Open Kitchen
"Open Kitchen", 2019, action by the collective Universidad Desconocida on the facade of Casa Do Povo. Photo: Laura Viana

Until six or seven years ago, very few people in São Paulo – including those who work with culture – could say what the People's house. Cultural center founded in 1946 by progressive Jews in the neighborhood of Bom Retiro, the space had suffered about 30 years of crisis, with the closure of almost all its activities, and was more present in the memory of some generations than in the daily life of residents. of the city. The fact is that in a very short time the Casa experienced an intense and vigorous recovery, consolidating itself as a prolific cultural center and one of the most open spaces for experimentation, political debate and multidisciplinary artistic practices in the capital. Focused on both contemporary production and the preservation of memory, Casa do Povo drew on its own history to gain new breath and life.

Currently, attending the space means facing the most varied and, at first glance, disparate activities. Depending on the season, you can witness from a contemporary dance workshop to a journalism class for young people from the periphery; from a theatrical play made by high school students to a Latin American publishing fair; from an artistic performance to boxing training open to the neighborhood community; from discussion circles on women's health and self-knowledge to graphic material production workshops; from weaving workshops to free psychoanalytic consultations; from discussions about the integration of immigrants in the neighborhood to the rehearsal of a traditional choir sung in Yiddish; from a meeting on mindful eating to the distribution of meals. You can also consult a library and a vast documentary archive, purchase a copy of the newspaper Nossa Voz, edited by Casa, or leave with an audio guide to tour the Bom Retiro neighborhood and learn about its history.

If the practices are so many and so diverse – and the list above could go on – they do not happen by chance, nor are they inconsistent with the proposal of a contemporary space for culture and art, as explained by curator and cultural manager Benjamin Seroussi, director of Casa and one of those responsible for the resumption. “On the one hand, artists ask to broaden the notion of art, they don't want to be limited to traditional practices. They do not understand art as separate from other spheres of production and other activities of life. On the other hand, culture is not limited to the arts. Housing is culture, cuisine is culture, sport is culture,” he says. “So here we have creation, activism, people in situations of social vulnerability. But we never fail to understand it as a place of art. But a place of art that is trying to experience, on a real scale, other possible worlds.”

Experiencing other possible worlds was certainly what the progressive Jews who founded the space in Bom Retiro wanted in the 1940s, shortly after the Second World War and the Holocaust. And it is only through an understanding of this long history of the House, strongly intertwined with the political and cultural events of the 20th century, that the performance of the institution can be understood today. “Because the entire resumption was made from a re-reading of history. But not with the historian's eye, let's say, but more with the curator's techniques. The idea is not necessarily to look for factual veracity – not that that is not important – but much more to think about how to use, and perhaps abuse, this story in the present”, explains Seroussi.

the ancient history

The story that the curator refers to refers to the 1930s and 1940s, when thousands of Jewish immigrants fleeing poverty and persecution in Europe began to inhabit Bom Retiro, in the center of São Paulo, and when two narratives come together. On the one hand, the emergence of anti-fascist associations – as was the case in different corners of the world –, created during the war with the aim of fighting anti-Semitism, supporting the struggle of the Allied countries and, at the same time, not letting themselves get lost. a secular Jewish culture. On the other, the desire to honor the millions of dead in Nazi concentration camps. “It could be a memorial, a sculpture, with the names, where flowers would be placed once a year. A gesture of remembrance and that's it”, comments Seroussi. What was done, however, was a “living monument”, a space that brought together anti-fascist associations – such as the newspaper Nossa Voz and Clube da Juventude – and at the same time paid tribute to the dead. “The two narratives meet: the cultural center and the memorial. So it's a memory space, but a place where to remember is to act. A place where history is not written on the wall, but is inscribed on bodies and architecture, and it is up to us to activate it.”   

Vicente Perrota
Vicente Perrota's Parade/Performance held in 2018 at Casa. Photo: Julia Moraes

Designed by Ernest Mange – an architect who worked with Rino Levi and Le Corbusier – the Casa gained its headquarters in 1953. With three large floors, almost without partitions and a terrace, the modernist building on Rua Três Rios established itself as a cultural center and space for political action. “It makes a lot of sense for Mange to have designed a building with these free plans, which allows the spaces to be adapted. I imagine he must have thought that the best building to remember is one in which each generation invents its ways of remembering. Because we never know how tomorrow we will remember yesterday”, says Seroussi. The space also started to house the Ginásio Israelita Brasileiro Scholem Aleichem, a children's school with a renewed education (humanist pedagogical line similar to constructivism) and, in 1960, the Teatro de Arte Israelita Brasileiro (TAIB) was inaugurated in its basement, designed by the architect Jorge Wilheim. .

With the 1964 coup and the establishment of the military regime, Casa do Povo enters a troubled period in its history. While the newspaper Nossa Voz was closed down by the government, the school increasingly took in children of politically persecuted people (including many non-Jews), who received scholarships and, if necessary, false names. Teachers were arrested and tortured and the House became a pole of resistance to the dictatorship, especially through the activities of the TAIB. It staged plays by Teatro de Arena – by authors such as Plínio Marcos and Augusto Boal – and by Teatro Popular do Sesi, among others. While performances filled the theater and the school continued to function, many members of the Jewish community moved away, for fear of persecution or ideological disagreement, and financial difficulties increased.

“From the 1980s onwards, Casa do Povo lost its enemy – the Dictatorship –, its friend – the socialist bloc – and its social base – the Jews who left the neighborhood and often moved away from the left”, summarizes Seroussi. In 1981, the school closed its activities, emptying the space even more, at a time when the city center was also experiencing a growing abandonment by the elites and the public power. If the House did not completely close its doors, being maintained by the almost heroic performance of some associates, it entered a long period of crisis that only ended in the current decade.

The House Library
The Casa's library, reopened this year and which includes, in addition to books and documents, the collections of the collectives that inhabit the space. Photo by Camila Svenson

Recent history

This was more or less the story told to Seroussi in 2011 – certainly with more detail and emotion – by the women who kept going to the Casa every week to sing in Yiddish at Coral Tradição. It was during this period that the curator, after years of work at the Centro de Cultura Judaica, began to approach the Casa, located in a neighborhood that is now mostly Korean and Bolivian and with its very dilapidated building. “The House was not closed. These women heroically kept it alive, but functioning as much as possible”, says Seroussi, referring to figures such as Hugueta Sendacz, now 92 years old and still conducting the choir. At the same time, as a result of the release of the book Pedagogical Vanguard (2008) and a mobilization through social networks, a group of Scholem alumni also started to get involved with the House and to debate the future of the space.

It was from 2012 onwards, with a new board – which already included Seroussi – and an embryonic team that things started to change. “I didn't have money or employees, but I remember thinking: with this place, this history, this architecture and without paying rent, either I can make things happen or I change professions”, he jokes. “And we decided to do it the same way it was done there in 1953. That is, put groups to use the space. There was a fashion group, a graphic design group, an urban activism group. And today we have 25 groups or collectives using the House”. This time, no longer people linked to the Jewish community, but from the most varied origins, transforming the institution into a space for meeting and socializing between different people. “If the Jew is the other, par excellence, a Jewish house must be open to all others. It has to be a space of radical alterity, open to the trans population, the black population, indigenous people and immigrants from the neighborhood.”

From a questioning about what should be a cultural center of the 21st century, and more specifically in that space, three main lines of work were defined. The first, gedenk (“remember yourself”, in Yiddish), guides the performance of the house as a space of living memory, which tells the history of resistance of the groups that passed through there, but seeks to bring this history to the practices of the present and ideas of the future. The second axis, tsukunft (“future”) highlights the experimental role of the house and the desire to make it a space for thinking about new artistic and multidisciplinary practices. The third axis, Pharaoh (“association”), refers to how the first two axes could be worked on, that is, through the action of collectives, autonomous movements and neighborhood associations that came to inhabit the House, living together and using the spaces flexibly. .

Only if I sleep
“Só se me Dormirem”, 2018, performance by Karlla Girotto at Casa. Photo: Adma Macena

The three axes are directly related to an unavoidable question, according to Seroussi: “Here were groups of a political vanguard. A building of modernist architecture was built, it had an experimental school and a Brechtian theater. So the House condemns us to dare. She asks us to do it differently.” Different, even, from what was done there in the 1940s and 1950s, in a radically different context. “When Casa opened there were two or three cultural centers in the city. Today, only the neighborhood has the Pinacoteca, the Oswald de Andrade Cultural Office, the Sesc Bom Retiro, the Sala São Paulo, the Porto Seguro Theater, the Sacred Art Museum and the Container Theater. So we were going to make another place with exhibitions, theater season and shows? No, we wanted to do something else,” he explains. “Even because these spaces are fundamental, but I don't think they can handle a series of contemporary artistic practices. Because I think they often separate culture quite a bit from other spheres of life.”

Today, with the collectives and a program divided between what the Casa organizes and what it hosts, the annual budget went from R$ 60 thousand, in 2011, to R$ 1,2 million, raised between incentive laws, public notices, contributions from groups and associates, locations and an annual fundraising event – ​​such as the Caetano Veloso show in 2018. institution library, after 40 years closed, it was reactivated last May, representing another big step for the House in the sense of resuming its history and, at the same time, opening up to society. “Several generations have passed through here, including many people who have died, but we have this collection, this archive, which is the core of the House, which tells its story”, says Marilia Loureiro, curator and programmer at the institution. The next step is the restoration of the TAIB, which is currently very degraded, in a planning that is already at an advanced stage.

The newspaper Nossa Voz, symbol of the institution, was relaunched in 2014 and is published annually with texts on current topics and collaborations by artists and intellectuals. In the last issue, from 2018, the cover features the Herzog Vive! On the next page, the transcript of the speech given by Israeli writer Amós Oz in June 2017, when he was there, shows a little of the spirit – past and present – ​​of Casa do Povo: “I really feel at home. Here is the right place to start a revolution, or at least, as my friend Lilia Schwarcz said, the right place to plan the revolution. Because it's always nicer to plan it than execute it,” she joked. If it will not be the epicenter of the revolution, the Casa is, taking up Seroussi's statement, a place to rehearse other possible futures. “And everything that happens here today confirms that our desires were not madness”, concludes the curator.

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