‘Article’ Category

October 19th, 2012

Vhils in Providência

“When I work I build a relationship with space and people. I’ve been working here in Providência for 3 weeks.”

In October 2012 I meet Portuguese artist Vhils in Providênca. The first favela in the world is now the centre of Rio’s “Big Leap Forward”. I haven’t been here for months, and I can’t believe my eyes. The praça, always centre of social life in the favela, is now a dystopian twenty four hour building site. An enormous pillar, a support for Rio’s latest cable car project, has replaced what used to be the sports court. This was where everyone met, where parties took place and where children played. It’s development at breakneck speed, and as usual, favela residents appear to have been granted antlike status in the process. It is a timely moment for Vhils to chisel his moving portraits of residents into the rapidly disappearing walls.


Vhils says:

“Between 1920 and 1974 Portugal lived the Salazar dictatorship. At the end of this the country swung to the left. Growing up, the first art I saw in the street was fading, decrepit murals painted by supporters of the socialists. In the years after Portugal joined the European union in 1986 there was a capitalist boom. Now two competing visual languages covered public walls. Billboards encouraging consumerism surrounded the political murals.  Much of the advertising was illegal. Then graffiti began to appear in the mid 1990s. There were more adverts. The authorities began to remove graffiti.”


“I noticed accumulated layers of imagery on the walls, which reflected changing times, and began to work with this.  I dug through the different layers, like an archaeologist. Sculpting faces from the walls, I noticed how much images influence us, although we might have no notion of this at the time. I worked with advertisements, covering them with white paint. Peeling this away, I created images to reflect the fugacity of consumerism, and the dangers of living a lifestyle of credit and extreme consumption. Working in a boom in Lisbon, people were looking at the shiny new buildings, without paying any attention to their long shadows.”


“Travelling shows how globalised we are. Digging into buildings around the world I perceive how similar people’s lives can be. In Shanghai, like Rio de Janeiro, infrastructure projects are forcing people out to the suburbs or into big housing condominiums. Such new construction programs are linked to development and speculation, not social improvements for people who live in these places. The processes occurring in China and Brazil reflect what happened in European countries in the 1970s as they lifted themselves out of poverty. History is repeating itself.”


Looking at Vhils work, I can only wonder what Providência will look like four months from now.


October 17th, 2012


1986: Hate, Ink 27, Pain 73 (Foam) and Cazbee. West London Pioneers. Laid up at Edgware Road

In 1982 I took a subway journey in New York City. My mother’s hand closed tightly on mine, her step quickened. She was scared. Then there were the trains. Covered inside and outside, as if by one mysterious superhuman hand. The writing obeyed no rule or pattern I had ever encountered. I asked her why, but my voice was lost in her fear and the thunder and rumble of the system.

1987: Flo 2 and Snatch on the ledge at Royal Oak

I grew up in Ladbroke Grove, the birthplace of graffiti in the UK. The Westway provided unlimited concrete canvass. The first piece in London was painted there, by Futura 2000, who made a rap track with locals The Clash. Henry Chalfant took the iconic picture of the nascent London graffiti scene yards away on the Westbourne Park footbridge.


1987: Crame (Just 12, WozDoz, Demo, Cade) at Latimer Road

1988: Cazman by Cazbee at Westbourne Park

I was incompetent with paint and pens, slow to learn and bad at art. So I took photos. Graffiti was all around me, and growing in quality and quantity. My daily return journey to school offered me the opportunity to learn about everyone who was writing their names, how old they were, where they came from. The trains were a bulletin board; every journey, an adventure of discovery.


1989: Westward Ho! Push from East London rolls out of Ladbroke Grove

1989: Storm by Prime at Edgware Road

For those who participated, the inner stains remain indelible. Middle-aged men with children and jobs use their graffiti names on Facebook. Some moved on, some stayed involved. Some even manufacture and market their own paint, which they sell in their own shops. Using such paint, a new generation films itself in action, and posts the results to the internet. The act was once carried out in secrecy, with only the work remaining to be seen. Today graffiti is removed so quickly, all that remains is the act itself.

May 17th, 2012

The Sertão

The sertão is a semi-arid region in the interior of northeastern Brazil. It spreads over six states and has long been viewed by southerners as one of the most backward and hostile areas of the country. It is traditionally associated with drought, violence and religious fanaticism. For most of the past 100 years it has been under the control of coroneis, local political masters bestowed with all encompassing power. Before then it was divided into capitanias distributed by the Portuguese imperial rulers. In late 2010, as Brazil elected its first ever woman President, I visited a proud, confident and dynamic region which looks forward while keeping a firm hold of its Catholic and mystic heritage.


The sertão (backland) revels in its stark, dry beauty. Its people are hospitable yet gruff. While they don’t give away much, their eyes have a pale glow that hints at hardship and the tenacity of previous generations, forced to survive and adapt to these harshest of conditions. On a dawn trip across the Pernambucan and Bahian border I sit next to an elegantly aging woman with mahogany skin. It’s too early in the morning and I am too out of sorts to ask to take her picture, so I must remember the chestnut brown smile in her eyes. Inside the van a DVD player is showing a kitsch concert and blasting loud forró music. I look out of the window and see a traditional vaqueiro (cowboy) passing by on a horse, clad top to toe in the elaborately stitched traditional brown leather hat, jacket and trousers. These are designed to protect the wearer from the hostile spines and thorns of the caatinga (scrub) that spreads across the region in a thorny cobweb of brambles.

(Image from the museum of the Sertão, Salgueiro, Pernambuco)


In Salgueiro, Pernambuco, I saw the city greet the Bishop of the most recently founded archdiocese in Brazil. This is a huge source of civic pride and self esteem for a city that was once only known for being the business and transport hub of Brazil’s marijuana trade. Salgueiro was brimming with self confidence.




In 1897 Canudos  was the epicenter of a historical siege and battle that defined modern Brazilian history. When local authorities decided that a wandering mystic called Antonio Conselheiro (“Anthony the Counsellor”) was a threat, they called in the national government for support. Antonio wandered the dry backlands restoring abandoned churches and preaching, gathering thousands of freed slaves and peasants in a community at Canudos.

(Image from the museum of the Sertão, Monte Santo)

When the army was sent in to put down the perceived threat to the newly founded Brazilian republic, they were routed by a tiny group of the Counsellor’s supporters, who conducted guerilla attacks and used their toughness and superior knowledge of the harsh environment to exhaust their opponents.

(Image from the Museum of the Sertão, Monte Santo)

The army finally bombarded Canudos into submission, massacring all surviving men, and taking the women and children as prisoners back to Rio. The Canudos conflict pitted the rational progressive and Eurocentric south, against Brazil’s mestiço and mystic north.


George Motoboy and jatropha phyllacantha AKA favela

The favela shrub was a poisonous thorn in the army’s side. It tore through their thin uniforms and scratched their skin, causing infectious rashes that could put soldiers out of action. It did not trouble supporters of the Counsellor, the tough jagunços in their leather jackets. During the final bombardment of Canudos, the army camped on a hill they called favela.

At the battlefield, now called Parque Estadual de Canudos, I visit spots with names like the Vale of Death. The only sound is the tinkling of goat bells and the crunching of feet as George the motoboy shows me around. He tells me to look out for rattlesnakes. As well as favela, he shows me numerous hostile looking shrubs with names like xique xique, macambira, unha de gato (cat’s nail) and palmátoria do diabo (devil’s whip)

When the soldiers returned to Rio after the war, they were betrayed by the authorities who had promised them housing and security. When they tired of the government’s empty promises they left their camp and climbed a nearby outcrop where they settled alongside freed slaves. They called their new home hill of the favela. Very few Brazilians know the favelas that circle their cities and cling to the hillsides are named after a shrub that has massive symbolic importance for the history of the country. The battle is imortalised in the classic Os Sertões (Rebellion in the Backlands) by Euclides da Cunha, a Rio de Janeiro based correspondent who witnessed the final assault and destruction of Canudos. Also by Mario Vargas Llosa in his epic The War of the End of the World.


Faces of the Sertão

Pictures taken at the Fundação Casa Grande. A cultural centre almost entirely staffed by children and adolescents.


Redemptorist Matt Ryan arrived in the region from Ireland, during the days when the progressive wing of the Catholic Church was the bastion of resistance to Brazil’s military dictatorship. Despite advances in the northeast, the state of Maranhão is still run by one of Brazil’s most powerful traditional political oligarchies, the not very popular Sarney family. Although it is rural, Mata Roma suffers from drug and crime problems associated with big cities. Sadly, this is typical of many small towns in the Northeast.

First Communion

The bubble gum flavoured Jesus Guarana is popular in Maranhão


The São Francisco River is a source of life and controversy for the sertão. An enormous and ambitious transposition project is underway. Considered by many to be the saviour of the northeast, it is a source of preoccupation for some of the regions’ more vulnerable communities of fishermen and indigenous people.

Neguinho Truká, chief of the Truká people says:

“What worries us most are the big Federal government projects. We hear that water is going to be brought to the houses of all those who suffer from drought, that there’ll be development. It’s just that this development is a danger to us. We’re worried about security and sustainability issues around the containment of water as well as the life of the São Francisco in the region. We have a river where 95% of the surrounding natural habitat is dead. It feeds 265 cities. There are 26 indigenous peoples around the basin.  The way that things are being done doesn’t leave any of us secure that the river will continue existing. We don’t want to deny water from those who need it, but the first thing the government should worry about is revitalisation of the river. We are most worried about the loss of our culture, based on elements like earth, sun, water and plants.”


2 million people throng to visit the statue of Padre Cicero (1844-1934) every year. He was a priest and believed to be a miracle maker. Considered a liability and defrocked by the Vatican, he became the mayor.

Padre Cicero’s followers bring him photographs, limbs (to mark recovery from illness) and letters. Once a year his most faithful devotees descend en masse upon Juazeiro do Norte to give thanks, make petitions, set off fireworks, pray and party.



Virgulino Ferreira da Silva (1897-1938)

(Image: Museu do Cangaço, Serra Talhada)

Author and historian Anildomá Willans de Souza says:

“Lampião’s family came from the countryside. He was an average citizen within the universe that he was involved in, and was inspired by stories of the knights of the round table. He learnt about these through the literature of cordel. Lampião was a poet who played the guitar and the hand organ. The sertanejo has a very fertile imagination. Lampião managed to incorporate in himself into the sentiment of most people. He fulfilled a sense of justice which they found missing. That of the cabra macho who doesn’t give up and isn’t afraid of the rich or the powerful. The sertanejo said that Lampião became invisible to escape his captors. The people of the sertão have a great capacity for imagination. It comes from our miscegenation, this mix of indigenous, African and white, which drives our creativity. This mixture results in the people that we are.”

Adolescents in Serra Talhada, birthplace of Lampião,  practice the traditional Xaxado dance of the cangaçueiros.

“The cangaço was a social movement that rose in the 17th Century. They didn’t necessarily have political thinking, and they had no plan to take over government and organize society in another way. Lampião knew everything was wrong but didn’t know how to fix it. The cangaço became a way of working here. You were either on the side of the police or the side of the cangaçeiros. This was very costly for our population.”


“Today we live in another dimension.  With our cellphone in our hands we listen and speak to the whole world. We think the sertão has had huge changes; but the motives that gave birth to the cangaço have not changed. There is still social disorganization and poor land distribution. The same social conditions exist. The wounds of the 19th Century are the same social problems we have today in the 21st. You travel around the sertão and it’s still dry. In the cities you see all the latest video games and gadgets but the drought still persists. We should eat rice produced by us, but we have our rice brought up from the south.”

“Political structures today? They’re changing but there hasn’t been a huge difference. The coroneis of those times are disguised as deputies and mayors. They have their kids studying in Recife, taking drugs. They buy cars with public money and build overbudgeted structures. That hasn’t changed. If you go to anyone of these prefeituras here and ask who is the father or grandfather of the mayor it will be one of the coroneis. They are direct descendants of the people who oppressed our parents. They even disguise themselves very often with a star on their chest, and they might even adopt the discourse of the left when it suits them. And we are often deceived.”

“If you see the symbol of a hat of a cangaçeiro you think immediately of Lampião. He is our fingerprint in all aspects of our culture today. He is also our first tourist attraction. We won the support of the government and created the tourist route of the cangaço and Lampião. I see Lampião as a cultural expression, which is a tourist and financial attraction. But above all I see him as symbol of the resistance of the sertanejo who doesn’t weaken, and who knows how to take on challenges and grandes impasses.”

Lampião and fellow cangaçeira Maria Bonita, filmed in the Sertão by Benjamin Abraão in 1936:


3 Generations




The last thing I expected to do in the Northeast was participate in a wine tasting, but this is exactly what I did at the Ouro Verde fazenda just over the border from Pernambuco in Bahia. We tasted Shiraz, Chenin, prizewinning Spumante and even a sweet Muscat.

Here the cangaço is distant memory and the only problem is keeping the neighbour from opening up the fences to let his goat graze.


Special thank you for Matt Ryan, Eridian Gonçalves de Lima and family (Antonio, Gustavo, Dona Ambrosia, Ailton e tod@s), Pe Antonio (Cabrobó) and Tiago Carvalho.

February 28th, 2012

Bate Bola no Carnaval do Rio


Everyone has their own carnival.

Oswaldo Cruz, in the suburbs, feels like another country after Rio’s Zona Sul and its gringos, sameness, endless beer advertising and throngs of inebriated paulistas in fancy dress. Here the streets are quiet and empty, nay deserted. It’s mid Carnival and the only signs of the ‘greatest’ party on earth are the bleary-eyed revelers making their way home. But at the station there is a group of men dressed in the brightest multi-coloured outfits, unlike any costume I have ever seen.

They look like visitors from another planet.



The costumes are designed to make the men appear bigger than they are. They are carrying poles that appear like medieval staffs, and attached to the pole are balls, mini-footballs, that they bounce off the ground. The Bate Bola (also known as Clovis) are groups, mainly youth, who get together for Carnival, and tour the city together. The name Clovis, apparently comes from a mispronunciation of ‘clown’, the word used by the English in the early 20th Century when they first came across the multi-coloured characters at carnival time.

I’m in Oswaldo Cruz to visit Anderson and his Bate Bola turma (group) called “Fascinação”. The residential street where he lives is closed and anything but quiet. A gigantic sound system is churning out loud funk. The friendly and voluminous Anderson – nickname “Buddha” – is under siege in his house, colourful uniforms decorating the walls.


The slogan for this year’s costume is “Quem ta duro já sabe, não se envolve!” which is printed over images of 100 Real notes. It’s a blatant provocation, typical of the zoeira, the way Rio youth wind each other up. “If you’re broke then you already know – don’t get involved!” To wear a Bate Bola costume is an expensive investment. A portion of each month’s wages is saved and paid into an account, to pay for the outfit: printed leggings, T-shirts, gloves, pouches, gear that goes underneath the full costumes which are all gaudy colours and phantasmagoric detail.

The Fascinação group have Wolverine printed on their undershirts and Magneto on the front of the elaborate costume. The turma also has other t-shirts that have slogans ‘Turma de Bate Bola: OSW-Fascinação 2012-Cruz: O único Passo entre a Realidade e o Sonho é a attitude e isso nós temos de sobra”. The only step between reality and dreaming is attitude and this we have in excess.


Some tough looking guys on motorbikes arrive wearing multi-coloured leggings and identical box fresh Nikes. They’re wearing their masks, pulled back, and therefore sport luminous semi-afros. A group of girls dressed in maids’ outfits hang out across the road. The guys on bikes disappear and reappear half an hour later. They are in the company of a fully dressed Bate Bola who is simply enormous and gets off his bike to bowl down the street, swaying, swinging his full body weight side to side and beating his ball to the ground – CRACK, wack, CRACK!


It’s provocative, and because you can’t see his face, a mixture of play and menace: a clear expression of the thin line between fun and danger, the point where the two merge and one can very quickly become the other: energy, adrenaline and aggression. The rocking side to side, the dancing and the lurid colours and masks resemble a tribal ritual.

The evening moves on and I realize that the visitors are other Bate Bola turmas, come to pay a visit to Fascinação. They sway and swagger up and down the street, first faces covered, then with masks pulled back to reveal the grins behind as they compliment friends and relatives. As each one arrives, the crowd in the street parts in front of them as they surge through – CRACK-WACK – skipping and beating the asphalt.

Fascinação are typical carioca timekeepers and therefore well past the 7pm time set for their exit. At nine preparations are still underway as the front of Buddha’s yard fills with people getting dressed. Kids and friends are kicked out, and only the bate bola are allowed. Outside the street has filled up, with girlfriends, neighbours, friends and sisters. Finally we can see flags emblazoned with 100 real notes above the wall. Dozens of firecrackers are set off and the neighbourhood lights up, smoke filling the road. The music is full blast.


Then the doors are opened and Fascinação and its soldiers of fun spill out all across the road bouncing, flags clutched, swinging their poles and Bola like gladiators of kitsch. They make two or three ascents and descents of the street before pulling back their masks and mingling with their supporters. There are mini Bate Bolas in tiny costumes, and plenty of people taking photos. Mothers, sisters and girlfriends make final adjustment to the outfits. They’re off.


On the way back to the south of the city by van, some teenage passengers break the monotony of the long journey by making wisecracks and targeting pedestrians with a water pistol. But they reserve special admiration for any Bate Bola, who they spot from afar. I ask them what they think of the Bate Bola. One of them responds immediately: It’s the best thing there is. He frowns. But this year, he says with a sigh, “I couldn’t afford it”.

Quem ta duro já sabe, não se envolve!”

August 11th, 2011

The Four Amigos


Mauricio Hora, JR and Marc Azoulay. I’m the one behind the camera.

August 2011