Panmela Castro: Changing lives through graffiti

Brazilian graffiti artist uses art to transform lives and to raise awareness about domestic violence.

By Aisiri Amin

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© Panmela Castro/Facebook

Women in Brazil are too familiar with domestic violence. Most of them are either victims of it or have witnessed it. A landmark law, the Maria da Penha law, was introduced in Brazil after Maria da Penha was shot by her husband, leaving her paraplegic. The law was a turning point for Brazilian women who grew up in a society that normalised domestic violence so when they were abused, the wives thought they “just had a bad husband.”

A victim of domestic violence herself, Panmela Castro refused to suffer silently. She walked away from her abusive marriage and dedicated her life to put an end to domestic violence. Ever since she has been using her empowering graffiti and thought-provoking performance art towards raising awareness about sexual assaults and making sure no woman or girl experiences what she did.

Panmela Castro, the inspiring Brazilian graffiti artist talks to INKLINE about domestic violence in Brazil and using graffiti as well as performance art to bring about change.

INKLINE: What was the motivation behind using graffiti as an instrument of change?

Panmela Castro: I have been a victim of domestic violence. So I know the suffering and I have always dreamt that no girl goes through what I went through and that boys don’t become aggressors. For this reason, my organisation’s initial and main project is three-hour workshops where we use graffiti as a tool to promote the end of domestic violence.

Although research shows that 99% of people have heard about the Maria da Penha Law – Brazilian law on domestic violence – it is necessary to know their tools so that women can demand their rights. Knowing how difficult it is to talk about it, graffiti works as a conversation opener and makes people feel comfortable discussing about it.

Graffiti is a powerful communication tool. In the street it speaks to everyone regardless of age, sex, social class or religion.

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A graffiti from the Maçã Vagina Dentada series. ©Panmela Castro/Facebook

I: Tell us about the kind of work you do.

P: I remember an incident from my childhood that has stayed with me. One of my classmates in kindergarten forced me to use a different water cooler because I am black and that has stayed with me because I wasn’t raised any differently from a white girl.

It was only later on in my feminist activism that I could truly identify myself as black. In my first public performance I invited people from the audience to cut my long straight hair and painted it blonde. This happened when I already had 30 black women enrolled in AfroGrafiteiras program classes, a black leadership training program that began with the support of the Ford Foundation.

Through the program I inserted the feminist agenda in the Brazilian street art scenario and marked the relevance of ethnic issues, encouraging a new series of artists who embraced the theme.

Among other smaller projects, I started the Rede NAMI Fund, supporting small initiatives proposed by artists and producers that have the street as the starting point, aiming to give visibility  to the individual and collective work of women.

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A still from Panmela Castro’s performance art, “Porque?” © Panmela Castro/Facebook

I: Your decision to stand up for yourself and raise your voice is an inspiration to many. How did you overcome such a trauma?

P: I was 24 years old and I had been married for two years when I went through domestic violence. At that time I did not identify that as domestic violence due to lack of information. I thought the violence was part of my role as a wife. Some of the tortures I have gone through include putting me under the cold shower in the winter for a few hours to the point where I fell sick or threatening me with flaming fire coming out of an insecticide spray can.

Then one day my husband closed all the windows and turned up the volume and spent a few hours punching and kicking me while my mother-in-law watched, encouraged, and justified the assaults. The next day he plastered my foot even though it was not broken to hinder my escape. He left me in private jail for a week until I finally managed to notify my family who then came to rescue me.

At that time there was no Maria da Penha Law and although I filed a complaint at the police station, nothing happened. Later when the law was passed, I realised how important it was to show women that we now had a tool to protect ourselves.

It is in chaos that you find the energy to stand up for yourself. It’s the shocks, the dirt, the sadness, the revolt, the aggression and everything else that fill you with the strength, making you capable of fighting for change. 

I: The Maria da Penha law was passed in 2006 after around 30 years of advocacy. Until then domestic violence wasn’t a crime in Brazil.  Can you tell us about the Brazilian society before the law? Has the law brought any change?

P: The Maria da Penha law aims to educate men that women are not one of their belongings, that they cannot behave however they wish toward them, but also to make women aware of their rights.

People here find it difficult to identify violence such as verbal aggression and psychological violence. Things have changed a lot since 2006. Previously, when people talked about beating their wives, the reaction was “But what did she do?” The intention was to justify the act which was considered as “normal”. They had grown up thinking that a man had a right to hit a woman. But no more. I see that boys now consider it shameful to hit a woman .

A lot of boys from the new generation now see aggressions against women as something negative, wrong, and against the law. This is what we aim for: to reflect with people and to deconstruct the normalisation of the violence.

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Detail of Eva created in Paris by Panmela Castro © Panmela Castro/Facebook

I:  What are some of the main themes seen in your artwork?

P: I explore the female body in dialogue with the urban landscape as object of artistic research, the otherness and the perceptions brought by the experiences in the street. I also critically investigate the feminine mythology of construction arising from social constraints put on women in the contemporary society.

Today women are trained to compete with each other and I work towards the deconstruction of this idea by painting women bound by their hair to emphasise that they are sisters, not of blood, but of ideas.

I: In the recent years, you have ventured into performance art. Tell us more about it.
P: Painting the walls through the city, I realised that what interested me most were not the images that came out on the wall, but the questions of otherness that came up along the way. These were issues I managed to pack into art form through my performances.

In total so far there have been three public performances. I am very involved with the construction of a mythology of the feminine by contemporary society – especially the biblical story of Eve which is seen in one of my performances ‘Ruptura'(Break) where I portray myself as Eva inspired by Eve. This was my first performance. I invited the people from the audience to cut my hair and in the end I dressed in appropriate men’s clothes.

In the second “Porque?” (Why?) I carved the title on my chest to raise awareness about rape in Brazil, highlighting the fact that 54% of the victims were black. In my last performance, “The Imitation of the Rose” in December 2016, I wore a Siamese dress bonding me with women from the audience, and we walked, danced and hugged as a celebration of sorority.

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Siamese dress form “The Imitation of the Rose” performance © Panmela Castro/Facebook

I: Any last piece of advice?

P: Believe in change.

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