The Antiracist Visual Politics of Afro-Brazilians

This post is part of our online roundtable on Reighan Gillam’s Visualizing Black Lives

São Paulo, SP / Brazil June 6, 2020, Paulista Avenue Demonstration against Jaird Bolsonaro Government and in favor of open democracy and against racism (Shutterstock/ Felipe Manorov Gomes)

Part history, part ethnography, part media studies, and all Black studies, Reighan Gillam’s Visualizing Black Lives: Ownership and Control in Afro-Brazilian Media examines the media projects of Afro-Brazilian media producers who are primarily based in southeastern Brazil, and São Paulo specifically. Gillam, an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Southern California, artfully weaves a narrative about these Afro-Brazilian cultural projects as examples of what she calls “antiracist visual politics,” a term which “describes the ways in media producers and the visual media they create, identify, challenge, or break with racist practices, ideologies, and structures” (2). Gillam argues that Afro-Brazilian media producers create content—namely, visual art, a television network, television programming, web series, documentaries, and short films—that are antiracist and serve different functions for Afro-Brazilians.

Central to Gillam’s development of the concept of “antiracist visual politics” is the theme of control and ownership of media production for Afro-Brazilians, who experience racism, sexism, discrimination, and classism by just living in the world. They are often excluded from participating in mainstream media in meaningful ways, such as developers, producers, and creators of visual media that speak to their experiences. Accordingly, while the representation of Afro-Brazilians’ experiences and the affirmation of blackness are significant motivators for the Afro-Brazilian media producers discussed in Gillam’s work, they are also heavily interested in producing work that grapples with the racial mistreatment of Afro-Brazilians.

Visualizing Black Lives is based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted from 2007 to 2013, and entails a textual analysis of visual media and a historical overview of the relationship between Afro-Brazilian media and visual culture and Black social movements in Brazil. Of particular importance are the interviews with thirty-one media producers, which provide additional commentary alongside Gillam’s own analysis. Furthermore, Gillam’s attendance at various activities where the media was being consumed provided opportunities for her to observe how audiences interacted with and considered these creative projects. For example, Gillam attended the premiere screening of A Formação do Olhar (“the formation of looking”), which was produced by Jefferson Santos, a Black social educator. The producer made this film as a response to Law 10.639, which mandated the instruction of African and Afro-Brazilian history in primary school public education. The film could be used to discuss the important role film can have in the classroom and as a guide for how educators should employ visual media. This film engaged with films as meaning-making and entertainment. Santos interviewed two academics and two filmmakers; edited their comments; and composed exchanges among the participants, all of whom completed their interviews in isolation from each other.

After the screening, Gillam stated that there was a robust dialogue about the film by two discussants who were both Afro-Brazilian doctoral students. One of the students, who was completing a doctoral degree in sociology in the United States, shared that Santos’s film was not “radical” and “lacked a distinct visual aesthetic” (81), especially in comparison to a documentary film about tennis shoes, which brought a “hip-hop sensibility to filmmaking”(81).  In response, Santos noted: “‘When we propose to make an audiovisual work, besides manipulating the resource in your hand, when we get to appropriate—this is the way. For us to be sufficient, we need technical dominion … I am not a filmmaker, I’m an educator. Other people have already produced. This film is a representation. It’s a small representation of who we are.’” (81). Audience members also defended the film, stating that it was an important step in the process of technical skill acquisition for Black filmmakers and media producers; a useful tool for teachers who would like to show images to their students of Black people beyond images of Black people during enslavement; and incomparable to films produced in the United States by Black filmmakers who have an infrastructure at their disposal in contrast to the experiences of Black filmmakers in Brazil (81-82).

By including this panel and audience discussion of A Formação do Olhar alongside her own analysis of the film, Gillam adroitly lays the foundation for understanding the role of representation within the Afro-Brazilian media landscape. Gillam notes: “While the sociology panelist articulated his sense that the film lacked a radical aesthetic, the audience understood that when producing film in conditions without much structural support, just creating a final product that centers Black subjects and their perspectives for an audience to view is itself a radical act” (82). The radicalism of A Formação do Olhar, Gillam convincingly demonstrates, is the very fact that Santos has produced a film where Afro-Brazilians are the experts and not just the objects of study.

As an anthropologist, I am drawn to these ethnographic vignettes in Visualizing Black Lives because they capture the multiple angles and perspectives that encapsulate Afro-Brazilian media production and the experiences of Afro-Brazilian content creators. Beginning from the first chapter and throughout the book, Gillam squarely focuses on the ways by which Afro-Brazilians have had to negotiate with mainstream media in Brazil and Brazilian culture as a whole—not just to be “seen,” but to be represented in a way that demonstrates Afro-Brazilians’ cultural agency. The first chapter is a historical overview of the relationships among Afro-Brazilian cultural production, Black protest and social movements, and mainstream media production. In the subsequent chapter, Gilllam focuses on Afro-Brazilian media production beyond mainstream media through an investigation of the creation and ultimate demise of TV da Gente (Our TV) television network, which was “the first channel in Brazil to embrace racial diversity as part of its mission” (15).  Interviews with the founder of the television network, José de Paulo Neto, and network staff contextualize the possibilities of having an autonomous “Black” network and the importance of ownership of content and space in relation to Afro-Brazilian media production. The third and four chapters are both ethnography and media studies in their analysis of interviews with Afro-Brazilian producers and their creative productions, e.g., images, videos, and short films. An underlying argument of these chapters is that control of content and distribution has been essential to Afro-Brazilians’ cultural and media productions that are rooted in antiracist visual politics and seek to disturb racism in Brazilian society.

A notable strength of Gillam’s book is its interdisciplinary or undisciplined approach to the analysis of Afro-Brazilian media production. Gillam provides myriad opportunities to consider how her notion of “antiracial visual politics” might be applied in various fields of study and beyond disciplinary boundaries.

For example, this book contributes to Black geography studies in its critique of Brazilian mainstream media as a space of Black displacement, invisibility, and stereotyping of Afro-Brazilians.

As a “geography of domination,” Brazilian mainstream media serves a specific function: “If media constitutes one of the central means of imagining the national community, then the absence or distortion of Afro-Brazilians indexes their lack of belonging (La Pastina, Straubhaar, and Sifuentes 2014)” (10).  While Gillam employs the language of belonging, I think it could also be useful to consider this indexicality through a spatial framework of analysis. Alongside its contribution to Black geography studies, Visualizing Black Lives is in conversation with historical studies in its careful contextualization of antiracist Afro-Brazilian visual media.  Gillam articulates how these visual projects are past and current commentaries on racial discrimination as well as illustrations of Afro-Brazilians’ resistance and even creativity in response to these injustices.  Overall, Visualizing Black Lives is a testament to Gillam’s ability to convey effectively and persuasively the radicalism and life-affirming nature of these examples of Afro-Brazilian media production.

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Andrea S. Allen

Andrea S. Allen is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology and the Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies at the University of Toronto. She received her Ph.D. in anthropology from Harvard University. Her book Violence and Desire in Brazilian Lesbian Relationships (Palgrave Macmillan 2015), highlights the experiences of lesbian women in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, with sexual desire, infidelity, and intimate-partner violence. Overall, Allen’s research has addressed matters of race, sexuality, gender, violence, and religion in Brazil and the African Diaspora.