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Utilising Carnival as a lens to discuss Brazil’s wider societal challenges, Maxine Betteridge-Moes explores the work of João Farkas and a tradition which encourages collective creativity whilst highlighting discussions of inequality and oppression.
words – maxine betteridge-moes
location – london, uk
photography – joão farkas
location – são paulo, brazil
In documenting the Carnival of Salvador in Bahia, Brazil, the photographer João Farkas describes his fascination with the ‘exuberance’ and ‘absurd creativity’ of the costumes that offer an outlet to express community and individual identities – an unexpected lens for a wider discussion of Brazilian society.
“That colour appropriation is something peculiarly Brazilian, especially in Bahia where the people have an enormous liberty and intimacy with colour,” he once said in a film about his work.
This year’s Carnival was as much a celebration of these traditions as it was medicine for what has been an immensely difficult period in Brazil, particularly for the healthcare workers emerging from years on the frontlines of the catastrophic impact of Covid-19 in the country. This was the first celebration that was allowed to take place after it was cancelled for several years.
Locals, known as Soteropolitanos, are quick to point out that the nation’s biggest Carnival parties are found here, not in Rio. Salvador lies on the country’s north-eastern coast and is considered by many to be the birthplace of modern Brazil. The city was settled in 1549 by Portuguese colonialists and served as a major seaport during the transatlantic slave trade, when Portugal brought over more African slaves than any other country. It remains the heart of Brazil’s Afro-Brazilian community today, and represents a diverse cultural melting pot of African, Amerindian and Portuguese identities, which come out in full display during the Carnival season.
For over 30 years, Farkas has been documenting the relationship between humans and their context. His punchy and vibrant series of portraits ‘Caretas de Maragojipe’ and ‘The Muquiranas’ document both collective and individual creative processes. Many are set against a bright blue backdrop – as seen here with the Bloco as Muquiranas – a tradition held for 65 years in which men choose a different theme and outfit, customising and accessorising it alongside their wives, mothers and daughters. This year, the Bloco [“the Block” in English] honoured the health professionals who were instrumental in the fight against Covid-19 with their costume theme, ‘Barbies – The Doctors of Joy.’ Over 5,000 men of all ages took to the streets donning their finest Barbie doll aesthetic. The result is a photographic series that is radiant and exuberant: machismo men, tattooed and muscular, beam into the lens in their teeny-tiny scrubs, batting their eyelashes and twirling their fingers through curly, colourful wigs.
“Carnaval is a melting pot of identities, inequalities and irritations with the status quo. But holding together the anger and the joy is a commitment to collective resistance”
“The Muquiranas Group… is a process of collective creativity,” explains Farkas. “The fun of these men dressed with a basic outfit is to improvise and create variations upon it. Each year they vary the basic costume and create based on what they see each other doing year after year.”
The evolution of this collective creativity feels especially poignant this year as Brazil emerges from four years under the leadership of far-right President Jair Bolsanoro, who systematically downplayed the risks of the Covid-19 pandemic and who embodied and praised a dominant form of masculinity while actively dismantling any sort of discourse on gender or sexuality. Bolsanoro’s response to the pandemic was arguably among the worst in the world, triggering an unparalleled tragedy in the country that disproportionately affected Black Brazilians, the poor and the unemployed. According to Alfredo Saad Filho and Fernanda Feil’s analysis, the convergence of deeply entrenched inequalities, brutal funding cuts for public services, and a President who spewed disinformation blocked any centrally coordinated response to the pandemic and created a “living hell” that would ultimately kill hundreds of thousands of Brazilians.
In Brazil and elsewhere, the pandemic also triggered an increase in the prevalence of anxiety and depression. Despite its unofficial title as Brazil’s “capital of happiness,” the impact was acutely felt in Salvador’s Black and Indigenous communities, which were badly affected in terms of health outcomes and loss of livelihoods. An erosion of social security and public services worsened under Bolsanoro, after he imposed devastating fiscal laws which cut from national health programs and social protections. This put doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers on the frontlines of catastrophe before and during the pandemic, with little political acknowledgment – let alone celebration – of their life saving work.
Nearly three years after the pandemic was first declared, and with Brazil now under the leftist leadership of Lula da Silva, the collective creativity that took shape under this year’s Dr. Barbie theme is upheld by an equally powerful community force.
“Carnaval is a melting pot of identities, inequalities and irritations with the status quo. But holding together the anger and the joy is a commitment to collective resistance,” wrote Ana Maria Monjardino, a freelance producer and writer.
Farkas’s photography and his approach to his work demonstrates an acute awareness of the historical struggles and the sense of hope and optimism at the Carnival of Salvador.
Says Farkas: “Truly, this work is without pretense, and it is not about a great construct or a great idea. It is a photographic record. It documents the art of people that resist and know how to be creative and happy even in hardship.”
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