Nossa Voz

An interview with Casa do Povo director Benjamin Seroussi about the historical and contemporary significance of their newspaper, Nossa Voz.

Nossa Voz is a publication by the São Paulo-based cultural centre Casa do Povo. Translating to “Our Voice” in English, the newspaper existed alongside the institution from 1947 to 1964, with texts in Yiddish and Portuguese and an editorial profile aligned with left wing ideals. It was shut down by the military dictatorship in 1964, which forced editor-in-chief Hersch Schechter and other contributors into exile. Relaunched in 2014, it continues to dialogue with its historical premises while rethinking its editorial directives. Learn about the history of Casa do Povo and Nossa Voz in this interview with Casa do Povo’s director Benjamin Seroussi.

Nossa Voz committee.
Image courtesy of Casa do Povo

Image courtesy of Casa do Povo

SOUTH SOUTH (SS): Could you please give some insight into the arts landscape in São Paulo, or Brazil as a whole? How has Casa do Povo positioned itself within this landscape?

Benjamin Seroussi (BS): It all depends where you put the limit between contemporary art and other forms of artistic and cultural production. On the one hand, if you look for a Westernized kind of art, you will find an often precarious but nevertheless rich and complex ecosystem with art centers, autonomous spaces, galleries, artists, collectors, museums, and auction houses. This scene is mostly divided between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. To anyone coming from the North, it will sound familiar with some idiosyncrasies in terms of issues, materials and methods. On the other hand, if you look at the arts from a broader perspective, you will find a very different landscape with socially engaged practices, dissident esthetics, indigenous art… The most interesting might happen in the friction between these two perspectives – many contemporary artists are moving between labels, between worlds and opening up new meanings of what art and art spaces can do.

Casa do Povo tries to stand on this limit while simultaneously erasing it, keeping things blurred. If you come to visit Casa do Povo, you will find a photograph of Mauro Restiffe hanging in our kitchen, a site specific by Renata Lucas literally crossing floors and coexisting with different kind of meetings and rehearsals, a garden designed by Fernando García-Dory and Arquitectura Mixta being used by a boxing academy, paintings by Rodrigo Andrade sprawling in our staircase, dodging fire extinguishers and other obstacles, a neon by Yael Bartana greetings visitors, furniture by Grupo Inteiro serving as the basis for our archive…[and more].

SS: How was Casa do Povo conceptualised and established?

BS: Casa do Povo has two distinct origins that came together into one space. On the one hand Casa do Povo was built to gather all the antifascist Jewish cultural associations that came up in the 30s and 40s (a school, a choir, a newspaper, a library, etc.). On the other hand, it was thought of as a monument [that pays] homage to those who died in the Shoah. This double origin generated a unique place that we call a “living monument” in the sense that it is an empty building where to remember is to act. Each generation has to activate this legacy for its time.

SS: What is the history of the newspaper Nossa Voz? Your website states that it existed alongside Casa do Povo from 1947 to 1964. How did this coincide with the context of the space at the time?

BS: One of the associations and organisations that orbited around Casa do Povo was the Nossa Voz newspaper. Published in Yiddish and Portuguese, it was the political mouthpiece of the Jewish left at the time. The newspaper had its own headquarters outside Casa do Povo but still in our neighbourhood, and its directors, editors and readers were all more or less connected to Casa do Povo – be it as members, part of the public or as friends.

Doris Criolla, 2014. Amilcar Packer. Photo: Camila Picolo.
Image courtesy of Casa do Povo

SS: The newspaper was historically published in Yiddish and Portuguese. How does this connect to the urban history of Casa do Povo’s location, audience and community?

BS: It started as a mostly Yiddish newspaper but, as the Brazilian Jews became more Brazilian, the Portuguese part gained more space. But the Yiddish was always there. Not all articles were translated from Yiddish to Portuguese. This was a way to dodge censorship that was very active in Brazil at the time, even before dictatorship. An interesting anecdote is that today, almost all historical issues of Nossa Voz are part of the National Library’s archive and have all been digitized and are available online. Why does the National Library have them? Because the political police used to always keep an issue of each edition of Nossa Voz to check its content. After the dictatorship, these issues were given to the National Library. So, in a strange way, repression was a tool for preservation.

Today, new languages can be heard in our streets – Spanish, Guarani, Korean, Aymara. So we decided to include some of these languages with articles in Spanish, in Korean and so on. Depending on the content and the public we want to reach, we can translate them or not.

SS: The newspaper is also described as aligning with left wing ideals. Could you please unpack this further in relation to the mission that Casa do Povo had at the time?

BS: Casa do Povo was created in the aftermath of the foundation of the antifascist front in Paris in 1936 and 1937. Back then, the idea was to bring together “progressive” Jews – social democrats, socialist, communists, Bundist and so on – against the real enemy, namely Nazi-fascism. In that sense, Casa do Povo was aligned with the left wing ideals. At the same time, it has always been a place in dispute – some members were strongly connected to the communist party, others refused political allegiance. There were many discussions, divisions and splits. Some elections were quite violent in the 50s and people are resentful up to now. I would say that Casa do Povo has very clear principles but I would risk myself to say that it is ideologically unsolved. And I think this is quite interesting. It makes it more conflictual, open, diverse, contradictory and alive.

Doris Criolla, 2014. Amilcar Packer. Photo: Camila Picolo
Image courtesy of Casa do Povo

Today, new languages can be heard in our streets –
Spanish, Guarani, Korean, Aymara.
So we decided to include some of these
languages with articles in Spanish,
in Korean and so on.

SS: The military dictatorship at the time forced the newspaper to shut down and the editor-in-chief and other contributors to go into exile. Could you please share more about the political situation at the time?

BS: Brazil had the longest dictatorship in South America. It lasted for 21 years. It started slowly and ended slowly – some say it never really ended. In 1964, a first constitutional act curtailed the rule of law. It was followed by 4 other constitutional acts that eventually reduced the democratic system to a formal game that was hiding a terrible State political violence. Some members of Casa do Povo were arrested and tortured. The headquarters of the newspaper were destroyed. It is not clear who did it until today. And the editor-in-chief, Hersch Schechter, was threatened and eventually left for Uruguay where another dictatorship was arising. Under the American rule of the big stick policy there was no place to run but some places to hide.

SS: Having relaunched in 2014, the newspaper continues to explore and think critically about historical and contemporary sociopolitical influences related to space, identity, colonial structures and the cross-pollination of cultures and artistic practices. What is the vision and editorial approach for the publication now?

BS: 2014 was the 50th anniversary of the Brazilian military coup. 1964 is also the date when Nossa Voz shut down. So, we thought that relaunching the newspaper would be a strong gesture to connect Brazilian’s recent history with our own. Besides, at the time, Casa do Povo was just coming out of a long institutional crisis that had started in the 80s, at the end of dictatorship. Back in the day, the loss of its political enemy left Casa do Povo with no clear purpose. So, in 2014, Casa do Povo’s building was derelict and we were afraid that we might have to shut it down for renovation. So the idea to launch a newspaper was also a way to be sure we would continue to exist even though this would be only on printed paper. Nossa Voz means “our voice”. To relaunch the newspaper in such a context was a way to say that our voice hadn’t been silenced.

This said, we didn’t really know how to activate the newspaper, who would read it, what it would exactly talk about. But this lack of definition was interesting to us. Based on clear principles, we had to invent our public, the issues we would talk about, the way we would work. To have something to talk about, we commissioned local performances by several artists. These performances would then become articles in the newspaper. We thought that people who had participated in these actions would be interested in reading about it and thus becoming readers. The first issue only had 4 pages compared to today’s edition which has 64 pages. It is a constant work in progress. I would say that we are relaunching Nossa Voz every year! To be more specific, we try to look at our context (neighbourhood, city, current issues, etc.) and our history (Jewish, Brazilian, etc.), both in a local and broader way, from an artistic perspective – meaning that we see art as a powerful trigger for imagination.

Upper floor, 2018. Renata Lucas. Photo: Edouard Fraipont
Image courtesy of Casa do Povo

SS: The 2021 edition revolved around the topic Regenerations, an important consideration emphasised through the COVID-19 pandemic. Could you share more about the thematic contemplations that are present in this edition?

Ana Druwe, Isabella Rjeille, Marilia Loureiro and I have worked together on Nossa Voz for several years now. We have developed a strong confidence between us. We discuss some ideas, suggest some authors and we are each follow-up on the articles we are responsible for. Everything we were discussing about, thinking and doing was connected to the pandemic but the topic itself only came a posteriori when writing the editorial collectively. We looked at all the texts and images we had gathered and we realized that we were talking about “regenerations”. In the tragic moment we are living in, we tried to voice out what is already happening, what is already here, pinpointing at futures that are emerging in the present – if you are ready to listen to them. These are the regenerations sprouting in our current times.

With Jaider Esbell, Armando Mundrik and Walmir Thomazi Cardoso, we looked up in the sky to find some omens about our situation – the indigenous sky from the Alto Rio Negro and the Jewish Argentinean sky of the Pampa. With Valentina D’Avenia, Daniel Lie, Jonas Van, Jorgge Mena Barreto, Marcelo Wasem and Vandana Shiva, we looked back at the earth: what comes out of it, what we dump in it, and how we cultivate and take care of it… or not. Weaving solidarities, we gave some space to minority narratives and important discussions – from the relationship between the pandemic, whiteness and structural racism in Brazil; to the story of Bolivian and Peruvian migrants living in our neighborhood. Artists like Castiel Vitorino Brasileiro, Napê and Abigail Campos Leal brought new layers to how to poetically look at our dismantling world and its ongoing transformations.

SS: What are your thoughts on the importance of documentation, archiving and placemaking that comes to be through the existence of publications such as Nossa Voz?

BS: Nossa Voz has the format of a newspaper but it functions more as a magazine. We usually publish one issue per year. When we look back at previous issues, we can clearly tell that they emerged in their own topicality but always try to go beyond commenting on the news. They give us the temperature of our times. In this sense, Nossa Voz can be considered a kind of documentation of its own. We have very little time to write about what we do – and we are not that interested in doing it either – so writing, or inviting people to write, about what is going on, is maybe the best way to reflect on the state of things. Last, we do not see Nossa Voz as a communication tool for Casa do Povo but rather as a space – on paper – to be programmed, just as we have other spaces to be programmed in our five story building. So it’s definitely a lot about placemaking too. We relaunched it at first to be sure that we would be able to still function even if our headquarters were to be shut down. Seven years later, Nossa Voz continues to exist and unfolds itself as an extension of who we are.

Upper floor, 2018. Renata Lucas. Photo: Edouard Fraipont
Image courtesy of Casa do Povo

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Nossa Ch’alla, 2014. Bernado Zabalaga. Photo: Camila Picolo.
Image courtesy of Casa do Povo

Nossa Ch’alla, 2014. Bernado Zabalaga. Photo: Camila Picolo.
Image courtesy of Casa do Povo

CREDITS

Images courtesy of Casa do Povo.

Click here to learn more about Nossa Voz. The publication is distributed free of charge and can be obtained at Casa do Povo during visiting hours as well as online.

Click here to access recent issues of Nossa Voz.

Click here to access historical issues of Nossa Voz.

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