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Writer Conceição Evaristo takes office at the Olavo Setubal Chair of Art, Culture, and Science

by Richard Meckien - published Sep 08, 2022 04:55 PM - - last modified Dec 15, 2022 05:19 PM
Rights: Original version in Portuguese by Mauro Bellesa.

Conceição Evaristo - 5/9/2022
Conceição Evaristo: ''I fill in the gaps in memories with fiction."

During a ceremony that moved everyone present in the University Council Room on September 5, writer Conceição Evaristo took office as holder of the Olavo Setubal Chair of Art, Culture, and Science, a partnership between the IEA and the Itaú Cultural Institute.

The inauguration was attended by representatives of black collectives, black women from the fields of culture and politics, Evaristo's colleagues from the Fluminense Federal University (UFF), USP's deans and professors, among other outstanding figures from academia, black cultural movements, and the anti-racism struggle.

For the Chair's academic coordinator and former director at the IEA, Martin Grossmann, Evaristo's tenure further enhances the objectives of the project Democracy, Arts, and Plural Knowledge (DASP), implemented by social, cultural, and educational activist Eliana Sousa Silva when she was the chairholder in 2018.

He said that USP has taken a while to engage in the affirmative policies implemented in the country in recent decades, adopting racial quotas only in 2018. For him, the choice of the new chairholder is part of the continuity of the efforts by the new governance of USP aimed at diversity and inclusion, marked by the creation of the Dean of Inclusion and Belonging (PRIP).

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Democratic participation

The director of the Itaú Cultural Institute, Eduardo Saron, stated that one of the issues present in the cultural area for a long time is access to culture. For him, the new frontier is that of democratic participation in the cultural world. He considers that Evaristo means "the synthesis of what it means to fight for democratization."

Representing the Chair's patron family, educator Maria Alice Setubal said that her father's entire history was committed to the country's development: "He has idealized Itaú Cultural, being a pioneer in cultural innovation through the private sector, always with an eye on cultural plurality and engagement in the country's public policies."

Participantes da mesa na posse de Conceição Evaristo
From left: Eduardo Saron, Sueli Carneiro, Conceição Evaristo, Maria Alice Setubal, Martin Grossmann, and Guilherme Ary Plonski. In the lower right corner: Maria Arminda do Nascimento Arruda.

For Setubal, Brazilian society is building a plural country as indicated by "the diversity we are seeing within USP." These are important steps, she said, "in a slower process than what we would like, but bringing the possibility of a fairer, more democratic country that fights racism."

Inclusion and belonging

For vice-president Maria Arminda do Nascimento Arruda, the "happy choice of Conceição Evaristo for the Chair marks an important turning point for USP. The University is moving towards redirecting and deepening the paths in terms of recognizing the diversity, inclusion, and belonging." Without these changes in society it will be difficult for us to recognize it as democratic and civilized," she said.

"The choice has an even greater significance for bringing a writer linked to collective memory and the need to assert it to build another place in the narrative. Evaristo's literature expresses the redemptive character of the memory that has built Brazil. It is a literature about time, on the multiplicity of times, whose combination can produce the redemption of the country," said Arruda.


In greeting the new chairholder, writer and anti-racism activist Sueli Carneiro highlighted that escrevivência, a concept of Evaristo's creative process, has been forming a school, "echoing new cries for freedom inspired by her insurgent literature." She said that this new literature is producing new imaginaries, narratives, and characters "through which consecrated images about black women are resized, reconstructed, and resignified by those who granted themselves the legitimacy of speech and writing." She cited a comment by Evaristo herself in her writings: "In the Brazilian literary milieu, one type of author persists: a white man, resident of large urban centers, and belonging to the middle class. It is from within this social perspective that most of the characters and their representations are born."

For Carneiro, the writer's presence at the University and on the Chair "confronts the 'epistemicide' that evades black history and resistance." Evaristo's great theme is how, despite all exclusionary strategies, "black people remain, assert themselves, and refuse the reduction of their humanity, persistently denied by racism," she said.

Sueli Carneiro e Conceição Evaristo
Writer Sueli Carneiro (left) has been Conceição Evaristo's patron.

Evaristo's literature faces the challenge of decolonization, said Carneiro, "updating what it is to be black in the present and giving a new meaning to the representation of their human potential." This is because the fixed images of black men and women hide what is extraordinary in the process of black subalternization, which entails a resistance capable of producing unfathomable human types, improbable due to the conditions that originated them and which would be an inspiring source for a powerful dramaturgy, which only would make blacks and Brazilians better in general.

At the end of the greeting, Carneiro said that Casa Sueli Carneiro (installed in the house where she has lived for 40 years and dedicated to articulating her thoughts with black expressions and languages of continuity of memory and resistance) and the Geledés Black Women's Institute, of which she is one of the coordinators, are available for a dialogue with Evaristo's project on the Chair.


In her inauguration speech, Conceição Evaristo asked everyone, especially the black movement members, not to leave her alone: "Don't let me break through the siege alone. One can't achieve anything alone. They get lost along the way. Learning is always a collective struggle, even more so on a Chair."

Throughout her speech, she paid tribute to her writing and the fact that she became a professor to everything she experienced within her family and in the community where she grew up in Belo Horizonte, to the stories she heard from the relatives she lived with, and to what the family experienced from her great-grandparents.

She compared her reverence for these memories to the figure of the mythical bird Sancofa, from the Acan culture of West Africa, whose representation has an egg in its beak and the head turned backwards, representing the concept of "returning to the past to reframe the present and build the future," according to Abdias do Nascimento.

"I fill in the gaps in memories with fiction. It is a fiction of memory. There have been relatives I have never met and ancestral women who have never picked up a pencil or notebook. We are used to thinking of griots (male storytellers in many African countries), but female griots also give birth to memories, sometimes in silent resistance," she said.

She emphasized that she was not born surrounded by books, but by words: "Since I was a child, I learned to collect words: those inscribed on bodies, those that spoke through the bodies of my mother and the people around us. Through the few pieces of furniture, adobe walls, broken tiles, and few belongings, everything spoke. I grew up possessed by orality. The cloth and grass dolls that my mother made for her daughters were born with names and history. Everything was narrative. Everything was the subject of prose and poetry."

She stated that in African culture "everything is words, everything helps to communicate, everything is uttered in sounds and signs. You have to listen, because everything speaks, everything is words."

Discurso de Posse de Conceição Evaristo
The audience that filled the University Council Room applauded Conceição Evaristo at the end of her inaugural speech.

Evaristo said that her project on the Chair foresees a very dynamic performance. "The idea is to translate academic knowledge to the public outside the walls of USP and vice versa, promoting an interdisciplinary investigation and also acting in the training of professors in the production of new texts and new readings."

The object, she said, is to stimulate a dialogic relationship with knowledge produced outside academia, "seeking to incorporate new modes and places of knowledge production so that the training of researchers can cover the widest possible field of teaching and conducting research."

According to her, the work to be carried out should involve researchers in the areas of linguistics, literary theory, and psychology in order to think about the issue of subjectivity and how "creation from painful experiences such as exclusion explodes in literary art." Seminars are also planned for different audiences in order to democratize knowledge.

Institutionality of culture

Evaristo's inauguration also marked the end of the tenure of cultural anthropologist Néstor García Canclini, who participated in the ceremony by teleconference from Mexico City. Since September 2020 he has developed the project "The Institutionality of Culture in the Current Context of Sociocultural Changes," which has emphasized the reality of Brazilian and Mexican cultural institutions.

Canclini informed that the book "Latin American Cultural Emergencies" will be published by the end of the year. It brings together the results of research conducted by him and post-doctoral fellows Sharine Melo and Juan Brizuela, as well as by his assistant in Mexico, Mariana Martínez Matadamas.

He stated that the binational team has managed to carry out a certain amount of field work despite the pandemic. This period has "resignified what it is to do research," according to Canclini, since most cultural institutions were closed, such as cinemas, theaters, museums, and universities.

Much of the research activities had to be virtual, such as interviews and document searches. Researchers, workers in Culture, and managers of social and public organizations in both countries have been interviewed.

Photos: Marcos Santos/Jornal da USP