How would the dream of Rio compare to actually being there, especially at this moment of political instability and anticipation around the upcoming Olympics? My first impression matched if not exceeded my expectations - the awe inspiring beauty of how human settlement is tucked in between those lush green mountains that appear like teeth sprouting from the maw of a sun bathing dragon.
Looking down at Copacabana Beach from the top of Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain)
I found myself within a picture postcard staying just a block from Copacabana Beach, but like those tourist trinkets my first impression hid the fuller picture of the city, including the wide gulf between rich and poor.
In my room, I checked the news. The political tension in Brasil was growing with more accusations against the President and threats that parties supporting her would leave making impeachment more possible. I also learned more about the other side – those who believe the drive to impeachment because of corruption (which is real among all parties) is an attempt at a kind of coup. Supporters of the PT party are concerned that this growing movement to depose the President could take with it many social programs for low-income people. On the streets, I could see protesters in red (pro-government) and others in yellow and green (pro-impeachment). The intensity of the divide reminded me of home.
Thinking about the Olympics and Paralympics
The Rio project had been hard to pin down. With only two days to work, it was tough to figure out what was possible. At first I thought a quick stencil mural, but then the wall we were going to paint fell through. Then after skyping with Lorenzo and Daniela at Oi Kabum! (the youth arts-based organization funded by a giant telecommunications company I would be partnering with) we settled on painting two portable panels on a theme that revolved around the Olympics and Paralympics.
We talked about giving the participants and opportunity to explore how the games would impact the city and the lives of regular folks in Rio like themselves. In addition to the excitement and hoopla around the games, there were also widely reported concerns including pollution of Guanabara Bay (where a sailing event was scheduled) and the threat of the Zika virus.
Two days, one to design and one to paint. No room for mistakes or rain, since we planned to paint in a public square near Oi Kabum!
On Wednesday I arrived at Oi Kabum!, a clean and professional looking space with teen artists bustling around. I met my counterparts Lorenzo and Daniela – they reminded me of impassioned art teachers in lots of places I’ve worked with maybe a slightly more political consciousness. Many of Oi Kabum’s projects address issues of race, gender and economic inequality, as those are the things on the minds of many of the students. It has a great vibe, multiple studios most oriented toward media arts were filled with young artists conspiring around computers and drawing tables. Our team, which was made up of 18-21 year-olds who had already graduated from the program, started to assemble. Many came from poor communities, and one of them, Leandro Ice, was an established graffiti artist.
We started with a story circle. I gave the prompt, Why do you make art? The answers were varied and interesting. Here are some of them –
It’s a good career opportunity
It makes me feel good
I can show what I think
It’s the best tool of expression
We all die someday. I want to show I’m more than just my organs
I didn’t choose art, it chose me
Art expresses a social message
Then I gave a presentation that focused on graphic design for the Rio Olympics and showed a few examples of culture jamming- where artists re-figure established images with new meanings. They liked it and were getting excited. I set up the design assignment - Think about an Olympic or Paralympic sport and then re-imagine it as an activity that happens in everyday life in Rio, and then connect that new image to one of the Oylmpic or Paralympic values.
They worked hard - great drawings and serious conversation. After a while, we gathered to talk about their designs.
We talked about how these kinds of images would be perceived by the audiences who see them including folks associated with the U.S. Consulate. It was a good and at times tense discussion, but the artists made their case. They said, this is what we know - our reality of Rio. After lunch, the team decided which images they would use for stencils.
Everyday feats of courage and inspiration
We gathered our materials and made our way to the square where the panels were waiting for us. Show time. It was a busy place, lots of people passing through and immediately they, including a group of mounted police, took notice of our activities (we had permission). Under the shade of a giant tropical tree we laid out the panels and unpacked the spraypaint and stencils.
How and where to start? If I started painting, I thought they might defer to me, so I stood back and let them figure it out. Leandro is a pro and takes charge, teaching others spray can technique. We loosened up. Passersby started conversations with the artists about the project and the Olympics. Some friends and family stopped by. As afternoon slipped into evening, we finished exhausted and happy.
From left to right: Forca/Strength, Improviso/Improvisation, Leveza/Lightness, Igualdade/Equality, Superação/Overcoming
Future plans are for the panels to be exhibited on the 4th of July at a U.S. Consulate event and then hopefully they will find a permanent home.
Thanks to all the folks at Oi Kabum!, especially Lorenzo and Daniela for guiding the project and supporting the artists, and Leandro Ice for his skills. Thanks also to Beata and Carla from the U.S. Consulate and Athena from Meridian for your patience and assistance.
Next up...My project with the comunidade of Agua Branca in São Paulo.