Life in Brazil´s favelas just got that much brighter thanks to the transformative power of a new lick of paint.
Words: Shelley Jones, P
hotography: Haas & Hahnh, Douglas Engle
The people of Brazil have a history of using the arts to subvert social injustice. During the military dictatorship, which lasted from 1964 to 1985, thousands of radical artists were exiled for creativity that challenged authority. From Tropicalia pioneer Caetano Veloso who penned lyrics like ‘singing to keep away the sadness’ and theatre practitioner Augusto Boal who founded the Theatre of the Oppressed, there is a tradition in Brazil of creating beauty and light out of hardship. And it’s always done with the characteristic Brazilian sense of optimism.
Given that past, it’s not surprising that a new project by Dutch artists Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn, which aims to brighten- up an entire favela in Rio de Janeiro with rainbow shades of paint, has been met with such positive fervour. “This work of art,” says Dre about their most recent masterpiece covering thirty-four houses at the entrance of the Santa Marta favela, “can make a colourful difference in the lives of local individuals, the community and the city of Rio. It has the potential to work as a catalyst in the processes of social renewal and change.”
The two creative philanthropists originally travelled to Rio in 2004 to film a documentary, called Firmeza Total, about hip hop in the slums of Brazil. But after a month of hanging out with the locals they felt compelled to see if they could use their skills to make a positive impact. Dre explains: “The idea grew out of the community itself... We were hanging out with all these kids who were creating graffiti, hip hop and graphics and we wanted to find a way to channel that creativity into something more productive... A lot of people say, ‘I want to do something good for the world,’ but not everyone is going to go to Africa and build a well. I would not be good at that. But this is something Jeroen and I are good at and we feel very personally attached to. If you can make your profession actually add something positive to the world, I think that’s the most beautiful outcome possible.”
So the inspired duo stayed in Rio and set up Favela Painting, a not-for-profit initiative that aims to transform the drab walls of slum exteriors into kaleidoscopic slideshows. But is a lick of paint really that radical? Especially when the designs brightly eschew any overt political message. “The most obvious thing would be to try and make some sort of political statement,” acknowledges Dre. “But we thought by stripping the designs of any politics and focusing on making something very likeable, very happy, joyful and colourful, we would actually make a statement that was even more political. It allows more room for interpretation. So little children can enjoy it, older people can enjoy it, and also young people can find it really cool. We didn’t want to be restricted to a niche where you only cater for one group of society.”
But does Favela Painting, as a “non-political statement”, have the capacity to benefit local communities beyond sensory pleasure – considering the daily battles most inhabitants face, due to poverty, unemployment and substandard living conditions? Dre and Jeroen are sure of it. In fact, they’ve seen the transformation firsthand. “Some of our painters actually become professional painters,” confirms Dre who, together with Jeroen, has ensured that all painters from the favela get paid a decent wage and receive training, like in any good job. In fact, Jeroen and Dre are the only volunteers. Says Dre: “[Some of our painters] found jobs and through our project they’ve actually improved their future and had the opportunity to make something out of their lives... And that’s just one side of it. Some people just get very inspired to try to figure out what they can do, or how they can do something positive with their creativity.”
And the designs, they insist, are not trying to paper over any cracks or disguise the socio-economic problems encircling favela life. Instead, Dre hopes the paintings will draw attention to the favelas and say: “Look we are here and we are valid, we do exist and we do add something positive to society. So you can’t overlook us, and forget us and incriminate us.” But Dre isn’t trying to speak for the favelas because the idea, he claims, came straight from ‘the hill’. He explains: “The idea was actually born in the favelas and the community has been included every step of the way. So there’s a big sense of ownership and it means we never have to explain the project to the community because, basically, the community explains the project to us... It’s very different bringing an idea from the West and imposing it on somewhere than actually coming up with the idea in that place itself. This idea was born in Rio, it’s actually a Brazilian idea.”
And despite the very real social problems in Rio, Dre and Jeroen are truly in love with its inexorable spirit. “There’s a war going on,” says Dre gravely, about the ongoing clashes between warring drug factions and police. So didn’t they feel intimidated? “Yes, but we weren’t more or less in danger than everybody who’s walking the streets there every day. The highest amount of deaths is through stray bullets and they don’t ask your name or where you’re from. So they hit little children, grandmothers, Brazilians and, obviously, they can hit Dutch artists too.”
He explains further: “I mean you are in a place where there’s almost a daily chance of a shootout between drug gangs and police. But alongside that, people are trying to live a normal life and raise their children... It makes life very difficult and very hard.” But the Dutch artists refuse to be disheartened, encouraged for the most part by the inhabitants of the favelas themselves, and after painting the entire Santa Marta favela – their ultimate goal – they hope to take their idea to other places in the world like Jakarta and Mumbai.
“The Brazilian people, regardless of their income and social status, are very open and friendly,” insists Dre. “You will find aggression out of poverty but you will never find an aggressive spirit. People live with a sense of companionship and brotherhood. So if you ask somebody for directions they will go out of their way to give them to you... England and Holland are both countries where people have quite a high standard of social living but often it’s very hard to find a smile. It’s crazy to be from a country where there’s so much opportunity but so little happiness and then to go to a place where there’s so much hardship and yet more willingness to look at life in a positive way... I think what we’re trying to do is combine the positive parts of the world we know with the one we have discovered. And we hope with that we can inspire other people to do the same.”