Photo: Bira Carvalho

Conversation between Luiz Camillo Osorio, Isabela Souza (Elã – Escola Livre de Arte) and Aruan Braga (Imagens do Povo)

In this new text, Luiz Camillo Osorio, curator of the PIPA Institute, talks to Isabela Souza, from Elã – Escola Livre de Arte/Free Art School and Aruan Braga from Imagens do Povo/Images of the People. Both initiatives are part of the Observatório de Favelas and operate in the Complexo da Maré, in the North Zone of the city of Rio de Janeiro, with the objective of forming, disseminating and producing art in peripheral territories. Bira Carvalho (author of the cover photo) is one of the nominated artists for PIPA Prize 2020 and coordinator of the Images of the People project.


1 – I’d like to start by asking the two of you to say a little about ElãEscola Livre de Artes (Free Arts School) and Imagens do Povo (Images of the People). Tell us a bit about the history of these two initiatives, starting with the Observatório das Favelas (Observatory of the Favelas) and the formation of meeting and working spaces within a community like Maré.

Isabela and Aruan – Since 2004, like Elã some years later, in 2019, Imagens do Povo has formed part of the public strategy of the Observatório de Favelas in the struggle over narratives in the city within favela and marginal communities.  

With these two initiatives we’ve made the Maré an important center in the fields of artistic training, dissemination and production. This movement has defined favelas and marginal communities as territories of art and, moreover, enabled the arts to increasingly become ways of making marginal subjects, territories and issues visible. Indeed, we have conceived of and transformed art into a tool for overcoming social inequalities.

These initiatives have also established a political position concerning the “right to aesthetics”, ensuring that favela residents and working-class people can be trained in fields historically reserved for the elites. It is normal for a young person from the middle/upper classes in Brazil to have the right to choose, for example, to be a filmmaker or to have access to visual arts schools; but for young people from favelas and marginal communities, this kind of education is not usually accessible to the same extent as other professional qualifications that enable them to work in the service industry. In the light of this finding, the training in arts and communications offered at the Observatório also addresses this urgent need to reduce inequalities of access and opportunity in the field of education in order to expand aesthetic repertoires and professional choices.

2 – What was the first class of the school like? How long was the period of training for the students? Where did they come from? And what was the class’s participation and interaction with the teachers like? Did the course end with a final exhibition?

Isabela – The educational proposal for this first year of Elã was the result of the collective work of the Observatório de Favelas, the production company Automática and the Escola de Artes Visuais do Parque Lage-EAV (Visual Arts School of Parque Lage). The aim was to stage an artistic-pedagogical experiment for young artists from the favela and/or marginal territories of the metropolis of Rio de Janeiro. 

In this regard, the first class of Elã was a success! In one month, we received 165 applications, spoke to 54 candidates during the interview phase and selected 26 artists aged between 20 and 31 years. 30% of the artists selected were residents of the Maré; 32% were residents of other neighborhoods in Rio de Janeiro’s North Zone; 8% were from the West Zone; 12% were from the Centro and South Zone; and 20% were from other municipalities in the Metropolis of Rio de Janeiro, with a high proportion from the municipality of São Gonçalo. Of these 26, 72% describe themselves as being black or brown.

We held 10 training meetings with this group (hubs: Pathways, Bodies, Materialities, Concepts and Agencies) and 5 public classes (subjects: Democracy, Education, Care, Representativeness and Participation), involving 11 guest educators, in addition to our own team.

We had a dedicated class that responded well to the proposed pedagogical project. In general, the class approved of the choice of educators and engaged with the proposals presented. In the process of general evaluation of the school, the group displayed interest in continuing the training process, advised that all the hubs raised concerns and expressed a desire to further explore the issues and strengthen their relationships with the educators.

Of the 26 artists, 3 were nominated for the Pipa Prize and 12 participated in other individual or group exhibitions during the school’s training period. We were also able to carry out a pedagogical evaluation simply to evaluate our training proposal.

Yes. We ended with a final exhibition that remained at Bela Maré for just over a month and attracted a little over 1600 visitors.

To see the video overview of this experience, click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TzRkR9a3Wj0&t=11s

3 – Imagens do Povo (Images of the People) is an older initiative and complements the effort to build self-managed information channels for the Maré with the need to train photographers (and journalists). How did that come about? And how is it maintained?

Aruan – Imagens do Povo is a structuring program of the Observatório de Favelas. It emerged in 2004 in partnership with the documentary photographer João Roberto Ripper, with the essential mission of producing and disseminating images that contrast with those usually associated with favelas and marginal communities, and which classify these places merely as spaces of deprivation, poverty and violence, etc. Through the training of working-class photographers from these territories, involving both technique and political training, governed by human rights, we were able to bring together a significant set of actors who understand the power and role of photography in the political struggle, and who understand the documentation of the everyday memory of the favelas as an element of the power of these territories. In addition to training over 200 photographers, Imagens do Povo also spawned other projects and groups, and helped to alter the favela’s relationship with photography. Previously perceived as an external element that came in to exploit the territory, there are now pathways where photography can be embraced as a tool for reporting as well as for the resignification of social imaginaries. 

The trainings took place in different formats over the years and range from the Escola de Fotógrafos Populares (School of Working-Class Photographers), an extensive 10-month course with daily classes, to briefer processes such as short courses, workshops, and artistic residencies, among other formats. Recently, in 2019, we held a training course for photographers, specifically aimed at women, for debating race, gender and sexuality. The result was a beautiful exhibition at the 535 gallery of the Observatório de Favelas, comprising the photographic works and brief visual narratives of the students. Another recent example, also from the end of 2019, is the artistic residency in partnership with the Instituto Moreira Salles where we seek to construct new readings of the IMS collection based on the work and experiences of photographers associated with Imagens do Povo. The results of this process can be seen on the social networks of Imagens do Povo and the Observatório de Favelas under the title “Corpo presente: releituras críticas do acervo IMS” (“Present body: critical re-readings of the IMS collection”). 

4 – What is the difference, if any, between an art school in the center of the city and one in the favela? What are the relationships between the artist’s training and the marginal territory?

Isabela – Elã, as an art school built on the geographical, corporeal, symbolic and political perspectives of favela and marginal communities, is committed to the construction of training paths in the field of art that bring the subject, its territories and experiences of the world to the center of the pedagogical strategy of building aesthetic narratives.

We begin with the territory, its issues and subjects. Art is a means and an end, but in the process, it is consciously mobilized so that we can reflect on many other issues that affect our students/artists and the way in which we are socially organized. This act of concern for the territorial connection places us, as a school and as subjects/artists, in contact with structural, corporeal, economic, cultural and social issues that are often invisible to educational processes organized in hegemonic centers. A school with our origin and mission, born out of the work we’ve developed since 2011 at the Galpão Bela Maré, for example, cannot ignore our duty of care concerning the resources necessary for the artists to get here and having a structure, no matter how limited, for providing food/snacks during the period of the activities.

5 – Godard, in one of his last films, critically comments on the formula that links fictional film to Israel and documentary film to Palestine. How can we recalibrate this logic, and give the symbolic material produced in social adversity a (transformative) means of ‘going beyond’ the crushing reality?

Isabela – I haven’t seen the film, Camillo, but from our political perspectives, art and communication have always been public strategies for going beyond, for recalibration, for revealing fissures, for tensioning certainties and multiplying perspectives.

It is necessary to unburden our forms of production, not only the artistic but also of the city, and undoubtedly looking to the work of marginal artists (as well as educators, communicators, programmers, architects, engineers, psychologists and many other marginal specialists) will open up symbolic and specific pathways for overcoming the social adversities that structure us.

Aruan – I think this is a very pertinent question at this time. An association with this debate, regarding the dissociation between fictional cinema and documentary cinema, can be made with the reality of Rio de Janeiro at the time of the emergence of Imagens do Povo, for example. At that time, photographic work concerning the favelas had the task of creating a record, of expressing itself through its documentary bases. In the case of Imagens do Povo, this occurred through the recording of the everyday life of the favelas and their powers. It is important to highlight the innovative nature of this perspective, in contrast to the photojournalism that prevailed at the time. Now, although it is still essential to expand the visibility of the powers of working-class territories in terms of their everyday life, new forms of expression through photography have emerged, addressing in similarly powerful ways the elements of social inequality and their forms in the marginal territories, whilst expanding the meaning and use of the image. Collages, projections, sculptures, audiovisual and other languages have gained strength and confirmed the expansion of the repertoire and versatility of the artists from working-class territories

6 – One of the most interesting things about this work of yours in Maré is your deconstruction of the clichés, the stereotypes about the favela, revealing a productive/creative effervescence without romanticizing poverty, transforming the daily struggles and conflicts into forms of resistance and the invention of the (im)possible – of living in spite of everything. What are the main challenges? 

Isabela and Aruan – Yes, Camillo. We are continuing, including with the projects of the Observatório de Favelas, on the path of the proposition, producing narratives that present favelas, marginal communities and their subjects based on their creative, social, economic, cultural, aesthetic and sociable potentialities. It is a process that presents itself in contrast to hegemonic narratives that historically stigmatize these territories and the people who live in them. 

The main challenge, undoubtedly, is ensuring the continuity of the work, in times of so many political, economic and social reversals. Historically it has always been challenging to guarantee resources for the arts and artistic training for marginal territories; in general, they are regarded socially as “luxuries”, as “privileges” and, in this sense, are fields of deepening inequalities.

As the favela is not hegemonically interpreted as a “territory of art”, public and private investments respond accordingly and we see old gaps in the structuring of programs that incentivize production, training and artistic dissemination in favelas and marginal communities.

What we can guarantee is that we will continue trying to respond to this challenge accordingly! Being tireless in the search for partnerships that allow us to continue structuring our work and affirming the favela as a territory of art and art as a means of making marginal subjects, territories and issues visible.

7 – What was the experience of Imagens do Povo with the IMS like, using that historical archive to discuss and rethink the images of the city and what is visible and invisible in it?

Aruan – This experience was very meaningful for us. At the end it was entitled “Corpo Presente: releituras críticas do acervo IMS” (“Present Body: critical re-readings of the IMS collection”. We selected 4 photographers associated with Imagens do Povo for this artistic residency at IMS.  Our aim was to produce new perspectives for the classic works of the collection. Firstly, we conducted a process of research and immersion in the collection. The entire IMS collection was made available to the 4 residents so that they could conduct their research and construct new readings of the historical works there. Then, following the research, the residents began work on the production, with photography and the image as a primary reference.

This process revealed significant gaps in the collection, which reflect the unequal history of Brazilian education, especially in Rio de Janeiro. For this reason, affirming the present body of invisible subjects became the central theme. Focusing on the strangeness of the military body, the absence of the trans body, and the repetition of the rushing body.

8 – What has it been like for you working in Maré in the midst of this pandemic? Has the self-reorganization of the communities and social movements been one of the positive lessons of this traumatic experience?

Isabela and Aruan – We have reorganized institutionally and today all our projects have specific activities which address the pandemic. Two important highlights are the creation of a communications campaign, “How to protect yourself against the Corona virus”, which informs residents of favela and marginal communities about prevention and care in times of the Corona virus, and the Corona Social Map, a series of publications addressing different issues in order to highlight the unequal impacts of the pandemic on the favela and marginal communities of the city. We’ve used concepts, references and methods accumulated throughout the history of the Observatório to reveal the deepening of social inequalities during this pandemic period and to indicate possible ways out. In this regard, the solutions invariably involve the political protagonism of the leaders and social organizations of the working-class territories of Rio de Janeiro.

As regards Elã, in partnership with Gerando Falcões, we support 18 artists with food stamp cards as an initiative to safeguard the food security of these people and their families.

Based on Imagens do Povo we produced the photographic essay “Com Vidas” (“With Lives”) with the photographers associated with the program who live in Maré. Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve reflected on the images that were being produced in the favelas and marginal communities, since many of them could be used to further criminalize these territories and their residents. By way of contrast, we’ve produced images about the solidarity initiatives in the territory, the challenges of isolation and its impact on the dynamics of working-class life. This essay was also produced in partnership with IMS based on the invitational ‘Com Vida’ program to promote artistic production during this pandemic period.

From the institution’s point of view, there are very positive lessons regarding our ability to respond quickly and act in concert with the efforts of the private sector, universities and public research institutes, and the engagement of individual donors. However, I cannot fail to stress the abysmal lack of emergency actions led by the governments in their multiple spheres. 

To see all the materials produced in the communications campaign,“Como se proteger do coronavírus” (“How to protect yourself against the Corona virus”), go to: http://observatoriodefavelas.org.br/como-se-proteger-do-coronavirus/
To see all editions of the Mapa Social do Corona (Corona Social Map), go to: https://of.org.br/acervo/mapa-social-do-corona/
To see the three publications of the Com Vidas (“With Lives”) essay, go to: http://www.imagensdopovo.org.br/historico/



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