Note from BBT: It often amazes me the indelible imprint that such a horrific institution as slavery can leave on an entire nation. I know that people still insist on believing that something that happened so long has nothing to do with the ways things are today. Well, in all honesty, if people think this way, it’s because they are either not being honest, don’t know, or simply haven’t connected the dots between then and now.
The fact is that, in Brazil, slavery is still a relatively recent period in history, as of May 13th, only having ended 133 years ago. That’s less than seven generations ago. If slavery is considered to have started in Brazil in about 1538 and ended in 1888, that means that Brazil has been a free country for a little more than one-third of the time it’s been a slave country.
But it’s not just about the time frame. If I were to really get into, it would be pretty easy to demonstrate how certain aspects of slavery still exist in today’s times. The position ascribed to black people and the treatment given to the black population to this day are still reminders of how they were seen during the slave era.
Brazilians still make racist jokes about black people by referring to them in some way that connects them to slavery. There are still motels and estates that use slavery are themes to attract customers and visitors. The brutality that black Brazilians face everyday at the hands of military police is a direct result of the abolition of slavery.
Then, there’s something as simple as a pair of shoes that, during the slavery era, signaled a black person’s social condition. This is a little fact that still comes up from time to time. The new curator of one of Brazil’s top museums, MASP, meaning the São Paulo Museum of Art, understands the significance of clothing and fashion that goes beyond simply being recognized as ‘’chic’’ or ‘’fashion conscious’’. She understands this not only because of general history, but because her own family’s history. Check her story below.
New MASP Fashion Curator: “Clothes can be armor against racism”
By Mariana Gonzalez
“I’ve always been curious.” It’s with this sentence that the new assistant curator of fashion at MASP (São Paulo Art Museum Assis Chateaubriand) starts talking about her professional trajectory.
Hanayrá Negreiros, 29, was announced in May and, until 2022, will be responsible for the curatorship of the project Masp Renner, which brings together artists and fashion designers to create works of art in the form of clothing that will be part of the museum’s collection – in recent years, publisher Patricia Carta and fashion journalist Lilian Pacce have held the same position.
The researcher is a specialist in fashion and ethnic-racial relations and spent her master’s degree studying the costumes and adornments used in rituals of the candomblé religion. In a telephone interview with Universa, she affirms that “clothes can be armor against racism”, a phrase borrowed from her friend and style consultant Paloma Gervasio Botelho, and says that, in the Museum, she intends to look at “other stories” of fashion, discussing the involvement of black and indigenous people in this universe.
Hanayrá’s pretensions seem to go hand in hand with the ideals of MASP, which in 2019 published a manifesto promising to “decolonize the museum,” after criticism for lack of diversity in its board of curators and among the artists with works on display.
“My idea is to start from the understanding that there is not one story in fashion, but some, diverse and plural – these are words that are present in the Museum’s mission,” she says. “Criticism is a driving force for change. There is no turning back. As much as it may seem like the country is in a backlash, these places are being reclaimed by dissident bodies-not just black, but indigenous and trans as well. It’s necessary for arts and culture institutions to think from what is diverse and do some careful listening,” she argues.
“Black people have always been involved with fashion”
The granddaughter of a seamstress on her mother’s side and of a tailor on her father’s side, she says she grew up with her grandmother’s sewing machine as a reference at home, and says there was “no way” she could follow any other path than fashion – but during college, in the early 2010s, she missed hearing stories like those of her family in the classroom.
“Fashion, especially in the academic space, is very elitist. When I was in college, I didn’t have any black professors and there were few black students like me. We didn’t talk about decoloniality as we do today and the curriculum was totally Eurocentric. Even when we studied Brazil, it was in a stereotypical way, far from black and indigenous references”, she recalls.
It was by learning more about her family history, which was built from slavery in the cities of west zone São Paulo, that Hanayrá turned the key and understood that fashion, which can be a space of oppression for black women like her, also works as a tool for resistance. “Clothes can be armor against racism,” she says.
When she found her maternal grandparents’ marriage certificate recently, Hanayrá came across the term “seamstress by profession” to designate the trade of the bride, Therezinha Negreiros. “I thought it was very chic,” she jokes. Her paternal grandfather, who was a tailor, is still alive to tell episodes of when he used to sew suits in the state of Maranhão, in the 40s and 50s.
“I shared these stories in class and many black students told that they also had sewing as a profession in their family. It fell into place how fashion is a collective memory for black families,” she recalls.
My family’s memories gave me strength and a repertoire to work in the area, because I understood that black people have always been involved with dressing – from the enslaved women who worked in specialized dressmaking houses in Rio de Janeiro, to those who sewed for white women in the farm houses in the countryside of São Paulo.
Fashion is politics
The historian and fashion researcher resumes saying that, between the 19th and 20th centuries, items such as jewelry and shoes were essential to differentiate enslaved black people from black people who freed themselves and managed to rise socially and economically.
“When the black man manages to have access to some studies and to rise socially and economically, being an accountant or a merchant, for example, he is still an exception. That’s when the shoe becomes such an important item. At that time, you could recognize a slave because he walked barefoot, so wearing a well-polished, shining social shoe was a weapon against racism. A century later, we still mistake a black man in a suit for a chauffeur, a security guard, or other positions considered subordinate, but anyway, being ‘well dressed’ is a possibility of not being stopped by the police. That’s why I say that clothes can serve as armor against racism,” he explains.
The perception of fashion as a tool of resistance came only in adulthood, after completing her undergraduate degree. “I had some issues having to do with racism since school, like not wearing very strong colors, for example, because they wouldn’t match my black skin. I was one of the few black students. Whether it was red lipstick, colored nail polish, all of this I took a long time to wear, even though my mother, who is a very colorful woman, was a reference at home”, she remembers.
In the beginning fashion oppressed me, yes, but today I can understand it as a tool for liberation, for resistance.