Dr. Aarti Madan of the Worcester Polytechnic Institute shares her research on the artwork of Brazilian graffiti writer Panmela Castro for a Women’s Studies Colloquium.
PROVO, Utah (Nov. 17, 2016)—Through her graffiti, Panmela Castro spreads a message of liberation and freedom for all women, but especially Brazilian women. Her work has been strongly inspired by the 2006 Maria da Penha Law on Domestic and Family Violence, which increases penalties for those who practice domestic violence.
“This legislation was Panmela’s “ah ha” moment,” said Aarti Madan, an assistant professor from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute. “By virtue of its very accessibility to all sectors, literate or not, graffiti could be the medium to broadcast this hugely important victory for female empowerment: Brazilian women could no longer be beaten with impunity.”
Feminist graffiti activism started in Rio around 2001. The leader was Priema Donna, who founded the first all-female graffiti crew – Transgressão para Mulheres – which translates to “Transgression for Women.” This group was active from 2003-2007 and was an inspiration for Panmela Castro and other female graffiti writers. In interviewsCastro has said the main objective of her art is “to change what it means to be a woman in the world.”
One artwork that shows Castro’s aims is Eu não suo sua Jabulani (I Am Not Your Jabulani) created in Johannesburg, South Africa for the 2010 Fifa World Cup. The image is of a dark skinned woman with the colors of the Jabulani soccer ball – specially designed for that year’s world cup – displayed in her face and hair. The message is one of empowerment, Madan explained. “I’m not to be kicked and punted like your soccer ball.”
When Madan interviewed Panmela Castro during the Rio Olympics, she asked Castro if she considers her artwork to be racially driven. Madan explained that most of Castro’s work is driven by gender identity rather than race. However, when asked how she self-identified, Castro gave a detailed answer. “She used to say that she was white, she didn’t know her father, and then she learned that her father was black and began to self-identify as black.”
Castro’s change in racial self-identification marked a new direction in her artwork, Madan believes. Rather than the long, flowing blonde locks of her earlier pieces, more of her subjects feature cabelo crespo, kinky hair. “The notion of good hair versus bad hair, cabelo crespo, has plagued the Caribbean nations and Brazil in particular,” explained Madan. Castro herself cut off her own long, blonde hair in a performance piece called Ruptura in 2015.
Now a main focus of Castro’s art is to empower other Afro-Brazilian women through their own artistic expression using social media and the graffiti workshop #AfroGrafiteiras. They also set up a live-feed Twittercam inside the AfroGrafiteiras art studio so that young women could go online and see what Castro and other black, female graffiti artists are working on. “The program is predicated on the notion of accessibility,” said Madan. “Young women from all over the country can have access to the workshop.”
Madan explained that AfroGrafiteiras hope to provide young black women with a place in a society where their color and gender is synonymous with placelessness. “By blackening the streets of Rio with their bodies, AfroGrafiteiras performs a gendered strategy to denounce the polis as a white gendered formation,” she said. “The program is feminist, yes but it goes beyond to a universal appeal to humanity, rights, and justice.”
Castro and the other AfroGrafiteiras hope to provide “strength, solidarity and success” to the women of Brazil through their empowering messages. Madan concluded by quoting feminist writer bell hooks. “As bell hooks reminds us, ‘the function of art is to do more than tell it like it is, it is to imagine what is possible.’”
—Hannah Sandorf (B.A. Art History and Curatorial Studies ’17)
Hannah covers events for the Women’s Studies Department for the College of Humanities. She is pursuing a degree in art history with a minor in art.
Image of Panmela Castro courtesy of Role Urbano on Flickr