Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

BRAZIL: Bringing the Multicoloured Soul of the Favela to Life

Fabiana Frayssinet

RIO DE JANEIRO, Mar 24 2010 (IPS) - The “favelas” or shanty towns of Brazil are a uniform red ochre, the colour of unplastered brick walls. But two visual artists from the Netherlands want to paint them every colour under the sun, a facelift intended to showcase the colourful soul of these poverty-stricken neighbourhoods.

Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn started with Vila Cruzeiro, a favela in the north of Rio de Janeiro where violence is a daily reality.

Proof of how routine violence has become can be seen in the mural painted by the community at the artists’ instigation.

The wall painting depicts a boy flying a kite, but there is a hole in his head, one not made by brush strokes but by a bullet, from one of the frequent shoot-outs between the police and drug trafficking gangs.

“This boy is a metaphor for all the kids who live here. A few months ago, there was a shoot-out and a stray bullet hit the kid, who died. Crazy, eh?” Urhahn said.

Urhahn, a 34-year-old video producer, and Koolhaas, a 31-year-old designer of top brand logos, could have stayed in their own cities, Amsterdam and Rotterdam. But they decided to change their lives and become immersed in the life of the favelas.

Several months a year, Urhahn lives at the highest point of the favela with a local family, renting a bare brick room, red ochre just like all the rest.

“When you live here, you are part of the community. It has changed my perceptions about the people, and about myself,” said the producer, who never misses a party or a barbecue in this crowded neighbourhood.

Koolhaas, who is also an illustrator for the U.S. magazine The New Yorker and the Italian fashion house Prada, among other clients, is very happy that they have been so readily accepted by the people of the favela, who did not stigmatise them as wealthy playboys.

His reason for being here, he says, is literally the love of art. The “Favela Painting” project seeks to express, through mural art, the “colourful soul” of these communities, over and above the customary black-and-white depictions of violence and poverty.

“We want to show the good things that favelas have, beyond the dire images of war and social prejudice,” Koolhaas said.

“A favela, like any other neighbourhood anywhere in the world, is a place where normal families live, people who have dreams and who also want a better future for their children,” he said.

The first artwork produced by Favela Painting was the “Boy Flying Kite” mural described above, which spreads across three houses facing a community football field.

The kite itself is several metres away, “flying” on another house further up the slopes of the surrounding hills. The visual concept goes beyond that of a simple mural.

The second creation, co-designed with Rob Admiraal, a Dutch tattoo artist, surpassed all limits, even the geographical boundaries of the community.

Huge coloured fishes swimming in a blue river cover 2,000 square metres across Vila Cruzeiro, including the formerly grey containment wall to prevent landslides, a public stairway, a path and a cement wall.

Some people interpret the fish swimming against the current as a symbol of the life struggles faced by young people in the favela.

“But it’s an open idea, people can think whatever they want. It’s not a static image, it’s meant to stimulate the imagination,” said Urhahn.

The entire community took part in the painting, including little Susane Souza, who excitedly described how her surroundings have changed.

“Before, everything here was mud and jungle. We all helped with the painting, and now people from all over come as tourists to see our favela,” she told IPS, referring to international visitors the young Dutch artists have brought to see the art project.

It might appear to be a small gesture, but it is much more than that to children who live day by day with the prejudice and suspicion of those outside the favelas.

At school, many students hide the fact that they live in a favela, and this is one way they can recover their pride in their neighbourhood, Urhahn emphasised.

“We are not saying we can change a young person’s whole life, but we can try to help him or her to dream, to think about what they can do with their lives, to seek higher aims and pursue them,” said Koolhaas, while recognising the need for health, education and housing programmes.

“We say that Favela Painting is an art project, but it is art with a social component,” said the designer, who together with his colleague wants to take similar projects to poor neighbourhoods in other countries of Latin America.

“It’s a pure art project, with social goals,” said Urhahn, who did not want to pigeonhole it any specific category.

“Painting is a visual thing, but it has different effects on different people. Showing the outside world a different image of these communities is an important part of the philosophy of our project,” he said.

Koolhaas compared young people in these overcrowded favelas to youngsters in his country, who he said are “so shut in.” “Here, there is a very strong social structure. Kids can wander the streets freely, communicating with their peers,” which is something he would like to take back to the Netherlands, he said.

The project has high ambitions. The artists are seeking financial and operational resources, from paint factories for instance, to paint “an entire favela” different colours.

The plan is first to plaster the brick walls, fix leaking roofs, and transform the red ochre tones into all the colours of the rainbow.

“That would really be eye-catching; it would turn this area into a sort of Rio de Janeiro monument,” said Urhahn, who has made a documentary in the favela about the hip hop music movement.

It would be a gift, not from the Brazilian government or the state of Rio de Janeiro to its citizens, “but from community residents to their city,” he said.

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