Catherine Rogers, Alliance partner Creative Leicestershire Manager and also Junction Arts Chair and Advantage Creative Associate, writes about her first day on a recent British Council funded partnership development visit to Brazil.

Junction Arts and Advantage Creative recently successfully applied for a British Council Scoping Grant from the DICE(Developing Inclusive and Creative Economies) Fund for intermediary organisations supporting the development of creative and social enterprises. The Fund focuses on enterprises that empower women and girls; foster youth employment; and promote disabled people’s and other marginalised groups’ inclusion and economic empowerment. I travelled to Brazil to seek out partner organisations to collaborate with.

Part 1

I was last in the country in May and before that, two years ago in November 2016, just before the local elections which brought a new right-wing mayor to the city. This visit I’m arriving two days after the national election which has seen the ultra-right wing, ex-military leader elected, after a poisonous pre-election campaign and his words of destruction and hate.

I know the people I’ll be with for the next week are feeling heart broken, scared and insecure about what the next year will bring. It’s a strange time to be visiting Brazil to engage in an enthusiasm for developing their creative economy – but this intervention is needed more than ever.

I’m off straight away to Santos with two video makers, Gabriela and Tobias of Bela Baderna, friends of the director Georgia whom I have met only by email and WhatsApp. When I arrive at the Procomum Institute, what a place it is! My visit falls on a big day for them, with the final performance that evening of one of the resident artists, Val Souza.

I get a tour and history of the building from the charming journalist and Communications Officer, Victor Sousa. He tells me the directors rent the amazing 1500 square metre building along with its garden, indoor and outdoor performance spaces, artist studios, kitchen, office and bedrooms for the resident artists, at a peppercorn rate from the family who built it with church money in the 1920s to provide food through a soup kitchen to the local people.

When the directors explained their idea of what they wanted to do with the building, which was about community exchange and a different way of conducting a supporting, but more transactional, relationship with the local community, the family who were struggling to maintain it financially were happy to make them a deal.

Getting a better understanding and a sense of place feels equally as important as getting to know people in a new project. The world is in crisis and projects like this have the potential to raise awareness and a sense of urgency.

Our potential UK partnership includes organisations which work with different business models across a variety of art forms and with diverse groups of people, so this is an interesting opportunity to come together responsively and experiment with ideas with a partner on the other side of the world, working out how we can use creativity to support inclusion and economic empowerment.

There are many things Procomum want to change – how a creative economy works is only one. Their mission consists of working towards recognising, empowering and protecting ‘the commons’. The sign at the bottom of the stairs says: There is no commons without commoning. My task over my time here is to work out what all this really means in translation.

Part 2

The place is full of colour (a wooden yellow frog with a plant growing out of its back greets you on the stair), inspirational quotes are stencilled onto the ceilings and walls and many of the original features, including beautiful wooden period furniture, fill the building.

All around music belts out and everyone goes about their business often humming along. The resident dog is yapping excitedly every now and again as if he wants to join in any conversation that is happening. A large dining hall makes a perfect place for performance with floor of black and white linoleum and ancient ceiling lights hanging precariously overheard. It is like an old school canteen and the mauve, blue and pink wooden chairs contribute to the ‘school-like’ feel.

On the wall is an incredible picture of a performance of one the previous artists in residence – he is dancing, captured leaping in the air with a broad smile on his face as the stunned audience look on. Upstairs in the office there is one long table with plug-in points that are not yet in use, and all the floors upstairs have beautiful parquet tiles, again an original feature. The room off from the office is a hang-out space and there is a smaller office for people if they need a private space.

Outside, the garden is open for people to come and explore. Permaculture is an important aspect here and a garden full of medicinal plants provides a point of exchange for the local community. The plants that grow are interesting too. One is the indigenous Taioba which has a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ variety. The good one being highly nutritious and the bad being deadly. I ponder the makings of a short story with Taioba as the good and bad spirit. In addition to the large communal spaces are smaller spaces housing a library, a hacker lab, a ‘care’ space where a dentist teaches the local people about oral hygiene and provides an occasional free surgery also.

I ask about the design on the floor tiles on the paths inside the complex and outside on the street, everywhere in fact. I am told this is a famous ‘Caiçara’ design, from the people and culture that exist in the coastal region of Sao Paulo. They have an accent closer to that of Rio rather than a Paulista because of the proximity to the coast and trading history. The coast is important here: the skills of fishermen are used to create woven seats on the top of crates, which also cover the outside of the building. One of the projects is called MARAL which is the wind that blows from the ocean to the mainland stirring the water.

Every time I come to Brazil, I am humbled by how intelligent, generous, thoughtful and strong are the people I meet. Working at Procomum is demanding: two of the directors have families and one is also writing his PhD! Together the team are running many programmes and Victor gives me a whistle-stop tour of some of them, as well as presenting me with two beautifully produced small books documenting and laying out their methodology for others to share. I am already thinking that this is something we may be able to do together if we make a successful application!

The evening event has been curated by the artist Val Souza. Her performance is an audio voice recording of a speech she has made as a result of her work here. During her residency she explored issues affecting the city of Santos and promoted actions that allow black lives to be recognised as human. She also sought dialogue on commonalities and differences to further an understanding that difference does not put us as opposites. As a black woman her attention and focus was on women and during her speech she asks ‘What do you see when you see a black woman?’

The performance took place in the small chapel space, the only room the Institute has been asked not to change. All the religious icons have white covers over them; there is an audio visual film showing moments in the artist’s life; and candles are everywhere.

The atmosphere is of a religious ceremony but it is not that. I listen to it in Portuguese and stop letting my mind try to translate the words (which, with my limited Portuguese, I know will be impossible) and so I listen instead to the emotions that tell her story.

As my first day comes to an end with this amazing piece of work, I am reminded of Procomum’s values as they are listed on the website as a place for our conversation to now begin:

Caring; Cooperation; Free Knowledge; Civic Innovation; Diversity of gender and race; Territorial decentralisation; Joy and affection; Telling our stories.

 Watch out for Part 3 coming shortly…