RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – Contemporary art has found a new home in Rio de Janeiro: the Complexo da Maré.
Next in line to receive a Pacifying Police Unit (UPP), the Complexo da Maré – tide community complex in Portuguese – is an area in a Rio de Janeiro neighborhood comprised of dozens of favelas (slums) and housing projects.
Since late October, the Special Operations Battalion (BOPE) has been working toward occupying the region, which is being threatened by drug traffickers and organized criminal groups.
But it’s clear the tide is turning for the community complex. On Nov. 26, residents welcomed some of the Brazil’s most important visual artists for the inauguration of the Bela Maré Cultural Center.
The Center’s first big event is the Travessias – Contemporary Art in Maré project, which runs until Dec. 18 and includes works from 17 artists, performances, workshops, guided tours and concerts.
“The type of art that we have here is totally different from what you usually see in Maré. I’m delighted,” says Devid Ricardo, a 22-year-old who works as a driver’s assistant during the day and runs a small film club in the community during his off-hours.
The works of art weren’t the only novelty for American multimedia artist Stephanie Gervais, 25. After nine months of living in Rio de Janeiro, she made the 30-minute trip from her home in Copacabana, on the wealthy south side of Rio, to Maré in a public transportation van.
“I was interested in the Travessias project because it promotes an encounter between totally different people through a single platform, which is contemporary art. It’s cool to see people from Maré and the south side interacting with art in the same space,” says Gervais, in front of a sculpture by São Paulo artist Henrique Oliveira. “I’m really impressed by the quality of the works and the organization of it all.”
The Travessias project was created by the NGO Observatório de Favelas. Geographer Jaílson de Souza e Silva, the NGO’s coordinator and one of the initiative’s leaders, wants Bela Maré to become a new stop on the cultural circuit for all of Rio de Janeiro’s residents.
“Favelas are still viewed by Rio’s residents as spaces dominated by violence,” Souza e Silva says. “Doing an event of this magnitude in Rio’s largest complex of favelas represents the creation of symbolic and substantial bridges, which open new channels of communication for the people of this city.”
Bela Maré is located in a warehouse on the edge of Avenida Brasil, one of Rio’s most important highways, which runs through about 30 neighborhoods. The warehouse, which had been closed since 2000, had been a factory that made paper cups and plates for nearly 40 years.
The art associated with the Travessias project extends beyond the warehouse’s walls. The neighboring streets feature installations of colorful canvases made by Rio Grande do Sul visual artist Lúcia Koch, as well as photographs by other artists.
The organizers want to transform the young people of Maré’s communities into professional artists.
“Our activities can contribute to the education of specialists in assembly and production, as well as educators, artists and curators,” says Letícia Monte, the executive director of Travessias.
Photographer Fagner França, a 20-year-old resident of Maré, worked as an assistant to visual artist Rochelle Costi on the installation “Stand,” an homage to the former paper cup and plate factory that once operated inside the warehouse.
França brought his wife Beatriz, 21, to the inauguration of Travessias.
“A lot of people who live here in the Complexo da Maré think that this type of art isn’t for them. But when they come, they realize it’s for everybody and that it reaches the heart,” says França, who also writes poetry.
To continue the project, the NGO Observatório de Favelas wants to carry out similar initiatives in other Rio neighborhoods, including Bangu and Santa Cruz.
“The Observatório’s idea is to create cultural centers all along Avenida Brasil, which is a cultural desert, where people have few options for leisure,” says visual artist Vik Muniz, whose film “Wasteland” was among the nominees for Best Documentary at the 2011 Academy Awards.
Based in New York, Muniz is one of Brazil’s most internationally known visual artists. Excited by the idea of bringing contemporary art to Maré, he has adopted the cultural center and attended its inauguration party.
To help Bela Maré, Muniz auctioned a self-portrait at Sotheby’s, in London. The money made through the sale – £65,000 (R$195,000; US$105,000) – was used to make a down payment on the warehouse where Bela Maré is located.
Public and private business leaders are discussing how to raise the additional R$120,000 (US$65,000) that’s needed to fund the Bela Maré Cultural Center.
Travessias – Contemporary Art in Maré
Nov. 26 – Dec. 18, 2011, Bela Maré Warehouse and Art Center (Rua Bittencourt Sampaio, 169, Maré, between overpasses 9 and 10 on Avenida Brasil)
Artists: Alexandre Sá, André Komatsu, AVAF, Chelpa Ferro, Emmanuel Nassar, Filé de Peixe, Henrique Oliveira, Lucia Koch, Marcelo Cidade, Marcos Chaves, Matheus Rocha Pitta, Michel Groisman, Raul Mourão, Ricardo Carioba, Rochelle Costi, Coletivo Pandilla Fotográfica and Davi Marcos.