Dr. Luiza Prado de O. Martins’ by Aziz Sohail
Aziz: As an artist working with the perspective of queerness and feminism, what do you think on a personal level about when you think about healing and self care?
Luiza: I understand healing and care to be fundamental to the decolonizing feminist and queer practices that I try to live by. They are some of the most radical things our communities can do to dismantle power structures that have inflicted -- and continue to inflict -- so much suffering on us. The hierarchy of bodies and subjectivities imposed by colonialism has caused our communities to be so profoundly affected by all sorts of violences; they are ingrained deeply in our psyches, so caring for one another is a fundamental strategy for survival.
The work I’ve done this year has emerged around a broad artistic research project, which I called “A Topography of Excesses”. When I first conceived this project, I had been struggling with the difficulty of doing work that does not merely offer a denunciation of the effects of coloniality, but that is capable of enunciating other ways of being. Work that is healing, and that unravels and concerns itself with issues of care, and love. Emerging from the process of writing a PhD thesis, I had dedicated years to diagnosing and describing the ways in which the management bodies, populations, and the economies that emerge around them constituted the very foundation of colonial power, and how the regulation of technologies of birth control was key to this process. Thinking about all the ways in which coloniality and capitalism enacts violence over bodies in the Global South is quite emotionally draining; after years of this, I needed to be able to articulate how solidarity and resistance to colonial power take shape, too; how systems of oppression are never met without responses. So I decided to look toward something that had popped up repeatedly in my research, but that I had not been able to explore further in my thesis: folk herbal contraceptives, which I understand as radical, anti-colonial articulations that hint at new realities, new paths; articulations that resist, to this day, the disasters brought about by 500 years of colonialism, and point toward not only other futures, but other realities altogether.
Aziz: How does this context work within histories of queerness and sexual minorities within which our reality is embedded?
Luiza: Care and healing can take many forms: providing food to those in the community who are struggling with food insecurity; housing for folks who were kicked out of their homes; offering alternative access healthcare that takes into consideration the needs of that specific community or person; or simply providing emotional support to members of the community. Personally, my way of doing this is to campaign, fundraise and otherwise work for access to reproductive healthcare in Brazil, which is a difficult and contested issue.
Throughout this year, my work has centered a lot around the use of plants for birth control, and I’ve been particularly interested in one known as the peacock flower. During European occupation of the Americas, an infusion of this plant – known as ayoowiri in some indigenous communities in South America – was often used as a contraceptive and, in stronger doses, as an abortifacient by enslaved Indigenous and African peoples. Knowledge about the properties of the plant, and how to use it – something that is fundamental when you talk about herbal abortion and birth control – was transmitted orally within these communities. This was knowledge to which few Europeans were privy; a notable exception is Maria Sibylla Merian, one of the first European women to voyage to the Americas for research purposes and who in 1705 published the book “Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium”. In this book, Merian writes about the abortifacient use of the plant by Indigenous and African women, specifically stating that the reason for them to seek the pregnancy termination was the mistreatment that their condition, as enslaved people, brought about. Yet, her knowledge of such plants and their uses was inextricable from the fact that she, too, was a slaveowner. Merian, like other white Europeans, relied on the labor and knowledge of the people she held in servitude in order to access remote locations and document the medicinal uses of plants. To this day, it is her name that is most often associated with the plant. I’ve always wondered about the histories that exist at the margins of this plant’s story; the histories of those who remain unnamed, yet whose knowledge was so instrumental for the survival of their communities.
Abortion is, in 2018, still illegal in Brazil, and one of the leading causes of death for pregnant persons. Ayoowiri is still used today to treat a number of ailments by some indigenous communities, but these medicinal properties remain largely unfamiliar to most of the population in the country. I find this particularly disturbing, given how common this small tree is. Growing up in Rio de Janeiro, I remember seeing this small tree everywhere; in fact, it is part of the official policy of many towns and cities to use it for urban decoration, given that its deep roots don’t disturb sidewalks, and its red and yellow flowers are considered very beautiful.
Aziz: You mention your background, coming from a working class, Brazilian, religious family as being important in your art making. Do you want to expand a bit more on your personal history and some narratives that you engage with?
Luiza: This is a very interesting question. Both of my parents come from extreme poverty; my dad from a rural region, and my mother from the city. It’s the kind of poverty that people in Germany, where I currently live, have difficulty wrapping their head around, the kind of poverty that leaves marks on people’s teeth, their bones, their psyches. Yet, in spite of all of this, my parents became university professors, and were able to ascend to the middle class. I am part of the first generation in my family that has never had to endure hunger, so of course that is very influential to how I understand the world.
Religion was also always very present in my family; though my parents are not particularly religious, my grandparents, aunts, and uncles are, and we are all very close. Most of them are Catholic -- a religion that is quite adversarial towards queerness and reproductive rights. Yet, I feel lucky that my deeply Catholic grandmother held very progressive views on queerness; a significant amount of her children, grandchildren and grand-grandchildren are queer, and she always welcomed and loved us just as we were -- even going against the Church’s teachings. Her house was always open to all of us and our partners, friends, and communities. She had her own mind when it came to the meaning of “love each other like yourself”.
Aziz: In particular, you speak about your grandmother, who decided to have an abortion in a climate where this was taboo. You describe her shame pervading her life - please elaborate on this specific element of your family history, and how it informs your work.
Luiza: She was an extraordinary woman, but I think that she had difficulty applying to herself the same generosity she extended to others. She had 10 children, and was pregnant many more times. She and my grandfather had trouble feeding and clothing everyone, even with help from the older kids who already worked; at some point she must have felt it was enough, she couldn’t have any more children. So when she found herself pregnant once again she sought a neighbor, who prepared a herbal abortifacient for her. It was such an incredibly brave decision, that went against everything that she was taught by Church, patriarchy, society at large. Yet, she did it all the same; she had the bravery to make her choice. But this courage had its price; throughout her life, she felt ashamed of it. Like she had done something wrong and terrible.
In my sculpture “The imaginary becomes complete on the margins of every new linear projection” and the video essay “As the Flames Engulfed the River”, I examine the effects of colonialism and the emergence of these radical, decolonising knowledges on birth control and abortion from this personal angle. In it, I start from my memories of ayoowiri growing in the banks of the Maracanã river, in my neighborhood in Rio, to speculate on its presence in the banks of rivers that flow through the places where my mother, my grandmother, and my great-grandmothers grew up. We are all from coastal regions of Brazil; my mother, grandmother and I are all from different regions of Rio, and I only have information about one of my great-grandmothers (this, too, is significant: most were migrants, undocumented and unregistered, and had no relatives). The one great-grandmother I know about was from an indigenous village that grew to become a small town in Northeastern Brazil. All of the rivers that were present in these places end, ultimately, in the Atlantic Ocean – a body of water that holds such a key role in the history of colonialism. These histories of movement, migration and displacement, are histories that originate in marginality and errantry – to nod at Glissant; but they are also histories of a successive assimilation to middle class in an increasingly Westernized Brazilian society.
Aziz: In some ways, you engage with this history as a mode of healing this shame. How do you go about this?
Luiza: I always think how terrifying it must have been for my grandmother to do this, going against everything that her very Catholic upbringing taught her. The moment when she chose to do this, in spite of everything, and the help and compassion that she found in her neighbor opened up, in many ways, new realities. This type of radical care amongst communities who have been historically marginalized by coloniality can reframe the past, point toward alternative presents, and create new, plural futures. So in this sculpture I reenact the moment when the ayoowiri tea meets the saliva, this moment where new timelines emerge. I’ve used a number of tree branches that I collected around my neighborhood in Berlin (which is, too, in a marginalized part of the city, though I’m starting to see the first signs of gentrification now) to trace the profiles of three rivers: the one that cut through my mother and grandmother’s neighborhood, the one I remember growing up, and the one that flows around my great-grandmother’s town. I’ve set up an irrigation system in the branches from which the tea flows, dripping systematically into a number of cups placed on the floor.
In “As the Flames Engulfed the River”, I examine my memory of the cycles of ayoowiri and royal poincianas (a plant that looks very similar) in the banks Maracanã river; and a dream I have had where my grandmother – who passed away a few years ago – spoke to me through the plant. In my dream, we learned to speak to each other through the wind, and the way we moved our leaves and fingers along with it. The film is an expansion of the ongoing theme of reframing pasts, presents and futures in “A Topography of Excesses”. The cyclical, yet fluctuating nature of the trees and the city around them; time as wind, flowing through and with and around our movements; and notions of impermanence and ephemerality are all important to this work.
Aziz: You also mentioned specific traumatic histories, especially around birth control. One is the personal, but the other is more population based, such as Puerto Rico where birth control was tested early on. How important is it to address these histories from a perspective of healing and self care?
Luiza: Although it is often associated with the sexual revolution that the white, Western middle class enjoyed in the 1960s, the pill has a much darker history in the Global South. Throughout the 1950s, the American doctors responsible for the pill ran clinical tests in prisons, slums, and mental hospitals in Puerto Rico (notice the choice of disciplinary enclosures) with no informed consent or regard for the dignity and health of Puerto Ricans. Later, the pill became part of the strategy implemented by the CIA to secure the sphere of influence of the United States over Latin America during the Cold War. It was used to contain population growth on the continent, which the CIA considered conducive to the thriving of communism, particularly in the wake of the Cuban Revolution; concurrently to the commercialization and distribution of the pill as this new anti-communist technology, the agency cemented American influence by nurturing and offering material support to the implantation of a series of military, extreme right-wing dictatorships all over the continent and the assassinations of leftist dissidents, in what we know now as Operation Condor.
The history of the contraceptive pill is in no way an exception, either. Patricia Peck Gossel (1999) writes that Norplant, the first contraceptive implant ever commercialized, was the subject of an editorial piece in The Philadelphia Inquirer that urged readers to consider it »a tool in the fight against black poverty,« and Elise Young (1994, p. 170) describes how between 1930 and 1957 women in Palestine were used as test subjects in the initial stages of development of the intrauterine device by Israeli scientists.
Knowledge about herbal contraception interests me precisely because, in all these instances, what is happening is that external colonizing forces are attempting to develop knowledge with the intention to control the technical means of managing reproduction of marginalized communities. These are outside efforts; knowledges developed on the terms of the colonizer. On the other hand, knowledge of these herbal medicines comes into being as a response to the specific needs and conditions of each group and community. These are the forms of care that I am interested in -- not interventionist politics which, in the end, aim to exploit bodies in the Global South for the benefit of the white and wealthy populations of the North.
Aziz: Your work also engages with the environment and its care, especially important today when our lifestyles exist in opposition to the world. Climate change is going to disproportionately impact the global south especially minorities. Do talk about the importance of self care and its link to the environment in your work?
Luiza: As I see it (and this is a perspective profoundly indebted to indigenous knowledges and ontologies), positivist dualisms like mind/body and nature/culture stand at the root of environmental degradation. There is no ‘us’ without the environment; the indigenous peoples of the Americas, Oceania, and Africa (and certainly from other regions that I am less familiar with) have known that for centuries. As you said, the Global South is going to be particularly affected by climate change; this means that caring for our communities also needs to encompass caring for the environment. This means that things like conserving seeds for future generations; passing down knowledges on medicinal plants and their uses; and fighting for the preservation of local biomes all become entrenched in these practices of care. In many ways, I think that practices of healing and care cannot be contained to the present; rather, they need to project themselves forwards. They need to not only assure the endurance of life in the present, but make sure that life continues to be possible in the future. Activists, healers and caregivers are the real futurists, not those Silicon Valley fools ;)
Aziz: With this idea of conserving seeds, and caring for communities, please do expand on your work and experience as a resident at Art Lab Gnesta which you told me is a laboratory saving seeds from countries such as Syria and preserving literally the histories of communities through environmental care.
Luiza: Art Lab Gnesta is an amazing art and community space in a small rural town in Sweden. In the past year or so, they’ve started a project together with a local family from Syria where they began by sowing a crop of tomatoes. This is a rather special variety, typical of the family’s region of Syria; they had brought those seeds with them when they fled to Sweden. Of course, Sweden’s climate is not really ideal for plants adapted to temperate, mediterranean climates. So ALG is now looking to continue and expand this collaboration by building a community greenhouse in the premises, in order to continue preserving plant species with seeds brought over by people who arrive there fleeing conflict and instability. This is a fascinating initiative to me, as I think that seed banks are an important aspect of community care; plants -- with medicinal, edible, religious, or other uses -- are a fundamental part of cultural identity. Leaving behind one’s home often means also leaving behind typical foods, medicines, or religious practices; one more loss in a process that’s already very often painful and difficult. The histories of these plants are entangled with the human histories of those who have tended, cared, and nourished those biomes, those environments. A space like this, as I see, is a space where these histories can continue to flow, seeds encapsulating pasts, presents, and futures.
Aziz: When we were speaking you mentioned the phrase ‘radical care’ - do you want to expand on what this means?
Luiza: Fertility management has always been a fundamental aspect of healthcare, in all societies. So of course, people have developed all sorts of ways to manage fertility throughout history, long before pharmaceutical companies, global circulation of capital and goods, or the push for a universalizing model of scientific knowledge came along. However, when colonial domination comes into the picture, the transmission of oral knowledge about herbal birth control becomes a key strategy of resistance, a way to exercise a degree of control over one’s body in a situation of profound dehumanization and exploitation. In “All Directions At Once” I look, for instance, into the history of ayoowiri, cinnamon, papaya, wild carrot, rue, artemisia -- plants used for birth control in folk and indigenous medicine. That, to me, embodies the notion of radical care. It is a practice of sustaining the community through looking out for each other, and developing, sharing, and teaching knowledge that is vital for its well-being. Nowadays few communities still use, or know, about ayoowiri – which to me is particularly fascinating, because this small tree is very common in Brazil, and often used for urban decoration. I remember seeing it growing all over Rio de Janeiro, my hometown. So to me, all these plants become part of an alternative history; one in which other futures are conceived through this practice of radical care.
Aziz: Brazil, your country of origin, has recently elected, for all purposes, a fascist president who is not only racist and anti-sexual/gender minority, but also promises to get rid of the Amazon forest/indigenous populations. How do you visualise your work in this particular political moment for Brazil.
Luiza: Abortion is, to this day, illegal in Brazil, shrouded by intense stigmatization. Even contraception, though legal, has recently been placed in jeopardy by increasingly strict laws which aim to limit access to medications like the morning after pill, or devices like IUDs.
In theory, the Brazilian public health system offers eight types of fertility control technologies to everyone, free of charge: copper IUD, combined contraceptive pill, mini-pill, Depo-Provera injections, diaphragm, condoms, emergency pill, and sterilization. In practice, however, there are a number of reasons why access to these might be restricted. For instance, people might live far from hospitals or health centers, and waits for doctors appointments may sometimes take weeks or months. Additionally, the public health system is severely underfunded, which often leads hospitals and health centers to simply not be able to offer most of these options.
These material and logistical challenges are compounded further by the social perception of birth control. Depending on the situation, one might be stigmatized by their community (and sometimes also by health professionals) for seeking fertility management. If married, a cis woman who uses birth control might be considered selfish for not wanting children (even when she already is a mother). Concurrently, an unmarried cis woman using birth control might be perceived as a “slut,” and “easy.”
Abortion, on the other hand, is only allowed in three instances: in cases of rape, when the parent’s life is at risk, and if the fetus has a condition called anencephaly, which causes it to die within hours of birth. Yet, abortion is so profoundly stigmatized in Brazil that even in these extreme cases it might be difficult to get an abortion, with obstacles placed by institutions, health professionals, and society at large. And again, I must stress: even these conditions that are, in theory, protected by law, have long been under attack. At the same time that feminist groups are leading an unprecedented movement for the legalization of abortion, there are bills being discussed in Congress that would legally define life as the meeting of an egg and a sperm, completely outlawing abortion (in addition to other things, like stem cell research). The election of Bolsonaro, a fascist in the truest sense of the word, puts all of the rights we’ve been fighting so hard for in jeopardy. He said he will outlaw activist movements and leftist and feminist organizations. He literally said he wanted to kill leftists. He wants to criminalize the Landless Workers movement. He wants to roll back the few cases we’ve secured for abortion. He says women don’t deserve equal pay, gay men need to be battered, and compared Afro-Brazilian folks to cattle. He’s repeated over an over again that the only mistake that the military dictatorship we had in Brazil between the 60s and 80s committed was to rely too much on “only” torturing dissidents, rather than torturing and then killing them. He said on camera that he wouldn’t rape a fellow congresswoman because she was so ugly, she didn’t deserve it. He said indigenous peoples won’t have one centimeter of land. He wants to plow through the Amazon, and sell its resources to private companies.
People like to compare him to Trump, but he is much, much worse. He is a blood thirsty, war mongering monster, and much more cunning than Trump is able to be. And his hate speech is already making victims: since October, when the elections took place, there have been so many cases of hate crimes against womxn (particularly trans women), Afro-Brazilians, indigenous peoples, and LGBTQI+ folks where the perpetrators were shouting Bolsonaro’s name.
It is a difficult moment. My community, my sisters and comrades -- we have spent the better part of the past days grieving. But now we are getting ready to fight, because there is no other choice. Like Brazilian writer Conceição Evaristo once said: “They agreed that they would kill us. But we agreed that we would not die.”