SÃO PAULO, BRAZIL — In the midst of a public performance in the neighborhood of Cracolândia — an area in São Paulo known and named for its high incidence of public drug use — a group of clowns were detained at gunpoint by Brazilian police.
“We were scared,” Andréa Macera, one of the clowns who was detained on September 1, told Hyperallergic. “They were pointing their guns at our heads and shouting at us to get down, stay still, shut up, and do what they said.”
Macera, the founder of Teatro da Mafalda, a theater dedicated to palhaçaria feminina, or women’s clowning, has been leading community encounters in Cracolândia since 2010. Along with Flávio Falcone, a psychiatrist and clown, and a group of volunteers and locals, Macera facilitates a weekly “slam,” in which community members sign up to perform songs, poems, skills, or dances, and are judged by a jury of their fellows.
“It’s work that unites harm reduction care for people addicted to alcohol and other drugs with clowning,” Macera explained.
Last month, however, Macera found herself face-to-face with one of the biggest threats to Cracôlandia residents: a police invasion of the community. “We opened up the slam, and when we called up the first person [the police] rushed in from both corners to break up the group,” she said.
Around 25 military police emerged from three vans and on foot. They deployed tear gas and fired rubber bullets into the crowd of houseless residents of Cracolândia, then turned their weapons toward the clown group and accused them of disturbing the peace.
“They corralled us off the street and onto the sidewalk so we couldn’t leave,” Macera said. After the incident, the Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo published photographs of the clowns being held by armed police officers. The chilling images sent shockwaves across Brazil’s arts community.
The incident in Cracolândia was indicative of a growing threat of censorship and violence that artists throughout the country have experienced since the election of Jair Bolsonaro in 2018, with unprecedented funding cuts and threats over the past four years. And women clowns are uniquely situated at the crosshairs of Bolsonaro’s rhetoric against women, artists, and leftists. In the midst of the current presidential election, these palhaças are wondering what the future of clowning will look like in Brazil.
“From the moment that [Bolsonaro] entered,” Macera said, “he’s been against culture.”
Bolsonaro dismantled the Ministry of Culture on his first day in office in 2018. He has consistently used funding for the arts as a political weapon, only intensifying these efforts in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, any state that implemented a pandemic lockdown saw federal arts funding cut for proposals that did not involve “in-person interaction with the public.”
Paula Sallas has experienced firsthand how reduced funding affects cultural spaces. Sallas is a clown and coordinator of the Galpão do Riso, a theater in Samambaia, a satellite city of Brasília. Galpão do Riso has been in Samambaia for 20 years and has brought national and international performers to the low-income city.
Theater, Sallas says, offers “alternatives for entertainment, and at the same time intellectual enrichment, exchange with other people and contact” in a city on the periphery of the nation’s capital. But maintaining the theater has been challenging due to the pandemic and Bolsonaro’s cultural policies.
“Without government subsidies, it’s hard,” Sallas told Hyperallergic. The Galpão do Riso nearly shuttered at the end of 2021, when the municipal government surprised the theater by renegotiating its use of public space.
But Bolsonaro’s negative influence on the arts has gone beyond funding cuts, with political appointments that have often leaned fascist. Roberto Alvim, the secretary of culture appointed by Bolsonaro in 2019, caused controversy when he recorded a public address that emulated and paraphrased Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, set to a Richard Wagner soundtrack. Alvim was dismissed shortly afterward due to the scandal. And for two years under Bolsonaro, Dante Mantovani, a conspiracy theorist who has stated on his YouTube channel that rock music can lead to abortion and satanism, served as the head of the National Foundation for the Arts.
The past four years in Brazil have been characterized by delays and restrictions on cultural funding, especially with regard to art that addresses racism, sexism, and the history and legacy of the military dictatorship.
Clown Ingrid Alfonso Lucas says that the climate that Bolsonaro has fostered is tense for artists, if not downright dangerous. In April, Lucas co-facilitated an outdoor clown cabaret in a small city in Santa Catarina, a southern Brazilian state that voted overwhelmingly for Bolsonaro in 2018 and again in the first election of 2022.
After a sequence of numbers that featured feminist and anticapitalist references, “the crowd started to heckle the performers. Some people started to shout ‘Bolsonaro 2022,’” Lucas said, and when one nonbinary clown performed, an onlooker threatened that he “was going home to get his gun.”
After the performance, community members filed a complaint with the city council accusing the cabaret of “libidinous acts” and “gender ideology.” The state launched an official investigation of the performance and required Lucas to submit a full video of her cabaret for review. They found no wrongdoing, and the entire incident culminated in a letter that reiterated a list of requirements for publicly funded performances.
“It was offensive,” Lucas said. “It was obvious that they couldn’t find any issue with the cabaret themselves.”
Over the last 30 years, clowning has boomed as a popular performance genre in Brazil. Clowning is a form that descends from the Italian commedia dell’arte; it hinges on playfulness and vulnerability, eschews the fourth wall, and often includes flamboyant costumes, face paint, and the iconic red nose. Women have come to the forefront of clowning in recent years in Brazil, creating a new subgenre that distinguishes itself from male-dominated clowning.
Karla Concá, one of the founders of As Marias da Graça, Brazil’s first all-women clown troupe, believes that palhaçaria feminina challenges patriarchal restrictions on women’s freedom to make mistakes. “[Women’s] laughter is so marginalized,” Concá said. The threats of patriarchy can “make us feel that we can’t laugh, that we can’t mess up … The clown comes along to say that it’s all okay to not be perfect, it’s okay to laugh at yourself, to make mistakes — it’s human, and you, women, are human.”
Palhaçaria feminina also promotes innovative approaches to a long-established genre, particularly in the subjects that women clowns tend to address in their work.
Antonia Vilarinho calls herself a Black, feminist, Afrofuturist clown. Her first contact with clowning came in 1990 in Salvador, when she was a theater student at the Federal University of Bahia. At the time, Vilarinho said, “no one talked about women clowns, just [male] clowns.” As her career developed, she began to innovate in her own work by incorporating Afro-Brazilian traditions of dance and religion, such as capoeira and candomblé.
Vilarinho says that her approach to clowning has always made it difficult to obtain funding from the state, and that has only worsened under Bolsonaro.
“There is much less money in the editais,” Vilarinho said, referring to government funds that Bolsonaro has drastically cut during his presidency. “If it’s hard for a White person to get funding, it’s going to be a lot harder for me.” Vilarinho sees her clown work as resistance.
“The fact that I exist, that I’m alive — that’s already political,” she said. “I’ve subverted the order of things … I work from the place of a woman who is overcoming racism.”
The emergence of women’s clowning has been complicated — and, for many, enriched — by increased visibility of nonbinary and trans identities. Drica Santos, a clown and researcher who wrote her doctoral dissertation on Blackness and clowning, thinks that the term palhaçaria feminina is just a stepping stone.
“The word ‘feminine’ is slippery,” Santos affirmed. “But palhaçaria feminina resists the patriarchy and hegemony that would delete our experience … it matters just to say that women clowns exist.”
Women’s clowning, especially as it grows and becomes more inclusive, is changing the art of clowning altogether. As opposed to some classical forms of clown, Santos believes that palhaçaria feminina is defined by support and care for people’s distinct backgrounds. These characteristics, Santos said, are why clowning continues to “explode … as an intersectional discipline.”
On October 30, President Bolsonaro will face off against former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in a highly contested runoff election. For many artists, it’s a referendum on their survival in a country that has dramatically slashed funding for culture over the last four years.
The political landscape is one in which “Fora Bozo,” or “Out Bozo” — a slogan that compares Bolsonaro to Bozo the Clown — is graffitied onto the sides of bridges and street corners. But Santos bristles at the characterization.
“He’s everything but a clown — if he were a clown, he’d be a human. He’d play with his own crazy narcissism,” Santos said. “It’d become art, not violence.”
Lula, a former president himself and the left-center candidate challenging Bolsonaro for the presidency, has pledged to reincorporate the Ministry of Culture and treat the arts as a “necessity” for the country.
“It’s not going to be a miracle if Lula wins,” Sallas said of the upcoming election. “But at least it will serve to paralyze the extinction of cultural spaces.”
Regardless of the election’s outcome, the network of women clowns is growing in Brazil.
A month after she was detained, Andrea Macera returned to Cracolândia to host another talent slam with community members. For Macera, clowning is more essential than ever during this moment of political urgency. The red nose, which clowns call “the smallest mask in the world,” is more than just a prop.
“The role of the clown is a thermometer that measures … the sickness or health of society,” said Macera. “The mask is not exactly a physical device, the mask is a relational state with the world.”