After Rio’s shiny, spectacular Opening Ceremony on Friday I came across this sobering picture that quickly brought me back to reality and filtered my view of the Olympic games. Brazil’s honest portrayal of the slave trade and the upbeat, energetic favela portion of the ceremony obscured some of the horrific present day realities behind the historical and social constructs that created the favelas in Brazil. Behind the graffiti tagged privacy walls that NBC aggressively tries to obscure during their broadcasts, lies some of the most economically disadvantaged areas of the country. This image serves as stark reminder of the societal costs of the Olympic games.
When artists choose to use their work as a platform for social commentary they open our eyes, hearts and minds to worlds that are unlike our own. I started thinking about the Brazilian artists responsible for putting Rio’s street art scene on the map. Celebrated artists like Os Gemeos have been conspicuously absent from the 2016 games, despite their mural contributions to Athens in 2004. On the other side of the coin the Rio Olympics have done an impressive job of showcasing local art when they chose 13 Latin American artists to design the official posters for the 2016 Olympic Games.
Other artists like Paul Ito touched on the complicated political, social and economic challenges Brazil faced in the months leading to the 2014 World Cup, however that level of artistic public discourse has been absent in the street art in Rio thus far, however if anyone has seen work to the contrary, please let me know.
French artist JR was commissioned for some imposing public installation projects in addition to his work that decorates the Olympic stadium in wheat paste portraits. He is currently using his social media presence to provide his followers with behind the scenes look at Olympic competitions and he is also partnering with popular YouTube celebrities to showcase his work.
Despite all of this, there is one little known aspect of JR that is not getting much attention, and that is his work in the favelas. Long before his documentaries, museum shows, books and TED talks, JR opened Casa Amarela, a community art center perched high atop a hill in Morro de Providencia, Rio’s first favela. Up until 2014, the favela was only accessible by imposingly long stairways; now it boasts an elaborate $35M cable car system. The fact that the government prioritized a gondola system over basic infrastructure necessities like a municipal water supply or an interconnected sewage system is a mind-boggling conundrum that speaks to the complicated dichotomy that exists in the favelas. They are simultaneously romanticized and demonized as areas of stunted development that are riddled with crime that co-exist with trendy cafes and favela tours which hint to a looming threat of gentrification.
And then of course there’s the art created by the center that beautifies the area. According to Phaidon, Casa Amarela “offers stage design, photography, and reading classes to local young people, as well as a children’s library, and open-air cinema screenings”; most importantly, the space is a cultural and educational hub for the community and a source of pride. Community centers like Casa Amarela provide the local children with an artistic refuge in an area that remains vulnerable to redevelopment. Luckily for now, the center has staved off those threats and was recently remodeled so that Casa Amarela can continue to provide local children with artistic and educational services and according to JR, up to 100 children from the area will have an opportunity to experience the Olympic games in person.
At the end of the day isn’t that really what we want the Olympics to be? A much needed, albeit temporary escape from our realities? For two weeks we get to celebrate athleticism, strength, work ethic and national pride. We can enjoy respite from politics, Brexit, elections, crime, the economy, healthcare, Black Lives Matter vs Blue Lives Matter and most importantly we get a break from a traumatizing media cycle. For a few days we can bask in the glory of gold. Admittedly, 100 favela children experiencing the Olympics is a drop in the bucket that won’t rid Brazil of its many ills, but for a few brief moments, these children will get to bask in gold without having to pine for it from afar.