A Bloody Guerrilla Street Performance Challenges Brazil's Racist Past
All photos by Larissa Zaidan/Angústia for VICE Brazil

A Bloody Guerrilla Street Performance Challenges Brazil's Racist Past

Artists took to the streets of São Paulo to speak out against violence and racism directed at Brazil's black and non-white citizens.
Larissa Zaidan
photos by Larissa Zaidan
Meredith Balkus
translated by Meredith Balkus
Brooklyn, US
March 6, 2018, 4:00pm

A version of this article originally appeared on VICE Brazil.

The sound of whistles and bottle rockets echoed across Praça de República in São Paulo, Brazil. It was Friday, February 23, and the final street performance of NEGROR, which means “dense darkness” in English, by Brazilian performance collective Selo Homens de Cor. Shouting “Oh, mother!” two black men, bloodied and dressed as boxers, ran through the streets, fighting invisible assailants and frantically searching for their parents even though they appeared to have been shot multiple times.


As NEGROR unfolded, spectators followed the performers through the streets of São Paulo. The action was continuous and divided into rounds, or assaltos, which also means "robberies" in Portuguese. After each round—or when the police appeared, though they didn't try to shut down the show—the two fighters collapsed and then resurrected themselves to keep sparring as they moved through the streets. The boxing references throughout the play were a metaphor for the violence and everyday struggles endured by people of color in Brazil.

The performance, according to actor and director Syndei Santiago, was a tribute inspired by true accounts from the Mães de Maio, or the Mothers of May, an association created by Brazilian women whose children were killed during the violent conflict between state officials and civilians in May 2006. The outbreak of widespread violence began after the First Command of the Capital (PCC), the largest organized crime group in the country, launched a series of organized attacks on Brazilian state institutions in São Paulo, including prisons and police stations, resulting in the death of 31 police officers and eight prison officials. In retaliation, Brazilian state officials attempted to hunt down and locate those responsible for the act. But their investigation deteriorated into a violent clash between law enforcement and civilians that was largely fueled by police brutality. In the two weeks that followed the initial attack, 450 civilians were killed, the majority of them innocent.

The beginning of the play at the entrance to the secretary of state education's office in São Paulo. Photo by Larissa Zaidan/Angústia for VICE Brazil

“When we’re talking about genocide, we’re talking about the legacy of slavery in our lives and how racism is still present,” Santiago explained. “Because these young black people who are killed are [viewed as] bodies that don’t incite emotion, they’re public bodies—killable and easily replaced.”

An announcer marched alongside the two boxers, barking statistics from a popular Brazilian newspaper about the high mortality rates amongst the country's black population. "Place your bets!" the announcer cried, grimly prompting the audience to predict how many black people die each day in Brazil due to racial violence. By demanding their participation, the performers directly implicated onlookers, driving the point of the performance home.

Pictures of people murdered by police violence. Photo by Larissa Zaidan/Angústia for VICE Brazil

The play followed a stretch of Ipiranga Street to Rua Dom José de Barros—a bustling commercial area spanning just under a mile—closing out the theater season with a tribute to black Brazilians who were killed as a result of police violence. The play’s upcoming 2018 run will extend beyond São Paulo, traveling to other cities in Brazil in mid April.

You can see more photos from the public performance of NEGROR below:

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