Karmella Cen Benedito De Barros

“Get to Know” is a series that profiles Indigenous artists engaged in Harbour projects. Collective member Vanda Fleury connected with Karmella Cen Benedito De Barros by Zoom in the Spring of 2022 to bring you this feature article. 

In a world overwhelming us with information, feeling present in our relationships, activities, and territories can be challenging. Allowing ourselves to take a breath, just as a smudge carries prayers, we see the world can also be a charming place. These open and uplifting experiences are what Karmella Cen Benedito De Barros creates through art. As an Afro-Indigiqueer mixed-medium storyteller who weaves together photography, videography and soundscaping, they dedicate themselves to the land and people they love. Karmella is of Treaty 6 Mistawasis Nêhiyaw and Afro-Brazilian ancestry, living on the unceded territory of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations (Vancouver, BC). These are the physical and metaphorical grounds of Karmella’s ceremony, and you are invited to walk alongside.

Karmella is informed by their cultural identity and historical narratives, and their artistic creations bloom from inquiry and self-expression. “Art replenishes the spirit and calls you back to yourself,” says Cen Benedito De Barros. “It is like holding up a mirror, reflecting truths, identities, perspectives, and connections. To hold your own gaze is to be reminded of forgotten truths; it’s where you come to know and understand yourself.” Each glimpse into the mirror provides Karmella with insight, and they do not look away from social responsibility. Witnessing other people’s stories is vital to their creative process and they respond to social justice issues by sharing knowledge through art.

Art is a healing practice too, involving the reclamation of identity, kinship, land, and space.Karmella shared a memory about being raised in foster care and at the age of 6, their grandmother gave them their first camera. Karmella’s small hands felt the weight of purpose and cherished the potential of what they could offer. Gifts of enduring value are often about quality, not quantity. Fast forward to fully embodied artist, perhaps that is why photography will never be a job, title, or thing they “do”. In those formative years, Karmella also owned the costs of camera maintenance and developing pictures and living these experiences taught financial literacy, how to practice mindfulness, and how to shoot with intention for every frame of film.

From the child who aspired to be a Natural Geographic photographer to the inner-city youth who cut together short stories with old Canons, the camera rooted their sense of confidence and belonging. In the last year of high school, Karmella invested in equipment and then stepped into the frontlines of activism for the purpose of documentation and witnessing. Admittedly not a chatty person, they know there is staying power in articulating truth(s) through the lens. Defining perspectives and exploring experiences are an important layer of education, according to Karmella, and “the public is willing to learning about political causes when the narratives are accessible, relatable, and engaging.”

Karmella’s films are presented in an experimental style that stimulates all the senses by drawing from raw information. Echoes of actual events, actions, and spoken words are sculpted by soundscaping, which involves audio and sound recordings. Real time footage of Indigenous youth activists honouring the land they protect is carved into each scene. Karmella’s artwork has had ripple effect that is reflected in their selection as an artist for the Resilient Roots, Vines Art Festival in 2019.[1] “These events provide critical opportunities to exchange intergenerational knowledge between artists,” says Cen Benedito De Barros. “It is a way of sharing medicines with like-minded people who love what they do.”

Fractal responsibility theory advanced by Adrienne Maree Brown, a queer black poet, educator, and activist, is a guiding light for Karmella. It acknowledges the relationships between personal changes in everyday spaces and larger scale movement resulting in wider impacts. Simply stated in an interview with Tami Simon that originally aired for the weekly podcast, Insights at the Edge (2021), it is “both, and.”[2] Karmella lives the connection in their role as a full spectrum doula who supports black and Indigenous families to access what they need. ­­Attending births is personal, and birthwork is a form of advocacy that functions to keep families close, and together. For Karmella there is a symmetry between art and doulaship, as both require “a belief in a better future.” Doulaship is steeped in a philosophy of care that nurtures those who give life, those who breath life, and those who bear witness to this sacredness.

Karmella’s present day creative journey continues to provide new opportunities, including collaborations, advocacy and organizing. Karmella’s mission is big picture and focuses on building futures for grassroots and DIY filmmakers and musicians whose work is rooted in land defence and sovereignty, as well as cultural reclamation. “Art is much like ceremony, it’s important we experience it together,” says Cen Benedito De Barros. “It is space that is welcoming, validating, inclusive, and open to everyone.” Get to know Karmella by following them on Instagram: @kc.bdb and @art.ecosystem, and by exploring the website: https://artecosystem.wixsite.com/artecosystem.

[1] The Vines community organization feeds the spirits and imaginations of artists concerned with water, land, and relational justice, and those who perform on earthstages and other public platforms in Vancouver and across British Columbia. See https://vinesartfestival.com [2022, July 2]

[2] Tami Simon (2021, November 2) “Embracing Pleasure, Fractal Responsibility, and the Power of Our Imagination.” Weekly Podcast: Insights at the Edge, for Sounds True. [Online]. Available: https://resources.soundstrue.com/podcast/embracing-pleasure-fractal-responsibility-and-the-power-of-our-imagination/ and https://resources.soundstrue.com/transcript/embracing-pleasure-fractal-responsibility-and-the-power-of-our-imagination/ [2022, July 2]

Karmella Cen Benedito De Barros is an inner-city Indigiqueer with Treaty 6 Mistawasis Nêhiyaw and Afro-Brazilian ancestry. They are a plant loving, community oriented support worker, artist and organizer born and raised in diaspora, as a guest on stolen & unceded Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh and Musqueam territories. Karmella currently works as the Indigenous Brilliance Community Engagement leader with Room Magazine and the Art Ecosystem. They also work as the CRUW Garden Coordinator at xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, and support the Lucid Arts’ Earthseed Youth Book Club. Karmella’s most recent work is featured in Activations Of Solidarity with the Indigenous Curatorial Collective 2021, and Room Magazine issue 44.1 Growing Room.

“Get to Know” series is made possible with support from the Canada Council for the Arts, Creating, Knowing and Sharing.


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