The impact of community art in the favela: What happens behind the colored walls of Vila Cruzeiro?
In the last decade, community art as a means to establish social change has become a popular tool. Making it possible for people with limited opportunities to create a giant masterpiece in their own community could achieve serious impact. But what exactly is that impact? A complicated question that resulted in the founding of the United Painting Academy. The Academy examines community art projects from all over the world to gain a deeper understanding of its effects.
In 2008, the Favela Painting Foundation (FPF) and local community members completed a giant painting of koi carp swimming upstream in Vila Cruzeiro, Rio de Janeiro, which is currently being renovated. On behalf of the Academy, The Urban Detective visits the FPF artwork, located in one of Rio’s many favelas. Together with residents and (former) employees, we discuss the project’s impact. After ten years, what did, and does it still mean to them?
Two crazy gringo’s start painting project in the favela.
We meet with Fabio - FPF’s former project coordinator and today our local tour guide – at the bottom of Basilica da Penha. From this beautiful church – located on a high hilltop - you have an amazing 360-degree view overlooking Rio’s unexplored Zona Norte. Fabio points his finger to the right. “You see that blue house right there?” After being a bit overwhelmed from seeing probably the most densely populated mountain in our lives, we spot it. “That’s Vila Cruzeiro man! “
After an earlier project in the neighborhood, two Dutch artists - Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn - returned to Vila Cruzeiro in 2007 and decided to transform a 2000m2 drainage ditch, into a river filled with koi carp: project Rio Cruzeiro. Fabio remembers the ‘two crazy gringos’ sketching lines on the walls. After almost a year’s work, Rio (river) Cruzeiro was completed.
“At first we didn’t know who they were, or what they were doing, but in the end, they became family.”
Vila Cruzeiro, or Copacabana?
But after almost a decade, time took its toll on the painting. Due to heavy rainfall, sunshine and playing children, the paint began to fade and the artwork became almost invisible. As a result, restauration project Santa Helena (the name of the street) was initiated in 2017. Instead of painting, which would suffer from the same conditions in the future, the Favela Painters and local community decided to recreate the entire painting as a gigantic mosaic.
Besides, all residents alongside Rio Cruzeiro got the chance to be involved in the restauration project. A combination of stucco, paint and contrasting tiles transformed the brick houses into ‘favela proof’ parts of the artwork. Fabio explains that ironically, the Favela Painters didn’t use a single brush in this project.
As we walk up from Vila Cruzeiro’s main street, we get our first good look at the ‘art scene’ on Rua Santa Helena. The contrast with the unfinished houses is unbelievable. The painted houses look like fancy villa’s and the spectacular colors and curvy waves of the mosaic exceed Rio’s famous Escadaria Selaron in artistry.
“This part of Vila Cruzeiro looks more like Copacabana than the favela.”
Gigantic operation provides work for the local community.
We walk further up the stairs towards a small building on the left side of the street. Fabio opens the door and tells us that this was the center of the project until a few months ago. While showing us the mosaic technique, he explains how a group of six women was cutting thousands of small squares from tiles here every day, sorting them on color and glueing them to big mats before being attached to that specific part of the artwork. An immense task!
The men were especially busy with restoring the houses. Neighborhood youth, contracted as apprentices, were trained by the more experienced crew members to make and apply stucco. Also, all materials had to be carried up the steep hills of Vila Cruzeiro and lunch needed to be served for the crew every day. Fabio explains that the last two years, twenty to thirty people were employed due to the project. Today, the project’s activities have been put on hold due to insufficient funding.
Yet, when talking about the direct impact of community art projects, it is a fact that over the last years many people learned new skills and earned a living from the creation and restauration of Rio Cruzeiro. “Many youngsters would otherwise have been in bad places”, Fabio tells us. He has a harsh history of crime himself, but it was a project just like this that got him out of trouble. Nowadays, he is managing his own social (football) project to provide for the new generation of favela youth.
The appreciation for community art.
As we continue our way up, we bump into Elias, a big man who is busy carrying bags of cement up to his house. When he sees Fabio and we ask him about the project, he immediately starts to smile. Elias lives with his family in the first house that was restored and painted two years ago. After the restauration, Elias continued the work. He explains that he is now busy designing his terrace with left-over tiles. Fabio translates:
“The project really changed my life. I’m honored to be a part of it.”
But not all people in the neighborhood show the appreciation or continue the work like Elias. As we are about to reach the top, Fabio explains his endless struggle with residents in simply keeping the ‘art scene’ clean. After numerous attempts – including a ‘forbidden to put trash here’ message, signed by the local gang leader – the problem remains. Just two weeks ago, Fabio found a huge pile of trash right in front of the renovated artwork. Fabio sighs, “This is the favela man, things work differently here.”
What the project meant for Vila Cruzeiro and its residents.
Although not everyone in the community shows full appreciation or continues the work like Elias, the artwork created valuable connections. Project leader Andrew – who we meet after our tour – explains that in Vila Cruzeiro, the bonds between, and among, initiators and participants grew into a strong sense of ‘togetherness’.
“The fact that Dre and Jeroen kept coming back and have been on-and-off active for over ten years, created trust, friendships and respect.”
Did the community artwork structurally and positively change the entire dynamics of Vila Cruzeiro? Andrew doesn’t think so. Perhaps if it is part of a long-term masterplan that also involves issues like mobility, housing, safety etcetera – the favela could lose its infamous reputation of poverty, drugs and violence. But in the country’s current crisis situation, such a plan is neither available nor pursued.
Still, the creation and restauration of Rio Cruzeiro did not only bring new colors to the community, a lot more happened behind the colored walls. Houses were completely restored. Work, new skills, valuable friendships and networks were created. Also, its empowering force is impressive. It inspired - and continues to inspire - people like Fabio, Elias and Andrew to continue the work. Role models that Rio’s favela’s now need more than ever before.