"I spent years looking into how non-white bodies become the subject of violence, so when I started the second phase of this work, I really wanted to go deeper into the aspect of resistance. Focusing on ways of resisting has been truly beautiful and healing"
Interview with Luiza Prado de O. Martins
Your work over the last years, both as an artist and as a researcher, has been dealing with questions connected to Reproductive Justice in a decolonial reading of past and current discourses on fertility and birth control. What does Reproductive Justice mean to you?
Reproductive justice is something that really underpins society as a whole. A conversation about Reproductive Justice is impossible to seperate from a conversation on how we organize societies also in terms of political and economic systems that govern them. When you look at questions like who gets to have children and how and when and so on and so forth, all of it is tied to matters of access. Not only access to technology that allows people to manage their fertility - like the pill or fertility enhancement treatments - but also things like housing and access to healthcare services. We live in capitalism, a system that at it´s very core is based on the inequality between people, and we can´t leave that out of the conversation.
I don’t actually use the term Reproductive Justice itself a lot in my work, because usally I am tacklinging issues that are part of this framework, but the aspects I am choosing are quite specific.
For instance I have been doing a lot of performance dinners this year. The idea for this started in researching how people have been using plants to manage their fertility. Be it to enhance their fertility, or to use certain parts of plants as contraceptives or even abortifacients. One thing I realized through this process is that a lot of these plants are actually edible. The stem, the leaf, the flower or the fruit of a plant will sometimes have completely different effects on the body as they contain different substances and different molecules. So I started creating these dinners as a moment of intimacy, because sharing food and preparing food for others is something quite intimate. There is a certain kind of care involved in the process.
I was also thinking about how access to food is also a part of this broader framework of who gets to live and who gets to thrive. Fundamentally I am exploring different aspects of the Reproductive Justice framework, but through different specific access points.
Your research frames the control of reproduction as an entanglement between binary patriarcal gender systems and colonialism. What does that mean?
The control of reproduction, who gets to have children when and how, was a fundamental technology for the establishment and the continuation of the colonial project. The scholar Maria Lugones wrote about how what she calls “the colonial/modern gender system” was established through colonialism. She argues that this gender system has two sides. One side is what she calls “the light side” of the colonial/modern gender system, which established the structure of this systems for settlers. She doesn’t deny the violence of this system on all of its sides, and there is a rejection of white women´s sexuality too in the way that gender was codified in the settler society, but the way in which this system has affected and continues to affect white women is fundamentally different from how it affects people of Color. This system defines white women in a specific way, such as being perceived to be closer to nature than the white man who represents culture. But the way that bodies on “the dark side” of this gender system are being perceived and sexualized is based on an understanding of the sexuality of people of Color as being something very threatening, and this persists in current debates on population growth.
The idea for my latest project, “The Councils of the Pluriversal” which includes the performance dinners, came from the criticism that I have towards the argument that in order to deal with the climate crisis we need to think about curving birthrates and overpopulation as a driving factor for climate change. Even very well known and respected feminist theorist like Donna Haraway have been buying into this argument lately… to which I call absolute bullshit. If we look at the history of this perceived overpopulation crisis, it is a conversation that is always recycled to target minorities – being it people who are poor, people of Color, people who are not within the gender binary or who are being minoritized for some other reason. All of these categories intersect in different ways.
The conversation on overpopulation is nothing new, it was one of the main arguments that were used to legitimize some of the unethical trials for the birth control pill and other contraceptives, even sterilization, in Puerto Rico in the 1950s. The argument went that Puerto Rico was poor because it was overpopulated and that there were not enough resources for that population. What is very interesting to me is that this argument ends up hiding different things. Puerto Rico was subject of the American-Spanish war at the time. It had first been a Spanish colony, then after the American-Spanish war it became a US colony. The fundamental relationship between a colony and a settler nation is one of exploitation, so it is not surprising that there was a lot of poverty in Puerto Rico. The body of the colonial subject or decolonial subject is associated with not having responsability, not being able to control themselves. This was translated into Puerto Ricans having too many children, Puerto Ricans not being able manage their fertility. And this is just one example - you can trace racism throughout the whole history of the overpopulation fear, including Paul Ehrlich´s Population Bomb.
Donna Haraway knows that there is a history to population control. I was very shocked when I read her chapter in “Making kin not population”, a recent essay collection by different scholars. Even if she acknowledges that arguments about overpopulation normally end up being a more subtle way to target disenfranchised populations and minorities, she is still toying with the idea that we will eventually have to deal with overpopulation. The same book also contained an essay I really liked. Kim TallBear, an indigenous Canadian scholar, discusses polyamorous relationships and specifically how monogamy was imposed on indigenous communities as part of a colonial project - actually both monogamy and heterosexuality, because indigenous societies did not necessarily have the concept of monogamy or the concept of binary genders. There were all these other ways that were whipped out by the homogenizing and universalizing project of capitalism, and she questions that theoretically as well as practically in her personal life. This shows another aspect of the colonial/modern gender system and how resistance against it can look like.
Where do resistance and solidarity against and within the current structures of biopolitics fit into your academic and artistic work?
When you start researching for a PhD, you have to kind of “diagnose” the issue that you are dealing with and formulate an analysis of what you have observed. I spent four years looking into how nonwhite bodies become the subject of violence, both structural and direct violence. This was very depressing. So when I started the second phase of this work, the artistic work that I have been developing in the past couple of years, I really just wanted to stop working on denunciating these violent structures and silences.
In my thesis I do discuss some ways of resisting, but I really want to go deeper into that. Working on resistance strategies has given me a lot of solace personally, because emotionally it has been really difficult to only look at the violent aspects. I was doing work that critically engaged with the world, but I had have to navigate that same world at the same time. As a researcher I am not a distant observer - It is impossible to remove yourself from the world that you are observing, the distant observer ideal is a lie embedded in masculinist science.
Focusing on ways of resisting has been truly beautiful and healing. It is beautiful to see the networks of solidarity that already exist and are being nurtured and expanded, and the new ones that are being built. I have been working with Women on web for the last couple of years, an organization that provides abortions to people living in places or conditions where they cannot access abortion. This network operates through volunteer work, and it is really beautiful to see how people organize themselves to make this happen. Each one with their expertise, each one can contribute one thing.
I have recently been in Brazil to continue to build such networks of solidarity, because these topics are so present there currently. There are many initiatives and many people doing beautiful work, people who are actually knowledgeable about herbalist practice and help people in their communities if they have reproductive issues like needing contraception or abortion or even fertility enhancements or treatments. Especially fertility enhancements are super sought out - the topic of treating infertility is in some ways easier to deal with than abortion, which is illegal in Brazil1. This has brought me to write performances about articulations of resistance, for example on the planting of a herbal garden as a form of solidarity. An imagined garden in a public space in Rio, that can be accessed by people in need of specific treatments.
What kind of solidarity do you want to see against the violence of population control?
To be honest what I want to see from people who might not be directly affected by this violence, but are entangled in this system like we all are, is first and foremost sustained involvement and accountability.
Sustained engagement is something that is very important – we need to be continuously insistent on these matters, you can´t be casual about it. I have seen so many white artists doing like one project about decolonization because now it is trendy. But decolonization is a political project, a long term project. We are fighting against 500 goddamn years of history, this is not going to be solved in two months. We are probably not going to see the end of these structures in our lifetimes, but that does not mean that we don’t have to work for their end.
If you are not a target of the violence of population control, but you are going to engage with these issues, then be responsible about it. Realize that this is not just a far away experience - peoples´ lives are actually impacted by this, every single day. There are people who are being targeted right now. For example Bayer is currently involved in a scheme in southern Brasil where they insert birth control implants into the bodies of young girls in the child protection system, without their consent. I mean what kind of consent can a minor give to something like that – to be implanted with a birth control system?
It is crucial that people with different kinds of access and with different abilities to articulate themselves get involved in creating conversations around these issues. When engaging in this work we have to ask ourselves: Who has the power to question something like that, or even stop it? Who has the power to call attention to it, to start a conversation about how this is not something that should be happening at all?
In your work you also deal with queer bodies. What are your thoughts on queer reproduction?
Let me give you some context to the story that I include into my dinner performances.
I did quite a lot of research on my personal family history while working on my broader research project. One of the stories that have always been fascinating me was the one of my two great grandmothers. The biological mother of my grandmother died of childbirth, and she was raised by her mothers’ best friend. There is a suspicion running in the family that there was way more between these two great grandmothers, that they weren´t just good friends. The biological grandmother was called Julieta and her best friend was called Julia which itself already is to cute. Julieta was married, but she left her daughter to her best friend instead of her husband. The story I heard was that she dreamt that she was going to die in child birth. So she specifically asked her best friend to please raise her daughter if she would die. To me that is such an interesting story on the understanding of kinship, of who is your kin. Especially in queer relationships, when you break out of the cis-heteronormative patterns, there are so many possibilities of understanding relationships, what kinship is and how families come into being.
Establishing alternative models for families and for kinship of course has always been something that queer people have had to do, because so often the so called biological family is a violent institution for queer people. There are a lot of queer people in my family, which impacted how I understand queerness and reproduction and kinship. My grandmother was always very open and very receptive to my uncles’ partners, husbands and boyfriends, even though you would not expect that from an old catholic lady. That disrupted this otherwise very heteronormative family. My mom has a lot of siblings, so there are a lot of uncles and aunts. Except for the queer family members the rest is very heteronormative. My grandmother´s openness and kindness, her embracing her queer children and grandchildren, is something not usual that we are lucky to have in the family. My uncles didn’t have to seek out something outside – they were embraced by their mother.
I have also been thinking a lot about the questioning of monogamy in terms of this project. The idea of ownership is associated with a sexually monogamous marriage because it was an institution that was fundamental to reinforcing the idea of private property and capitalism. When you start rejecting those structures that leads you to examine what it means to be together in a way that is not defined by notions of ownership – be it ownership of bodies or ownership of assets.
Curious about the story connected to Luiza´s performance dinner series “The weeds became long graceful grasses”? Read the story here.
1 Footnote re: exceptions – rape, danger for life, anencephaly
Recognizing that knowledge and knowledge production are always situated, we would like to add some information on the positionality of the students who conducted this interview.
This interview has been conducted by two white queer people in the age range of 20-30, who grew up in upper middle class and (at least partially) academic families in Germany. One of them is a queer lesbian woman, whose body is marked and produced as one that should reproduce through pronatalist discourses on the reproduction of white German academics. At the same time their body is also impacted by antinatalist arguments due to the lack of equal legal status of queer families, and the classification of their hormonal values as "abnormal" for female bodies. The other person who worked on this interview positions themselves as non-binary or gender-questioning and assigned male at birth, and is mostly entangled with pronatalist discourse due to being a white German academic as well, while being affected by antinatalist discourses as a queer person.
How can you follow and support the work of Luiza Prado?
check out their artist website, follow them on Twitter or Instagram
- immerse yourself into the GIF essay “All directions at once” created by Luiza as part of the web residencies by Solitude and ZMK on the topic of “Reconfiguring Feminist Futures” – it explores solidarity and resistance to colonial power in the context of indigenous knowledges about herbal birth control. You can find more background information on this piece of work in this interview.
- people with acess to academic and artist spaces and funding: hire them for talks, commissions and writing