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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

June 8th, 2011

Providência Inside Out

JR has been a partner in the community since 2008, when he brought his Women Are Heroes project to our hill. When we heard about the Inside Out Project, we knew we wanted to participate. We’re at a pivotal moment in our history. While we have nothing against improvements and development of our city, we’re concerned that the authorities have not included our concerns in their plans. By pasting pictures in the community for the world to see, we’re seeking to participate and make our voices heard in this process. We want visibility, participation and recognition, and the best outcome for this community, which was built by our hands and the hands of our parents and grandparents.” (Mauricio Hora)

Morro da Providência looks over 360 degrees of Rio de Janeiro, giant emerald green papier machê mountains that drop into a city that rolls away into skyscrapers, favelas climbing up the hills, giant primordial rocks, sprawling suburbs and then the Guanabara bay and the open Atlantic. To see the city from the hilltop is to experience Rio at its dramatic, breathtaking and beguiling best.

Morro da Providência is the place where the word “favela” was first used to describe an informal urban land occupation. The name was given to the hill by soldiers returning from the northeast of Brazil where they had put down a rebellion by a mystic leader called Antonio the Counsellor. In the backlands of Bahia where the battle took place, the soldiers camped on a hill they called favela, named after a spiny, thorny shrub that made their forays through the scrubland dangerous and uncomfortable, as contact with the favela plant made their skin break out in sores and rashes. The defenders of Antonio the Counsellor, protected by leather, had no such problem, as they conducted lethal guerilla attacks on the troops, sent to defend the New Brazilian Republic.

It took four expeditions to finally defeat the rebels. The surviving troops returned to Rio de Janeiro, many with captive wives in tow, and waited by the Ministry of War, which had promised them land to live on. When the politicians failed to deliver, the soldiers and their families climbed up the hill behind the Ministry, and set up homes there. Together with freed slaves already living on the craggy outcrop, they founded the world’s first favela.


Morro da Providência (the name Providência was chosen after other settlements became known as favela too) grew and became known for its samba singers and carnival blocos (street parties) and then in the 70s when the drug trade took hold, it became one of the toughest favelas of all, and a no-go zone for people from the rest of the city.


Last year the police moved in as part of a so-called “pacification” strategy to clear armed gangs out of certain key favelas, as part of the citywide development plans in the run up to Rio’s hosting of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games. Providência is at the edge of the business district and overlooks the rundown port area. The authorities plan to build the Olympic Press corps building here, and have a vision of turning the port into a futuristic marina.

The precarious, perched and sometimes ramshackle construction of Providência is not popular with the authorities, and it seems like they can’t wait to get their machines up there to knock half the favela down. There are plans to build cable cars, amphitheatres and to open the area up for tourists. The plans have been drawn up with no consultation with the residents.

One day a team from the Municipal Housing Authority turned up on the hill, armed with clipboards and blue spray paint. They proceeded to number certain houses with an Orwellian acronym (SMH – Secretaria Municipal de Habitação) and inform those living inside that they were due for removal.

Some residents are not best pleased about this. As Dona Penha puts it “When things were bad, (i.e. when the favela was run by drug traffic and corrupt police) when we had to sleep under our beds at night, and walk our children past dead bodies in the morning, it was fine for us to stay here. Now things are better, we’ve got to go.”

JR’s Inside Out project was a perfect opportunity for people to show their faces. Mauricio Hora, a photographer born and brought up in Providência, took more than 100 portraits of residents that the Inside Out team printed (and hand delivered to Rio, thanks Marc!) which we pasted up with residents over three consecutive weekends.

The first day of pasting saw a visit from Raquel Rolnik, the UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, that lead to a TV appearance by Mauricio Hora, and it appears that the authorities are already changing some of their plans.

Rosiete Marinho, a community leader, says:

“We’re not invaders, we’ve been on this land for 150 years, and we have a legal right to remain. These photos represent our lives, lives that we want to maintain. We’re not a mere number.”

April 10th, 2011

Anarkia Boladona

“My name is Panmela Castro, better known as Anarkia. I do graffiti. Today I’m doing a mural for an exhibition that’s going to happen at the State Council for Women’s Rights. The name of the exhibition is ‘Colour Shocking Pink’.

This mural is the story of Eve. There is Eve, the snake and the apple. So this Eve, she’s in this place with nothing to do, it was really super boring, a proper drag and there was even this guy there telling her what she could and couldn’t do, giving her orders. One day she gets really fed up, and says well I’m going to do what I want, I’m going to be happy now, I’m not going to obey any man.

Then she began to make loads of friends: her first friend was the snake, and she began to try different fruits, but then those who were scared of the boss, this big guy, began criticizing and demoralizing Eve, saying that she was loose and so on.Now the boss guy in the story isn’t Adam it was God. Eve controlled Adam and didn’t pay him much attention; the problem was the other guy who thought he was the sinistrão (The  Boss).

The apple symbolized sex – even though God said that they couldn’t try it – Eve decided to do it anyway. In reality she had sex with Adam, so the Bible says that she had the power to dominate him. The problem is God who stood there saying that she couldn’t do that, but can you imagine Adam and Eve for all eternity in paradise without doing anything? Eve was malandra (cunning).

I started graffiti on the street in 2005 but before that I was a pixadora. In reality I flirted with graffiti for 5 years before I started painting. Pixacao is more or less what people outside Brazil call tags, which means writing your name with spray paint on a wall, although it grew differently here, as a self contained culture. Here there is the thing about writing names as high as possible on buildings and to make sequences, so pixacao took on its own characteristics. I started through a friend who studied at the time, who started to pixar to get in with the boys at school, and it worked for her.

A pixador is a normal person – they could be firemen, policemen or teachers. They are normal people but instead of going out to a dance or to play football they go out to pixar, it’s their leisure…just that it’s illegal. The adrenaline that someone might get from motocross might be the same that someone gets from doing something illegal that happens to be writing their name on a wall.

I stopped pixacao in 2002. My career wasn’t very long, but I always lived among it, because it generates a circle of friends that you can’t get away from afterwards. I think this is one of the motives for pixacao: to be someone somewhere, to be a member of a group. I stopped because I got married and became a housewife when I was 21, and I only started doing graffiti after I got separated. I wasn’t going to go back to pixacao, I was working and studying, I had set up a house, and there was no way I was going to start running from the police again or getting shot at.  At the time of being a pixadora it was difficult because there weren’t any girls and they always thought that we wouldn’t be able to keep up, so I had to work to earn my space. With graffiti, even though the boys were more open, it was still the same thing, I heard to earn my space. Nowadays any girl can join in because we already conquered the terrain for them.

I’ve always been ANARKIA since I began with my first pixacao. The first thing I ever wrote was the punk A in a circle, the A for anarchy, and then I began to stylize it and it became my logo. I know how to do a lot of throw ups, when I started writing graffiti I started doing pieces and throw-ups in the street, then I began to write letters – Anarkia, a big filled in A, then I wrote Anark, and now I write Kia.

I still paint in the street, I have my spots, and now and then I go there and renew, in the Leopoldina area there are loads of walls that are mine. I already argued with almost everyone in graffiti, but we’re all friends now. I once fought with a girl from pixacao and there was a boy in graffiti who I wanted to fight in the past, but when I tried people never let me do it. Now we’re friends. I’ve learnt to respect other people’s differences over the years.

Through graffiti I can say what I think and express myself to everyone irrespective of race, gender or social class, it’s there for everyone to see. I’m a painting graduate and I’ve been studying drawing since I was nine. I began to incorporate the theme of women into paintings when I began to turn into a feminist.

Being a feminist means being a politicized woman, conscious of her rights and who fights for recognition of her rights and cultural equality because even though we’re equal in our constitution, we haven’t managed to conquest this equality culturally speaking and in our lives. But we’re on our way there, and the process is going well. However there’s still a lot about the woman being a housewife; we can work, but we still have total responsibility for children, there isn’t much division of responsibility with the father, and then there’s the triple day of work, study, home/kids. We still earn less than men and I think this cultural inequality appears a lot in the thematic of sexuality and that’s why I use this in my work, because there are unwritten rules that say women can’t behave in a certain way, but men can.

This abortion painting is about the right to have dominion over your body. Abortion is linked to the question of sexuality. People say that women will just use this as a form of contraception; I got pregnant so I’ll abort – but this is isn’t true, women are responsible. If a woman gets pregnant for some reason she should be able to decide. Because of the power of the evangelical churches in Brazil, this will take ages to change.

Today young girls are growing up knowing they can be what they want, including president. My generation didn’t have this, I think we thought it was possible but we just didn’t know it would be so soon. It’s not just about having a woman in the presidency, it’s about having a woman who represents our ideas, who is a feminist and wants to break taboos and win things for us. Dilma knows a lot about the economy and so on, but she’s not close to the feminist movement. They used the theme of abortion against her during the election campaign to force her into an alliance with the evangelicals.

I created a graffiti project to educate women about the Lei Maria da Penha (it protects women from domestic violence) that was a great success. Because of this I won a human rights prize from a US institution called Vital Voices that was founded by Hilary Clinton when she was first lady. After this a group of us female grafitieiras created a network called Rede Nami – Feminist Urban Art Network – that uses graffiti to promote the rights of women.

For the Vital Voices prize there was a whole formal programming, and I opened the NY stock exchange on International Day of the Woman.

Gustavo Coelho, a friend who made a film about pixacao, said I was tricking them all:  You’re a 171!! (Slang from the Brazilian penal codification of fraud). How could they let a pixadora in among Hilary Clinton on Wall Street!”

(Pics: Damian Platt/Anarkia)