I got to know about Project Morrinho in the beginning of 2009, with a postcard sent by a friend who visited the model in Rio de Janeiro. When looking at the colourful picture on the postcard, I got very curious about what that miniature favela was about. The first thing that stroked my attention was the perfection of the model despite the poor materials (bricks, Lego toys, cardboard). Reading the website indicated on the postcard and my friend’s description, wasn’t difficult to understand how different the project is from most European projects. Essentially, the project is made by and for the community in opposition to the idea of ‘teaching through the arts’. With effects in the daily life and the urban development in a local scale, Morrinho provokes a communication between life, art and economical infrastructures. The duration of the project – on going – is of utmost importance to its development parallel to the goal of changing the local community for the better. “Initiating a small revolution” is Morrinho’s slogan…
One of the most interesting aspects of Project Morrinho is that it began as a child play without any artistic goals. How was the model presented to Robert Storr at the Venice Biennial? Can you speak about the experience of participating on the Venice Biennial side by side with international artists with aims so different from Morrinho?
Chico Serra: Robert Storr got to know about Morrinho through the work of the artist and photographer Paula Trope, who presented a photographic exhibition in partnership with Morrinho artists at the São Paulo Biennial in 2006. After this, Storr climbed Morrinho almost on his own. He simply showed up in the community and said: “I want you to reproduce a model of Morrinho at the Venice Biennial”. Robert Storr wrote a very interesting piece about Morrinho, where he describes it as a social sculpture, where the work of its creators is embed in their life.
Cilan Oliveira: It was through the communication of Morrinho in the most diverse media and itinerary exhibitions, in partnership with other artists, that we were invited to participate in such a renowned event as the Venice Biennial. To be honest, the kids and me were never aware that we would be invited and we had no idea of where this would take us. It was very good to be side by side with famous artists, people from different places and cultures. It was a very enriching experience; we had nothing to complain about, only to enjoy.
“Initiating a small revolution” is Morrinho’s slogan and translates a lot of your activities and interests. A lot of existing projects for social change create temporary spaces for talks and creating discourses but not necessarily to focus in real problems of local communities. Morrinho creates a multidisciplinary space for the community and relates to it with a very specific condition: to offer social change to the community of Pereira da Silva, trying to be a source of communication of the positive side of the life in the favelas, as well as a space for encounters in social and cultural terms, promoting activities as film screenings and debates. How do you measure change in the community since the beginning of the project until today? How did Morrinho, the model, evolve to Morrinho, the NGO, with branches as Morrinho TV, Morrinho Exhibition, Morrinho Tourism and Morrinho Social?
Chico Serra: The transformation of the model into an NGO was possible through the hard work of a lot of people and the encounter between filmmakers and producers with the young creators of the model, in 2001. The idea of Fábio Gavião and Marco Oliveira, when they climbed the hill of Pereira da Silva and fell in love with Morrinho, was to create a collaborative documentary with the young people from the community. As a proof of trust, they left a digital camera and the group began recording their plays, which turned into short films. The idea of exhibition and small replicas added artistic value (that even the creators weren’t aware of) to the play, in a natural way. The resulting film is a documentary named “Deus sabe de tudo mas não é x9” (God knows everything but is not a snitch).
With the exhibitions (between 2001 and 2005, Morrinho had realized a few exhibitions in Rio de Janeiro and in other Brazilian cities as well as in Europe: Barcelona and Paris) the NGO was created to assure the authorial rights of the work and to establish an institution that would be administrated by the young creators, with the help of technicians and producers. The idea of institutionalizing the project was also to communicate the project and get more resources for further development. It’s difficult to speak of “measuring change” in numbers. Of course it’s possible to say the project is worthwhile because it changed the life of 20, 30, maybe 100 young people, adults and children living in that community.
In the first years of the NGO, between 2006 and 2008, we had resources from companies through Laws of Culture Incentive and more than half of the people working at the Morrinho were living in the community. The artists who initiated Morrinho had a radical change in their lives: in their self-esteem, in their way of speaking and believing in themselves. I believe this change is, in many ways, more from the inside to the outside, in the way that makes people think about the ethical and aesthetical spaces of the favelas from Rio de Janeiro. Its ludic aspect is, perhaps, the most important and the one that causes more impact in any visitant of Morrinho which is embed in the community, between sheds and the limits of the natural reserve where is not permitted to build more houses and where is possible to see a forest. Above all, it’s a leisure space in the middle of community, created not by the public power or private enterprises but by its inhabitants. It’s a magical space, a micro-universe inside the universe of Brazilian favelas.
I have a strong interest on the way you relate different disciplines: film / video, exhibitions, tourism, and the English courses. You count on the participation of volunteers from all around the world, with very diverse knowledge. What is the role of the volunteers and how do they interact with the community of Pereira da Silva?
Chico Serra: The video was the media of communication between the filmmakers and the young creators of Morrinho. The filmmakers left the camera with the kids and they got confident both with the equipment and the idea of making films. They would create stories, which would become short films, stories of the daily life of the community. From the process of visual interaction to the movie itself it took six or seven years. In the documentary, the young creators of Morrinho are at same time characters and directors and this process is also singular. I don’t know about any documentary made in a favela where participation and interaction was so complex, profound and took such a long time, even with the production problems. The film “Deus sabe de tudo mas não é x9” (God knows everything but is not a snitch) is also a means of helping funding the project as we sell it online . From the film to the exhibitions, time was essential to the development of the confidence among the young artists and the perception of the importance of promoting Morrinho national and internationally.
The exhibitions of replicas of Morrinho in galleries and museums have an impressive path and I believe this is related to the curiosity of other countries towards the favelas, in the anthropological sense: what do people do in favelas? How do they survive? What do they have to say about themselves and the world? I believe some of the replies of these replies are the same the young creators of Morrinho try to achieve with their work.
Regarding the volunteers, they have a strategic function, which is the articulation between the NGO and the various institutions around the world. Thanks to the contact with volunteers, we were able to show our work in London, for example, in one of the bigger exhibitions after the Venice Biennial. The exhibition in London, at the Southbank Center, was great in terms of public and media as newspapers, TV and web. This said, in terms of help in the community, they do what they can but it’s a problem in terms of continuity as most of them stay in Brazil from three to six months. But of course their help is always very welcomed and appreciated.
Project Morrinho is sustainable and maintains a focus on the relations between the community, the arts, the society, education and tourism. Do you feel that Morrinho has changed the perception in and outside Brazil of the favelas? Can you speak about those changes?
Chico Serra: Sorry, but “sustainable” is not an exact definition of what we are as we sustain ourselves thanks to a tremendous effort of the current members of the NGO, as Raniere Dias, president and tourist guide; Cilan Oliveira, art director and founding member of Morrinho, and to the younger generation of artists at Morrinho, as Esteves Terra, Pedro Moura and Rafael Moraes (who travelled outside Brazil due to the exhibition in The Netherlands, in 2011), and many pther partners who combine volunteer work with various works (from workshops to directing and editing videos). This is an effort to make the project self-sustainable, a very difficult goal to achieve, which we always manage due to a remarkable collective struggle and strong will. The visual arts market is very unpredictable and, in many ways, we are dependant of invitations to exhibitions, workshops, seminars and such. We always try to find resources through projects and services to other enterprises and social organizations.
Regarding the way people perceive the favelas and the change you mention, I believe that’s due to the Lula da Silva’s government (since 2002) and, above all, to the then Ministry of the Culture, Gilberto Gil, who gave a turn of 180 degrees in direction of the popular culture. The previous government only invested in a sort of culture, for the elite, and ignored all other areas of culture. I believe most of the recognition of Morrinho as a work of contemporary art, independent of the merit of its creators, was this new cultural politics, initiated ten years ago. Coincidence or not, Morrinho was created fourteen years ago, in 1998, as a play, and became an institution in 2006.
The Project needs money and volunteers to continue existing and evolving – how does it sustain itself? Given your international projection, would make sense to have support from the Government. Can you speak about the ways of sustaining the Project?
Chico Serra: The organization of Morrinho is an interesting case study in this sense, as we didn’t found an NGO to teach the poor people to make art. It was born of the understanding that these young people, living in the community, had and have a creativity that goes beyond any institutionalization, and that this creative potential could evolve inside an NGO, creating an economical solution through promoting exhibitions of the model of Morrinho, producing videos, community tourism and other initiatives that could create knowledge and financial support to the members of Morrinho. Currently, the exhibitions, the workshops of Morrinho TV and the tourism are the principal financial sources as we develop projects for various institutions. Last year we visited three countries (The Netherlands, Timor-Leste and Colombia), and made an exhibition of photographs and videos in Spain, besides a large number of exhibitions and workshops in Rio de Janeiro.
Morrinho evolved from a model to an NGO – how does this change translate in the daily life of the community? Can you describe the daily life of Morrinho, with the visits to the exhibition, TV Morrinho and the pedagogical activities?
Chico Serra: This change translates in bigger responsibilities to the creators of Morrinho who, besides the physical effort of maintaining Morrinho need to deal with other side work as creating new projects, pay bills, maintaining the website and other administrative matters.
Morrinho is always a work in progress, it’s always evolving as its community. The daily life of Morrinho is a mixture of this maintenance job and the activities in and out the community. At the moment, we have just finished a workshop that lasted three months, a teaching experience for community correspondents, in a partnership between Viva Favela and Viva Rio. We taught young people from the community to produce and edit videos, produced three documentaries and a making of. The exhibitions take place more by invitation than by self-initiative. The exhibitions take place all year in Rio de Janeiro and other Brazilian cities under the invitation of galleries, cultural centres and art galleries. Last September, when Cilan and I were presenting films of TV Morrinho and making workshops in cinema festivals in the cities of Bogotá and Medellin, in Colombia, other artists of Morrinho were building an exhibition in a metro station in the centre of Rio de Janeiro. At the same time, we had an exhibition at Gallery MU, in Eindhoven, The Netherlands, which we had build a couple of months before. All this made with a rather small team for such an amount of work. In sum: the work is frenetic, crazy and fun, all at same time. It’s a surprise at all times: a new exhibition in Europe or a film screening for students in public schools in the cultural centre of Rio de Janeiro. We have worked with international tourist agencies as Matueté, Ventura, Geographic Expeditions, which send us about twenty to thirty tourists every month, a number which increases in the Summer. We try to produce as many short films as we can at Morrinho: we have just released our first trash movie, “Morrinho at World’s End”.
What are the goals of Morrinho, for its the future? Do you have plans of applying the project in other favelas?
Chico Serra: Morrinho has a very peculiar story that only the social and historical conditions of that community, in that moment, could create. These conditions are difficult to recreate in other communities. Each community and favela in Rio de Janeiro has its own peculiarities and its own problems. We have tried various times to make replicas of Morrinho in other favelas and even though we have a very good response from the inhabitants, it doesn’t go further. I don’t know how to explain that. But I don’t have doubts of the symbolic value of Morrinho, as an artistic expression and that its path works for all communities in terms of self-esteem and determination of a collective in expressing their condition, with all the problems they faced and how they expanded their creativity in the world in an impressive way.
Morrinho is clearly a case of success in terms of positive change within a community and created a lot of curiosity in the international public. Can you tell us a story of volunteers who contacted Morrinho to participate or learn more about the Project?
Chico Serra: Of course. Every week we receive emails from students, researchers and people interested in knowing the Project, be it for interviews, for academic work or for a closer view with voluntary work.
Today, we have a branch of the NGO Morrinho in the United Stated thanks to the work of three volunteers who have been in Rio de Janeiro and now live in New York. They helped communicating the project in the US by screening the documentary film “Deus sabe tudo mas não é x9” (God knows everything but is not a snitch) and getting donations, which, in the US, can be deduced in taxes. Another volunteer who helped us a lot is João Wrobel, a Brazilian who studied Architecture in the UK and was of great help in establishing the contact for the exhibition of Morrinho at the Brazil Festival at the Southbank Center in London, in 2010. It was in London that we felt more at home, we found many people who have been volunteering with us in the past and showed us the city, took us to Chelsea Football Stadium (it was the dream of one of the Morrinho artists), showed us the historical centre of London and took us to a reggae show at The Barbican. We also got to know the Brixton Academy and the Brixton market (my favourite place in London).
Thank you very much for your time. It’s absolutely inspiring to see new projects being initiated and evolving in such a natural way, with such interesting goals.
Interview by Luisa Santos