Art Therapy in the Context of Fascist Threat in Brazil
2:05 PM – 2:45 PM
“I will not press the button” said Nise da Silveira, one of Brazil’s most important psychiatrists and revolutionary figures, when asked to perform an electroshock technique on a patient in an asylum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in the 1940s. Instead of resorting to what she considered a violent and demeaning method, Nise introduced art as a way to treat psychotic patients and started a transformation in the understanding of mental health in society.
In 1988, after a long dictatorship, Brazil got a new constitution which built a social and institutional pact that allowed the country to make big humanitarian and democratic advances. Among other achievements, access to psychosocial care for serious and persistent mental disorders was expanded. The principles Nise advocated some years before finally became law.
However, all these achievements are now at risk. In 2016, a woman president was controversially impeached and her neo-liberal vice-president came to power through an institutional political crisis. Two years later, a far-right president who advocates for torture was elected. In this scenario, mental health policy in Brazil has begun to change and we have seen an “accelerated process of dismantling the advances made by the psychiatric reform” (Delgado, 2019a).
As a sign of that counter-reform movement (Lima, 2019), on May 25, 2022, President Bolsonaro vetoed a bill that would have inscribed the psychiatrist Nise de Silveira’s name in Brazil’s Book of Heroes and Heroines of the Fatherland. This act can be seen as evidence of the setbacks that this leader represents for Brazil, the Brazilian Psychiatric Reform, and for the practice of art therapy. A president who denies a tribute to one of the most humanitarian women in the country’s history is the same one who said, in the middle of a pandemic “some people will die, so what?”. The danger he represents is boundless, fascism under his rule is a latent threat (Soares, 2020).
This paper aims to discuss the execution of an art therapy workshop within this context and to think how our clinic is influenced by political changes. With a group of users of alcohol and other drugs in an assistance and research centre within a public university in Rio de Janeiro (Projad/IPUB/UFRJ), the workshop began during the pandemic isolation period. We aimed to understand how the new global parameters imposed by the Covid pandemic in a country led by a government with anti-democratic and fascist values affected users and the practice of art therapy in a public health centre.
Art therapy is a discipline that proposes the care of a person through the reintegration of their creative abilities. Through different artistic languages and a therapeutic bond, we work integrally with the subject and their singularity, seeking to reproduce in the art therapy setting what Winnicott called “Potential Space”, an intermediate space, where the person can create, play, and be spontaneous.
As an example, I present the case of Ana, a 38-year-old black mother and non-binary artist, consumer of marijuana. After some months, the art therapy workshop participants were offered the chance to reflect on their experience of the workshop. Ana told us this space was vital for her during quarantine, and that she does not know what would have become of her without it during these difficult times. She used the word ‘vital’ before immediately correcting herself, saying it was excessive. She was unable, nonetheless, to find another word to substitute it.
Whether the word was correct or not, Ana’s sentence expressed the importance of a place where she can truly be herself and express all of her feelings – and shows her difficulty in accepting such real vital opportunities, since a person like Ana, in the context of a world such as the one we described above, does not have the space or the secure environment to be entirely herself, without suffering reproach and violence as a result. She has become used to places that do not invite her to feel alive, vital, as our society normally invites bodies like hers to die.
The possibility of being in touch with her creative potential is vital for Ana, but also for everyone, as it makes people feel real and capable of being integrated in the world. This is crucial since a child begins to play with objects as part of the construction of the self until the construction of a culture (Winnicott, 1971).
Against a cruel and alienating reality, art therapy enables us to continue on a human journey, finding other ways of not pressing the button.
DELGADO, Pedro Gabriel. Reforma psiquiátrica: estratégias para resistir ao desmonte. Trabalho, Educação e Saúde [online]. 2019, v. 17, n.
LIMA, Rossano Cabral The rise of the Psychiatric Counter-Reform in Brazil. Physis: Revista de Saúde Coletiva [online]. 2019, v. 29, n. 01
SOARES, Luis Eduardo. Dentro da noite feroz: O fascismo no Brasil, Editora Boitempo, 2020.
WINNICOTT, D.W. (1971). Realidad y Juego. Barcelona: Ed. Gedisa. (1997)
Social communicator, art therapist and multidisciplinary artist. She holds a degree in Social Communication-Journalism from the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (2004). Professional Masters Degree in Art Therapy from the University of Girona, Spain (2021). Currently attending MEPPSO/IPUB/UFRJ to get a Professional Master’s Degree in Psychosocial Care, researching Art Therapy and attention of users of Alcohol and Other Drugs. She works as an art therapist in mental health care as part of the effective team of Caps – Center of Psicossocial Attention at the Public Brazilian Health System (SUS). She also participates as an art therapist in the Drug Abuse Study and Assistance Program of the Rio de Janeiro Federal University (Projad / UFRJ), by conducting the Art Therapy Workshop at the University Mental Health Co-living Space. Also gives ART therapy classes to mental health Care professionals at the UFRJ’s Latu Sensu Specialization Course in Alcohol and Drugs. As a multidisciplinary communicator and artist, she investigates potential links between creation, health, memory and culture. She Also mixes together artístic languages such as photography, film making, performance, poetry and visual arts in her own original projects and academic research. She is a founding partner of the Rio de Janeiro production company Orch Filmes. In 2018, was Awarded for the short film «Olhar no Fim do Meio» (Manu Campos, 18 min, Brazil, 2016) at the Latin American Festival of Barcelona LASFIBA. Member of the GREFART (Spain) and UBAAT (Brazilian Union of Art Therapy) Associations.