Bêbada de glória
Para o mundo sou o indecente
Cavaleira apocalíptica, ao meu lado
Só trava eloquente¹
Experimenting with sound, painting, performance, photography, fashion, digital media and more, in the past decade travesti artists have been at the forefront of aesthetic innovations in Brazil. The travesti unstoppable force is felt not only in the arts, but also in other fields – such as education, politics or the mainstream media. It is worth mentioning, for instance, how Linn da Quebrada, an artist who started challenging patriarchy and machismo with her funk music and performances from the favelas of São Paulo, has risen to popular fame after her participation at the 2022 Big Brother Brazil. Talking about her works, and those of other travesti artists, as “fine art” is for me an essential move to decolonise the canon that has until present excluded non-white arts because of their formal execution or “unconventional” spaces of fruition.
Raised in a Baptist family in the Northeast of Brazil, Ventura Profana thinks of her practice as a church where its congregation refuses salvation in the form of cisgenderism or white supremacy.² In a country where the rising violence against LGBT people has been fuelled by religious fundamentalism, Ventura Profana’s practice reclaims the spiritual place of travestis, Black, Indigenous and other non-hegemonic subjects. With her unapologetically voluptuous body, the artist interprets biblical texts and religious visual references by preaching abundance and eternal life for a population whose average life expectancy is 35.³
Ventura Profana e podeserdesligado, EU NÃO VOU MORRER [I WILL NOT DIE], 2020
Brazil is known for being the country with the highest number of transgender people being murdered around the world – the great majority being travestis and trans women of colour.⁴ But, as Ateliê TRANSmoras reminded us when they took back the colours of the Brazilian flag in their 2019 runway Brazil, World Champion of Travestis, travestis are also the driving force of the country in terms of creativity and social change. Ateliê TRANSmoras itself, established by Vicenta Perrotta in 2013 in the student halls of Unicamp (Campinas), is a platform that has pioneered a technology of social transformation led by, and for, trans people. With her “textile transmutation” workshops, Perrotta and her associates have been empowering transgender designers across the country to create dazzling garments with discarded materials. By turning trash into wearable artworks, Ateliê TRANSmoras makes an important parallel with the perception that society has of travestis and trans people by reclaiming the notion of rejection through creative processes of self-exploration and deconstruction of the cis-hetero-white colonial beauty standards.
Ateliê TRANSmoras, Brasil, Campeão Mundial de Travestis [Brazil, World Champion of Travestis], 2019. Photo by Tatá Guarino.
The term “travesti” in Brazil is often used alongside “trans”, “transexual” or “trans woman”. However, most of the times the community prefers to use “travesti” because of its specifically classed and racialised history of social exclusion in Latin America, alongside its refusal of the dominant expectations of “womanhood”.⁵ Therefore, the use of “travesti” instead of the umbrella-term “queer” (or even “trans/transgender”)⁶ serves as an anti-colonial move to reclaim the fights of a discrete type of gender dissidence within a Southern context. ⁷
As a transfeminist curator from Southern Europe who works transnationally, I have been following the practice of artists who challenge gender and sexual norms for over a decade.⁸ My place of speech is one of relative privilege, because the context I come from and the way I present has never brought me to directly be subjected to transphobia, racism, fatphobia or poverty.⁹ However, as a self-identified queer and femme person,¹⁰ my affects and political struggles have been deeply intertwined with those of the travesti and trans women communities, learning incessantly from their rich practice and theorising.
“We are unrepresentable”, taught me Ana Giselle A TRANSÄLIEN when we first met. A TRANSÄLIEN is an artist, curator and activist who also founded MARSHA!, a trans and travesti sociocultural collective. Through her work and mysterious presence – covered in masks, head pieces and glistening gowns – the artist aims to dismantle all the categories that have been imposed onto her, thus exercising her right to opacity.¹¹ A living and walking work of art, her cosmovision passes through the use of the mask and the masquerade to access deeper states of consciousness. In her interactive installation COSMOVERSE (2022), for instance, the public enters a meditative Afrofuturist space wearing sparkling multi-coloured robes. In here, they can rest and contemplate a video installation with soundscape.¹²
A TRANSÄLIEN, COSMOVERSE, 2022 (the artist posing in her installation). Photo by Silvana Garzaro.
Another kind of contemplative dimension materialises in Vulcanica Pokaropa’s altar To Have Visions in the Fire (2022): in the centre, the painting of a Black woman with a transfeminist emblem is crowned by two blue-dressed Black angels; all-around, paintings of trans and non-binary saints or celestial creatures hang on the walls and pose with devilish looks. Herbs, candles and travesti saint dolls with long curled hair complete the work with their red eyes, razor blades and slogans like “travesti is not chaos”.¹³ Being trained in circus and street performance, Pokaropa has recently expanded her post-punk aesthetics across various media, including painting, textile, video and Virtual Reality.¹⁴ In her altar, the artist blurs the boundaries between good and evil by showing the martyrdom and ascension of travestis as implacable saints who are embracing a guerrilla against cis-white-hetero-patriarchy and those who represent it.
Vulcanica Pokaropa, Para ter visões no fogo [To Have Visions in the Fire], 2022. Photo by Ricardo Miyada.
Bruna Kury also explores the travesti rage with videos and performances that speak of, and counteract, social, racial and gender hygienism. In Gentrification of Affects (2021), the artist walks with high heels and underwear in Largo do Arouche – a location of historical significance for the São Paulo LGBT communities – her head enclosed in a transparent box with cockroaches. Coming from the post-porn practices of public space occupation,¹⁵ Kury invites the passers-by to penetrate the cube with a pair of pink gloves whilst the sound produced during the encounter (and the insects’ crawling) is amplified with contact microphones. Through this visual and sensorial metaphor, created with Gil Porto Pyrata´s sound collaboration, the artist raises contrasting feelings of repulsion and attraction that reflect on how travestis, trans women and sex workers are perceived in society – simultaneously rejected and desired.¹⁶
Bruna Kury, Gentrificação dos Afetos [Gentrification of Affects], 2021. Photo by André Medeiros Martins.
Besides gender and sexuality being important topics in travesti artistic production, it would be a mistake to consider them as its unique interpretative framework. As I described via the work of five artists, travesti aesthetics is revolutionary because it crushes categories and expectations. It is uncompromising and untameable – like a virus “that contaminates your ideas”, as Linn da Quebrada sings.¹⁷ With this text my aim was not to represent a movement that, to use an image by Jota Mombaça, is made of people and practices that are as multiple, erratic and undefined as the shattering of a glass exploding in thousands of shards.¹⁸ Yet, I attempted to follow some of the spiralling leaps of this erupting current, which is fuelled by the pains and the joys of its collective force. ¹⁹
¹ Translated: “Resplendant / Drunk with glory / For the world I am the indecent / Apocalyptic knightess, by my side / Only eloquent trava.” From: Ventura Profana, RESPLANDESCENTE – Ventura Profana – podeserdesligado, 2019. www.youtube.com/watch?v=vUTLYimT6n8. In this text I decided not to translate “trava” and “travesti” because of their cultural specificity. All translations are mine.
² Cisgenderism is a cultural systemic ideology that denies and pathologises gender identities (and its forms of expression) that do not coincide with the gender assigned at birth. See: Erica Lennon, Brian J. Mistler. “Cisgenderism”. TSQ, vol. 1, n. 1-2, 2014. pp. 63-64 . doi.org/10.1215/23289252-2399623.
³ For detailed statistics, see: Bruna Benevides. Dossiê: Assassinatos e violências contra travestis e transexuais brasileiras em 2021. Antra (Associação Nacional de Travestis e Transexuais), 2022, p. 41. antrabrasil.files.wordpress.com/2022/01/dossieantra2022-web.pdf.
⁴ Id. Ibid., pp. 30, 50.
⁵ See: Dora Silva Santana. “Mais Viva! Reassembling Transness, Blackness, and Feminism”, TSQ, vol. 6, n. 2, pp. 210-222 , 2019. www.academia.edu/39506140/Mais_Viva_Reassembling_Transness_Blackness_and_Feminism_DO_RA_SILVA_SA_NTA_NA
⁶ Both “queer” and “trans/transgender” share a critique to gender and sexual normativity. “Queer” has been tought as an all-encompassing term that theoretically resists identifications whilst indexing communities marked with gender and sexual dissidence. “Trans/transgender” has placed a more explicit focus on embodiment whilst referencing communities of people who cross and denaturalise gender and identity categories. See: Heather Love. “Queer”. TSQ, vol. 1, n. 1-2, 2014. pp. 172–176. doi.org/10.1215/23289252-2399938.
⁷ For example, recent studies have resurfaced the history of Xica Manicongo, an enslaved African who is now considered one of the first travestis of Brazil, who was persecuted in the 16th century for wearing women’s clothes. See: Jaqueline Gomes de Jesus. “Xica Manicongo: A transgeneridade toma a palavra”, Revista Docência e Cibercultura, vol. 3, n.1, 2019. pp. 250-260. doi.org/10.12957/redoc.2019.41817.
⁸ Transfeminism surges as a critique of trans exclusionary feminism to recognise “the intersection of the subjects’ various identities and identifications and the oppression of bodies that do not conform to society’s racist and sexist ideals; it therefore seeks to empower the bodies of people as they are (including trans people)…”. In: Jaqueline Gomes de Jesus, and Hailey Alves. “Feminismo transgênero e movimentos de mulheres transexuais”. Revista Cronos, vol. 11, n. 2, 2012. periodicos.ufrn.br/cronos/article/view/2150.
⁹ The “place of speech” [“lugar de fala”] is a concept coined in Brazil that Black feminist author Djamila Ribeiro has described as the possibility of existing and producing knowledge from the ‘social locus’ a person occupies, rather than from their individual experience. Djamila Ribeiro, Lugar de fala. Jandaíra: São Paulo, 2021, pp. 64-67.
¹⁰ The term “femme” comes from the pre-Stonewall Anglo-American jargon, which paired feminine lesbians (i.e. “femme”) to the more masculine ones (i.e. “butch”). Today, the term is not bound to this binary, and femmes do not necessarily identify as lesbians, or as women. Femmes could be described as people who challenge femininity, the male gaze, and the expectations tied to womanhood whilst observing a “feminine” aesthetic expression. See: Ulrika Dahl. ”Femme on Femme: Reflections on Collaborative Methods and Queer Femme-inist Ethnography”. In: Catherine J. Nash and Kath Browne, Queer Methods and Methodologies, 2010, pp. 143-166. www.taylorfrancis.com/chapters/oa-edit/10.4324/9781315603223-10/femme-femme-ulrika-dahl
¹¹ “Opacity” recognises difference by accepting its unintelligibility. It is defined by Édouard Glissant as the opposite of “transparency”, which is the basis of Western thought to understand people and ideas. See: Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, The University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor, 1997 , pp. 189-190.
¹² The installation was commissioned by Itaú Cultural for the exhibition Um século de agora (November 2022- April 2023, Instituto Itaú Cultural, São Paulo).
¹³ The installation was chosen as part of the 8º Prêmio Artes Tomie Ohtake – Edição Mulheres (November 2022 – February 2023, Instituto Tomie Ohtake, São Paulo).
¹⁴ Her collaborative VR work can be accessed at: Spcine, Experiências Imersivas no Território da Realidade Virtual – Cólera, com Vulcanica Pokaropa. www.youtube.com/watch?v=PL1D4Rc11D8.
¹⁵ Post-porn aims ‘to deconstruct (or at least confront) the prevailing pornographic and sexual imaginary, starting from the representation of historically marginalised bodies, genders and sexual practices, together with the refusal of the traditional discourses, aesthetics and narratives of commercial, heterosexually-oriented pornography’. Érica Sarmet, “Pós-pornô, dissidência sexual e a situación cuir latino-americana: pontos de partida para o debate”, Revista Periódicus, vol. 1, n.1, p. 258–276. doi.org/10.9771/peri.v1i1.10175.
¹⁶ Following PornHub’s 2022 report, Brazil is the country that most consumes ‘transgender’ pornography in the world. See: PornHub Insights, “The 2022 Year in Review”, 8 December 2022.
¹⁷ Original: ‘… um vírus que contamina suas ideias’. Linn da Quebrada, “quem soul eu”. In: Trava Línguas, 2021. linndaquebrada.bandcamp.com/album/trava-l-nguas.
¹⁸ Jota Mombaça. “Na quebra. Juntas”. In: Jota Mombaça, Não vão nos matar agora. Cobogó: Rio de Janeiro, 2021, p. 24.
¹⁹ I would like to thank Ventura Profana, Vicenta Perrotta, Ana Giselle A TRANSÄLIEN, Vulcanica Pokaropa and Bruna Kury, who took their time to share their artistic practice with me during my residency at the Fundação Bienal de São Paulo (November 2022 – January 2023). A special thanks to Ana Giselle for reading my final draft.
About the author
Giulia Casalini´s practice spans across curating, performance, writing and research. Her (eco)transfeminist and queer activism has the scope of building and bridging communities across the globe through the arts and (nature)cultures. Giulia has been the co-founder of the non-profit arts organisation Arts Feminism Queer (aka CUNTemporary, 2012-2020), based in London. She now sits on the advisory board of Mimosa House gallery and she is a Technē-funded PhD candidate at the University of Roehampton, researching queer-feminist performance art from transnational and anti-colonial perspectives.