Snow has been falling for many days, and the Red Villa in the grounds of Lauttasaari Manor is covered in snowdrifts. At the café in the Villa, Silvana Bahia from Brazil shows off her new grey scarf to her lunch companions, journalist Monica Gathuo and researcher Leonardo Custódio.
The first ever guest to take up a residency at Lauttasaari Manor arrived in wintry Helsinki from Rio de Janeiro in early January, and it seems she has had to do some shopping for clothes.
In her home country, Bahia has multiple roles: she is an activist, a journalist, a filmmaker and a visiting professor. Yet there is a common thread running through all her work: improving the competence and status of Afro-Brazilian women. Her visit to Finland is organised by the Anti-racism Media Activist Alliance (ARMA), which has been operating for about a year with funding from Kone Foundation, promoting networking and exchange of expertise in the field of media activism against racism.
Two members of ARMA, Monica Gathuo and Leonardo Custódio, have taken up the opportunity to work with Bahia in earnest. Bahia’s three-month residency programme includes several visits and workshops, and also visits to the other Nordic countries. In her rare spare time, she has had a welcome party and gone swimming at the outdoor pool at Market Square in Helsinki.
It all began with hair
One upcoming chance to hear Bahia talking about her work will be at Vuotalo, Helsinki, in early March, where she will be visiting a discussion with a headline Let’s talk about hair!. The event will also feature a screening of the short film KBELA by Yasmin Thayná, which is a powerful ode to the hair of Afro-Brazilian women. Bahia was involved in making the film.
The film was preceded by an essay published by Thayná in a Brazilian literary magazine, where she shared her decision to cut off her chemically straightened hair and let it grow back in its natural state.
“Brazil has a long history of whitening,” Bahia explains. “Younger generations are increasingly proud of their natural hair. This change has only happened in the past ten years.”
The short film brought Thayná huge amounts of feedback, besides winning several prizes at international film festivals. Bahia says that the film was a turning point for her too.
In the production, she gained a lot of technical know-how needed in filmmaking. As her skills improved, she began to wonder why there were close to no Afro-Brazilian women in jobs that require technological expertise: there were very few cinematographers or editors, programmers and engineers.
All these professions were fully occupied by the white middle classes.
The time seemed ripe for change. People felt optimistic about the potential of the Internet. Another important insight was realising that the Brazilians have always been makers rather than mere thinkers. It seemed like a good idea to start something, but what?
Bahia’s friend, Gabriela Agustini, visited many maker spaces around the world and, in 2014, decided to open one in Brazil with the goal of promoting diversity in the production of new technologies. Bahia, who was hired to work at Olabi, also wanted to create another space where the technological competence of Afro-Brazialian and indigenous women would be encouraged.
The idea about PretaLab developed further when Bahia and her colleagues performed a survey to identify women already working with high technology. The net was cast wide, to include people from mathematicians to YouTube personalities.
“During the first couple of years, we made a series of videos with two goals. We wanted to influence decision-making (concerning education for Afro-Brazilian women) and to inspire other black women. We wanted to communicate to them that not seeing people like them in a particular position does not mean that they couldn’t get that position,” says Bahia.
Bahia says that PretaLab has successfully shone a spotlight on how Afro-Brazilian and indigenous women are excluded from technological advancements, which have a huge impact on society and politics.
“If you compare now with a few years ago, the change has been huge. As recently as 2017, you could not find an image online of Afro-Brazilian women working in high technology. Now, you can find photos of them studying programming or machine learning,” Bahia says with pride.
Today’s Brazil is full of change
Leonardo Custódio, who is engaged in postdoc research at the University of Tampere, has known Bahia for years. The idea of them collaborating had been germinating for some time, and now finally the Lauttasaari residence made it come true.
The residency programme is intended for organisations, allowing them to invite an expert with whom they wish to collaborate to stay in Finland for a period of one to four months. The Kone Foundation provides a small flat upstairs at the Red Villa, a grant for the visitor and a production budget for the hosting organisation.
Last year, Custódio and Monica Gathuo spent several months in Brazil interviewing Afro-Brazilians who use the media to make their voice heard.
“When I told people in Brazil about the racism I encounter in Finland, they could scarcely believe their ears. My experiences were so similar to theirs. There are also similarities in how we see ourselves,” says Gathuo.
“Their image of Finland is one of a prosperous Nordic country that should have been able to deal with racism by now.”
From the Finnish perspective, it is easy to believe the exact opposite. Could Brazil, such an ethnically diverse nation, really be grappling with the same problems as Finland?
The role of Afro-Brazilians in society is asymmetrical, as Custodio explains it. There is a long tradition of racism in Brazil, but talking about it has become a taboo.
“Brazil did not abolish slavery until 1888. At first, former slaves were not even considered good for labour. This led to a massive influx of Europeans to fill the demand for white workers. Silvana and myself represent the third free generation. Yet the problems I have had are nothing compared to what my father and grandfather went through,” says Custódio.
“Social mobility has become possible since then, but the flip side of that is that it means people have had to learn to keep quiet about their ethnic background or how they have been treated.”
Today’s Brazil is full of change, say both Bahia and Custódio. Afro-Brazilians are increasingly empowered to talk about what they are and to be proud of themselves. Bahia and Custódio say that this change has begun in their lifetime and that it is in very much early days yet. However, this positive cycle gives hope also for the racialised Finns struggling with racism.
“It may be +34 degrees in Rio and -20 degrees in Helsinki. But even though the circumstances are very different, we still share the same visions and talk about the same things,” says Custódio.
Sign up for the Breakfast Well & ARMA Talks: Black Women’s Voices in Brazil and Finland – discussion with Silvana Bahia on Thursday 21 February 9 a.m. to 10.30 a.m. at Lauttasaari Manor (Otavantie 10, Helsinki)