Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Panmela Castro: Human Rights Award 2010 - Brazil

From Vital Voices site, by Emily R. Turk
March 2010

Total darkness is the painter’s nemesis. It is chiaroscuro, the delicate contrast between light and shadow that creates an image to tell the story. But for graffiti artist Panmela Castro, illumination is more than a tool, it is the reason d’être—and enlightenment is her ultimate objective.

Panmela Castro

Castro, a 28-year-old urban artist from Rio de Janeiro, is harnessing light, dark, color and the power of a collective of fellow painters to change the culture of Brazil—and free the women of her country from the scourge of domestic violence.

Castro wasn’t yet born in 1983 when Maria da Penha was brutally beaten by her husband and left for dead. Maria da Penha survived, and while the abuse caused permanent physical damage to her spinal cord and paraplegia, her heart and mind were most radically transformed. In the nearly 30 years since the attack she has become an eloquent voice for thousands of women silenced by the shame of domestic violence. It was her life that opened the eyes of many Brazilians to widespread physical abuse of women throughout the country—so ingrained in the culture that many ignored it, accepting it as “just the way things are.”

Castro’s path to internationally respected artist, cultural change agent and human rights activist was circuitous—but notably ordained by her mother. It was her mother who saw talent in the very young Castro, which the daughter didn’t understand at the time.

“My mom told me ‘You will be a painter,’” Castro says. “At just nine-years old it was her dream that I be an artist. When I was 17 she said I would go study at University. I did—but it took me eight years to finish. I had to work to pay for school while I studied. So everything I have done is because of my mother. Today, she cries and cries because she is so proud.”

While Castro worked and studied, she met women affected by abuse. “I would listen to their words and just knew I could use my art as a way to communicate what I strongly believed: violence is never justified, never right.  I thought I could help others see that they have the power to change their situation,” she says. Married at just 17, Castro had experienced some abuse from her own husband, but unlike many women in her culture, she knew instinctively that she didn’t have to accept it and quickly left the relationship.

Then while working as a designer, Castro met a group of women artists who introduced her to the power of street art. While her personal artistic expressions on paper and canvas are valuable recordings of her heart and mind, she quickly learned that graffiti could be a highly visible and even radical public forum for societal change.

Moved to act, she joined with the human rights organization Comcausa and Grafiteiras Pela Lei Maria da Penha to use graffiti art to bring a message against domestic violence to highly visible and accessible areas of Rio on streets that are home to the city’s poorest women.

“There is a difference between my art and the art that we produce together in the projects; in the projects the things that we produce are to send a message,” Castro explains. “We are working not because we need the visibility, but because we need the change.”

It took nearly three decades for the law to catch up with the reality of domestic violence in Brazil. In 2006, the “Lei Maria da Penha” bill was signed by Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. For the first time, it codifies domestic violence as a violation of the human rights of women and calls for public policies to prevent more victims and to punish abusers.

But Castro understands that a law, while hard won, isn’t enough. Women living behind the closed doors of abusive relationships need to understand that they have to power to speak up for change. Murals painted by Castro and others are scattered throughout Rio and beyond. They are telling women, “People have the power and the right to change culture,” she says.

The images are piercing. Spray painted vibrant colors of warrior women, women breaking free of oppression, women in control, and yet surrounded by words that have no meaning, representing millions of silenced women. “The pictures say ‘my life isn’t just on a wall. Learn to respect me, hear my voice. I’m not afraid to speak,’” Castro explains.

Today Castro is carrying her message beyond Brazil to women across the world through Artefeito, the organization she co-founded to use art to carry out social projects for cultural transformation. She continues to work with other artists in Rio, holding workshops for girls who are given the opportunity to paint.

“We discuss the law, talk about equality, and about their rights,” Castro says. “We talk about what the murals represent.  Always, I tell them that they do not have to be oppressed. The art says what I believe. A woman can be and do what she wants. I represent that idea and I think that the walls have had an impact—even saved lives. I have seen how little things,” she says, “can change big things.”

Emily R. Turk
March 2010

Panmela in NYC for Diane von Furstenberg studio event.
Panmela 1
Panmela 2
Panmela 3
Panmela 4
Panmela 5
Panmela 6
Photos this page: Josh Cogan

Panmela Castro is the recipient of the 2010 Vital Voices Global Leadership Award for Human Rights. The Vital Voices Global Leadership Awards honor and celebrate women leaders who are working to strengthen democracy, increase economic opportunity and protect human rights around the world.
In 2010 Vital Voices honors the innovators—women on the front lines, who are advancing the roles of women by creating new and effective strategies to remove the roadblocks that continue to challenge women worldwide.

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