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June 25th, 2013

On The Protests in Rio

A version of this piece, written the night the 3rd large protest in Rio was violently suppressed, was first published by the UK’s Guardian newspaper on 21 June. Hopefully it can help people who don’t really know much about Brazil or Rio to grasp a little of what is happening there.

THE first surprise about the Brazilian protests is that they have taken place at all. The second surprise is their scale. On reflection they should have taken place years ago. The recent hike in bus fares was simply the last straw for a nation tired of being treated like otários [suckers] – as a taxi driver put it to me – by its ruling classes and politicians. Demonstrations in modern Brazil are usually left to small groups belonging to the country’s beleaguered ‘social movements’ and therefore easily discarded by the country’s mass media (in other words the all powerful Globo conglomerate). Protestors depicted as troublemakers, lazy students, leftists, and as rich kids without a cause – by one prominent social commentator in Rio last week – are quickly discredited and forgotten.

This time round Globo and its allies are on the back foot. In Rio, cracks have been showing for some time in the ‘cordial’ facade presented by the city’s leaders to the world. The once popular state governor, Sérgio Cabral, has kept a low profile ever since footage of him engaging in Bollinger Club-style buffoonery in the Paris Ritz emerged in 2012. Images of him cavorting with powerful business associates (known locally as the ‘napkin gang’, because what they sported on their heads during the escapade) enraged a substantial proportion of the electorate. The city’s mayor Eduardo Paes, often recognised as a hard working (if dislikable) politician, has also shown recent signs of strain, becoming involved in an unseemly brawl with an abusive member of the public outside an uptown restaurant last month.

Long uncomfortable hours in crowded sweaty buses on congested roads, and difficult access to substandard public health and education facilities, have been grinding down the patience of easygoing cariocas [Rio residents] for years. A modern but stuffed-to-the-hilt underground service, and an ancient and absurdly overcrowded overground suburban train service do not ease matters. With a soaring cost of living – many prices in Rio are now comparable to European cities – rapid gentrification of housing, and favela removal programs shunting the poor out to the most distant of suburbs, the frustration of large numbers of cariocas is understandable. One friend who visited recently, told me of his amazement at London’s public transport system which is open to all. “In Rio use of public transport is a sign of failure – it’s for people who can’t afford better”, he told me wistfully. Lack of confidence in the city’s public infrastructure is near universal. Anyone who can afford to, takes out a health plan, puts their children into private education and sits in traffic inside an conditioned car. At the very least such fortunate people can stay cool, while figuring out the expense.

Rio’s apparently successful public relations exercise to convince the world of its capacity to change has rested on the much-publicised ‘pacification’ programme. This has seen police take control of some of the city’s most famous and violent favelas. Formerly controlled by heavily armed gangs, communities like Rocinha and Vidigal near the exclusive beach districts, and Mangueira, near the Maracanã football stadium, are now patrolled by young police recruits – bringing homicide rates down to zero in some neighbourhoods. In the Alemão favela complex in the north of the city, this process has reduced the number of bullets fired by police in the region from 23,355 in 2010 to a mere 2,395 in 2012. No one can deny that Rio is less violent today than during any period in the last thirty years.

However the logic behind the ‘pacification’ programme adheres to a long-established practice of placing the poor at the root of Brazil’s problems; sidestepping deep rooted matters of corruption and political inefficiency which contribute to the delay of progress throughout the country. As if by magic ‘pacification’ is alleged to restore Rio to a Peter Pan past of tranquility – a time when genteel samba echoed across the hills, before volleys of automatic weapon fire brought terror and sleepless nights to cariocas in the 1980s.

These protests are proof that Rio’s politicians must do more than militarise the city’s most vulnerable communities to make life bearable for all cariocas, millions of whom live in outlying suburbs distant from the media spotlight. This is why they are so important. By focussing discussion on problems of transport and infrastructure, they are forcing politicians to face difficult questions about how they manage the city. The close relationship between the Mayor’s office and Rio’s bus operators is apparent, but opaque.

Having forced the Mayor to back down over the fare increase, a core of protestors are now calling for a parliamentary commission of investigation into the city’s bus syndicates. By maintaining this focus they hope to prevent the movement from disintegrating or morphing into a nebulous anti-corruption exercise. However the events of Thursday night, and attempts by political groups to hijack the protests, suggest this might prove difficult.

The final surprise may be that Brazil’s politicians are forced to address their conduct of public affairs. Meanwhile, for the taxi driver in Rio de Janeiro, the dream of not being taken for a sucker stays alive.



THIS piece was written on 20 June and things have been moving fast since then. Today, 25 June, the military police killed some 10 people in an operation in the favela of Nova Holanda. At the same time, the city’s legislative assembly gave the go ahead for the investigation into the bus companies. A sliver of a light on a dark day. What must the Pope be thinking about his upcoming visit?

From comments under the original piece:

I’m brazilian and I’m tired of being taken by stupid. I’m tired of lines in hospitals, with no meds, no infrastructure, no beds, people lying on the floor waiting, i don’t know,for God maybe. I’m tired seeing kids without a good school, good teachers, good infrastructure, helping then to become a citizen and not just another “brick in the wall”. I’m tired to pay the taxes and seeing my country accumulate more than ONE TRILLION in taxes and still, give no return to us, no even the enough. I’m tired of being a clown. We need support from everyone. From anyone who still believe that we can change and be BEAUTIFUL no just for FIFA, not just in the “rich parts”, no just for “english see”, but for us, brazilians too.

Amazing your post! The Globo corporate will never write the news like you did. They will always mask the news, changing the line and making the people believe in something is not true. They are trying to stop us. They are saying this is a violent manifest. But it is not. Is just the loud voice of the people for our rights and justice! Thank you! We live in a fake democratic system. Our people don’t have schools and don’t have hospitals. We live in a corrupt government system that think we are suckers, and steals our money in our face!


March 11th, 2013

Neighbouring Sounds


Neighbouring Sounds is a new type of Brazilian film, a social commentary with no guns, no blood, no corpses, nearly no favelas and no weeping and wailing. It might also be a story about a new Brazil. The film’s gripping opening sequence shows us a montage of aged black and white photographs of Brazilian peasants and their masters. Worn, leathered faces peer out with untrusting eyes, frozen in time in parched countryside. A crescendo of percussion instruments – Boom-BOOM-Boom-BOOM – grows louder, louder, louder, until the still images break into the film proper, and the viewer finds himself in a completely different universe, following a girl on pink roller blades, plastic wheels click-clacking on the surface of a brand new car park. She skates into a fenced playground at the top of a residential high rise. It’s crowded with children, and alongside them, uniformed adults whose faces are recognisably similar to those in the faded portraits of the opening sequence. These are the modern serving classes: the nannies, cleaners, cooks, porters and security guards who maintain the lifestyles of the fortunate.

Neighbouring Sounds tells the story of two families who live a few blocks from the sea in Recife, in this claustrophobic world of jagged high rises, right angles and barred windows.  The upwardly mobile Bia (Maeve Jinkings), a frustrated housewife, is at war with the neighbour’s dog. She staves off frustration with large doses of marijuana, in between shuttling her children to and from Chinese and English lessons. A second, richer, family is represented by João (Gustavo Jahn), a sympathetic, handsome late twenty-something who manages the many flats on the street owned by his grandfather. Their lives chug along, with the support of an army of servants. While João begins an affair with Sofia (Irma Brown), and attempts to rent out a flat in a building where floral tributes stand as reminders of a recent suicide, Bia takes delivery of a 40” plasma TV, and, in the film’s most violent scene, is attacked and punched about the head, inexplicably, by a female neighbour (who only receives a 32” TV).



The great Brazilian anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro wrote that the proto-cell and definitive matrix of Brazil, Brazilians and Brazilian life, originated from the social structure organised around the sugar mills, which date back to the seventeenth century. The senhor was the governor of the lives of all those who worked and lived there: those of his own family, the mill workers, and of course, the slaves. After João and Sofia visit his grandfather Seu Francisco (W.J Solha), in the countryside, at the decayed former sugar mill he still owns, the underlying tension and unease running through the film escalates into an atmosphere of pure menace. Bia’s daughter has a nightmare about a horde of thieves, dropping endlessly one by one into her garden in the dead of night. João dreams of a waterfall of blood. While the security guards swap tales of random violence, Bia spies a lone black boy sneaking along the rooftops in the dark.

Seu Francisco has made his way to the city, swapping his former plantation for urban real estate. While the high-rise monochrome jungle of Recife might look like another world, Darcy Ribeiro’s polarised cast structure of the sugar mill, foundational matrix of Brazilian society, is still firmly in place. Everything is different; nothing has changed. The urban domestic staff open and close doors for their masters, who live a comfortable and easy, but somehow strained, life. Everyone knows their place; everyone is edgy.

Neighbouring Sounds, which excels in originality, observation and detail, captures a long awaited moment of possible opening in Brazil. But can the country really change? The sins of the fathers continue to dictate the lives of the living. João is the quintessential cordial man, a Brazilian stereotype of extreme affability, and in his case, little productivity. Despite treating people well, and entertaining heartfelt notions of justice, he reinforces the archaic class system with his lazy, easygoing platitudes. He greets termination of his love affair with Sofia with the same vague, passive smile he applies to the rest of life. His grandfather, former senhor of the sugar plantation, continues to take all the decisions. But for how long?

Neighbouring Sounds is released in the United Kingdom on 22nd March and Itunes on 16 March.  See it!

November 19th, 2012


Anarkia is turning stereotypes upside down again. Graffiti is traditionally a man’s game: dirty, dangerous, competitive. Girl graffiti writers few and far between: accepted by the boys, provided they play by the rules.


Google images for ‘graffiti boys’ and you will find plenty of images of graffiti, or boys doing graffiti. Google ‘graffiti girls’? You will find hundreds of images of girls covered in graffiti. Done by boys.

In her eatart exhibition, Anarkia reverses the game, exhibiting pieces elaborated on a series of compliant male bodies. Swapping the walls of the city for walls of living skin, she asks questions about modern gender roles.

Just who is consuming whom, exactly?

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.