wouldn’t it be great if we could secure funding for them to come to the UK?
Keep scrolling for more photos of: the play Una: Dedicado a todas as outras, my school visit to make zines with teenagers, our public discussion about sexual violence organised by Sempreviva at Casa do Hip Hop, Mauá, our trip to the fantastic São Paulo art gallery MASP and Pinacoteca, and my visit to Casa Helenira Preta, a fledgling women’s refuge in Mauá which I’ll be continuing to support from the UK. Watch out for my fundraiser in the summer. Thanks to Coletivo Rubra, Felipe de Galisteo, Carolina de Assis and Ramon Vitral, Sempreviva, Nemo, Ugra Bookshop, Teatro Municipal de Rio Grande de Serra, Bruno’s Dad and Bruno’s dog for putting up with us when we took over their apartment, Mileny’s Grandma for being there and for the beautiful, embroidered tea towels and Mika’s parents for hosting the farewell party, which was very noisy, sorry. Finally a special mention for Mika’s Dad, who cooked two enormous Pacu to perfection. Delicious! See you all soon, I’m sure.