Once again, news of Brazil’s favelas has been whirling around the world, making headlines in the Washington Post and on the BBC, on sites in English, Spanish and German, and on countless blogs, Tumblrs and Pinterest boards.
This time, though, in a change from tales of devastating landslides and armed police operations, it was good news. Lettered in white against vividly colourful backgrounds in alleyways deep inside Vila Brasilândia, a favela in São Paulo’s north-western periphery, the words ‘Love’, ‘Pride’, Beauty’, ‘Sweetness’ and ‘Firmeza’ (firmness, stability) swept across the web in a perfect storm of beautiful, highly engaging images, urban art, international collaboration, and curiosity about favelas.
The site-specific artworks were created by Boa Mistura (‘good mixture’), a collective of five Spanish artists with backgrounds as diverse as architecture, graphic design and engineering. With artistic interventions in South Africa already under their belts, plus a portfolio of tasteful commercial work from which they earn a living, the five were invited by the Spanish embassy in Brasilia to come and create an artwork of their choice in Brazil. A fortuitous meeting in São Paulo with the young musician and cultural activist Dimas Reis led them to his home in Vila Brasilândia, and they knew they had found the place.
‘We went straight back to the hostel where we’d been staying and collected our backpacks,’ says Pablo Purone, speaking by telephone from Madrid. The group moved in with Reis and his family, and spent a week getting out and about and talking to residents before deciding on their approach, which uses an ingenious bit of typographical trickery (‘anamorphosis’), so that the words are only fully legible from a certain vantage point.
Enlisting the help of residents of the favela’s warrenlike alleyways – becos and vielas, the latter having steps – the group spent the second week plotting out and then painting the works, which are scattered around the immense settlement, home to almost 300,000 people.
Paved roads crisscross the hills (‘morros') on which the community is built, busy with shops and small businesses in parts; but it’s the maze of winding alleyways that thread between the roads, twisting and turning through the higgledy-piggledy blocks, that are the heart and soul of the place.
‘They’re where all the life goes on,’ says Purone. ‘That’s where the doors to people’s houses are, where the children play, and they link the whole place together. We found it beautiful – the sense of community, the links between people, and even the landscape.’
As a result, the words they eventually selected came easily. ‘They were words we heard all the time,’ says Purone. ‘People greet each other using words like “beleza” and “firmeza” – we really noticed it.’ 'It might seem like just a confusion of buildings around here,’ says Reis, ‘but if you look at it from a certain angle, you can see beauty, pride and sweetness too – that was the concept behind the work.’
Growing up in the favela
Reis was born and raised in Vila Brasilândia after his parents arrived there in the early 1970s, one from from Bahia and one from Minas Gerais. From his family home, views of the bordering Serra da Cantareira state park add a rich layer of greenery to the relentlessly built-up surroundings.
As we traverse the area with Reis, he’s quick to spot new houses encroaching here and there on the dense forest; and from the top of one of the morros, we see a new settlement of precarious housing pocked with dirt tracks and muddy ditches, backed up against the trees.
But wherever you look, brickwork and rough mortar is the ubiquitous face of most of the homes. Some of the houses have a cement render over the brick, but as Reis explains, the cost is prohibitive for many families.
Democracy in colour
For Boa Mistura, the block colours and the optical illusion also worked as a leveller: ‘We thought the deep colour was a nice way of democratising the surfaces – flattening out the differences with one colour and one word.’
Since the Spanish artists left in January, the colour, rich as ever, has begun to wear down as a result of sun, rain, and people passing back and forth. ‘There will come a time when the whole thing has disappeared,’ says Purone.
It comes with the territory for Boa Mistura, who first met as young graffiti artists. ‘We’ve always worked in the streets – we’re used to our art being ephemeral. The works are born, have a life and then die. It’s natural.’
So there are no plans for the five to return to repaint the work. What they are planning, still at the discussion stage with Reis and other residents, as well as with interested architects, is to return for a new, much bigger project that transcends art to include improvements to some of the houses in the form of rendering, as well as painting.
‘We want to make a start on improving part of one morro,’ says Purone, ‘that could serve as an example for other morros and even other favelas.’