Moving between Anthropology, Activism and Art

Bartira Fortes:

Street Art of Marielle Franco by Rodrigo Rizo

Art in its broad spectrum – visual, sonorous, literary, or performative – have offered anthropological research a laboratory for the study of social relations. On the other hand, art has come to occupy a space long associated with anthropology (Marcus & Myers, 1995). Foster (1996) explains that this development constitutes a series of shifts in art: from the aestheticization of politics in fascism to the capitalization of culture during the Reagan era. Reflecting about the artistic legacy of Walter Benjamin’s text “The author as Producer”, Foster argues that the neo-avant-garde’s re-inscription of institutionalized representations resulted in a new paradigm: the artist as ethnographer. The artist as ethnographer deals specifically with what Foster calls the “ethnographic turn” in art of the 1960s. Since then, the role of artists has become increasingly closer to that of the ethnographer. The ethnographic turn in arts runs parallel with a “sensory turn” in ethnographic research, which is related to the growing interest in anthropology for the different possible artistic ways to communicate ethnographic findings (Pink, 2009).

While I have long pondered upon the relationship between anthropology and the arts, it was not until I was confronted with the writing up of my master’s thesis in Social Anthropology that I seriously engaged with these questions. I was especially interested in the process of bringing the artistic practices during my fieldwork into the ethnographic text. This blog post will look at this process and discuss how I employed art both in practice and in theory at different stages of the research carried out for my master’s degree.

Artistic Practices: From Fieldwork to Ethnographic Text

Theatre workshop “The cabaret on fire and the Prometheus Bound” conducted by Beth Firmino and Bartira Fortes during the Second International FIBRA Gathering between 16 and 18 August 2019 at Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, Berlin. Photo FIBRA Facebook Page

Other modes than writing – sketches, drawings, paintings, photographs, and videos – have historically been used to outline fieldwork notebooks. This may reveal important facets of the processes involved in data collecting. The ways in which art is used during the fieldwork affect how anthropologists present their findings, incorporating artistic practices in the conception, creation, and presentation of the ethnographic work (Schneider and Wright, 2013).

During my fieldwork in a transnational social movement for democracy in Brazil called FIBRA – The International Front of Brazilians against the Coup1, I participated and helped organizing diverse artistic activities: from cultural workshops to art exhibitions, performances, theatrical scenes, concerts, and carnival parties. In addition, the fact that many activists have found parallels between what was happening in the country’s political scenario and different artistic genres drew my attention to the relationship between art and ethnography: tragedy, circus, freak show, horror movie, theatre of the absurd, tragicomedy and telenovela were usually mentioned. This led me to question: What kind of narrative structure should I use in my ethnographic text?

Inspired by the artistic encounters during my fieldwork and the writing workshops conducted by the professor Helena Wulff during the master program (Wulff, 2016), I decided to delve into and include elements of Epic Theater, Greek tragedy, and Carnival in my writing. My goal was to construct a kind of scenario configured through the interaction between speech acts, gestures, images, colors, and costumes.

To accomplish this task, I decided to combine the main division of a thesis structure – “chapters” – with the division placed within a theater work – “acts”. I divide the thesis into “chapter acts”; each representing a moment of dramatic tension in the recent history of Brazil relevant to the development of FIBRA. Since acts are usually composed by scenes, I begin each chapter act with a scene based on concrete events, characters, documented statements, and fragments of intellectual journeys aimed to provide the reader with both a very engaging experience and a basis for argumentation. In addition to politicians and public figures, there is also a chorus that is based on my field notes and represents the collective voice of FIBRA, and a narrator who represents my own anthropological voice. Each scene is then followed by a more detailed ethnographic description and anthropological analysis.

Bellow follows a brief excerpt from the first scene:

The stage is set: the BBB2 political show

This scene takes place on 17 April 2016. It starts at the Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies during the impeachment vote on President Dilma Rousseff. Then, it moves to Kungsträdgården (King’s Garden), in Stockholm, where occurred the first protest of BRASSAR – Brazilians and friends of Brazil in Sweden for Democracy and against the Coup. All the deputies’ statements and actions presented in this scene were collected from the voting session (my translation).

– Narrator: Honorable audience, on the historical day of Sunday 17 April 2016, millions of Brazilians’ eyes around the world were turned towards the Chamber of Deputies to follow the vote on whether the president, Dilma Rousseff, should be put through an impeachment trial. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets across more than twenty states in Brazil. Outside the Congress building in Brasília, the pro- and anti-impeachment protesters were divided by a steel barrier. On each side, giant screens were installed so that the protesters could follow the voting session. On the one side of the barrier, a red crowd of anti-impeachment protesters.

– Chorus (chanting): Não ao golpe! Not to the coup! Impeachment without crime is coup!

– Narrator: On the other side, a green and yellow crowd of pro-impeachment protesters.

– Pró-impeachment protesters (chanting): Tchau, querida! Dilma out! Impeachment now!

– Narrator: During that Sunday afternoon, I was in the King’s Garden in central Stockholm with dozens of Brazilians who gathered to demonstrate against the impeachment. The climate was a mixture of hope and tension over what would be decided in the voting session.

The scene moves to King’s Garden. The narrator joins the Chorus and holds a placard stating, “Come to democracy”. They start chanting together: “Fascists shall not pass!”

– Narrator (leaving the Chorus): After the protest, we went to our homes to wait for the chamber’s voting session. The session lasted about six hours. The deputies were called one by one by the accuser-in-chief of the impeachment, Eduardo Cunha. They could use the microphone for some seconds to justify their decisions. With each vote, the crowd of deputies cheered or booed.

– Deputy: for the military in 1964, today and always; for the police; in the name of God and the Brazilian family, I vote yes for the impeachment! Lula and Dilma in jail!

– Deputy: For the end of corruption and paid vagabonds! I vote yes!

– Deputy: In the name of the nation…

– Deputy: For my family, for the good citizens…

– Narrator: The triad “God, family and nation” would reverberate again and again throughout the voting session in a congress considered one of the most conservative in the history of Brazil, where the BBB benches…

The Big Brother Brazil theme song starts to play.

– Narrator: Actually, this is not the Big Brother Brazil reality show!

The song turns off.

– Narrator: The BBB is a conservative political coalition nicknamed “The Bull, Bible, and Bullet benches”. The coalition represents together the agribusiness, the evangelical Christian, and the security sectors. Of the 367 deputies that voted to initiate the impeachment proceedings against Rousseff, 313 were members of one of the BBB coalition groups, and 53 were members of all three.

– Deputy: We vote yes, and whoever votes yes puts their hand up!

The deputy releases a carnival confetti cannon, filling the air with a glittering cloud of color. Photo Dida Sampaio – Estadão Newspaper.

Writing Culture and Epic Theatre: A Participant Narrator

Anthropology has traditionally been inspired by realism presented in the classical novel, in which the author’s task is to produce the effects of “objectivist realism” (Webster, 1983: 196). But, with the interrogation of representation’s illusory character since the advent of the Writing Culture movement (Clifford & Marcus, 1986), more attention has been paid to textual techniques. This perspective concerns what anthropologists do, and can do, with stories. Geertz (1988) has showed that the illusion of objectivity in scientific research is revealed in the very figure of the anthropologist as author. According to Geertz, the solution to the anthropological middle ground between art and science is to accept the literary dimensions of ethnographic text. The anthropologist as author would thus constitute territories where the ethnographic text more reflexively includes the researchers’ own view of how the people studied account for their world.

Let me do a parallel between reflexivity and Bertolt Brecht’s (1964) Epic Theater. In Brecht’s theater, the play is intended to provoke a critical view of the action on stage by using techniques to break the illusionary characteristic of theatre. Brecht called these techniques Verfremdungseffekt – also known as alienation effect and distancing effect. One of the most popular techniques is the breaking of the “fourth wall”, that is, the imaginary wall in theatre that separates the actors from the audience. In Epic Theater, the mise-en-scène (the stage setting) is exposed to remind the spectator that the play is only a representation of reality, not reality itself. The breaking of the fourth wall prevents the audience to bathe themselves in empathetic emotions, which Brecht saw as a necessary condition to develop a critical attitude.

Like Brecht’s distancing effect, the Writing Culture movement also reveals the mise-en-scène of the ethnographic work (Marcus, 1997). Critical reflexivity has made visible the illusion of scientific neutrality by revealing that there is not a single path that leads to knowledge about social life. The exposure of the mise-en-scène in anthropology represents the recognition that there is not a single, master narrative. The ethnographic text is, thus, anchored in how the anthropologists construct the dramatic order from which they designate a sense to a series of events experienced during the fieldwork.

In my master’s thesis, I chose to use the first-person dimension of the narrator as my own voice within the introductory scenes to make both myself and the audience-reader aware of my position in the ethnographic text. Like any professional storyteller, I have a particular relationship with the narrative: I am a Brazilian woman in the diaspora, and I participate in the transnational resistance for democracy in Brazil since its creation in 2016. The first-person dimension – usually hidden from the researcher’s voice under the assumed neutrality of ethnographic research – presents the dimension of the anthropologist as a participant narrator.

The participant narrator constitutes territories where the anthropological experience intertwines with the people with whom the anthropologist lives and works. By positing myself as a participant, I combined my own personal story with FIBRA’s, while also being able to distance myself from it through the chorus. By doing so, I avoided compromising my position as a participant and transforming the ethnographic writing into a monological authorial voice that places the ethnographer, not the people studied, at center stage.

Manifestation at the Second International FIBRA Gathering. Photo Margô Dalla.

Dramatizing Democracy: Carnival and Greek Tragedy

Scheper-Hughes once proposed: “anthropological writing can be a site of resistance […] We can disrupt expected academic rules and statuses in the spirit of the Brazilian ‘carnivalesque’” (1995: 420). Brazil is known worldwide as “the country of Carnival”. Rio de Janeiro is the apogee of the celebration with the Samba Schools parade. Both carnival and samba emerged as symbols of Brazil’s national identity. Brazilian anthropologist DaMatta captured this national significance of carnival when he wrote, “it was not Brazil that invented Carnaval; on the contrary, it was Carnaval that invented Brazil” (1984: 245).

On the other hand, tragedy was invented during the transition from tyranny to democracy in the Ancient Greece. According to Chou (2012), the Ancient Greeks used their tragedies to deal with conflicting desires and values related to the idea of democracy. In dramatizing democracy, tragedy helped make voices beyond the official political scope being noticed. Chou uses the term “multivocality” to encompass this manifold of characters and issues that existed at the heart of Greek tragedy and the democratic polis (ibid.: 51-79). It is important to note, however, that democracy in Ancient Greece was extended only to its citizens, which at the time excluded women, youths, slaves, and foreigners (ibid.: 8). It is for this reason that I decided to explore the subversive character of carnival as formulated by Bakhtin (1984 [1965]).

Bakhtin saw the carnivalesque as the representation of a subversion of one reality into another where hierarchies are suspended by the proletariat, the lower class, and the neglected. As such, the carnivalesque is polyphonic, as Bakhtin named it, in that it appropriates a wide array of discourses in an inclusive democratic spirit: “a plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousnesses, a genuine polyphony of fully valid voices” (Bakhtin, 1984 [1929]: 6). Like tragedy’s multivocality, the polyphonic makes multiple voices heard. But, in contrast to tragedy, the polyphonic voices of carnival participate in the public arena. The combination of these elements encapsulates a multiplicity of conflicting points of view, necessary for the process of dramatizing democracy.

The tragic in carnival lies in the notion that the subversion of social hierarchies are allowed only for the time of the festivity, as a temporary moment of illusion. This counterpoint between tragedy and carnival presents the basis for my idea of democracy as a tragic carnivalesque hero. A tragic carnivalesque perspective combines different temporalities from the timeliness of tragedy to the suspended time of carnival: a colonial past that lingers on in the social inequalities of the present; by subverting it, if only temporarily, it provides a space for an emancipatory future in a democratic carnivalesque spirit that releases centuries of colonization and inequality. Anthropology and the arts have shown that micro-revolutions are taking place outside the reach of narratives based on colonial, racist, and patriarchal rhetoric.

Photo Ida Åkesson

Bartira Fortes received her MSc in Social Anthropology from Stockholm University on the basis of her thesis titled “Democracy, a Tragic Carnivalesque hero: The narratives of a transnational social movement against the coup in Brazil”. The thesis offers an overview of the emergence of forms of resistance among Brazilians in the diaspora against the authoritarian turn in Brazil since the impeachment of the president Dilma Rousseff in 2016. Fortes’ research profile can be found in the conjuncture of Humanities and Social Sciences, intersecting social anthropology, political science, media studies, performing arts, and aesthetics. Broadly, her research interests include themes of democracy, political extremism, postcolonial violence, politics of resistance, transnational activism, human rights, and climate change. 



2. Big Brother is a reality show based on a Dutch TV series created by producer John de Mol in 1997. The reality show follows a group of contestants who live together in a custom-built home under constant surveillance. The Brazilian version is called Big Brother Brazil, or simply BBB. The term “BBB” in Brazilian politics became popular to refer to a conservative coalition that represents the agribusiness, the fundamentalist Christian, and the security sectors.

References cited

Bakhtin, Michail. 1984 (1965). Rabelais and His World. Translated by Hélène Iswolsky. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP.

Bakhtin, Michail. 1984 (1929). Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Edited and translated by Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Brecht, Bertolt. 1964. Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic. Translated and edited by John Willett. London: Methuen.

Chou, Mark. 2012. Greek Tragedy and Contemporary Democracy. New York: Bloomsbury.

Clifford, James and George E. Marcus (eds.). 1986. Writing culture: the poetics and politics of ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press.

DaMatta, Roberto. 1984. On Carnaval, Informality and Magic: A Point of View from Brazil. In Text, Play and Story: The Construction and Reconstruction of Self and Society. Edward M. Bruner, ed. p. 230-246. Washington, DC: American Ethnological Society.

Fortes, Bartira. 2020. Democracy, a Tragic Carnivalesque hero: The narratives of a transnational social movement against the coup in Brazil. Master Thesis. DiVA:

Foster, Hal. 1996. The Artist as Ethnographer, in The Return of the Real. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Geertz, Clifford. 1988. Works and lives: the anthropologist as author. Cambridge: Polity.

Marcus, George. 1997. The Uses of Complicity in the Changing Mise-en-Scène of Anthropological Fieldwork. In Representations, (59): 85-108.

Marcus, George E. and Fred Myers. 1995. The Traffic in Culture: Refiguring Art and Anthropology. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Pink, S. 2009. Doing sensory ethnography. London: Sage.

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. 1995. The Primacy of the Ethical: Propositions for a Militant Anthropology. In Current Anthropology, Vol. 36(3): 409-440.

Schneider, Arnd and Chris Wright. 2013. Anthropology and Art Practice. London: Bloomsbury.

Webster, Steven. 1983. Ethnography as Storytelling. Dialectical Anthropology, 8(3):185-205.

Wulff, Helena ed. 2016. The anthropologist as writer: genres and contexts in the twenty-first century. New York: Berghahn Books.