Seated in a white stucco-walled one-bedroom walk-up in Mount Vernon, the three artists huddled around a laptop eager to get to know the people on the other side of the screen far away in Brazil.

Despite a language barrier, the energy between the two groups was electric — as the artists from two different countries shared stories of their culture and creativity being shaped by a common African ancestry.

This was exactly what Ariel Barbosa was hoping for when she formed A Gente, an exchange between Black artists in Baltimore and Brazil to travel between both locations and connect over their shared African Diaspora roots. For the next year, a cohort of four Baltimore-area artists plus five leaders will participate in the exchange. The group of Americans are scheduled to go to Brazil in late November. The Brazilian contingency will come to Baltimore in June 2025.

“We’re finally all together,” the Mount Vernon resident said on the 90-minute Zoom call.

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“Despite the distance and language barrier and culture, their experiences have been the same — the same socioeconomic, disenfranchisement, lack of adequate resources. It’s the same struggle,” said Barbosa, who identifies as Afro Brazilian and white, and refers to herself as Afro Latina.

Brazil and Baltimore are primed for a collaboration — especially among their Black residents, said Barbosa. Baltimore, a port city, was an epicenter for the transatlantic slave trade where thousands of Africans were forcibly brought to the New World. The city, which is more than 60% Black, has one of the largest percentages of Black people in the United States. More African people were brought to Brazil during the transatlantic slave trade than any location in the world — including the United States. Of the roughly 12 million African people forcibly brought to the Americas, about 5.5 million were brought to Brazil.

Slavery actually lasted longer in Brazil than it did in what is now known as the United States, according to Karsonya “Kaye” Wise Whitehead, a professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland, adding that slavery in Brazil began in the early 1500s. Slavery in what is now the United States began in 1619.

“The smallest percentage of enslaved people wound up in North America, even though that is not the story we are told. We [Americans] have a very myopic perspective of slavery,” she said.

Even though the length of slavery was longer in Brazil, Whitehead sees a number of similarities between the population of enslaved people in both Brazil and the United States — from both countries heavily relying on this demographic for free labor and economic growth to the later establishment of a large population of freed Black people.

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Ariel Barbosa sits in her Baltimore apartment, while meeting remotely with artists in Brazil, on Sunday, Feb. 4, 2024. The artists are members of A Gente, which is an exchange between Black artists in Baltimore and Brazil that engage in deep dialogue and immerse into local culture and their art. (Gail Burton/for the Baltimore Banner)

Barbosa said she chose to name the group A Gente, an affectionate Portuguese term for “us” or “we,” because it connotes belonging and closeness.

“We as A Gente artists will be co-creating, and there is nothing more intimate,” she explained. “We also are all Black artists sharing the same roots, within the same African Diaspora. We need stay close with each other within a world not designed for us.”

Barbosa will spend the rest of the year applying for grants and sending letters of intent to various organizations on behalf of the group. On July 5, A Gente artists will participate in a fundraiser with Creative Alliance, a community performance space near Patterson Park, raising awareness and funding for the exchange.

A’niya Taylor, a 20-year-old spoken word artist who lives in Reisterstown, said the shared experience by Black people in both countries motivated her to participate in the exchange.

“There is not enough connection between the communities — because we do not understand what we have experienced. I’m not surprised that information isn’t shared,” she said. “When we talk about that trauma and the hundreds of years of slavery, there is no telling what countries and continents colonialism and slavery have touched.”

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Back in Barbosa’s apartment, where her father, Muriel Barbosa, was helping to translate the day’s conversation via Zoom, the artists were better establishing a rapport with their Brazilian counterparts.

Roy Byrd, a Lake Walker-based musician and music producer who goes by the stage name Kinesthesia, said he’s participating in the exchange because he wants to learn more about Brazilian culture.

“This will be my first time out of the country,” said the 21-year-old musician whose musical sound ranges from acoustic to alternative R&B, indie and jazz.

Villager, a 24-year-old multidisciplinary artist based in Pigtown, said they were apprehensive about speaking Portuguese to the Brazilian artists.

“I’m still learning,” they said, adding that they are learning the language through the app Duolingo.

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Villager poses in their studio on Sunday, Feb. 4, 2024 in Baltimore. Villager is a member of A Gente, which is an exchange between Black artists in Baltimore and Brazil that engage in deep dialogue and immerse into local culture and their art.
Villager poses in their studio on Sunday, Feb. 4, 2024 in Baltimore. Villager is a member of A Gente, which is an exchange between Black artists in Baltimore and Brazil that engage in deep dialogue and immerse into local culture and their art. (Gail Burton/for the Baltimore Banner)

“I’m interested in studying the African tradition and the way it translates through societies,” they said. “I want to see the resiliency of Black culture.”

It was at this point that Villager divulged to the group they speak Yorùbá and are of Nigerian descent, to which one of the Brazilian artists perked up and said they understood a little Yorùbá.

“I can teach him Yorùbá as well,” Villager said.

Throughout the afternoon chat, the artists described the obstacles with getting their work noticed. For example, one of the Brazilian artists said that he focuses on the urban life of Black Brazilians and how it relates to slavery. The same artist lamented about the lack of money, materials and support available to him, which resulted in him taking a simplistic approach to his creations — oftentimes working with recycled materials.

Other artists showed their creations on the screen. Some promised to share their work in the near future.

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“Que lindo,” Barbosa said as the Brazilian artists displayed their various creations. “So beautiful.”

Ariel Barbosa, right, sits in her Baltimore apartment with Villager while meeting remotely with artists in Brazil on Sunday, Feb. 4, 2024. The artists are members of A Gente, which is an exchange between Black artists in Baltimore and Brazil that engage in deep dialogue and immerse into local culture and their art. (Gail Burton/for the Baltimore Banner)

Roy said he was inspired hearing the stories of the Brazilian artists.

“It’s beautiful that both artists are using similar materials to express culture,” he said. “It’s the transformation of energy from the physical to the metaphysical to the spiritual.”

Villager, who is known for a methodology called “Afro-Abstracture”, added: “This is helping to define what it means to be Black. It’s the Diasporic identity around the world.”

Taylor, who has been performing spoken word since she was 14 and released her first book of poetry in September, can’t wait to see how the exposure to Brazil will affect her future work.

“I think everything impacts poetry. And poetry is in everything. For me environment is a big part of what I write and how I write. I‘m excited to see the evolution of my work while I’m there,” she said.

Whitehead said that she is extremely excited about the possibility of a sisterhood relationship between Baltimore and Salvador, the capital city of the state of Bahia, the location where several of the Black Brazilian artists live.

“I think we will greatly benefit. Not only by how children [in Baltimore] can see Brazil through art. But being able to share that with a different and similar culture will be a rich experience on their end,” she said. “This is how our city will grow.”

She added: “This goes beyond art.”

John-John Williams IV is a diversity, equity and inclusion reporter at The Baltimore Banner. A native of Syracuse, N.Y. and a graduate of Howard University, he has lived in Baltimore for the past 17 years. 

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