Written by Yassmin Abdelf-Magied.
Art by Kristel Brinshot.
Luiza Prado de O. Martins is an artist and researcher who was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1985 — 485 years after the Portuguese first invaded the land currently known as Brazil. She holds an M.A. from the Hochschule für Künste Bremen and a Ph.D. from the Berlin University of the Arts. Her work investigates the ways in which colonial gender difference is inscribed and imposed upon and within bodies through technology; over the past years, she has been researching practices of herbalism and birth control through performance, installation, and the moving image. She is a founding member of the Decolonising Design collective.
You wrote about the colonial history of the birth control pill for your dissertation. Tell us more about that.
Reading and researching the history of the contraceptive pill was my entry point into my current work, which looks into articulations between technologies and practices related to reproduction, and colonial structures of power. The development of the pill (a medication whose importance and cultural relevance cannot be understated, of course) during the 1950s was largely enabled by the colonial relations between the United States and Puerto Rico. It was on this Caribbean island — which remains a colony to this day — that scientists from the U.S. conducted deeply unethical clinical tests on local people who lived in prisons, or slums. These were the tests that allowed them to submit the medication to the Food and Drug Administration for approval, and that couldn’t be conducted in the mainland.
Reclaiming these systems of knowledge feels, in a way, like a form of poetic justice.
What sparked your interest in birth control?
I think it might have been philosopher Paul B. Preciado’s wonderful book Testo Junkie, in which he traces and analyses relations between the concept of bio-power and what he calls the pharmaco-pornographic industry. It sounds daunting, but it’s actually a very engaging book to read, full of pointed reflections and interesting stories on queerness, bodies, drugs, and sex.
In so much of your artwork and visual installations, you use Brazilian and/or Latin American influences and artefacts, such food dyes or clips of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro. Why is it important to foreground your heritage in your work? How has that changed since you have moved to Germany?
Being an immigrant in Germany, I think largely it is a matter of remaining connected to where I come from, and where my family and friends still live — politically, materially, and emotionally. And it is my way of contributing to the struggle for more just societies on both sides of the ocean.
Your work touches on the reality that, in many cases, women in Brazil still cannot legally access abortions. How have they been resisting and writing their own narratives in the face of such challenges? What can we learn from the methods of their resistance?
I love this question! I think one excellent example is how, in the late ‘80s, Brazilian women figured out that a medication initially developed to treat stomach ulcers called Cytotec could be used for abortions. It took a while for state regulatory bodies to realize what was happening, and why this medication was selling so well. (Knowledge about the medication was spread mostly through word of mouth.) As soon as they did, a media campaign meant to scare people off from abortion ensued, and the medication’s sale was restricted. And, like always, people found other ways. I believe this story illustrates so well the power of community and solidarity, even within the most adverse conditions.
You’re passionate about re-centering indigenous and folk knowledge, especially in resistance to the medicalisation of bodies. Why is this process important for you?
Reclaiming these systems of knowledge feels, in a way, like a form of poetic justice. In many places in the world, so-called processes of “development” brought with them an erasure of local systems of knowledge — herbalist practices amongst them. This is the case in many places in Brazil; with my family in Rio, this knowledge was essentially lost over only a couple of generations. My grandmother knew how to make herbal medicines, but my mother and I unfortunately didn’t learn. This is because we both grew up during different periods of industrialization in the country, when herbal medicine was replaced by industrially produced pharmaceutical preparations.
How do you think Eurocentric conceptions of body, knowledge, and sexuality are tied to colonialism? What do we do about it?
The control over the bodies of those living under colonial domination was, and continues to be, foundational to colonial power. By determining who gets to have children, and how and why, coloniality is able to reproduce itself. It is a system meant to determine who lives and who dies, both in terms of individuals, and communities. Only those at the top of this hierarchy have their position as human beings recognized, while all others — branded as less human, yet too sexual, too numerous, too fertile — must endure different facets of reproductive violence. This is why I believe it is fundamental to seize back these means of managing reproduction.
What do you think are the most important themes from your work you wish more people knew about, or understood?
Something that often comes up, particularly when I perform my work for white audiences, are requests for “recipes” for “natural birth control.” What bothers me is that this betrays a fundamental misunderstanding — and, ultimately, disrespect — towards herbalist practices and systems of knowledge. No one would ever ask for a “recipe” from a pharmacist, because pharmacology is recognized as a valid field of expertise within Western science. Herbalists are just as skilled; I do not and would never call myself one, because this requires years of practice and study.
By determining who gets to have children, and how and why, coloniality is able to reproduce itself.
Who are the two or three activists or folk who you look to for guidance in your work?
Definitely Morehshin Allahyari, an amazing artist, activist, educator, and friend whose work looks into forms of digital colonialism; Rasheedah Phillips, brilliant activist, lawyer, artist and founder of The Afrofuturist Affair, a project that aims to promote Afrofuturist and sci-fi culture; and the fantastic Guarani filmmaker Patrícia Ferreira Pará Yxapy, who currently has an exhibition at Savvy Contemporary in Berlin.
What brings you joy?
Community building, cooking, seizing the means of production, eating the rich, and “punch the fascist” memes.
Anything else you’d like to tell people?
Decolonization is not an individual choice; it demands collective, sustained, committed work. Let us feed these visions for a future of blue skies and open paths; let us nourish each other with responsibility, care, affection, and patience.
About the Author
Yassmin Abdel-Magied is a Sudanese-Australian writer, broadcaster and award-winning social advocate.
Yassmin trained as a mechanical engineer and worked on oil and gas rigs around Australia for years before becoming a writer and broadcaster in 2016. She published her debut memoir, Yassmin’s Story, with Penguin Random House at age 24, and followed up with her first fiction book for younger readers, You Must Be Layla, in 2019. Yassmin’s critically acclaimed essays have been published in numerous anthologies, including theGriffith Review, the best-selling It’s Not About The Burqaand The New Daughters of Africa.
Yassmin founded her first organisation, Youth Without Borders, at the age of 16, leading it for nine years. Since, Yassmin has co-founded two other organisations and now shares her learnings through keynotes and workshops. Yassmin has spoken in over 20 countries on unconscious bias and inclusive leadership. Her TED talk, What does my headscarf mean to you, has been viewed over two million times and was one of TED’s top 10 ideas of 2015.
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