CORPO MIGRANTE, um Corpo Ressonante –

Freedom through Vulnerability

“It (art) brings down something deeper of… and something more authentic that has to do with you and with the present, and where you can open more subtle places of yourself, and from there create, from that vulnerability.”  

Ana Kavalis, Interview São Paulo August 2023

In the above statement, Ana Kavalis, a talented performance dancer I had the privilege to invite to São Paulo in August 2023 is explaining the role of art to her. One creates through vulnerability, and that is where the healing and transformative power of art lies.

Ana has lived and trained as a classical dancer and performance artist in Havana, São Paulo, Montevideo, Buenos Aires and in France. Eventually she landed in Berlin, where she currently lives with her daughter and husband.

Ana gets inspiration for her work as a performance artist through her trajectory of life. Her three-day workshop entitled “Corpo Migrante: um corpo ressonante” explored the migrant experience through the body.

The workshop was held at the prestigious Centre Maria Antônia, a cultural centre with a rich history located in Consolação. During the dictatorship, it had been bombarded down. It was rebuilt and in the 1990s began to host cultural events and workshops aimed at the public, with free admission.

With her empathetic eyes, Ana embodied both vulnerability and strength. Even the way she walked around the streets of São Paulo drew people’s attention. We were often approached by people from the streets, shunned by society, those who had experienced a “social death”[1] of some sort.

“You have to stop looking them in the eyes!” I advised her. My advice was aimed at “self-protection”, something I learned at a young age to manage urban areas. However, I had not yet understood how Ana’s glow stemmed from her overall sensibility to life. It seemed other people intuitively sensed it. 

One occasion stayed in my mind. We were at Liberdade Japáo, and Ana was telling me about its Afro-Brazilian history, despite it being branded to the tourists as a Japanese neighbourhood. She showed me the chapel of the Afflicted, which formerly was reserved for the burial of slaves and paupers and those condemned to death on the gallows. One of them was Chaguinhas, Francisco José das Chagas, a member of the military who revolted for equal wages for the Brazilians versus the Portuguese in the military.

In 1821, Chaguinhas was sentenced to death by hanging.  The rope broke. It was interpreted as a divine sign. The rope broke for the second time. People shouted “Liberdade” (freedom”), so that Chaguinhas would be given redemption.

There was no remorse. After the third attempt, when he still showed vital signs, Chaguinhas was murdered with clubs.

The neighbourhood stayed with the name.

While we were walking along the streets of Liberdade, an old man with a tired look and worn-out clothes approached Ana for conversation. I had just seen him pick up a can from the bin. He was somewhat intrigued when he heard Ana was from Cuba.

I told him I was from Peru, because Finland just seemed to be too far and too abstract and did not match my brown looks. Conscious I was in a setting where “whitening” oneself is common, I decided to embrace my Peruvian side.

The man told me in his youth, he had worked in the port of Callao. It was a sudden coincidence, as my grandfather had been a fisherman in Callao. I imagined whether he would have been similar to this old man. My grandfather had also been charged with thievery, and he spent time in jail. The wages in Peru remain so miserable today that thievery may seem like the only option left.

I chose not to talk about my grandfather to this old man. I still wondered whether he too had spent time in jail. What had made him turn to the streets?

Upon leaving, the old man said to Ana with a degree of insistence and emotion in his voice:

 “Communism is bad. Here, we have freedom”.

Before continuing his journey, he turned to me and pleaded for some spare change. I gladly gave him a 5 real note, to which he murmured: “Thank you, I will get a coffee now”.

Ana found the last words of the man endearing, but on our way back she could not help wondering his statement. How could the man think he was “free”, when “freedom” had been what eventually had reduced him to life on the streets. It was serendipity that the conversation took place in a place called “Liberdade”.

The fate of Chaguinhas, whose history gave the neighbourhood its name, and that of my grandfather, and this old man collecting cans from the bin, all intermingled. 

Interview with Ana Kavalis about the workshop Corpo Migrante, um corpo ressonante, São Paulo, August 2023

Freedom turned out to be a theme that accompanied the narrative of Ana. Our bodies are regulated by the state and society, both in capitalism and communism. For Ana, art makes liberation from the constraints possible. It allows for autonomy. This in turn is reflected in her practice. She could easily give space to improvisation in the middle of a choreography.

The freedom enabled by art, and in her case, performance art, is what allows for conviviality. 

On the question of migration, for Ana, the question is not about “integration” but rather, about “insertion”. What does a person migrating keep from the past, and what for? And what undergoes transformation? How is it felt on the level of the body?

Art allows reinventing knowledge. Ana frames her work along the lines of the Chicana poet and activist Gloria Anzaldúa and the Aymara anti-colonial scholar and activist Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, who are both famous for their work on being at the crossroads.

Anzaldúa has developed concepts like the “New Mestiza” and nepantlera to apply to all the people who, like her, have lived in the tension of two worlds. She writes that “the new Mestiza” copes by developing tolerance for contradictions and ambiguity, aiming to break down dualisms like citizen/migrant, man/woman, black/white, rich/poor.

It is important to highlight the distinction Anzaldúa draws between the “old” and the “new” mestiza, the former being inadequate to counter the resulting violence of the system, as it merely reproduces the colonial condition.

Similar to Anzaldúa, Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui has criticized the national mestizaje project of Latin America, – or what activists prefer to term Abya Yala or Pindorama -, for its assimilatory principles. She also develops an idea about an alternative reality.

Ch’ixi is a word Rivera Cusicanqui uses to describe the would-be socio-cultural reality, where indigeneity is present amongst the modern, but not subsumed by it. The chi’xi means juxtaposition of opposing colours. It is the third colour that emerges when one is weaving two colours together.

Using this metaphor of colour, Rivera Cusicanqui describes how the ch’ixi combines the Indian world and its opposite without ever mixing them. What emerges is “the parallel coexistence of multiple cultural differences that do not extinguish but instead antagonize and complement each other”

The ch’ixi thus embodies a relation between colonial and colonised, that exists in tension. But the point is that a Western and an indigenous world view can exist together in a “chi’xi” world, which is opposed to the idealised version of mestizaje.

Furthermore, the ontological difference of the indigenous does not exist apart from the modern, meaning indigenous peoples and their cosmology, world and thinking, have always existed in the Latin American modern cities. That is why Rivera Cusicanqui gives also a stark criticism of multicultural policies that reduce indigenous peoples to “living in nature”.

Rather the ontological difference permeates Western modernity, providing a basis from which to transform and decolonise the present and future. 

For Ana, migrants also embody the “chixi”, a liminal, grey area, or third colour described by Rivera Cusicanqui. The migrant is always at crossroads in the new country she lives in, and in her experiential world. Both migrants and indigenous peoples also share a minority position. At the same time, migrants are transforming the place they are in.

Art allows to rethink what it means to be a migrant, what it means to be a mother, what it means to be a dancer, to give it new significance, liberating oneself from the views of society.

Ana works through her body. “We are a body” is her firm affirmation. The body has always been our principal tool, be it in theatre, dance, religious rituals or whatever. Our bodies matter. It is through our bodies that we experience shifts in societal structures, our personal lives, important life events and cycles.

We walk (or rush) daily to work, often without paying much attention to how our bodies interact with the passersby, how our feet feel inside our shoes, or what sounds we hear or  not hear on the way to work, because we are so used to them. Since the onset of COVID, we have become even more disconnected from our bodies. “Our bodies are becoming bi-dimensional”, Ana tended to say.

The last day of the workshop we had an exercise in Augusta Park, where we explored senses and perceptions of being in space in a way that is not common to everyday life, making us aware of how we interact almost mechanically in spaces, without realising we could easily interact in space differently.

We walked to the park in silence, listening and observing while walking tightly close to each other. In the park, each participant took a spot where they sat in silence, perceiving their surroundings. Ana would come to each one by one, and the participants got to experience how their sense of being in space changed when they felt being observed. 

Before the exercise, we had walked in the park to see what it had to offer, and a homeless man was sleeping on his back, his feet pointing to the sky. Ana looked at him saying, “there is someone who has no preconceptions of how to interact in a space”. It was then that I came to understand why Ana did not evade anyone’s eyes.

Text by: Jasmin Immonen

Sources cited:

Rivera Cusicanqui, Silvia 2012 Ch’ixinakax utxiwa : a reflection on the practices and discourses of decolonization, The South Atlantic Quarterly 111:1, Winter 2012

[1]I heard of this term in a presentation given at Goldsmiths University of London years ago by Stephanie Grohmann, a specialist in homelessness in Britain. She embarrassed us listeners by reminding that we pass through people on the streets daily when arriving at the University. Yet have we ever wondered what legitimates our indifference.  The term she used “social death” stayed with me.

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