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by Brendan McGetrick, 26 May 2011
Rio favela painting itself out of a corner
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A couple of weeks ago a minor miracle took place in Rio. In Vila Cruzeiro, a favela in the Penha section, hundreds of people gathered to celebrate the completion of a painting. Along a winding concrete staircase that extends from the favela's main street Rua Santa Helena, a duo of Dutch artists known as Haas & Hahn created a 2000 square-metre mural. With the help of three friends from the neighborhood, Haas & Hahn had spent nine months meticulously painting a carp-filled river in the style of a Japanese tattoo, and as the unveiling party started some parts of the painting were still wet.

Rio Cruzeiro, a 2000 square-metre mural in Vila Cruzeiro, a favela in the Penha section or Rio de Janeiro. All photos: Brendan McGetrick

In many ways, the scene was no different from your average block party: adults strung up balloons and children gyrated inside hula hoops and bounced on a trampoline; the sound of music and the smell of food filled the air; beer was poured and hands shook and hugs exchanged. The atmosphere was one of openness and above all peace, but it was exactly this mood of tranquility that made the occasion special. Weeks earlier Vila Cruzeiro had been the site of open warfare between local police and Comando Vermelho, the drug gang that controls the neighborhood. Walls on the route to the painting are marked with bullet holes and spray-painted warnings: 'Attention neighbours. In days of war, avoid leaving the house. Thank you, Comando Vermelho.'

News crews swarmed the steps as the party began. For GLOBO TV, the visit to the giant mural, called Rio Cruzeiro, was the first time it had sent a crew to Vila Cruzeiro since one of its reporters was murdered there while investigating drug dealing in the favela. For the artists, this positive coverage meant a chance to bridge the gap between the neighbourhood's perception and its reality. "People here are very proud of where they live," Jeroen Koolhaas, one half of Haas & Hahn, told me. "But the outside world looks on it as a shame that these neighorhoods exist and [thinks that] the people who live there should be ashamed of themselves." His partner Dre Urhan continued the thought: "In public opinion, [favelas] are considered very far away; they're in the middle of the city, but they are an inaccessible other world."

Rio's is a culture fixated on beauty. It is hard to imagine a more idyllic location for living, and the city has been crafted with such generosity and care that it elevates urban planning to an act of love. At times Rio feels like a macrocosm of one of its most celebrated resources, female beauty. Its architects and planners assume the role of stylists: they apply soft, vibrant colors to highlight the landscape's natural tones, they erect rows of residential towers that emphasise her curves. Over the years they've proposed radical treatments to maximise Rio's God-given potential, even, in the case of the city's partly man-made beaches, a kind of plastic surgery.

To Rio's beauticians, the city's favelas are disfigurements, unsightly patches of brown that stain the landscape. They disturb the city's image, not only because of how they look, but because of what they represent. They are the embodiment of Rio's failure, the consequence of a city's inability to accommodate all of its citizens, physically and culturally. Over time, favelas like Vila Cruzeiro have gained reputations as immoral, terror-filled places. The impression isn't completely inaccurate, but it exacts a terrible price on favela residents, most of whom are not involved in the drug-related violence that fills the nightly news.

Creating imagery to counter the steady stream of negative coverage is one of the ambitions of Haas & Hahn's Favela Painting project, which they launched in 2006 with some funding from the Dutch Ministry of Culture. Rio Cruzeiro follows the project's first act, The boy with the kite, a mural in the centre of Vila Cruzeiro on the side of a building that became the neighorhood's first art gallery. The inspiration for the project came in 2005 when Haas & Hahn (their name is derived from the last syllables of Koolhaas & Urhahn) first came to Rio to make Firmeza Total, a short documentary commissioned by MTV on the role of hip hop in the lives of favela youth. Struck by the disconnect between these neighorhoods and the city that surrounds them, Haas & Hahn started imagining ways to encourage the citizens of Rio to take a second look at one of their city's defining features.

"If you want to build a bridge between these two sides of the city that live side by side but have an enormous gap between them," Urhan tells me later, "the easiest way is to do it through some sort of art intervention." Koolhaas adds: "We tried to find a way for the [residents'] sense of pride to be painted on the walls of the favela so that the outside world could see how good they feel about themselves and could understand that there are families here that can take care of themselves."

Given their ambition, it might seem strange that they chose for a subject a fish-filled river, an image with little obvious connection to favela life. But both artists stress that the neutrality of the image is essential to the project. "I think it is a political statement to make something unpolitical," Urhan says. "There is a social and political statement in saying, 'In this slum where there are so many difficulties and so much bad press, let's make something that is totally detached from that, something that's just beautiful.'"

Over their months of work there, Haas & Hahn have built up trusting relationships with people in a community that has grown weary of outsiders. "A lot of times people come [to neighborhoods like Vila Cruzeiro] and they take," Urhan says. (I'm reminded of a line I heard in City of Men, the acclaimed Brazilian TV show: 'People come to the favela for two reasons,' one of characters says, 'either to buy drugs or make documentaries' – the latter of which Haas & Hahn first did.) Urhan continues, "But making this painting is exactly the opposite. And unintentionally you create the best medium to communicate with the people, because when we walk here there's no question whatsoever about why we're here. It's become a fact of life."

Urhan shares an apartment in the favela, and he and Koolhaas were introduced into the community with the help of their assistants on the painting Giovanni Da Conceição Silva, Vitor Luis Da Silva, and Robson Teles Carneiro. "It's an interesting situation when you’re an employer, but you have to ask your employees how to walk the streets," Urhan says. "Everything that doesn't have to do with paint, they know better. And for that they're really invaluable to the project. And for our safety." Now, Urhan and Koolhaas are clearly loved in the neighbourhood – as we talk, a constant stream of people greets them with affectionate back pats, thumbs up and cheek kisses.

As the sun is going down, the staircase becomes more active. 'MSN', a baile funk rhythm comprised of a Bobby McFaren-style beat box overlaid with sounds from MSN messenger, floats out of somebody's window. The scent of barbecue wafts by. Someone suggests we get some beers. Having completed their project and attracted unprecedented coverage (in addition to almost every local paper and TV station, CNN, Al Jazeera and even Fox News covered the painting) Hans & Hahn are reluctant to charge their work with any excess significance. "Really," Jeroen says towards the end of our talk, "it's just like a shirt. A new shirt for the favela."

Originally published in Art Review November 2008.