In Conversation with Charlene Bicalho

“Even without a key, I enter through the front door and plot escape routes”

Possessing her own unique form of visual thinking, anchored in collective experiences and popular know-how, Brazilian artist Charlene Bicalho skillfully dialogues with a wide variety of artistic languages, from documentary webseries to photography, installation and performance.

My works entitled Do pó se faz cipó (From dust is made vine, 2019) and Gazuas: Bará do Mercado de Porto Alegre (Lock Picks: Bará of Porto Alegre Market, 2019), for example, came out of observations and conversations at the market. Later, both works were presented at the Rio Grande do Sul Museum of Art – MARGS. My transits and shifts are not decoded by the whiteness that reigns in institutionalized spaces, and feeling this firsthand fascinates me. Institutional racism, having lived with it for years as an employee of public institutions, has become one of my primary investigations into the composition of my artistic works. The way I am treated within these institutionalized spaces, how I am made invisible, how I am silenced, serves as raw material for my work. So, even though (apparently) without a key, I enter through the front door, I plot collective escape routes, I emerge and submerge according to the tides.

C&AL: Lately you have been participating in several residencies. I would like you to talk a little bit about how this process has been.

CB: This year I participated in residencies in Espírito Santo, São Paulo, Porto Alegre, and Brasília. Those experiences, in different regions and temporalities, have permitted me other ways to reimagine my history, my work, and my views on the world. I think it is important to say that some of the residencies I participated in are arms of institutional racism, and so they replicate colonial gestures, thus perpetuating power relations if we think about who historically accesses public resources and how they are redistributed. Even in the face of these issues and the current political moment, where censorship and cyber-crime have become a constant, these flows have enabled me to work by calling up buried networks of artists, invisible to the eyes of whiteness. This month I’m embarking on my first international residency in Lima, Peru, to visualize possibilities for expanding networks with other African-Latin-American artists and researchers. I’m keen to join with other Black Diaspora artists who are interested in revising art history and constructing other counter-hegemonic imagery narratives.

C&AL: On the day of your performance Do pó se faz cipó, in Porto Alegre, one of the things that caught my attention was when you said that “what is given no longer interests you”. What does this phrase evoke for you?

CB: When I say “what is given”, I mean the colonial system and its current maelstroms, what is given and put in place does not include us. Thinking about art and institutionalized spaces, I first identify the maelstroms, seeking to foresee what is given, to think strategically about my next shift, reconciling artistic, poetic practices and practices of resistance. In Do pó se faz cipó, for example, besides occupying the MARGS, we produced knowledge by undoing silences, transforming silence into language and action, as Audre Lorde says.

We talked about affection, memory, shed light on our subjectivities and productions, we describe instead of being described. We created connections when we comprised the first panel with only black artists, we took care of ourselves and healed during the work, recognized ourselves and understood that we are not alone. Dressed in black and red, I positioned my body as if it were a reflection of the statue A Fuga, I asked permission from Bará, keeper of the crossroads and the keys that open up the paths. As we blew pemba together inside that building, we contaminated it with the breath of the diaspora, reclaiming that space as an ancestral right. We revisited history and art history, we departed with renewed breath from this plunge. Past, present and future flowing deeply into life and work, we are what is not given.


Charlene Bicalho was born in 1982, in Minas Gerais and is now based primarily in the city of São Paulo, where she creates projects in various spaces. She has been the artistic director of the Raiz Forte project since 2012 and has been an active participant in several artist residencies.

Duan Kissonde, a resident of Quinta do Portal, a neighborhood on the outskirts of east Porto Alegre, was born in 1993. He is a poet, composer, cultural critic, and studies History at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul. He is an independent researcher on the black territorialities of the city of Porto Alegre.

Translated from Portuguese by Zoë Perry.