Artist Spotlight: Alyne Ewelyn
Digital Brazil Project: Tell us your story and how you started as an artist?
Alyne Ewelyn: I have a long history of activism. I want to start out by mentioning this because I think that the person I am today and where I am today as an artist comes from that trajectory. I’ve been an activist since I was 14. I’m from Fortaleza in Ceará where I always participated in different social projects because of some family issues. I was involved with Funci, which is the Undação de crianças e famílias cidadãs (Foundation for Children and Family Citizens), and through Funci I was placed in different projects. I participated in their fashion program and some art programs. I was always very
interested in the arts and music because I’m a percussionist. I joined a percussion ensemble of all women musicians, Tambores de Safo. We say that we make artivism because we’re a group of lesbians and bisexual women who do politics through art. Our lyrics discuss things like race and gender. We’re feminists so we address many different struggles, like the struggle for the legalization of abortion and against incarceration, which is a priority issue for Black women here in Brazil. We’re in a country that invests more in incarceration than in education, so we engage with women who are incarcerated. Beyond the LGBTQIA+ struggle, which is our main focus since we’re lesbian and bisexual women, we encompass all these feminist issues as well as Black issues because most of us are Black women from the periphery of Fortaleza. Tambores de Safo has existed for 10 years, we just had our 10th anniversary, so we already have a significant trajectory here in Fortaleza with everything we’ve built and everything we do.
I moved to Rio in 2014, and it was a good experience because I went there to study and I had a scholarship. Now I’m a biologist and an environmental technician. The environment is my area and it’s always been an important issue for me and I try to raise awareness about environmental racism because oftentimes I see a lot of white people talking about this issue, but we have to occupy those spaces, too, with our lived experiences. I want to talk about it. So my background is in environmental science but I also have my experience as an activist. When I got to Rio, I didn’t know many people and I had gone there because I was in a relationship with someone from there. I got married and then I continued my activism within the movements in Rio de Janeiro. I participated in the Rede de Mulheres Negras in Rio de Janeiro. I participated in a collective called Panteras Negras, which is a group that does performance alluding to the Black Panthers from the United States. I do performance art with them, and I love working with my body. I do African dance with another group of women, Diálogos em Movimento. It isn’t really just dance because we foster dialogue about different issues, like racism. There are white women in the group, but the program is geared towards Black women. We put on shows in the street and the people who happen to be passing by stop and watch.
I also participated in Rede Nami— finally getting to the part about art and graffiti— I’ve always liked to paint and I was always making some kind of art. I painted mandalas and things like that, but graffiti was something new for me. It’s something that always caught my attention because I used to wonder how people managed to paint gigantic murals, you know? Put it on paper, and then put it up on a wall and get the same thing or something even better. I met some people from Rede Nami who are activists in the lesbian movement as well, and I ended up enrolling in their AfroGrafiteiras project, which is a program for Black women and it’s such a cool project because it gives opportunities to
The graffiti scene is a very masculine scene and a very white scene, so it’s great to see so many Black women emerging in this scene.
so many women. The graffiti scene is a very masculine scene and a very white scene, so it’s great to see so many Black women emerging in this scene. I started out in that project in 2016 and participated in the largest graffiti festival in Latin America, which is called MoF (Meeting of Favela) and it takes place in one of Rio’s favelas. It was the first time that we did a wall with only women and it was the AfroGrafiteiras and everyone was so impressed because it was new to them. There were always so few women in the scene, even in such an important and renown festival that has been happening for years. Usually the women there were the girlfriends of the graffiti artists, and we were there occupying this other space, which is the space of the artist and of the woman who makes a name for herself there in the festival. It was awesome. AfroGrafiteiras has a course that’s theoretical and practical in Tavares Bastos, a community in Rio de Janeiro and there’s also the Nami Museum that includes not just students of the program, but also other women graffiti artists from Rio and people who are working with us. The Museum is an open space for us to practice. I also like the program because we worked in several favelas around Rio, and one thing that we noticed was that a lot of people want to go painting in the favela, but their graffiti isn’t really for the people who live there. For example, in Rocinha the graffiti is really for the tourists who visit so the favela looks nice to outsiders, and that wasn’t our idea. Our idea was to create graffiti for the residents. It was really cool to go there and the people who live there made us feel welcome and gave us lunch and threw parties and put on music for us, and it was a whole other scene.
My artistic trajectory encompasses many things, not just graffiti. I also work with Black hairstyles. I braid hair and do locks and I work a lot with empowerment through aesthetics, so that we use our Black beauty as Black resistance. We know that our hair and our hairstyles bother this society. I’ve been working on Black hairstyles for 10 years, and trying to raise consciousness about it. I’ve done courses with community partners for Black women on entrepreneurship because I think that the more women we have working with Black hairstyles, the more we’ll wear Black hairstyles. The importance of entrepreneurship goes beyond empowerment because we have to make money circulate within our community. So, I do so many different things with art, and graffiti is really just a small part of what I have to share with the world.
Digital Brazil Project: Your different ways of artmaking clearly inform each other and I want to ask you about your artistic process and technique. For example, you exhibited a piece that incorporated a braid of hair into a canvas. Can you talk about your process?
Alyne Ewelyn: Yes, that piece was for an exhibition that I did at SESC here, which is a private space but they have a lot of public programming and organize exhibitions. I was invited along with three other artists to show our work about Black womanhood at an event that was in honor of Black Consciousness Day. In my work I try to use what’s particular to me, and hair is something I really like. I’ve done it in other works and right now I’m working on another project where I’m incorporating other hairstyles. I want to have an exhibition that just focuses on Black hair and hairstyles. There are some hairstyles that I’m just now learning, but I want to put them in the artwork, too!
Digital brazil Project: As you mentioned, you’re a biologist and you’ve given several lectures about environmental racism. Do you think there’s a connection between your activism against environmental racism and the kind of art that you make?
Alyne Ewelyn: Yes, actually I think that everything is related to environmental racism. When you’re a Black woman and you exist in the body of a Black woman as an artist, everything is connected. From the moment that we go into the street— because it’s not random that Black women tend to have crews. You form a group or a collective with other women so you can go out and make art together. This is very specific to us because of the violence that we suffer. Sometimes we see guys out there tagging at all hours, everything’s chill, they’re usually alone, and we don’t have the courage to do that. We know the risk of violence, of sexual harassment, and all of the issues that come with being a Black body in the street when it’s late at night.
From the moment that we go into the street --because it’s not random that Black women tend to have crews. You form a group or a collective with other women so you can go out and make art together. This is very specific to us because of the violence that we suffer.
Even going out together as a group we sometimes have to deal with violence, imagine going alone! Everything’s related. When you stop to think about environmental racism, I think you start to realize how close it is to all of us. For example, in this very moment with the pandemic, and I’ve talked a lot about this in my lectures, there are people who don’t have water to bathe or eat while other people have swimming pools at home. So, I think that my art always addresses race. I recall one instance in particular where I painted a piece, and it’s a design that I do pretty often of a Black character called “I met God and she was a Black woman.” I painted it one day, and the next day someone had already painted over it! And they painted a super racist mural, and you wonder, could it have something to do with my mural? Of course it totally does, it happens all the time. One day I paint it and the next day someone tags over it and writes something. So it’s all connected. Everything is intertwined when you’re a Black body in the world. Racism will always run through it.
Digital Brazil Project: You’re also a prolific LGBTQIA+ activist. Tell us about your work with the Lesbian League of Brazil and the other groups that you work with.
Alyne Ewelyn: My activism, which is really more LBT because I’ve worked with women, goes back to my days with the Tambores de Safo since that’s our primary focus. I joined the Lesbian League of Brazil four years ago, but they have been around for 13. It’s a national league that has members from many different parts of the country. I don’t think we have all of the states, but most of the states have members of the League. It’s an important group because we’ve been involved in some historic decisions in the LGBTQIA+ movement, especially those impacting lesbians and bisexual women. When August 29 was established as the Day of Lesbian Visibility, they organized an event for several leagues that
are part of SENALE, the National Seminar for Lesbians and Bisexual Women. Actually now SENALE is called SENALESBI to include bisexual women, which is a win. I’m bisexual and for me it has always been an internal struggle because I’m involved in lesbian networks and I’m not a lesbian. There is prejudice against bisexual people in the gay movement and biphobia. I think everything would be easier if I were a lesbian because then I would have avoided so many arguments I’ve had with people who are biphobic. Outside of the movement, you almost expect this kind of violence, but within the movement it’s very painful. You can make space and still feel like you don’t belong. For a long time that’s how I felt. I sought out other bisexual people so that we could build something. Then in Rio together with other sisters we were able to create BisiBilidade. Here September 23 is the Day of Bisexual Visibility, so we’d meet in August and September and plan events. A lot of our events focused on mental health because September is also Yellow Month, a month when we talk about mental health awareness. We connected the two because the bisexual community suffers from high rates of suicide, so we organized some roundtables with psychologists and other mental health professionals and little by little we began building this collective that today has a considerable presence in the movement, especially in the bisexual movement, which has grown a lot in Brazil. Today we have the Brazilian National Bisexual Front, which is a national front that includes several collectives from all over the country. We’ve secured space on some councils, like the Popular LGBT Council. We’re building something that we’ve wanted to build for a long time and before we didn’t have space. I’m actually happy to talk about this because for so long I felt alone, and now to be part of a national front feels very significant.
We’re building something that we’ve wanted to build for a long time and before we didn’t have space. I’m actually happy to talk about this because for so long I felt alone, and now to be part of a national front feels very significant.
I also worked in Rio with Criola, which is an NGO for Black women, and I coordinated a graffiti project there called Grafitando por Direitos. It was a graffiti class that also talked about sexual and reproductive rights with women from the peripheries of Rio de Janeiro and we’d invite young people to talk about reproductive rights, protection— about things that oftentimes they’re not talking about at home, like sexuality, and combining those themes with graffiti. It was super cool.
Digital Brazil Project: Now you’ve moved back to Fortaleza. What projects do you have coming up?
Alyne Ewelyn: Last weekend I did a graffiti event here in a neighborhood called Vila Romcy, and the idea was to create an art installation in the space to give visibility to women graffiti artists in Fortaleza. There’s a group that I’m in called Mais que Rosa, a collective of women graffiti artists in Fortaleza. During the pandemic we haven’t been able to do much, but we organized this meet up and have been involved in some other projects. I’ve been invited by the Centro Cultural Bom Jardim, which is located in the periphery of Fortaleza, to give graffiti classes to at-risk youth and girls on probation and to paint a mural there with them. For me it’s really important as part of my activism on decarceration to work with them on recuperation and healing, because in Brazil the juvenile justice system, which here we call the “socio-educational system,” isn’t very educational. It’s amazing to do this grassroots work and to have space to try and do something for our own community. With the recent elections I’ve also been campaigning for my candidates who won, and it’s marvelous because it’s a revolutionary idea emerging from Fortaleza politics because there are three Black women who ran together on the ticket as a collective candidate. This is the first time that this has happened in Fortaleza and it’s so important for these women to get in there building this. My project for next year is to help build it with them, because that’s the idea. We can’t leave them alone, especially because they are Black women and, unfortunately, we know how Brazilian politics treats Black women.
So graffiti exists to break with traditional access to art and to make galleries out of the city walls, and to put what we want to say out there for the whole world.
Digital Brazil Project: Thanks for talking to us, Alyne.
Alyne Ewelyn: Thank you, I appreciate the recognition for my work. Being an artist in Brazil is kind of complicated since there’s such little investment in the arts. We still deal with the criminalization of graffiti and the public opinion that it’s filth and not art in itself. We struggle so that we can earn a living from our art, share it with others, and communicate through it. That’s where graffiti comes in, it gives access to art to everyone, even the people who can’t afford to go to the big museums and galleries. Graffiti is that! It’s so that people who are poor and live in the periphery have free access to art when they’re in the street. This goes back to the issue of environmental racism. Where are we walking? To which parts of the city do Black and poor people have access? How do we gain access to culture? All of this is related to racism and the environment in which we live. So graffiti exists to break with traditional access to art and to make galleries out of the city walls, and to put what we want to say out there for the whole world.
Interview and translation by Kristal Bivona.