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"Articulating the Pandemic": Amanda Carvalho

Fri. Aug. 21, 2020

Amanda Carvalho


Photo supplied

Amanda Carvalho is a Brazilian designer. Her research interests involve exploring intersections between design thinking, visual cultures, performance, and creative methodologies as decolonizing tools. Carvalho was completing the required course work for her MA in Cultural Studies (curatorial practices stream) at the University of Winnipeg in late March when the campus closed due to COVID.  

In response to the call for submissions to the COVID-19 and Cultural Studies: Articulating the Pandemic series, Carvalho created what she describes as “an experimental auto-ethnographic work,” through which she explored her thoughts and feelings related to the pandemic. Her work, Between Boxes, is powerful. Using an image and a single paragraph of text, she manages to convey her sense of loneliness and isolation, the confusion of navigating newly-imposed rules of social distancing, and the stress of feeling hypervisible as an immigrant woman of colour in a new country. In spite of her own challenges, Carvalho’s life experience has also made her sensitive to her relative privilege, a concern for others which is apparent in her work.

Dr. Angela Failler is Canada Research Chair in Culture and Public Memory, Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies, and Director of the Centre for Research in Cultural Studies (CRiCS). Dr. Jane Barter is Professor of Religion and Culture and a member of CRiCS. Failler and Barter put out the call for submissions and are co-editors of the series. They agree that “Carvalho's contribution to this series is profoundly affecting. She is feeling and thinking her way through the pandemic in both conceptual and aesthetic terms here.” Failler adds, “To my mind, this is the best example of cultural studies.”

It was a sunny morning when we met for a socially distanced coffee to discuss her work. Here is some of what she shared.

(i) Loneliness, immigration, and COVID

We started by talking about the challenges Carvalho faced early on in the pandemic. Carvalho explains that for many people the most difficult part of this experience has been being restricted to connecting with family and friends through platforms, such as FaceTime, WhatsApp, and video conferencing. Ironically, Carvalho points out that this wasn’t a change for her, as she’d already had to make that adjustment when she had moved to Winnipeg. “As an immigrant,” she says, “this is something you go through, something you experience.”

Carvalho thinks back to when she first came moved to Winnipeg in October 2017 and of the extreme loneliness of that experience. Then in March 2020, the University campus closed and we were all restricted from going out, except for essentials. “I thought I couldn’t feel more lonely,” she says, “but then with COVID you cannot see anyone. That was almost claustrophobic in a way.”

Still Carvalho is quick to acknowledge that coming here was her choice. Studying abroad was a dream of hers. Even as she herself struggled, Carvalho couldn’t help but think how difficult it must be for refugees who are displaced due to forces outside of their control.

For Carvalho, one of the hardest parts of managing during the pandemic has been the uncertainty this has brought to her life. In April, she had to cancel a trip to Brazil to spend time with her family and friends. It isn’t possible to plan another, especially as the situation COVID situation in Brazil is “critical”. That has been frustrating and stressful.

Carvalho’s family and friends in Brazil are well and no one has tested positive. She says, though, that is due to their experience of privilege within Brazil, where they are not among those at higher risk of contracting the coronavirus. Her concern now is for friends who are still being required to take measures to limit the spread of COVID, measures which were already in place in Brazil when they started in Winnipeg in March. She worries about people taking chances due to the length of time they have been required to maintain social distancing, etc.

(ii) “Between Boxes”

With the title “Between Boxes”, Carvalho was thinking of boxes in both the physical sense of being with the walls of her apartment during the pandemic, but also in a metaphorical sense. She likens boxes in this second sense to the identities that are ascribed to us, for example, when we fill out forms and are asked to say what we are. For herself, Carvalho says, “I am a female, a woman of colour, and an immigrant.” She is quick to note that these boxes are those given to her, not necessarily those she has chosen.

During the pandemic, Carvalho describes how it felt, as though for the first time, that people in different “boxes” were able to relate to one another because of the experience we all shared. At the same time, it was all too apparent that the coronavirus is not affecting everyone the same way. While structural and social inequalities and racism are always there, she says, the way black people and other people of colour are being disproportionately affected by COVID, was something that, sadly, was all too clear. As she puts it, “Those boxes, those distances, were so much more evident.” This, Carvalho feels, heightened the intensity of the protests in response to the killing of George Floyd and other cases of police brutality in Canada, in the United States, and around the world.

As Carvalho reflected on her experience, she remembers, at times, feeling “so inside those boxes.” But she also sees the opportunity in COVID to move out of those boxes, to disrupt and to find others spaces that are not boxes. This could be an opportunity, she says, to move toward a time when those things will change.

(iii) “No one is watching.”

The last three lines of Amanda Carvalho’s piece read as follows:

“Within the box created between these windows and walls, I establish a new kind of space. A space in which my gaze can look back at the current distant white gazes beyond the white walls and the white windows. No one is watching.”

Before COVID, Carvalho explains that she felt hypervisible – “and not in a good way” – when she was in public. Then, during COVID, when we were restricted to connecting in virtual space, she felt like others were able to see her outside of the usual stereotypes. Carvalho feels that the pandemic provided an opportunity to have a different gaze. “People were more open”, she says. “I feel like we had the chance for the first time of inhabiting the same space in this world.” And with that, came a sense of relief. Carvalho also felt listened to for the first time. Perhaps, she thinks, because of COVID, we were more open to one another.

We have a sense that because we all went through the pandemic together, it affected us equally. Again, Carvalho is emphatic that that is not the case. She thinks about empathy. We often talk about empathy, she says, but it is hard to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. “And though we might try to be empathetic, it isn’t possible to actually feel what someone else is feeling,” she concludes.

(iv) An experimental auto-ethnographic work

In her piece, which she describes as “an experimental auto-ethnographic work,” Carvalho took a creative approach to exploring her thoughts and emotions related to the pandemic. An important part of that was having a series of photos of herself taken, one of which she included with her piece. “Through the photos”, she says, “I could see myself in a different way as well, which is an interesting process.” In the images, Carvalho could see traces of the effects of the pandemic on herself in, for example, her facial expressions and in the way she positioned her body as though she was more restricted.

In her piece, Carvalho describes the challenges of navigating the pandemic as an immigrant, but acknowledges, “Nevertheless, I am privileged.” Carvalho says she feels guilty when she thinks of her friends and family in Brazil. Not only is it physically safer, where Manitoba has comparatively few cases of COVID, the Canadian government has provided accessible financial support to those whose work has been affected by the pandemic. Of Canada, she says, “I felt I could trust the place that I am.”

Lisa McLean
Faculty of Arts