December 8th, 2018. João Teixeira de Farias, commonly known as “João de Deus” (“John of God” in Portuguese), the worldwide famous spiritual leader is on the news this time not because of his acclaimed “healing powers”, but surprisingly due to one of the biggest sexual scandals in the world, being accused of sexually abusing more than 500 women.
João de Deus (John of God)_Creative Commons
João de Deus became internationally renowned for his “spiritual surgery” and treated international celebrities and political leaders, receiving thousands of visitors in his “clinic”, among which many foreigners. He is now all over the news for a massive scandal, first disclosed by Brazil´s biggest TV channel. Right after the scoop, the Public Ministry along with the Civil Police stated that the Brazilian government had already been conducting an investigation concerning João de Deus for several months and that there were claims of sexual harassment being reported since 2010. A special task force was also organized to receive testimonials from victims and João de Deus has now been arrested and is being prosecuted for sexual abuse, fraud, illegal possession of firearms and human trafficking.
Away from the spotlight of the media, one female character has played an important role in bringing this and other similar stories to light: Sabrina Bittencourt. A Brazilian activist and social entrepreneur for more than 20 years, she has been dedicating her personal and professional life to social issues, mainly related to gender, by advocating for women’s rights in the country and abroad. As a consequence, Sabrina has suffered life threats and ended up with no other option but to leave her country. In her exile, Sabrina connected with other women and expanded her international network through the internet, strengthening her connections with female activists in Brazil and abroad.
In 2016, a case of collective rape shocked the country and led Sabrina into a new experience of cyberactivism. A 16-year old girl was raped by a group of 33 men in Rio de Janeiro, which sparked strong reactions in Brazilian society, showing that violence against women is still a controversial issue in the country. While women organized protests and strengthened their activism, many comments on social media were blaming the victim for the crime, pointing at her behaviour, lifestyle and clothes as probable “causes” to what had been done to her. Reacting to these opinions Sabrina decided to tell her own story of sexual abuse using the hashtag #eusousobrevivente (I am a survivor). Her goal was to encourage other women to come forward and tell their stories of abuse to help reverse this tendency of victim blaming and shaming. In her post, that was shared more than 50.000 times in three days, she also highlighted how black women receive worse treatment from authorities when they come forward. Since then, Sabrina received daily reports from women worldwide that had been victims of sexual abuse through social media.
Sabrina in the recording of the documentary #eusousobrevivente about her trajectory as an activist _personal archive Maiara de Paula
As observed by Manuel Castells (2015), cyber activists build strong networks with different groups in society through the free public space of the Internet, creating a space to share their stories and challenge the status quo:
By sharing sorrow and hope in the free public space of the internet, by connecting to each other, and by envisioning projects from multiple sources of being, individuals formed networks, regardless of their personal views or organisation attachments. They came together, and their togetherness helped them to overcome their fear, this paralyzing emotion on which the powers that be rely in order to prosper and reproduce, by intimidation or discouragement, and when necessary by sheer violence, be it naked or institutionally reinforced. (Castells, Networks of Outrage and Hope, p.2)
Thus, Sabrina and her hashtag have been important in helping women from different places in a huge country like Brazil to overcome their fears of speaking openly about their cases of abuse. In a country where victim shaming is common, giving visibility to a huge number of abuse stories and creating a sense of togetherness (under a common tag, as was also done by the #metoo movement), can encourage women to speak up and have an important role in changing people’s perceptions about violence against women.
Sabrina on a trip to Berlin to meet Brazilian feminist journalist Nina Lemos._personal archive Sabrina Bittencourt
Sabrina became such a central figure during the collective-rape case in 2016 that when in August 2018 a story involving a spiritual leader, Sri Prem Baba, broke the news, Sabrina was approached by several women that declared being abused by him. Working on the Prem Baba case, she then started receiving messages regarding another famous leader, João de Deus.
In this short period, Sabrina has built a complex network of alliances that allowed her to take these two cases forward, leading to the arrest of these powerful male figures while protecting the victims. She learned how to work with the media and became a source for independent journalists and activists, while also strengthening ties with local NGOs fighting women abuse. She founded Combate ao Abuso no Meio Espiritual (Coame), an organisation that fights against sexual crimes performed by spiritual leaders and received awards for her accomplishments, increasing visibility of cyberactivists and women’s rights.
In an interview for the Brazilian magazine Carta Capital, Sabrina explained how she worked in these cases:
Sabrina’s explanation brings important insights on how building trustful networks can be used to help fight violence against women in cases where powerful leaders are involved. But as we can already notice from her comment, her actions go beyond sustaining a trustful online network: she also connects her cyberactivism to authorities “on the ground” and learned how to navigate the legal system, becoming a source and working closely with the Public Ministry.
Sabrina receiving an award at the fem.talent forum in Barcelona for her actions to promote gender equality _personal archive Sabrina Bittencourt
Activists have thus approached the issue of women violence from different angles. For instance, Mapa do Acolhimento, works as a platform to connect victims of sexual abuse to therapy and legal services, since the state has not been able to provide the safe conditions for this to happen systematically. At the same time, Sabrina’s work in these “big cases” and the hashtag “Eu sou sobrevivente” have helped increase visibility for the cause and show how under-reported these crimes are. But her work in connecting victims, the media and the judiciary system also shows that online networks can be even stronger and more efficient when well aligned with actors on the ground.
On the other hand, increasing visibility and strengthening networks for activists is becoming even more important now that Brazil’s recently elected extreme right-wing president has made several statements against women and minorities. Like Sabrina, other activists have left the country due to death threats: the activist Debora Diniz, due to her fight to legalize abortion in Brazil and Jean Wyllys,
Brazilian Lawmaker Jean Wyllys at the Human Rights Commission_creative commons
an LGBT advocate and openly gay congressman, has decided not to start his third term and leave the country. The general feeling of lack of safety does not go unfounded: last year, the Human Rights advocate and council member Marielle Franco was shot and killed while returning from an event focused on empowering young black women.
Piece by Alice Kasznar, Maiara de Paula and Luiza Paiva
By the time we finished writing this article, we received the news that Sabrina Bittencourt had committed suicide. One of the last places she visited was Barcelona with the mission to build a network to protect to Brazilian people in exile. She left a letter mentioning her history of being sexually abused, commenting on the current state of women’s rights in Bolsonaro’s government, while also reinforcing Marielle’s importance and how they would meet again now. More information on that is still being released by the press.
In January 2017, upon the inauguration of Donald Trump, a petition to the British Parliament reached over 1,8 million signatures, asking for the prevention of the 45th President of the United States to the United Kingdom. A few weeks later, after debating the petition in Parliament, the Government responded that it “believes the President of the United States should be extended the full courtesy of a State Visit. We look forward to welcoming President Trump once dates and arrangements are finalised.”
The Trump Baby (a 6 meter tall helium filled inflatable baby with ‘a malevolent face and tiny hands’) was crowdfunded and much controversy about its flights ensued.
On Friday 12 June 2018, 250,000 people took to the streets of London. We were among them, joining the protest in Oxford Circus and marching, singing, moving and clapping all the way to Trafalgar Square. This was a densely visual protest event.
It was fantastic to see such a diversity of signs – both their in their content and form – critiquing Trump in irreverent, angry, loving, satirical, hopeful, reflexive, dismissive, fantastically rude and even typically polite ‘British’ ways. This wide spectrum of tone and sentiment was perhaps indicative of why Trump, despite being a figurehead that stands largely outside the population’s influence, still brought so many thousands of people to the street.
photo by Eleftheria Lekakis
Though unsurprisingly largely ‘left’-leaning, in many ways it felt like all kinds of notes from the political / cultural register came together in the visual protests, in ways rarely seen in response to more domestic issues.
photo by Eleftheria Lekakis
It is difficult to think of another protest where the Queen was somewhat perplexingly invoked as a point of symbolic dissidence (‘The Queen does not approve your policies’) alongside dinosaurs, China, tiny hands, planet earths, hearts, gas masks, babies (both orange and caged), Handmaids (with Trump depicted as Handmaid Ofputin standing out), RuPaul and representations of refugees.
photo by Eleftheria Lekakis
photo by Eleftheria Lekakis
photo by Eleftheria Lekakis
photo by Tanya Kant
The heterogeneity of the visual protest could perhaps be critiqued as a little incoherent and even superficial – seemingly legitimising criticisms that anti-Trump protesters oversimplify and overlook many of the UK’s own policies that don’t just echo but pre-exist and actively reinforce the racism, fascism, anti-immigration, misogyny and regressive environmental policies being protested as problems optimised in Trump.
photo by Tanya Kant
In this sense the rally’s speakers helped to confront the hard questions that were somewhat inevitably diluted in the protest’s fantastic visual diversity. The speakers, once again very eclectic in their stances and topics, helped to reinforce the value of resisting Trump as an international figurehead whilst highlighting the just as alarming domestic, historical, institutional and systemic parallels closer to home.
The Carnival of Protest might be over but the fight against Trumpism (hard-selling hard-shelled economic and racial supremacy disguised as patriotic populism) around the world continues.
Art activism has been written about. A lot. Politics and art are a good match, and events, exhibitions and publications that address the artistic and the political have been en vogue for a while now. So why keep writing about this stuff? There are a few straightforward reasons: new practices emerging, new contexts, new social movements, new technologies. These all call us to reflect on the relationship between art and politics in new ways, and to consider the potential of practices like art activism in light of the big challenges of our times. But when we approach art activism as researchers, there is an additional question that drives new work: what theoretical and methodological tools can we apply to the understanding of long-standing and new art activist practices? This is a question that is at the centre of much of my work.
In the past, art activism (and the relationship between art and politics more broadly) has been approached from a number of perspectives, from art history and art theory (e.g. Bishop 2012; Stallabrass 2004) to philosophy (e.g. Holmes 2009; Mouffe 2007; Rancière 2004, 2010), sociology (e.g. Tucker 2010) and anthropology (e.g. Haugerud 2013). These disciplinary perspectives determine the methodologies used (be that media analysis, visual analysis, historical perspectives, ethnography, or theoretical approaches), as well as informing the research questions and focus of the work. While some have focused on the political nature of art (hooks 1995; Lippard 1984) and the tactical aspects of art activism (Bogad 2016), others have looked at its place in the wider web of a neoliberal art world (Sholette 2010, 2017), have used art activism as a lens to examine the cultural politics of different eras (Reed 2005), have questioned the legitimacy of art activism as art (Jelinek 2013), and reflected on the importance of art for the sustainability of movements (Shepard 2011).
Being an interdisciplinary researcher that stands somewhere in between the arts and humanities and the social sciences, I have always approached the subject from an interdisciplinary stance. However, this is not just an outcome of my position, given that art activism can indeed be understood as a hybrid practice combining codes, objectives and processes from artistic practice and from activism. It therefore makes sense to try to look at art activist practice as both these things, employing the concepts and tools that relevant disciplines make available to us. In the case of art activism (and specifically of contemporary practices in the UK, which was my field of study for seven years), it was necessary to create a framework that borrows from social movement studies so as to situate art activism within wider organisational processes; from art theory so as to consider these events not only as political but also as moments of collective creativity and expression; and from performance studies, acknowledging that so much of contemporary art activist practice is performance-based.
High Tide performance by Liberate Tate at Tate Modern (2015). Image by the author
In Performance Action, a book that is the result of ethnographic, participatory research informed by an interdisciplinary framework as outlined above, I set out to investigate two issues. First, the relationship between aesthetics and politics as experienced and understood by art activists themselves (in relation to, but also beyond, any theoretical debates on the subject). And second, how these experiences and understandings of that relationship (one that I argue is defined by being in constant tension) shape the different aspects of art activist practice, from the development of collective identities to the planning and staging of performance actions and the relationship between art activists and cultural institutions. These questions aim at a better understanding of the politics of art activism, rather than its objectives or outcomes.
Intervention at the British Museum by activist theatre group BP or not BP? to highlight the controversies surrounding BP’s sponsorship of the Indigenous Australia exhibition (2015). Image by the author
The task of generating new frameworks and approaches to understanding the relationship between art and politics is never ending. As the political landscape and socioeconomic conditions of our world change, art activism reinvents itself. As the demands, structures, identity politics and language of social movements transform, art activism responds with new aesthetics, reworked narratives, and recuperated or original ways of intervening in the public space. Beyond the theoretical works on art and politics that we will continue to reference for a long time, new theoretical approaches that combine previously isolated perspectives, and contextualised studies with contextualised frameworks, are both key in moving forward our thinking on art activism.
Paula Serafini is a Research Associate at CAMEo Research Institute for Cultural and Media Economies, University of Leicester. Her work is concerned with the relationship between aesthetics and politics, particularly in relation to contemporary cultural practices and institutions and environmental and social justice movements. Her publications include the book Performance Action: The Politics of Art Activism (Routledge, 2018) and the edited collection artWORK: Art, Labour and Activism, co-edited with Alberto Cossu and Jessica Holtaway (Rowman & Littlefield International, 2018).