Urban Quilombo / "An intricate and holistic picture that challenges outsiders' comprehension of the nature of misery and promise inside a favela"

The 2002 film-slash-cult classic Cidade de Deus (City of God) provides an opening for most of us into the world of Brazilian favelas. With the ebullient Rocket as our guide, we tour what is now Rio de Janeiro’s best-known slum, and play witness to brutality perpetuated by people on both sides of the seemingly fluid law. It comes as no surprise, then, that the film is widely criticized for glorifying violence and dereliction, and presenting it as the norm in the neighborhood, which is populated by roughly 40,000 poor people -- most of whom are Afro-Brazilians or Afro-descendentes.

During my visit to Cidade de Deus -- the favela that served as inspiration for the eponymous movie -- I discovered that the (mis)representation of the violence in and of itself is not the sticky issue, given that it only skirts the edges of -- but is not -- complete hyperbole. The problematic issue, however, is the narrow nature of that depiction, and the suggestion that it is -- figuratively speaking -- the ocean in its entirety, rather than a wave. What results is an oversimplification of the individual and collective existence of life in this community, and a reduction of inhabitants’ lives to a series of frenzied adrenaline-fueled moments haphazardly strung together, and devoid of the dignity and substance that is subsumed in humanity.

To be fair, the complexity of life lived under heightened duress is neither easily captured nor easily explained, let alone understood. Spanish photographer Sebasti├ín Liste tries to illuminate the bi-polar nature of favela existence and the myriad of contributing factors in much the same fashion as James Holdt does in his display of a “grim portrait of black life in 1970s America.” The setting for Liste’s photographs is Galpao da Araujo Barreto, an abandoned chocolate factory-slash-neighborhood for several families in Salvador de Bahia. He frames his famed photo-documentary, “Urban Quilombo,” in the essay below. His use of the word ‘quilombo’ is intentional, given both its denotation and connotation. Liste’s work is a brave attempt to fill in the gaps ignored by the filmmakers’ lenses, and the eyes of the public at large. What results is an intricate and holistic picture that challenges outsiders’ comprehension of the nature of misery and promise inside a favela, with implications for how those things are defined outside a slum.

Urban Quilombo
(SOURCE: La Lettre de la Photographie)

Eight years ago sixty families occupied the Galpao da Araujo Barreto, an abandoned chocolate factory in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil. Prior to establishing in this place, these families lived throughout the dangerous streets of the city. In 2003, these families came together to seize this deserted factory, which lay in ruins, and they transformed it into a home.

Since 2009, I have been documenting Barreto. From my studies in sociology, I understood that this was a unique community. This vast sub culture within the greater city became one extended family. They created a microcosm in which the problems of drugs, prostitution and violence tackled with the support of the community. Today, life in a community is a form of revolution. Barreto was a place where the exchange of ideas, goods and services created a bond of identity that allowed the survival of its members in a society that marginalizes them. Thus, community life is a form of struggle and resistance. Resistance to a society that considered them as a dysfunctional organ.

Two years ago I came to Barreto to explore how communities formed within fragmented societies as a mechanism of survival. During the years, I have witnessed almost everything that one can live: love, despair, betrayal, lust, passion, unity, friendships, empathy, internal and external conflicts, forgiveness and a sense of family.

Since my first visit in 2009, I continued to return several times by myself until March, 2011, when the government evicted these families from the factory, as one of the many attempts to clean up the visible poverty of the center of Brazilian cities. This is mainly due to the upcoming international events to be held in Brazil in the next years, like the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games. Brazil has begun to teeter on the brink of human rights violation as it continues with the displacement of favelas in a reckless manner.

By the time, these families relocated, there were around 130 families living in Barreto, an area approximately the size of a football field. Although Barreto, the physical place, no longer exists, the community remains. The families that once lived in Barreto now live together in the Jardim das Margaridas, a marginalized neighborhood on the outskirts of the city.

My main objective is to document the emotional and physical ties between the different families, how the community is managing their relationships and meanwhile, how they continue to build their dignity. This community is a metaphor for a place where the tragic decomposition of human life combines perfectly with the magic realism of Latin America. (source)

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