Vidushi Sharma

Vidushi Sharma posted a photo in subinterest 'Globetrotters'


Uncertainty is over,” declared Brazilian president Michael Temer after Dilma Roussef’s impeachment, a week before the 32nd São Paulo Bienal opened. Temer’s presidency, however, only further fueled political unrest, as protests and occupations continue to roil Brazil. I went to the Bienal in late October with my Princeton art history class, leaving behind election-related tensions in America and replacing them with Brazilian angst. At the time, anti-government protests were escalating in Venezuela and South Korea, the Colombian FARC peace deal had failed, and Trump was dangerously close to the American presidency. In my world, it seemed, uncertainty was far from over.

Conversations about political polarization were impossible to escape. Early during our first morning in Brazil, I sat sketching in the open-roofed solarium of Okupe Jardins hostel, where students were staying. Paulo, a young man with close-cropped, gelled hair who had shown us our rooms sat on a table on the other side room. After I introduced myself, we began talking about our unexpectedly similar lives as young people on the brink of political uncertainty. Paulo was articulate and well-informed about American, Brazilian, and global politics (a trait he attributed to his interest in reading and talking with the international strangers that crossed his path at the hostel).

Our balanced conversation was tinged with undertones of urgency and desperation. Paulo, frustrated at the increase of religiously-grounded inhumanity in Brazil, told me of a recent case in Brazil where a young girl and rape victim had died after being thrown in prison for attempting to get an abortion. We discussed the loss of measured, fact-based debate and the explosion of money and special-interest lobbying in politics. As I described the NRA's manipulation of gun-control legislation and the epidemic of fake news in America, I felt myself falling victim to a phenomenon I feared--regarding those of opposite political orientation with alienation and disgust. Soon, it was time to leave the hostel, and I swallowed my fears and moved onto the week of immersion myself in Paulistan life and art.

The concept of mutirão, or collective work, threaded through the Bienal and the city as a response to layers of political and social uncertainty. In his affecting video triptych Work Songs, Leon Hirszman documented rural workers during the apex of Brazil’s military dictatorship singing collectively as they performed the tasks of constructing clay houses and harvesting cocoa and cane sugar. Your shout is beautiful, they affirmed, step on the jua pit! The songs and narration from each video bled into the others, creating an improvisational atmosphere punctuated by the rhythm of the workers’ repeated actions. Born as a salve for slaves’ brutal labor and likely sung by their descendants, these works songs embodied the benefits of communal identity and warned of its imminent disappearance.

I saw São Paulo’s own activist network affirm the positive power of mutirão in real time. During the opening of the Bienal, artists marched through the building in t-shirts reading Fora Temer (Get out, Temer), creating improvised chants against the new president. During our second day in the city, we visited a housing occupation that had occurred the previous night, where activists united to reclaim abandoned urban spaces for people who are homeless or displaced from their homes in the gentrifying city. Modern Paulistano politics were rife with different factions who struggle to control the city’s constructed geographies to use and reorganize its urban space for their own ends.

Emblematic of this tension was the Minhocão or “big worm,” an elevated flyover that cut through the heart of São Paulo and a symbol of widespread housing displacement. Constructed during the military dictatorship, the Minhocão remains a site of political tension, painted with signs like Temer Jamais (Never Temer) as politicians debate whether to turn it into a Brazilian High Line, guaranteeing the gentrification of neighboring low-income communities. Rossa Barba’s film Disseminate and Hold revolved around the Minhocão, focusing on the history of human intervention in the process of urbanization. Barba interviewed people who use the Minhocão on weekends, when it is closed to traffic, reclaiming the flyover a truly public body.

What seemed like detached study of a nation in political turmoil soon manifested all too clearly in my own life. A day after I returned from Brazil, Donald Trump was elected as the 45th President of the United States. Late at night, staining the pages of my journal with hot tears, I wrote "I feel blank. I don't know what America the problems I read about in the UK and Brazil are real here." Incerteza Viva seems all too present right now. There is pain in unexpected moments and places---but as the recent women's march shows, perhaps mutirão can help us tackle these issues in real-time.