Reflections on Achille Mbembe

Breathing Prohibited

Inspired by an essay by Achille Mbembe, Angolan poet, curator and cultural producer, Marcos Jinguba, talks with Brazilian artist and dancer, Luana Vitra, about the pervasive challenges we are facing during this time of the coronavirus pandemic.

C&AL: Brazil has been the focus of various international media outlets recently due to the destruction of several areas of the Amazon Rainforest…

LV: Yes, one of the things that generates the most profit in Brazil is agribusiness. In order for this industry to take place, widespread deforestation is needed to create pastures for cattle and for planting monoculture transgenic corn and soy, for example. Deforestation, as it is well known, causes the loss of biodiversity, oxygen, climate equilibrium, fauna, but, specifically in Brazil, the removal of indigenous communities from their native land and the interruption of their way of life also occur. One of the primary interests of the current president is to expand agribusiness, to the extent that he is offering incentives to ruralists to burn environmentally protected areas. But this is not new in Brazil. This attempt on the part of the government to remove indigenous communities happens all over Brazil and it has a long history. These communities have been resisting in order to continue caring for the forests. The fact is that ever since the Americas were invaded by the Europeans, there has been no peace for the indigenous nor for the forest.

C&AL: Isolation is an action that has characterized this moment of uncertainty that we have lived. Increasingly, we are questioning the meaning of this word in the context of artistic production. How do you see it?

LV: Being alone was never a big problem for me. I always needed a lot of solitary time to organize my ideas, although I really like being with other people. However, forbidding contact made it enormously difficult for me to immerse myself for even a moment in deep concentration and introspection, like I had easily done before the pandemic. Really, I do not do well with limits established through restrictions. So, being in isolation affected me in several ways and continues to affect me, but, after so much time in this state, we also learn another way of life and things start flowing again.

For my artistic production, I need to be with other people, to talk with people I meet in the places I go. I learn a lot through orality. But I think that it’s part of the artistic work to continuously reinvent your ways. Mine were reinvented countless times over this period of isolation. All that time to create and immerse myself are part of an immense privilege that I have, because I am far from being part of that portion of the population that is most in need in Brazil. Here, many people are without food because they have no government assistance that allows them to stay in isolation with even the slightest peace of mind. It really is absurd how little life is worth around here.

C&AL: Each culture engages in the construction of collective memory. Masks, hand washing, hand sanitizer and other elements are part of stories, novels, diaries and photographs recorded throughout this phase. Can we say that humanity has constructed a common collective memory that will determine the near future?

LV: The necessary precautions related to the pandemic will be imprinted on us as a repertory of gestures, a dance routine to stay alive. At some moments, we dance out of obsession; at others, we dance already surrounded by a certain automatism in relation to the gestures. At certain points of the pandemic, I found myself watching movies and startled by the fact that the people in them weren’t using masks. When I was creating, I found myself using those gestures as I was improvising. That made me see how powerful a dance routine is when all our bodies in the world are dancing and how strong the energy is that it moves. I cannot imagine what will come out of those gestures specifically but observing that force makes me think about what other gestures we could intentionally spread across the world. There is a poem by Ana Martins Marques, that goes like this: “If two people are dancing to the same music on different days, does that make them partners?”. Perhaps we might ask if thousands of people driven by the same rebellious gesture could start a riot.

C&AL: The history and the reality of being black in Brazil are themes that are drawing the world’s attention. The fight against racism has been dragging on for decades, but we still need to construct narratives and approaches. Do you agree that art can be an effective space to develop this discourse?

LV: Art is a field that has the potential to raise people’s consciousness about this subject; to provoke discomfort that can generate behavioral and narrative change; to develop the subjective dimensions that are born out of this violence, among other things. In the case of Brazil, I believe that the only things that can chart an egalitarian existence are public policies, historical reparations, and inheritance tax. So long as the government remains uninterested in these subjects, we will not be able to have any meaningful structural change.


Luana Vitra is a visual artist, dancer, and performer. She grew up in Contagem, an industrial city that made her body experience iron and soot. She views her body as a trap, and her activism as micropolitics dealing with the spatiality that her work evokes, confronts, and confounds.

Marcos Jinguba is a poet, curator of visual arts and cultural producer. He currently works in the urban cultural context in Luanda, where he lives. He is a mentor and founder of the production and cultural promotion company Kianda Sessions and of the Laboratory for Criticism and Curatorship, a platform for visual arts research and production.

Translation: Sara Hanaburgh