A City of Contradictions: Around Rio de Janeiro’s Art Scene During the Run-Up to the 2016 Olympics

Marcos Chaves, Eu Só Vendo a Vista, 1998, offset print, 27½" x 3⅜". COURTESY THE ARTIST AND GALERIA NARA ROESLER

Marcos Chaves, Eu Só Vendo a Vista, 1998, offset print, 27½” x 3⅜”.


Most people, when they think of Rio de Janeiro, think of its sweeping beaches, inland lagoons, and tree-fringed mountains. But while the idea of Rio as fabulous tropical city can be apprehended, appropriated, amplified, and even fetishized, it’s just an idea. The reality is complex, unstable, and impossible to qualify.

This is, in part, because the flip side of Rio’s heady mix of beach and urban culture is its chronic violence and inequality. The city’s social and economic fault lines regularly slip into tragedy, the result of persistent poverty, gang warfare, land conflicts, and police abuses. A June 2016 campaign by Amnesty International highlighted the more than 2,500 people killed by police officers in Rio since 2009, the year the self-proclaimed “Marvelous City” won its bid to host the 2016 Olympic Games. “The policy of ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ has made Rio one of the most lethal cities on the planet,” said Amnesty Brazil’s director, Atila Roque, in launching the campaign.

French artist Jean-Baptiste Debret (1768–1848) was one of the first to take on Rio’s contradictions. The hundreds of lithographs and watercolors he produced during his 15 years in Brazil—from 1816 to 1831—included documentary prints and paintings of street and interior scenes from Brazil’s then capital, some of them depictions of forced labor and the public flogging of slaves.

Made 100-plus years later, the woodcuts of carioca printmaker and illustrator Oswaldo Goeldi (1895–1961) portray early 20th-century Rio as a squalid, oddly desolate place. In works like Street Fight (ca. 1926) and The Thief (1955), Goeldi pictured the same nocturnal city described in the work of his contemporary, journalist, and author João do Rio (1881–1921), whose writings include chronicles of dive bars in the downtown Lapa neighborhood complete with shady characters and late-night quarrels. Like do Rio, Goeldi homed in on corners of the city rarely seen by visitors, as in Favela (ca. 1925), in which a woman tends a table of meager wares, dwarfed by a high, nondescript wall.

Guga Ferraz, Paisagem sem título (Untitled Landscape), 2016, photograph, triptych, in “ComPosições Políticas.” Centro Municipal de Arte Hélio Oiticica. NALDINHO LOURENÇO

Guga Ferraz, Paisagem sem título (Untitled Landscape), 2016, photograph, triptych, in “ComPosições Políticas.” Centro Municipal de Arte Hélio Oiticica.


During the years of Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964–1985), Brazilian artists turned to new modes of art making, including performance art, which, as Claudia Calirman notes in her book Brazilian Art under Dictatorship: Antonio Manuel, Artur Barrio, and Cildo Meireles (2012), were also well-suited to the evasion of censorship and persecution. Artur Barrio, for example, who lived in Rio during the most repressive years of the regime—from the late 1960s to the early 1970s—“created site-specific artworks in public spaces, merging political content with nonpermanent artistic practices,” Calirman writes. His trouxas ensanguentadas (bloody bundles), packages of bones and butchers’ scraps resembling dismembered human bodies, were displayed in public, “as a guerrilla-based strategy for opposing the military regime.”

Flirting with the instability of Rio’s commercial image is Eu Só Vendo a Vista (1998), by Rio-based conceptual artist Marcos Chaves, which presents a picture-postcard view of Sugarloaf Mountain, the sentinel peak at the mouth of the city’s Guanabara Bay. The poster-size image is emblazoned with the title of the work—a play on words meaning, depending on how you read it, “Just seeing the sights,” “I’m only selling the view,” “Only I sell the view,” or “Sale for cash only.”

Both in and out of Rio’s galleries this past spring, the city’s complexities were much in evidence. Rio-born painter Eduardo Ventura’s “Paisagens Improváveis” (Improbable Landscapes, 2015–16), unveiled in a solo exhibition at Sergio Gonçalves gallery, depict Rio’s literal underside: the quiet, sooty spaces beneath the elevated highways, access ramps, and bridges that crisscross the city. Based on images obtained using online mapping tools, Ventura’s impressionistic, palette-knifed scenes bring a different Rio into focus, stripping it of exoticism and presenting it instead as a city delineated by the same dull asphalt, concrete, and steel that make up the fabric of every modern metropolis.

Gustavo Speridião, Nuvens na Perimetral: A Ida (still), 2005, video loop, 13 minutes, 25 seconds. Centro Municipal de Arte Hélio Oiticica. COURTESY THE ARTIST AND CENTRO MUNICIPAL DE ARTE HÉLIO OITICICA

Gustavo Speridião, Nuvens na Perimetral: A Ida (still), 2005, video loop, 13 minutes, 25 seconds. Centro Municipal de Arte Hélio Oiticica.


Liminal space also featured in emerging carioca artist Gustavo Speridião’s impressive solo show at downtown’s Centro Municipal de Arte Hélio Oiticica. Holding its own amid a riot of slogans, political posters, and surreally re-captioned appropriated images was Speridião’s Nuvens na Perimetral: A Ida (Clouds on the Perimetral: Going, 2005), a vertiginous, sped-up video of Rio’s Perimetral elevated highway. In the video, white cubes have been daubed onto the structure’s concrete columns. The cubes dance and twist like images in a flipbook as the camera zooms along the freeway’s underside.

Until the Perimetral’s 2013–14 demolition as part of Rio’s ongoing metamorphosis into South America’s first Olympic city, the hulking overpass hugged Rio’s shoreline from downtown Santos Dumont airport northward, past the old port and on toward the bridge to Niteroi, on its way effectively severing downtown from the sea. The area the Perimetral used to occupy now makes up part of Porto Maravilha, the refurbished former port zone that includes Pier Mauá, site of the annual ArtRio art fair, and the Rio Museum of Art (MAR). Diagonally across from MAR, on the far side of Praça Mauá, the unforgiving expanse of concrete that is Rio’s newest square, the brand-new, fish-shaped Museu do Amanhã (Museum of Tomorrow), designed by Spanish starchitect Santiago Calatrava, juts into Guanabara Bay.

Cais do Valongo, by contrast, though only a 10-minute walk from Calatrava’s gleaming, water’s-edge attraction, receives little attention. Unearthed in 2011 during the Porto Maravilha renovation project and identified as the site of Rio’s infamous 19th-century slave wharf, the archaeological site has been preserved but is unmarked save for a few hard-to-spot signposts. According to a 2014 report in the New York Times, Rio was the entry point for more slaves than any other city in the Americas. Between 1811, when the wharf was built, and 1842, when it was repurposed, more than 500,000 African slaves disembarked there, making it a vital part of the sorrowful history of the Atlantic slave trade. In the words of UNESCO’s website, “[Valongo] is a testimony to one of the most brutal episodes in the history of humankind.” Yet despite the endless clatter and clang of pre-Olympic constructions, no visitors’ center was in place in time for the summer Games.

Filé de Peixe, “Welcome to Catumbi,” 2012, traffic sign, installation view. COURTESY THE ARTISTS

Filé de Peixe, “Welcome to Catumbi,” 2012, traffic sign, installation view.


A 2012 action by the Rio art collective Filé de Peixe (Fish Fillet) posed questions about which parts of Rio get memorialized and which don’t. For the project, documented on the group’s website, the artists installed a large, shiny street sign, incongruously printed in English with the words WELCOME TO CATUMBI, at a junction in the old, run-down neighborhood of Catumbi. An official-looking plaque affixed to a nearby wall commemorated a present-day, ongoing, commercially organized dance-party, “O Retorno d’Astória,” itself a homage to Rio’s first black music dance hall.

“Ramos,” a 2008–10 series by Brazilian photographer Julio Bittencourt also focuses on a particular locale—the Piscinão do Ramos in Rio’s deepest North Zone. A shallow artificial lake surrounded by trucked-in sand, the Piscinão is located at the northernmost end of Complexo da Maré, a vast conglomeration of favelas (low-income communities) and long-established working-class neighborhoods. Bittencourt’s dark-toned color photographs capture locals taking their ease far from the famed South Zone beaches of Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon, sticking close to home and thereby avoiding potential problems—at the height of summer and during major events, Rio’s police frequently mount controversial roadblock operations, stopping and searching buses traveling from the North Zone to the affluent South, profiling passengers, mainly poor black youths, and removing them from the buses.

A work by Gê Vasconcelos in “ComPosições Políticas”—a group show held, like Speridião’s one-person exhibition, at the Centro Municipal de Arte Hélio Oiticica—documents one such raid. Vasconcelos’s “Testemunho” (Witness, 2016) is a series of photographs he took on a Saturday outing from his home in Maré to the South Zone seashore at Leme, alongside Copacabana—“an odyssey in search of salt and sun.” The journey turns sour when police board the bus and Vasconcelos is singled out, searched, and arrested for a small quantity of marijuana in his possession. Managing to retain his camera, he surreptitiously records parts of the process, from search and arrest to his booking at the police station, before being released a few hours later. The photographs are presented in the form of an A5-size booklet which, like Brazilian artist Lygia Clark’s geometric metal “Bichos” (Creatures, 1960–64), can be reconfigured by folding it in different ways.

Rafucko, Expo MonstruáRio 2016, postcard anti-souvenir of Vila Autódromo, 177⅛" x 118", in “ComPosições Políticas.” Centro Municipal de Arte Hélio Oiticica. MIRIANE PEREGRINO

Rafucko, Expo MonstruáRio 2016, postcard anti-souvenir of Vila Autódromo, 177⅛” x 118″, in “ComPosições Políticas.” Centro Municipal de Arte Hélio Oiticica.


Curated by Isabel Ferreira, “ComPosições Políticas” was the culmination of a one-month residency in which 12 artists from different parts of Rio worked at Bela Maré, an arts center within the Complexo da Maré. Some of the artists lodged with local families during their residency, while others already lived in and around the area. As part of the project, each participant was asked to respond to images with particular meaning for them. Wagner Novais chose the photographs of murdered young men that are printed on memorial T-shirts along with their names: Junior, Wesley, Beto, Carlinhos. Novais’s installation, Saudades Eternas (Eternal Longing, 2016), comprised a collection of such shirts together with video testimonials from some of the boys’ mothers.

Elsewhere in the exhibition, Meia Casa, Meia Vida (Half a House, Half a Life, 2016) by Guga Ferraz, brought together drawings and a scale model of half a house—the remains of one of the hundreds of homes recently demolished in Vila Autódromo, a favela that grew up in the 1960s on land now bordering Rio’s Olympic Park. While part of the community survives, by April 2016, despite fierce protests and sometimes violent clashes with security forces, many of its residents had been relocated. One couple disagreed on whether or not to give in and move out, so they split their house in two, leaving half to be demolished while the other half was left, crumbling at the edges but still standing. One side of Rio makes way for progress; the other digs in.

Artist and filmmaker Rafucko’s piece MonstruáRio 2016 (the title is a play on the words for “monster” and “showcase”) began as a collection of “anti-souvenirs” for the Olympics. A postcard shows a desolate Vila Autódromo, while a commemorative china plate is embossed with the macabre logo of BOPE, a police special forces unit. A customized pair of Havaiana flip-flops is stamped with an image of a row of black men lined up alongside a bus, their hands behind their heads, while a toy car is riddled with 111 bullet holes, a reference to the horrific November 2015 police massacre of five boys coming home from a night out in Rio’s North Zone.

These anti-souvenirs, and in particular the fact that they were being offered for sale, led to fierce criticism and even a protest outside the exhibition against what critics saw as a wrongful appropriation of the black community’s troubles, apparently for profit. Rafucko apologized for the offense, and replaced the anti-souvenirs with real Olympics souvenirs, but decided to continue calling his exhibition “MonstruáRio”—“a showcase whose intention is to hide the monstrosities committed by the state against the people.”

Naldinho Lourenço, Danielly, 2016, photograph, 177⅛" x 118", in “ComPosições Políticas.” Centro Municipal de Arte Hélio Oiticica. ©NALDINHO LOURENÇO

Naldinho Lourenço, Danielly, 2016, photograph, 177⅛” x 118″, in “ComPosições Políticas.” Centro Municipal de Arte Hélio Oiticica.


Questions about who gets to speak for which Rio, and why, were more satisfactorily resolved in another work in the show, this one by Naldinho Lourenço. The piece was based on a photograph the artist took during a protest against police violence associated with the attempted “pacification” of Complexo da Maré favelas in the run-up to the 2014 World Cup. In the image, blown up to life-size proportions, a young woman is captured in balletic motion, one arm raised in emphasis as she addresses a line of police officers in riot gear inside the favela. Lourenço invited Maré residents and visitors to imagine what the woman might be saying, and on the wall around the huge image, handwritten phrases proliferated, among them, “Who polices the police,” “Nothing pure in this world,” and “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”

Having learned of Lourenço’s project the woman in the photograph, Danielly Cantanhede, contacted him and explained what she had really been saying and feeling that day. Added to the image as a printed text overlying part of the photo are her words, which begin, “I was saying, Peace with no voice is not peace, it’s fear. In that photo, I was demanding my right to come and go. I’m a citizen. I work, and I pay my taxes. I’m black, I live in the favela, and I was asking for more respect.”

A version of this story originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of ARTnews on page 150 under the title “Around Rio de Janeiro.”

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