Civil Society, Development & Aid, Education, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

BRAZIL: Artistic Energy as Antidote to Exclusion

Mario Osava

SALVADOR, Brazil, Sep 10 2009 (IPS) - Putting the power of art to the test in extreme situations has become an unintended but necessary task for the Axé Project, a Brazilian non-governmental organisation (NGO) aimed at creating the conditions for street kids and other at-risk children to overcome educational, family and community exclusion.

Dancer in action.  Credit: Courtesy of Mila Petrillo

Dancer in action. Credit: Courtesy of Mila Petrillo

In its efforts to promote human rights based on the foundations of aesthetics and ethics, the organisation works in a wide range of artistic fields, including music, dance, capoeira (a blend of martial arts and dance developed by African slaves in Brazil), theatre, circus performance, fashion design and the visual arts. It refers to its approach as the "Pedagogy of Desire", whose core principle is "the capacity to dream of a new life."

Founded in 1990 by Italian lawyer Cesare La Rocca in Salvador, capital of the northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia, the Axé Project has helped close to 19,000 children and adolescents. Its methods have succeeded in getting almost all of them to return to or remain in the educational system, 80 percent on a regular basis and the remainder at least intermittently.

An Axé family

"The Axé Project was like a mother and father to my kids," declared Creuza Maria de Jesus, summing up the organisation’s impact on her six children, fathered by two different husbands "who made kids and took off." All six spent many years involved in the Project, where the youngest, aged 12, is still attending classes.

Her two oldest sons, 28-year-old twins, are now performing and giving classes in Brazilian popular dance and capoeira in Europe, under a 10-year contract with a private company. They have already saved up enough money to buy four houses in Salvador, one of them for their mother, in a poorly developed but less violent neighbourhood than the one where she lived for 25 years, and saw more than her share of corpses.

The family’s third dancer, 20-year-old Diego da Cunha, is studying at the Bolshoi Theatre School in Joinville, in southern Brazil. He developed his talent and "natural calling" for dance at Axé, where he was recruited by the highly demanding Russian ballet school.

Another son is pursuing a career in computers, while her only daughter was enrolled in ModAxé, where she took part in fashion shows thanks to her "beautiful figure," but eventually left.

The meals provided to the children by the organisation greatly relieved the financial burden on their mother, who only had to feed them on the weekends. The money she earned by taking in washing and "looking after other people’s children" was barely enough to cover the costs of gas, clothing and medicine, she said.

But the most important thing was that her children "weren’t running around loose on the streets," stressed the 53-year-old mother, who sometimes left them "locked up in the house" because of her fears about drugs and crime. As children, they also helped out financially by selling sandwiches, making deliveries and cleaning.

"I never had the life of a teenager, but my children did," said de Jesus, whose early life was sadly typical of many young black girls from rural areas of Bahia: she was taken to the city and subjected to "slave labour" as a nanny and cook for a wealthy family between the ages of seven and fifteen, without receiving any pay or being able to go to school.

De Jesus confessed that she felt ashamed when her sons first became dancers, because people in the neighbourhood equated it with homosexuality. "Then I relaxed, because I knew it was the best thing for them," she said. Best of all, now they have earned the respect of their neighbours by coming home on vacation as successful professionals.

Many Axé Project alumni have graduated from or are currently attending university, an educational level that is practically inaccessible for blacks and the extreme poor in Brazil – the profile of almost all of the project’s beneficiaries.

The project has also produced an impressive number of professional artists. At least 15 of its former dance students are working as professional dancers today outside the country, mainly in Europe, while a great many more professional dancers, musicians, actors, circus performers, visual artists, and fashion and graphic designers initially trained by Axé are scattered throughout Brazil.

Axé believes that "art is fundamental" not only for those who can become artists, but in order for everyone to discover their potential, which is often crushed by failure in the school system, and to develop their creativity. At the same time, however, it is crucial for children and teens to continue with conventional schooling, in order to overcome social exclusion, stressed Marle Macedo, the project’s art-education coordinator.

Thus, in addition to the courses and workshops it offers, the Axé Project strives to convince its students to remain in the formal education system, at least until completing secondary school. "It’s indispensable for entering the labour market," even if the current educational system is aimed at "moulding individuals to maintain the status quo," commented Macedo.

"I failed a lot of grades, but I managed to complete middle school, because it’s a requirement to be an educator at Axé," said Anderson Gois, now 25, looking back on a childhood of gang fighting on the streets. "It was a cry for help, because something was tormenting me," he reflected. Unhappy with life on the streets, he went back home, but his aggressive streak remained.

At the age of nine, Anderson was convinced by a teacher to join the Axé Project, but got involved in gang battles there as well. As a result, he was left out of a group that travelled to Italy to give music and capoeira performances.

After this incident, said Gois, "I decided to change. I joined the Axé band, and saw that I was capable, and I got to take part in trips to São Paulo, three trips to Italy, and a trip to New York." Although it was a struggle, he also managed to graduate from middle school in order to become a street educator for Axé, as well as one of the 32 percent of Axé employees who, like him, are former students.

A thirst for history

Gois's colleagues Ricardo Mendes, 22, and Sandro Cardoso, 26, share a similar past. Mendes, now a music instructor, joined Axé early, at the age of six. He says he was confused, "looking for answers" to the discrimination he suffered on the streets.

Now he wants to study law "as a profession," or history to find "better answers," especially after a trip to New York, which gave him a clearer insight into the "camouflaged racism" in Brazil. "There it’s more obvious, but blacks are better off than here," he commented.

Gois is also interested in history, a subject that attracts many black students who go on to higher education in Bahia, the Brazilian state with the highest proportion of African descendants.

Percussion is the most popular activity for youngsters in the programme, according to José Carlos Freire, a music therapist and arts supervisor at the Axé branch in Pelourinho, the historic quarter of Salvador.

Rhythm is a fundamental element of the culture in Bahia, largely due to the strong presence of candomblé, an African-Brazilian religion in which the subtly shifting rhythm of the "atabal" drum can induce trances, said Freire.

Axé’s activities are strongly intertwined with local Afro-Brazilian culture, as it offers percussion classes for all its students and also emphasises dance and capoeira, noted Macedo.

The name "Axé" itself is a word from the African Yoruba language, and means "energy that flows between beings," "life force" or "self-realisation," according to different interpretations. In any case, it is a positive vital element. The name "Axé" was also adopted for a musical genre that emerged in Bahia and became a huge commercial success in the 1990s.

Despite its allure, Sandro Cardoso did not decide to get involved with the Axé Project until he was 11.

Drug dealer father, teacher son

"After they murdered my father, a drug dealer, my mother sold everything and took me to live on the streets, when I was four years old. I liked the streets, it was fun, I had money and freedom to do whatever I wanted. I washed cars and begged for money."

Edvaldo Lima spent years on the streets of many different neighbourhoods in Salvador. He was arrested several times, and came to feel persecuted by the police and rejected by society, but did not give in to the "temptation of Axé" until he was 12.

He spent the next 14 years involved in various activities offered by the organisation, especially the choir and the percussion group, which took him to Italy, the United States, different African countries and major cities in Brazil. But he only decided that "I was fed up with the streets" at the age of 20.

He attended school only sporadically, despite the pressure from Axé. He finally completed secondary school at the age of 25. One year later, in 2008, he went from student to teacher at Axé, using his own experience to help children at risk.

"Everything good in my life I learned at Axé, my second family, and now I’m trying to give something back," he said.

Lima wants to study performing arts at university and "prove that I’m not like my father." Many, including his mother, predicted that he would follow in his father’s footsteps in a life of crime, because he was so tough and aggressive, "the only way to earn respect on the streets," he said. In fact, that was his original motivation to learn capoeira: "to fight better."

"I feared my father more than I admired him," said Lima, although he admitted that he still misses him. "I cry when my son says, ‘I love you.’ My father never said it to me, and I never had the chance to give him a kiss."

Cardoso never met his father. He worked as a delivery boy in a street market to help out his mother, who took in washing to support her three children on her own.

But he was finally driven to join Axé by the fear of "disappearing like a lot of my friends" into the back of one of the "Kombi" vans used by the authorities to gather up street kids, in an attempt to "hide the city’s poverty."

Now, as teachers at Axé, Gois, Mendes and Cardoso can fall back on their experience of having lived "on the other side" to try to entice other street kids to join the programme. These youngsters, who live on the streets full time and have adopted street culture and its "free" lifestyle, are especially resistant to change.

These children and teenagers are one of the target populations for the Axé Project’s efforts. According to studies, there are hundreds of them on the streets of Bahia, although never more than 800 at any given time, said Macedo. But the organisation also carries out preventative efforts with minors deemed to be "at risk," such as those who spend several hours on the streets every day, seeking income to help their families.

The threat of crack cocaine

Not all of Axé’s beneficiaries are success stories. Some go back to using drugs, get involved in serious criminal activity, or are swallowed up by extreme poverty. A number of its alumni are now in prison, and others have met violent deaths. But thanks to the methodology developed by the Project, the vast majority have been reintegrated into the school system, their families and the community, stressed Macedo.

In recent years, however, a new problem has emerged in Salvador, posing a serious threat to Axé’s efforts. That problem is crack cocaine, a solid, smokeable and highly addictive form of cocaine, against which all of the techniques used by Axé’s educators have proven powerless, admitted Freire.

The "total addiction" swiftly induced by crack "shatters everything," he said.

An Axé Project internal debate lead to the conclusion that crack addicts should be admitted to rehabilitation programmes for compulsory treatment, Freire added.

While such a stance may be contradictory to Axé’s general philosophy, in this case they are dealing with "an issue of public health, not education," explained Macedo. There are still very few children and adolescents who have fallen prey to crack in Salvador, "but it’s spreading, and causing an upsurge in violence on the streets," he stressed.

"There is no solution for crack," said Mendes. He and his fellow Axé instructors have numerous horror stories to tell about addicts turning up dead in their neighbourhoods, or stealing and killing for the money for their next fix. Some have even "asked for help from Axé," after having been involved with the project at some point in the past.

Financial crisis

The Axé Project’s efforts are currently facing another serious threat: the funding problems that have forced it to cancel all activities on Tuesdays and Thursdays since June, and to undertake a fundraising campaign seeking contributions from businesses and individual donors.

Luciana Xavier, a student turned teacher in the ModAxé programme, where 25 to 30 students learn about fashion design and create clothing and accessories, has not received a salary for several months.

Luciana, 24, is held up as an example of the success of Axé’s art education efforts. She has completed a degree in design, is now undertaking master’s degree studies, and produces highly accomplished creations like a jewellery collection based on research that led her to "discover the black heroines" of 19th century Brazil.

The youngest in a family of 14 children whose father died when Luciana was born, she sold newspapers, washed windshields and begged on the streets of Salvador until the age of 12, when she started taking classes at Axé in sewing, crafts, singing and visual arts.

Only around 30 percent of Axé participants are girls, which is roughly the same as the proportion of girls among street children. Dance, fashion design and singing are the most popular activities among the female students.

Transportation represents a major expenditure for the organisation, since the roughly 1,500 children and teenagers who attend classes each year come from many different parts of the metropolitan area, said Ená Benevides, the general coordinator of Axé. In addition to bus fare, the youngsters are provided with up to three meals a day.

The organisation plans to cover the back wages it owes its workers through the sale of donated electrical appliances with slight imperfections, and hopes to overcome the current crisis with a major campaign aimed at seeking out new donors.

Despite its widely recognised successes, Axé’s methods and concepts have still not been adopted in public policy, which is one of the organisation’s main goals. Its attempt to promote reforms in the public education system in Salvador by taking over the administration of a state-run school between 1999 and 2004 also proved fruitless in the end.

Nevertheless, the educational approach developed by the Axé Project has exercised widespread influence and served to strengthen many social, educational and artistic initiatives. A detailed analysis of its methods was published in a book released in 2000 to mark the organisation’s tenth anniversary.

One of its main conclusions is that art is not simply a tool that can be used in education, but rather an education in itself that can exercise a positive influence on its own. It also makes it possible to "learn through enjoyment," a dimension sorely lacking in the formal education system.

** The photographs in this article are used with the permission of the photographer, Mila Petrillo. They are taken from her book "Arte de Transformação", published by ANDI, SESC SP and Fondo Nacional de Cultura, which features 600 photographs taken over the course of 14 years of 52 projects involving social transformation through the arts.

This article forms part of the "Art Is the Best Education" series of reports. The project that gave rise to this effort was the winner of the AVINA Investigative Journalism scholarship. The logos must be published with the reports. The AVINA Foundation and Casa Daros, its local partner in the Art and Society category, are not responsible for the ideas, opinions or other aspects of the content.
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