Anarkia, Brazilian street artist (Film still from "Street Heroines")

Anarkia, Brazilian street artist (Film still from “Street Heroines”)

Tonight, you can catch original works by no fewer than 17 street artists all in one place. In an effort to bring attention (and raise some cash money) for her work-in-progress documentary, Street Heroines, filmmaker Alexandra Henry is hosting a one-night-only pop-up exhibition and fundraiser with the help of some of local female street artists including Danielle Mastrion (you may recall her Beastie Boy murals in the East Village), Alice Mizrachi, and Lexi Bella. With the help of Howl Happening, Rabbithole Projects in Dumbo will play host to the free event, which starts at 7:30 pm.

We spoke with the filmmaker Alexandra Henry earlier today about her documentary project, which has been several years in the making. While living “back and forth” between São Paolo and New York City, the filmmaker came into contact with a kind of Brazilian street-art culture that she found “overwhelming.” As someone who had documented street art in NYC since she was a teenager, naturally Henry jumped at the chance to take in São Paolo’s fascinating “urban landscape,” which she started out capturing with her still camera.

But it wasn’t until she made the trip back home to New York that she was inspired to readjust her focus. “I happened upon these young women who were painting a wall together,” she recalled. “I’d never seen anything like that before and it kind of hit me, ‘Wait? Where are all the women who are participating in this movement, this subculture?’”

Back in Brazil, Henry sought out her first subject, an artist whose work she’d seen all over her adopted neighborhood. “I didn’t know who it was, just some anonymous street artist, but I decided to look into it, to see who was painting these orange female characters all around the city,” she explained. The artist, who Henry came to find out was a woman who goes by simply Magrela, was known for these “really sad, but melancholic, and more of poetic representations of women,” something that stood in stark contrast to the images of women that Henry was seeing in Brazilian advertisements, on TV, and anywhere else. “It’s all about beauty, plastic surgery, how they’re very superficial,” she explained. “I realized these women were telling a different story.”

At a time when street art in the U.S. has nearly completed its evolution into a fully commodified, slicked-down version of its former self, or at least been translated into feel-good pop art that’s easy on the eyes but has little substance beneath it, Henry was inspired by the political activism she found amongst the South American female street artists. In New York City, on the other hand, there are places like Vandal– the Lower East Side restaurant where you can dine on Red Snapper tostadas in the shadow of street art from titans like Apexer and Swoon (who, by the way, at opening time was the only female street artist featured in the 12,000-square-foot monster of a space). But for Henry, and many of the artists she interviewed from Mexico, Ecuador, Brazil, Argentina, and Chile, among others, street art has much more “rogue” associations outside of the U.S..

“There’s a lot more of an illegal movement going on there than in the U.S.,” she explained. “Also, the message in their work has a stronger political purpose– bringing awareness to indigenous cultures, people who are still very much second-class citizens; and women of color, who don’t get a lot of respect or attention at all really.”

While some artists are more interested in highlighting specific instances of injustice through massive mural likenesses, such as the kidnapping of 200 Nigerian school girls, one “Street Heroines” subject, Anarkia who hails from Rio de Janeiro, is an example of an artist who combines the personal with the political. “She’s a victim herself and has turned into an advocate for eliminating domestic violence,” Henry explained.

So far, the documentary project has collected interviews from around 25 female street artists with ties around the globe. Taken together, their experiences tell a variety of stories about how street art is perceived in different parts of the world, as well as what individual women are doing to advance the art form or propel political movements in their hometowns. There’s Shiro, for example, a Japanese nurse who eventually moved to the U.S. in the late ’90s and, with the help of Toofly (another local female street artist featured in the doc) successfully broke into the graffiti scene she’d learned about from movies like the 1983 film Wild Style. 

“Her dream was to come to New York and participate in all of it, and she did, and she was really able to get into the scene because of women like Toofly, who was paving the way for other women who were also wanting to take part in graffiti. She’d hold workshops for them, and she was really trying to rally other women to get involved,” Henry explained. Shiro also paid it forward, and has helped “bolster the street-art culture back home” in Japan, a place where cultural mores aren’t exactly all for “drawing outside the lines,” as Henry described it.

While some of these female artists faced barriers to entry in terms of place and gender, Henry said that she was surprised to find that women street artists, no matter where they were from, are split on the issue of how they want their gender to be perceived. “What I’ve realized is that some women say that, as women, they work twice as hard to get any level of respect, and that this needs to be known and documented, and want to say, ‘We’re here, we want to be heard as well,'” she explained. “Other people that I’ve interviewed aren’t necessarily caught up on the gender inequality tip, they’re like, ‘Yeah, I know it exists, but I’m so over it. I just want to be recognized for my art, and not for my gender.’” The filmmaker said she could understand both sides, but felt that no matter what, “it’s kind of a Catch-22 because you’re always going to have to acknowledge that [the divide] exists.”

“Street Heroines” may focus on the Americas in general, but the New York City contingent is very well represented. “It’s the birthplace of street art,” Henry explained, and also a hotbed for early female participation. “There’s Lady Pink, the first female graffiti artist who was painting the trains– she’s not the first female graffiti artist ever, she’ll quickly clarify that for you. She didn’t go to college for art because she was already so famous at 16, already in the Downtown art scene with the who’s-who– Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring– she was in that crowd.”

The doc also gives major face time to Toofly, an artist who recently moved from her hometown of Corona, Queens back to her familiar origins in Quito, Ecuador, but still remains active in New York City. She’s one of the better examples of an artist who has made activism a part of her work. “Toofly has become a really strong community organizer in Ecuador and was able to launch an all-female urban arts festival there, which I think is pretty innovative,” Henry said. “There’s not really anyone else out there doing this sort of work, creating this kind of space for others in developing countries.”

Tonight, in an effort to raise funds to tie all the pieces of the doc together and polish off some shooting with the three major characters in the film, including Toofly, Fusca from Mexico City, and Magrela, Henry has commissioned original work by a number of local artists and several featured in “Street Heroines” too. “Essentially, we’re taking three different artists from three different cities, both huge financial capitals of their respective areas in the Americas and we’re going to look at how women in those places are shaping street art, or writing a new history,” Henry explained. “There’s not a lot of documentation of this. I mean, look at Shiro, she was inspired by the movie Wildstyle, but there was nothing else, and still really isn’t anything else that tells how big of a role women really did play. I see it as, look– I’m a new voice, writing a new history, and I think it’s important that these women’s voices are documented somewhere along the way.”

Street Heroines: a Pop-Up Art Exhibition and Fundraiser” is happening Tuesday April 26, 7:30 pm at Rabbithole Projects, located at 33 Washington Street in Brooklyn.