I got a manicure
In 2012, I was invited by an institution in São Paulo, the SESC, to organize an edition of Eternal Tour, an artistic and scientific nomadic festival that was created in 2008 and continuously updated and modified in Europe, the Middle East and the Americas, revolving around the issue of cosmopolitanism in the 21st Century. Slavery, post-colonialism, racism and creolization were the keywords and the focal points of the Brazilian edition of the Eternal Tour Festival, involving more than 50 local and international collaborators. For the first time in my life, I had a personal assistant, Giorgio. Eternal Tour was a success: both professionally and emotionally. In the middle of the 10-day program, as the director of the event, I got invited to attend a party taking place at the home of the São Paulo Biennale’s director on Monday September 3rd. That day, after having listened with great interest to a lecture by Denise, an Afro-Brazilian philosopher and ethics professor in London whom I had invited as a specialist of past and contemporary Brazilian slavery, I had to quickly change clothes and hop into a taxi to reach the famous gated community Alphaville. I had been advised by the woman introducing me to this social event to wear the most elegant clothes I could find.
Once in the São Paulo Biennale director’s villa, I understood that there is a point where you can’t cheat or pretend anymore. Either you are wearing a $10’000 dress with the right haircut and manicure, or you are not, and you are nothing. As I was told “Donatella, look, here you have the director of MoMA, New York, here you have the director of the Tate, London”, I observed the white bodies of the sometimes annoyed “women of”. The only black-skinned people were the cooks, servants and DJ. We were standing on a wooden floor like removable parquet, mounted on a swimming pool surface to gather and contain this dense and important crowd. From this platform, I was looking at the inside of the house. The vast and elegant bay window let me see into the gigantic living room where a crowd of chic white people dressed in elegant black suits mingled. One thought came to my mind: “Let’s bomb this place, right now.” As I was reflecting on my visceral and pubescent desire and tears were welling up in my eyes, there, from the undifferentiated talking mass appeared the highly respected Danilo, director of the SESC, a former Jesuit and a great intellectual, who has been managing the only functioning cultural entity in São Paulo for the last twenty years, the host institution for Eternal Tour. He was happy to see me. Everything made sense for five seconds. Basically, I had succeeded in my mission. As the person responsible for the project he had invited, produced and promoted as his parallel event to the São Paulo Biennale, I was present and visible at the most exclusive party of the week. I gave him a hug and reached the villa’s interior. While standing in front of some paintings decorating the walls, I was introduced to a very famous Brazilian artist whose existence I was totally unaware of until then, and whose name I promptly forgot. A fat art critic was staring at me. Eating a snack, he then sputteringly tried to explain to me the importance of this very famous Brazilian artist. Almost in a panic, I asked the person who brought me here to call a cab. The following day some artists and scientists of the Eternal Tour crew asked me about this glamorous social gathering. Of course they could not understand why I had absconded this privileged setting and even less why it led me to spend an awful guilt-ridden night. Envy was recognizable on certain faces. I did not honor my experience, and I had even betrayed the person who granted me access to the famous Alphaville house and its guests.
Once the festival finished, they all went home or continued their journey after having shared their enthusiasm. Giorgio and I had planned to go to Salvador da Bahia before returning to Europe. I had stayed for six weeks in a hotel room at the top of a tower in São Paulo’s historical center; São Paulo, a “white” polluted town in Brazil, tremendously developed by Italian immigrants at the beginning of the 20th century and culminating in a concrete tropical forest of incredible skyscrapers thanks to the car industry of the fifties. Landing in Salvador da Bahia after a two and an half hour flight meant suddenly seeing the sea for real and understanding something about Brazil: this was the sea and the beach where the Middle Passage journey finally ended for thousands of Africans who were to start their new lives as slaves in the New World. Nowadays, one can observe mostly Afro-Brazilians on the beach and some white-skinned tourists who might get a massage by young locals, and more if such is their desire. The downtown itself was partially renovated and historicized. Far from São Paulo modernism, Salvador da Bahia maintains a baroque and remote colonial quality. We arrived on September 7th, late at night. The next day, we found some documentation about the “Semana da Diversidade Sexual” at the Tourist Information Center. We had busy days visiting museums, historical places, and interviewing a university researcher and expert in affirmative action. Some free hours were left on Sunday night September 9th 2012 to go to one of the “Semana da Diversidade Sexual” activities. The “Beco dos artistas” (artists’ alley) intrigued us enough to draw us up the hill, crossing an area dominating the sea view with luxury buildings and the associated security barriers and guards. We then reached a square where we saw coming from afar what could be called a street parade or gay pride. People were dancing in the street, some on huge decorated trucks with extremely loud and joyful music. We had to go on for several hundred meters more down the boulevard that the street parade was occupying. The crowd became denser. It was even harder to move at some points. People were young, between sixteen and forty years old, some of them drunk and very excited. Some of these people were walking as groups, moving forward as a line, holding onto each other and singing. Eventually I had to climb a low wall to continue. I could not climb it by myself. People took hold of me from either side and lifted me up.
The feeling of being carried by unknown arms holding me suddenly in the air was as much frightening as it was liberating. Once again in the middle of this agitated crowd, we had to continue. There were no tourists or foreigners. I was following Giorgio by keeping sight of his hair. Losing him would probably mean dying: I had no idea how to get back to the hostel or to survive without his presence. I felt a hand fast approaching my neck. I was quicker. I strongly held on to the two little pendants bound by a thin golden chain. I locked them both in my right fist. I looked at the guy that was trying to steal from me straight in the eyes. As he was passing me by, he forcefully tried to tear off my golden chain a second time. It broke but I still have it today, somewhere on a shelf in my office in Stockholm. Giorgio decided to get out of the main street in order to avoid the dense crowd and we found ourselves in a small parallel street where someone was pissing against the wall while two policemen arrested someone else. After a while, we reached a bigger avenue that looked like a beltway. We were the only pedestrians. We crossed the beltway. I was as light as a child as we ran across the asphalt. Giorgio was searching for our way on his IPhone 3G. We found it, until we ended up by the side of a favela. I was going to ask for directions but Giorgio refused. Then we saw a little stairway to climb to the top of the beltway’s tunnel, covered by wild grass. We quickly reached the top of the tunnel’s surface. The moon was almost full, the sky totally dark and the cars were passing above us very quickly, as we walked in the dirt below. I saw a small cat. The air was finally fresh and free. I felt so powerful, being alive at the right place, at the right time and in the right company. We did it. We were doing it. I was loudly commenting that this moment was “a very beautiful one”. But Giorgio did not feel so secure, as his IPhone no longer showed us either the direction or our location. We passed a family that encouraged us to continue on our way down a little street after the tunnel’s hill. This is exactly what we did. We really wanted to reach the “Beco dos artistas”. We were entering a popular poor suburban neighborhood, announced Giorgio. The street was extremely animated: all the shops were open and food was being cooked and prepared right on the street. As I followed Giorgio as fast as I could, I observed the scene with great fascination (so many people, from children to elders; so many objects, cars, lights, cafes; so many gestures, dialogues, games and social acts happening simultaneously; like a thousand micro parties developing everywhere at the same time), my gaze encountered the stare of a lonely woman, maybe in her mid-sixties: she was very skinny, short-haired, dressed with a dirty white t-shirt and short pants. She looked scared and angry. She was actually squatting in a corner, urinating in plain sight but no one seemed to remark her, except me. I was staring at her, struck by her strong expression, integrating it. Once more Giorgio asked where the “Beco dos artistas” was located. “Right here”, said a young girl, gesturing.
And there it was: a small dead-end alley like a corridor leading to nowhere but giving access to a series of clubs, bars and little cabarets on either side. No choice left, we entered it, smashed by bodies costumed with extravagant props. It became suffocating. The people I was passing and observing looked both exhausted and exalted. It was the last evening of the “Semana da Diversidade Sexual” and I can imagine that the party had been going on many days and nights for them. At a certain moment, the suffocating feeling was so strong that Giorgio and I decided to enter a little cabaret to rest. On the threshold we were welcomed and informed that a show was taking place. Entry was free, and through a window I could already see the black face of a performer with a blond wig. Some kitsch lighting illuminated the set. It looked exciting and I encouraged Giorgio to enter. Inside we quickly found a little table to sit at and got two beers at the bar. The place was small, containing approximately eight square tables with people seated around them. A huge fan was strangely hung just over where I was sitting, providing some air with its vivid and cycling movements. Groups of teenagers were constantly entering and exiting the room to use the stinking water closet in the corner. Two bare-breasted people swaggered around: they had surreal bosoms jutting out, considerable volumes stretching their perfectly waxed skin. Their abdominal muscles were acutely defined, their nipples hidden by pompoms, their jaws massive, their foundation visible and their long hair perfectly artificial. The show’s main performer was the one visible from the window: the young black male with the blond wig. He was dressed with a long-sleeve skintight red top, ornamented with gold-tasseled shoulder pads and buttons. The reference for his costume was Michael Jackson’s HIStory, I guessed. He had extremely long legs, wore fishnet stockings and black polished stiletto heels. Being a gorgeous, sweaty drag queen, he gleefully sang pop songs through a microphone and saturated sound system. As the audience gazed at him, he seemed to enjoy his performance for its own sake, as if he was all alone in his bedroom, self-sufficient and self-satisfied. Was it a paradoxical example of narcissism and pure generosity towards his public? Periodically, two young men with jeans and sneakers joined to dance in front of him, making precise breakdance movements with seriousness and elegance. As the two boys executed perfectly synchronized military gestures, he was supporting them from the stage with expansive and hysterical body language.
Between his choreographed musical sets, the blond-wigged black performer invited members of the audience to answer his questions. He constantly repeated the same ones. “How is your job going?”. Most of the time the answers were unclear. These people were basically declaring they had no job and no economical incomes at all, as both performer and audience laughed. After collecting these vague negations of any professional activities, the performer administrated some kind of benediction, based on a parody of Catholic and Candomblé rituals. Giorgio was helping me to understand the dialogue, also explaining to me that the audience members at the front as well as the ones still seated and the performer himself were possibly all prostitutes. He and I were obviously the only exception, as well as the family of four sitting beside us. That’s why they laughed at the negative answers regarding their professional situation: it was an obvious open secret. Finally, a fourteen year old girl was asked to show her bra to the audience, and her lesbian group of friends, and the mood became totally fascinating and frenzied when a white girl with denim mini shorts started performing an incredible belly dance to an oriental soundtrack, moving her entire body, including two enormous cellulite-ridden thighs, with great dexterity in front of her boyfriend. She was enjoying it all immensely. I was laughing, in wonder, deeply admiring these performers and their audience. I could have stayed all night long, sitting under the fan’s cycling movements and listening to Giorgio explain how I was discovering a new aspect of Brazil. But we had to move out of the poor little cabaret because of unexpected and unwelcome pepper powder that had been thrown in by the police to force everyone to evacuate. Everybody was now coughing and crying out in the street. We then quickly left the “Beco dos artistas” and finally found a bus going in our hostel’s direction.
It will take me a long time to understand why I felt so welcome in that cabaret, why it was such a privilege for me to be a part of it, why I experienced so much relief looking at them, why it gives me hope, why this September evening and night in Salvador da Bahia were perhaps a turning point in my existence, and how important it was to share it with Giorgio. The first, easy answer would be to say that I felt accepted and automatically part of an experience without needing any prerequisite. The second one might be the humor and derision that gives drag queens such sovereignty, whatever the situation they find themselves in. It’s not about empathy, but rather about sharing a sense of freedom and pride, though you may be stuck in prostitution, or confronting a deep anxiety towards an unbearable revulsion.
Giorgio helped me to close one of my overloaded suitcases and brought me to a taxi for the Guarulhos International Airport in São Paulo. At the Turkish Airlines desk, as I waited to drag my luggage to the conveyer belt, I felt all my back muscles contracting, hard. In a second, they were burning like wildfire. Stifling cries of pain, I was almost unable to move around with my hand luggage full of bricks: a computer, some hard drives, cameras, other electronic devices, and documents. I was bringing home the entire Eternal Tour archive including some new and unique files. Noticing a beauty service corner, I decided to treat myself to the first professional manicure and pedicure in my life before boarding my plane. Nearly paralyzed by back pain, my vision was to calm myself and slow down my departure, or at least to fully inhabit it. I wanted to imprint a physical reminder of this place on my body. As soon as the total amount needed was withdrawn from my credit card, I was installed without question near a small artificial waterfall. One woman took care of my hands, another of my feet. They commented with disgust on the amount of skin around my nails. After coating my fingers and toes with some chemical products and creams, they tore at my cuticles with energy and concentration. It hurt more than I expected it to. It was like making love for the first time. I listened to their voices: I wanted to drink in their words and encapsulate them in my memory. They were smoothly speaking this unique derivation of the Portuguese language that got transformed, according to Gilberto Freyre, by the tonality of the African idioms brought by the deported.
Background picture: Villa Doria Pamphili, Rome, Golden Brain journey with the Royal Institute of Art, Stockholm, April 2011. Photo: Jonathan Lewald.