Paint It Red

SOPHIE. All photos: Victor Valery.

THE STAINS WERE HARD TO CLEAN. Even after the crime scene had been cleared, the sidewalk was still a faint bloody red. Days before YAGA—a new festival celebrating São Paulo’s nightlife and queer subcultures—took over the popular downtown club Love Story, Jessica Gonzaga, a trans woman, was murdered just a few blocks away. Witnesses remember her killers shouting far-right president-elect Jair Bolsonaro’s name as they stabbed her to death.

Emboldened by Bolsonaro’s victory, his supporters now flood the streets of Brazil, repeating the new president’s homophobic, misogynistic rants. These are boisterous crowds that dress in the green and yellow of the national flag, sometimes sporting Bolsonaro’s face on T-shirts. Many post pictures on social media brandishing heavy artillery, or videos showing how they used the barrel of a gun to push the numbers as they voted for him, a response to his campaign promise to allow every citizen to bear arms. Imitating the new president—who mimed using a machine gun to annihilate the opposition throughout the electoral race—angry crowds, with or without their weapon of choice, have sought out confrontation with those who differ in ideology, mainly, intellectuals, artists, women, queer people, black people, and migrants.

The group that gathered at Love Story for two unseasonably chilly nights on the first weekend of November, many of them artists, designers, and performers from the city’s exuberant queer underground, seemed to represent all these categories. Most of them chose to wear red, the color associated with love, passion, and blood—and also the official hue of the Workers’ Party, whose Fernando Haddad, former mayor of São Paulo, had just lost the presidential bid to Bolsonaro. Kevin McGarry, the Los Angeles–based DJ and art critic who organized the festival alongside Sophie Secaf, a Brazilian trend forecaster living in New York, was no exception to this dress code. “We already had our colors picked out, but we’re obviously doing the red shirts today,” he told me at the door as YAGA’s first night was about to kick off.


The party was not about party politics. But the red seen on harnesses, swimsuits, miniskirts, capes, T-shirts, and dresses that twirled all night long on the dance floor stood for the opposition, all of those who identified with the slogan Ele Não, or “not him,” a chant that became popular in the streets during the election as Bolsonaro neared victory. Dressed in a red suit, a performer whose face was hidden under the collar of his shirt while balancing a beach ball on his head was perhaps the night’s most outrageous example of this new wave of in-your-face political activism. More discrete, a guy wore a shirt that read, “My party of choice is art.”

Outside, behind metallic fences separating festival attendees from pedestrians, some of the guests smoked or fought for a breath of fresh air. Maurício Ianês––a heavily tattooed fashion designer and performance artist known for having lived naked for a month in Oscar Niemeyer’s Bienal de São Paulo pavilion, and for other rather naughty acts, such as his self-portrait taking a cumshot to the face—was among them. Luiz Roque, author of experimental films featuring trans casts, was another, as well as Dudu Bertholini, a stylist and television commentator known for his flamboyant kaftans, tunics, and gowns.

Love Story during the first YAGA festival.

Despite some of the guests’ pronounced creativity in the worlds of fashion and art, the real spectacle was the rest of the crowd, many of them performers in their own right who’ve become staples of the city’s heaving party scene. The stark contrast between the normal guys outside and these nearly naked dancers—among them a boy wearing a harness and Spock ears, a topless girl in a platinum-blonde wig, bears with pacifiers hanging from their lips, and a guy in a T-shirt gashed to reveal his nipples—evoked a politically polarized country, one whose party scene is also split between those who cling to the norm and these beautiful otherworldly creatures.

Nearly a decade has passed since traditional clubs in São Paulo began shutting their doors and moving into the derelict, abandoned buildings, brothels, and gay saunas that have redefined what it means to go out in the biggest metropolis in South America. At YAGA, I spotted Guilherme Falcão, who founded A Tenda, one of the city’s most influential parties that used to be held at a dive bar aptly named L’Amour, a few blocks away from Love Story, and who was there to see yet another of these underground performers become a festival headliner.

This would be Laura Diaz, one of the DJs who founded Mamba Negra, São Paulo’s most beloved party at the moment, and who performed at the festival as Angela Carneosso, her artist alter ego. She was naked under a cape made of tinfoil, like a post-apocalyptic Virgin Mary washed ashore from a refugee shipwreck, and danced with red ropes wrapped around her body. “Dear passengers, this is our last stop before the end,” she said as she took the microphone. While she sang about hatching from the egg of a serpent in a crystalline, piercing voice, the dancer Loïc Koutana shook his body next to hers, a contorted choreography of gasps and spasms. Carneosso, her name a combination of the Portuguese words for flesh and bone, seemed to want to deny her namesake, to be as ethereal as possible: Her music was a kaleidoscope of references to Brazilian modernism’s notion of cultural anthropophagy and the sensual overload of the Tropicália movement.


The end that Carneosso alluded to in the beginning of her act seemed, in fact, to be everywhere. Arca, the Venezuelan DJ, performer, and musician who has become a darling among the hippest celebrities, complained about losing his voice hours before his performance as the first night’s headliner. With a Prada handbag and his buttocks showing under a torn, deconstructed suit, he played a set that sounded at times like bullets and gunshots cutting a path through heavy clouds.

Nothing, however, was more violent than Linn da Quebrada’s visceral performance on the second night of YAGA. The trans funk diva veered between dizzying falsettos and guttural lows. She took off her wig, played with burning candles, and bathed in wine and a black substance vomited by a dancer onstage. Her performance was a collision of raw punk energy with the tropes of a satanic ritual, a cathartic purge that commanded the attention of all partygoers, who huddled around her as she stepped off the stage. Most of her lyrics, dotted with aggressive punch lines that speak to the strength of trans communities, refer to the violence queer populations face in Brazil. She sung about sharp and well-painted nails that are claws, divas from the gutter, poor bodies for rent. Straight to the point, da Quebrada demanded “applause for femmes that fight to exist,” those “made to bleed.” The song dates back a few years, but at the nightclub—as police investigate the assassination of Jessica Gonzaga, whose murder blocks away currently has no suspects—her words felt awfully timely.