Thursday, March 31, 2016

Art on the streets of Brasil

Before I left for Brasil, I knew I was headed to one of the most amazing places in the world to see art on the street. Sure enough, right away I saw countless tags, characters and beautifully rendered pieces around every corner.

The legal standing of graffiti is different than what we’re accustomed to in the U.S. It is still true that many places are off limits and the police will stop you, but in many other places it’s considered ok, because it’s art. And this is an important distinction. If your work is just writing or some version of Pichação (the traditional protest script or wall writing now appropriated by thrill seeking young men who hang off buildings to see who can hit the most inaccessible spots) you’re much more likely to be stopped, but if you’re making colorful imagery that is in the same vain as other pieces in the area, you’re fine. Basically this means there are free walls everywhere to express yourself. What a paradigm shift.

What I haven’t seen here are collaborative community-based murals, and I’m just beginning to understand the reasons why. Art, visual art that is, is still considered to be predominantly an individual pursuit – especially graffiti where, although there are crews who paint next to each other, artists maintain their highly individual styles and “tags”. They rarely work with non-artists or on projects that develop and paint designs collectively.

Kaleb, a graffiti artist I’m working with in São Paulo, has been really fascinated with my approach – the time we take, the alchemy of the design process and the collective spirit. He wondered today if I had studied sociology in addition to art because of my methods.

Below is just a taste of what I’ve seen. I’ll be adding the artist’s names as I learn them.



Mural about the tradition of the Paneleiras - women pot makers

"How many women have already been harassed on this street?"

One of the few community murals I've seen


São Paulo

Alexandre Keto





Saturday, March 26, 2016

Design and Painting in Vitória, Espírito Santo

The Escola Municipal Maria Leonor Pereira da Silva faces a busy street near one of the three comunidades (favelas) where many of the students come from. Except for the official state sign indicating there was a school there it was hard to tell. We had work to do. On the first day there, I met with our teacher and administrator counterparts, Rosalba, Dulce, and Sabrina. They were energetic, welcoming and forgiving of my lack of Portuguese. They had also dreamed of a mural for their building for along time. 

The process
For us to make a collaborative artwork that is imbued with meaning, beauty and reflects our individual voices while responding to the many audiences that will see it, requires that we know each other and the place we are working  – even in a short process like this. So to begin we shared stories in a circle. Each person got a turn (including the grown-ups) without interruption or questions to respond to the day’s prompt. In Vitória, we started with ice cream – there are so many delicious flavors here. We went around with the morning group of teens and learned this first thing about each other. It is simple, but even a simple question like this elicits laughs, memories and new connections between those who discover they share favorite flavors. Everyday after we began with a similar circle and a different prompt, the final one being, what have we forgotten / what’s missing from our mural? There is always more to be done.

Then I gave a presentation, showing pictures of my murals and sharing some of the stories behind them. Karen followed doing a remarkable job of describing her role and the overall concept of the project, which would focus on the idea of social inclusion and shared values between Brasil and the U.S. Roger (who said, “I’m not a translator. How did Karen get me into this?”) did a great job of translating not only the words I spoke but also my sense of emotion and pacing. Those stories, I say, are just as important as the murals, and in a way our mural will be a key or touchstone to unlocking the memories of the time we spend together. I end my presentation with a picture of the wall of the school we will be painting. The group gasps and says, “ahh.”

We took a break, walked outside onto the busy hot sidewalk and examined our wall – what it looks like, feels like, how tall and long it is, and what painting or writing already exists on it? 

A couple of the students pointed up toward the comunidade on the hill. That’s where they live, and Gustavo (a very promising young artist) says he can even see the mural wall from his house. The excitement builds, but also a sense of responsibility and awareness that there is hard work ahead. We talked about our expectations for each other and the mural. I wondered about my role as an outsider from far away – a white guy from the U.S. leading a group of mostly black students from Brasil on a mural about social inclusion. I am accountable to them and need to ensure their message is portrayed the way they want.

Time to imagine
The next day, I began by sharing a quote that is on the wall in the biblioteca of the school, “To unite is a good beginning, to keep the union is progress, and to work together is victory.” We agreed, this describes us and our project.

With the older group, I proposed - You are traveling to the future 20 years from now to see yourself. What are you doing? Where are you? How do you feel? In pairs, they interview each other about these visions. I asked, if you were to hold a tool that symbolized that future vision, what would it be? They drew each other holding these tools. At the end of the drawing sessions, we presented to each other describing our ideas and getting feedback.

The younger (8-10 year olds) group suggested that the rocks that protrude from the long wall look like windows or doorways. I asked in return, if you were to make a key to open one of those windows, what would it look like and what would be on the other side? That’s enough to get their wheels turning. 

At the end of our day, we shake snacks out of the star fruit tree that grows in the middle of the school.

After school adventures
That evening I took a taxi to the Centro neighborhood where Karen had curated an exhibition at the Mucane African Heritage Museum of photos about her trip to Juarez, Mexico with other women artists in 2013. I got meet some of them. We talked about the U. S. Mexico border and the tragedies of Juarez. Karen’s group, Feminem, went to make art on the streets that affirmed the rights of women and condemned the brutal violence. The show and the short documentary that went with it were tough and beautiful.

Later in the week, I was invited to give short talk and participate in a conversation about urban art. We met in the Centro at a beautiful old building. The group that came was diverse and included a museum curator, an established street artist Fredone, father and young son, travelling poet and others. Our wide ranging chat touched on the story of the street artist Blu painting over his work in Bologna, and the similarities (and differences) between Brasil and Kansas (mostly about politics).

Roger, Dave and Karen

Lunch breaks together with Roger, Karen and guests were times to talk about what was happening in Brasil nationally and in Vitória locally. I began to understand that the current situation and protests it has spawned are much more complicated than I realized. One other great side trip was seeing the collective workshop where women make the clay pots called Panelas used for cooking Moqueca Capixaba, the delicious and celebrated seafood dish from Espírito Santo.

Final design
On our third day, I gave another presentation. This one is focused on artists who inspire me and who also are connected to the themes in our design. We looked at the works of Aaron Douglas, Jacob Lawrence, Kerry James Marshall and Kara Walker among others. The students noticed that they were all African-American artists.

Since it was St. Patrick’s Day, I told the short version of St. Patrick (with the snakes) and then asked about what cultural festivals and civic rituals they participated in here. We made our last series of drawings around this question. After school we primed the wall and everyone wanted to help. It went quickly. In fact, I think the whole school would have been painted in a few hours if we provided the paint.

That evening I completed our collective design in my hotel room, incorporating elements from their drawings and ideas, so it would be ready to share in the morning and get feedback. For the big smooth wall, I combined all of the drawings that depicted the student’s hands holding the tools of their futures. They move in unison toward the school entrance, strong and emboldened, as waves of sound and color inspire them onward. The longer wall with the protruding rocks will be painted in a decorative pattern at first and later each rock will get one of the “Keys” designed by the younger half of the mural team.

While the young muralistas worked on color studies, Karen and I transferred the design using the old school method of squaring up from a grid. We invited the students out in small groups to have a turn at it too. And we all cashed in our favors with the rain gods to please, please not have it rain during the next four days. Amazingly, and going against most forecast predictions, it didn’t and so painting began!

The first painting day was a Saturday. I got there at 8 am to start mixing colors (I am the bartender or barista of paint I tell the team). Despite the heat, 30-40 people showed up, including most of the students plus parents, friends and relatives. A big group set up chairs in the shade to watch. Passersby were curious and stopped. Muito bom! and Parabens! are what we heard most.

On Sunday the mural really started to take shape. A dedicated crew of painters worked hard from 9 to 12 when we stopped so a bunch of us could go get authentic Moqueca Capixaba on the other side of the Island, followed by a great tour of street art in old Vitória led by Karen. The final two days of painting focused on a smaller crew, including a few of the most committed students plus Roger, Karen and Athena from Meridian who probably hadn’t packed for painting…

Principle Rosalba Tovar

Tuesday morning was our mural (tentatively titled, “ To Work Together is Victory”) dedication breakfast. Many special guests came and gave speeches including the Secretario da Cultura for Espírito Santo. Gifts and hugs were exchanged. A tv channel did interviews with many of the students. We all agreed that this was only a beginning. After all, there was paint leftover, plenty of walls and newly trained muralistas with lots of ideas. And then, just like that I was on my way to Rio.

I am grateful to all of the students, teachers and administrators of Escola Municipal Maria Leonor Pereira da Silva for their extra effort in making this project a success. Special thanks to: Karen, Roger, Carla, Beata, Fernanda and Athena. And... check out the great video documentary about our Vitória project here.

Next up...working with artists from Oi Kabum! in Rio on an installation about the Summer Olympics.