by Sarah Vowden
Here, culture is not hierarchised.
In the sprawling city of São Paulo, one of Brazil’s artistic hubs, Casa de Povo sits in the multicultural neighbourhood of Bom Retiro, home to a concentration of São Paulo’s Jewish, Japanese and South Korean communities. The day I visited was the anticipated World Cup match between South Korea and Brazil and I was told it would be the most animated neighborhood in the city to watch the game. On the Rua de Três Rios, I watched families glued to a screen above a florist as Japan and Croatia went to penalties. Chairs were arranged for grandparents to sit amongst buckets of roses and orchids.
Casa do Povo translates to “The Peoples House” and was set up in 1946 by a group of politically progressive Jews. Built as a “living monument” - an active site of remembrance for the persecution of Jews during the Holocaust, Casa do Povo united various associations in São Paulo together in the global fight against fascism.
Inaugurated in 1953, the community contributed both physically, building the space with their labour, and materially with donations. In its early formation, the space was populated by Yiddish theatre productions, reading groups, meetings for local associations and an editorial committee for Nossa Voz, a Yiddish publication still in print today (which is also translated into Portuguese). In 1960, in the building’s basement, the Teatro de Arte Israelita Brasileiro, opened.
Casa do Povo’s celebration of avant-garde art and radical pedagogy provided a space for experimental theatre makers to perform, including founder of Theatre of the Oppressed, Augusto Boal. More than just a cultural centre, the Ginásio Israelita Scholem Aleichem (Scholem Aleichem Israelite School) taught children in Yiddish. During Brazil’s military dictatorship, Casa do Povo became a key site of political resistance. The children of persecuted teachers studied at the school under fake names, as violent censorship of the space led to the arrest and torture of the school teachers and theatre practitioners.
During the 1980’s Casa do Povo was forced to close as the building became derelict, perpetuated by an institutional crisis in Brazil’s cultural landscape which mirrored the economic decline of inner-city São Paulo. However, in the late 2000’s, the community fought for its renovation, to reopen and preserve the founding members' vision after huge fundraising efforts cultivated its re-opening.
For Casa do Povo, memory is iterative, forged through an ongoing conversation in which cultural experimentation interrogates static approaches to remembering painful histories, forging a new space for remembrance. This expanded definition of the ‘memorial’ is demonstrated by Casa do Povo’s three founding principles in Yiddish:
A place of living memory, in this case, that of the institution, the neighbourhood, the migrations and the resistances.
A platform around which assorted collective initiatives, artistic or otherwise, gather.
Space that brings the future to the present, developing experimental practices.
This axis of organisation contributes to Casa do Povo’s celebration of interdisciplinarity and experimental process as a mode of social and civic transformation.
Acts of remembering are also immortalised in an archive housed at Casa do Povo, consisting of over 10,000 artifacts that narrate Casa do Povo’s history, the Bom Retiro neighbourhood and its Jewish immigrants. 4000 Yiddish texts are also made accessible in the library. The archival team are reimagining new ways to archive the origin stories of Casa do Povo, as well as encouraging archival practice amongst the current collectives and movements to ensure it continues this act of documentation.
The building itself is grand in its dimensions yet has an intimate warmth, made possible by the people that inhabit the space who create an infrastructure of joy. Parts are crumbling, but this worn aesthetic is honoured. It isn’t about the maintenance of clinical white walls; it accepts its cosmetic and structural ageing as the trace of a life well lived, of a dynamic space enjoyed by everyone. As its Artistic Director Benjamin Seroussi declares “it’s not a ruin of the past but a ruin of the future” - a nod to its continual reinvention of social practice.
A hot cup of coffee is always waiting in the ground floor kitchen, the door always open for a curious passerby, and a library populates the stairs leading to its entrance hall for anyone to borrow a book of literature or theory. Sometimes the architectural boundary of the house dissolves as activity seeps out into the neighbourhood, with street parties for the community, coordinated by the collectives and locals.
On the roof is a garden, where medicinal plants native to Brazil are grown. The tranquility of the garden-pharmacy provides a welcome respite to São Paulo’s heavy traffic. Somewhat juxtaposed, next to the garden sits the studio where collective Boxe Autônomo teaches anti-fascist boxing, with a view to its powerful effects to challenge racism and discrimination.
Resistance appears through both the tenderness of gardening and the discipline of boxing and it's comforting to see these coexisting as a conversation of resilience and care between the healing plant and the boxer.
The young architect, Ernest Carvalho Mange designed the building to encourage openness and flexibility. Furniture on wheels allows for the space to be re-written daily, moveable walls can segment the space whilst chair arrangements can encourage participation. This malleability allows Casa do Povo to be divided by time rather than space. Each of the collectives can ask for slots to dedicate to public activity, promoting participation and democracy. This spatial responsiveness is based on the ideas of the collectives and needs proposed by local community members.
Each collective is distinct in its practice but united by Casa do Povo’s prefigurative approach to governance and accountability. Its organising methodology of sociocracy requires each group to elect two representatives to partake in regular assemblies, voting on free proposals to activate the space. This balances the creative freedom of the groups and the needs of the Bom Retiro neighbourhood.
The collectives are varied in their practices, including a Yiddish choir, a chess club, a publication studio and a non-violent communication collective. All of which encourage unlikely encounters. Casa do Povo views art and culture as a field for potential resistance to social injustice. The space remains fluid and critical, not only through artistic practice, but through its interest in the health of the community. This is reflected in voluntary services such as Clínica Aberta de Psicanálise (The Clinic of Psychoanalysis), offering free psychotherapy to community members.
In what would have been described as avant-garde, the encouragement of experimental practice does not so much emphasise traditional practices in art such as painting, but prioritises process and social encounter. Here, culture is not hierarchised.
At the end of my visit we took the stairs to the top floor. In the centre of the room was an artwork by Rebata Lucas named Andra de Cima, a huge Brazilian flag imposing the space and installed by puncturing through two floors of the building. The flag drapes and drags part of the fabric along the floor. In the absence of wind, it sits somewhat lifeless in the room, challenging the ideological use of the flag. Caio, who works in the archive and library explained how the piece literally pierces the heart of the building, and that when Bolsonaro’s term ends, the flag would once again drape outside Casa do Povo, marking the end of another dark era in Brazil’s political history. This act encompasses Casa do Povo’s attitude to remembering as an act of resistance, and the need to interrogate violence and bigotry both of the past, and of the present.
It’s the layers of thoughtfulness that to me is the most striking part of Casa Do Povo, expanding the definition of what a cultural space has the potential to be. Reflecting on how the arts industry in the UK is increasingly reliant on diminishing Arts Council and corporate funding, radical agendas can be sanitised to more palatable forms, perpetuating the erasure of political histories. Community engagement can often be rushed and inauthentic. Instead, Casa do Povo does the slow work to prevent Othering in their community outreach work, and acts as an ever-evolving space that can adapt to local needs. If Casa do Povo can inspire cultural workers in the UK, then it must be through how they view their audience “not [as] a target but an actor”.
As I said goodbye, I felt somewhat sad leaving Casa do Povo, and the missed opportunity I had in seeing the centre become truly alive. On my return to the UK, I have reflected on how this incredible organisation has given insight into what cultural centre's could become. Community building is not just a radical act, but an essential one in forming spaces for us to connect with culture in its broadest definition, and forge meaningful alliances with one another.
If you want to learn more about Casa Do Povo click here.
Sarah Vowden is a writer, interdisciplinary researcher, arts programmer and organiser for The World Transformed. Instagram: @sazjwolf