From Gordon Parks to JR, and from Hélio Oiticica to Vik Muniz, a large number of Brazilian and international artists have worked in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro over in recent decades. Partly because of this, Brazilian favelas—low-income neighbourhoods that are mostly built informally—are now well-known across the world. The irregular, ad-hoc architecture of favelas, their supposed community life and the scenic hillside location of some in Rio have all contributed to what might be called a global favela ‘aesthetics’ or ‘imagery’ found in cinema, design, advertising, photography and visual art. However, favelas are primarily a manifestation of the deep-seated socioeconomic inequality that forms the city of Rio, the country of Brazil and, indeed, the rest of the world. There is a strong stigma attached to living in a favela, and diverse forms of urban violence are recurring problems in many neighbourhoods.
Navigating this complex landscape, artists and photographers often try to have some form of social ‘impact’ with their work in or about favelas. Fighting stereotypes and creating opportunities for residents are the oft-heard goals. In this essay, I take a closer look at how the social impact of artistic projects is commonly imagined by local and foreign arts professionals, trying to answer the question of what artistic projects can actually hope to do in and for Rio de Janeiro’s favelas.
Naturally, Brazil isn’t the only location in which artists and photographers have tried to bring about social change through their work. In fact, this is now a common motive across the world. Very often, it’s linked to practices in the so-called marginalised or disadvantaged areas to which the artist may or may not have a personal connection. Under the aegis of terms like ‘socially engaged’ or ‘participatory art’, many artists conduct projects with a social component, working with a marginalised group of people to produce some form of artistic output. After this, the documentation of such projects tends to be displayed in exhibitions, documentary films or books. These documentations often tell a story of transformation in which the artistic intervention increases or reveals the beauty and potential of a previously neglected area. The Oscar-nominated documentary Waste Land, showing Vik Muniz’s work in Jardim Gramacho, a Rio landfill and adjacent favela, is a well-known example. In my view, however, such narratives often do more harm than good. Poverty and marginalisation become a spectacle consumed by privileged audiences of the arts as feel-good narratives, while this particular conceptualisation of artistic impact also—and paradoxically— both exaggerates and downplays the struggles faced by Rio de Janeiro’s favelas.
On the one hand, poverty, injustice and violence are central to these narratives of transformation. For example, a commonly heard goal for artistic projects is to ‘keep youngsters out of the drug traffic' by enhancing their self-esteem and exposing them to different opportunities. Nevertheless, research has shown that less than one percent of favela residents are actively involved in the drug trade, which means the vast majority of residents are engaged in ‘honest’ work or study. To frame an artistic project in this manner presents favela residents as (potential) criminals, which affirms societal stereotypes that affect poor, Black men in particular. Of course, this isn’t to say that drug-related violence is not an issue in favelas; rather, it’s to question how artistic projects act in relation to this phenomenon. More generally, the oft-trumpeted goal of ‘bringing art to favelas’, as something previously unknown or as unlocking some hidden potential, seems to assume that favelas are spaces in which valuable cultural expressions are absent. This denies the wide range of local, cultural projects and artists that exist in favelas, which often serve as crucial mediators for outsider artists (e.g., by providing a space to work, reaching local participants or through translation).
On the other hand, the transformative narrative of artistic impact tends to overstate what art can do. Marginalisation, poverty and urban violence are deep-seated and widespread societal problems, the causes of which range from racism to low-quality public education and from widespread police violence to global capitalism. The scale of these phenomena necessarily implies that we need to be critical and modest about what art projects can achieve. Returning to the example of criminality and drug trafficking, for example, we see that the involvement in criminal activities is motivated by a complex pushing and pulling of social and financial factors that may change over time. This suggests that the idea that simply participating in an artistic project—particularly an unpaid and short-term one—can ‘get youngsters out’ or prevent them from entering the drug trade is somewhat simplistic. Finally, we must keep in mind that despite noble motives, the desire to work in Rio’s favelas is often connected to their current worldwide fame and aesthetic validation.
Despite these critiques, my goal isn’t to dismiss art as inconsequential. Rather, I hope to redefine what we understand by impact in a more nuanced and productive manner, because how we imagine and define this term determines how projects are put into practice. To do so, two starting points are crucial. First, building on the above, it’s necessary to acknowledge that social, economic and spatial inequality are extremely complex phenomena to which a variety of historical and contemporary factors contribute. Second, we must foreground the inherent inequalities of the so-called ‘art world’ itself—i.e., art’s production and display—on both a local and global scale. In Rio, museums and exhibitions continue to be—with few notable exceptions—located primarily outside of favelas, which has important implications for the kinds of audiences they target. The very idea of challenging favela stereotypes implies an audience that does not know the reality of favelas and needs its prejudiced views changed. Similarly, the identity of artists born and raised in favelas often hinges on this background, reducing them to supposedly authentic spokespersons qualified only to talk about their local reality.
In my view, rather than the immediate local impact of a specific project, more attention should be paid to how art can work towards changing structural inequalities on different scales. In conversations with artists and photographers from Rio’s favelas, three points surfaced as being particularly important in this respect. The first is the necessity of a long(er)-term perspective, because to be effective, continuity is key. Foreign artists, in particular, tend to conduct temporary projects in favelas, staying only for a few months, which raises the question of what happens after the artist leaves. Considering time constraints, it might be more productive for an artist to contribute to or support an already-existing project or organisation than to start a new initiative. Not only would this publicly acknowledge the local structures and facilities already in place—challenging the idea of favelas as derelict places without social or cultural organisation—it would also contribute to the long-term presence of such local initiatives, which are hard to sustain without continuously renewed support and resources.
Second, disrupting the dominant and unequal formats of art production and display needs to be a primary and continuous goal, which includes asking critical questions about who the art audience is and what role it plays. We often see an implicit distinction between ‘favela participants’ who act only in the first stage of the project and a secondary ‘global art public’ that observes the overall project . No matter how nuanced and impactful a project may be, this ultimately results in the consumption of images of poverty by a more privileged, outside audience. A notable exhibition that disrupts this pattern is Travessias, organised regularly since 2011 in Rio de Janeiro’s Maré favela complex. Here, the organisers actively aim to attract both local and outside visitors to the exhibition as well as the participatory workshops organised in relation to it. In other words, rather than changing the images/artworks shown, they hope to change the habits through which the images are circulated.
Finally, considering the scale and complexity of socioeconomic inequality, as well as the multitude of favela images that circulate the world, what one project can do is necessarily limited. For this reason, I argue for changing the focus from individual to collective impact. Rather than one, sweeping transformation, it’s the continued, collective presence of a multitude of diverse cultural projects in different favela neighbourhoods that can ameliorate lived experiences and work towards challenging societal stigma. As such, instead of asking how well one photograph represents the ‘reality’ of Rio’s favelas, it might be more relevant to investigate how that image works with or against the plethora of favela representations already out there, while also keeping in mind its commercial potential. Moreover, while one project might be helpful to one individual or a small group of participants, we must keep in mind the hundreds of thousands of favela residents who aren’t participating in the project, not to set unrealistic expectations, but rather to be honest and upfront about what one project can and cannot do.
Unfortunately, such an approach doesn’t sit well with the art world’s validation of newness, originality and individual genius, as well as the narratives of transformation outlined above. That being said, many artists in Rio are doing valuable work that contributes to the kind of impact outlined herein. A good example is Ratão Diniz, a photographer from Rio de Janeiro’s Maré favela complex. His work focuses on the depiction and representation of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas and also on graffiti, popular culture and the Brazilian countryside. His photographs have been shown in exhibitions within and outside favelas; they’ve also been published in a monograph and appeared in print and online newspapers. He shares his work on more accessible digital platforms, like Flickr and Instagram, and he participates in a number of photography collectives (e.g., Imagens do Povo, Favela em Foco).
Over the years, Diniz has created a diverse archive of images showing favelas and their inhabitants that foregrounds the highly different experiences that form part of living in these spaces. Depicting daily life, acts of protest and cultural festivities, his work reveals the favela as a place inhabited by regular people who suffer many injustices (e.g., police violence, forced home evictions) but that also work, play and enjoy life. Put differently, there is no such thing as the quintessential favela, and it should not be represented as such. Again, my point here isn’t that local photographers automatically provide a more ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ depiction, and it’s important to repeat here that Diniz’s oeuvre also comprises other topics. Nevertheless, living in closer proximity often makes a long-term and reciprocal engagement easier, and the very presence of a successful artist from Rio de Janeiro’s periphery is meaningful both within and outside of Rio’s favelas because it challenges the dominant relations of artistic production and display mentioned above.
Finally, Diniz engages in a variety of social and educational activities around his photographic work, for example giving lectures and courses, participating in debates at photography festivals and art events and giving interviews in Brazil and abroad. Naturally, many contemporary artists participate in such events, but I argue in favour of seeing these as primary and central parts of the ‘impact’ of his work, rather than as secondary promotion or explanation. To focus on these activities foregrounds artistic work and favela representation as a process of exchange that takes place in different locations in Rio de Janeiro and worldwide, which to most artists from favelas I spoke with is more important than the actual artworks produced. Again, this is largely about recognising the need to change the unequal structures of this circuit of knowledge and image production, and Diniz is but one artist whose work is gradually transforming this field. In other words, rather than in providing additional, new or ‘more accurate’ images of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, true impact lies in changing the habits and structures through which we see, frame and make sense of these depictions.