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Day 56: Rio de Janeiro

Michael Palin - BrazilOne of the inescapable impressions of this city, even on another glum day of squally south-easterly winds, is of a liveliness and openness to new ideas, particularly in the arts: the joyful ambition of the graffiti artists, the colour- saturated murals that liven up the concrete canyons, even the elaborate and complex sand sculptures which you see along the beach, with a bucket beside them to throw a coin in if you like them. It's all evidence of the public expression of an exuberant imagination. One Brazilian who typifies this is Vik Muniz, born in a favela in São Paulo fifty years ago, and now an artist with a worldwide following. His work delights in contrasts, in bringing together iconic images and doing something different with them, often using everyday materials that artists don't normally use, like dust and cotton and food and clothing. Muniz created a double Mona Lisa out of jam and peanut butter and a recreation of the Last Supper in chocolate syrup. He lives in New York these days, but works a lot in Rio and his latest project is to set up an art school in a beautiful location on a hill overlooking Ipanema and Copacabana. But, being Vik Muniz, there is a twist to the tale. The beautiful hillside location is already occupied by a rambling, unpacified favela called Vidigal. With Vik's contacts we're able to get up to the site where he hopes to locate his arts centre. As we look out, a man sits against a wall nearby, eyeing us benevolently, and cradling an AK-47.

The view is magnificent, a sweeping panorama of the finest beaches and the most sought-after property in the city. Vik notes the irony. 'Saint-Tropez surrounded by Mogadishu,' is how he describes it. 'Most of the people who live down there have never seen it from up here.'

There is, of course, an umbilical connection between the two, between what he calls the Asphalt and the Hill. Rio, says Vik, has one of the highest living standards in the world, because of the pool of cheap labour available in the favelas.

'And yet,' he says, 'you ask the people how often they've been to their maid's house or their nanny's house.' He spreads his arms 'They don't know where they live. They don't know anything about them.'

There is prejudice on both sides. Those down below imagine a place like Vidigal to be full of lawless bandits and drug dealers, and those who look down on the city are quite sure that anyone who can afford a twenty-million-dollar apartment in Ipanema must be a crook.

Vik is not short of evidence on both sides. He tells me some horrible tales of gang vengeance. Of a drug dealer beheaded by an opposing gang who then played soccer with his head as a ball; of retribution by necklacing – forcing a rubber tyre over someone's head and setting it alight. But on the whole he's optimistic, not just that things are changing with pacification, but that the contrast between rich and poor, of the employers and the workforce, can be a productive one, especially for an artist. The life of people on the other side is where an artist like himself can flourish. Recently he completed a series of powerful images with material from Jardim Gramacho, the world's largest rubbish dump, on the outskirts of Rio. He worked with a group of matadors, highly organized scavengers who walk the tip, picking through the city's waste for recyclable materials.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 56: Rio de Janeiro
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Rio de Janeiro
  • Book page no: 234

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