Maré: From Rio de Janeiro’s Favelas to the Edinburgh Fringe 

Ishani Khemka
Friday 4 August 2023

In Rio de Janeiro, there are more than 1000 favelas (informal neighbourhoods) that are home to an estimated 1.5 million people. The word “favela” is often translated to “slum” or “shantytown” in English, evoking images of squalor, pain, and destitution. These connotations are amplified through efforts by the media to ensure a routine sensationalisation of sadness amidst poverty. This type of media coverage, that uses gimmicks to generate sympathy, is frequently consumed uncritically in the global north. What gets lost within the interplay of commerce and shock value, are the voices and perspectives of the people the subject of such media attention. Despite the presence of poverty and crime, Rio de Janeiro’s favelas are simultaneously sites of resilience, hope, creativity, culture, and joy. The exhibit, Maré from the Inside, on display at the Minto House during the Fringe Festival, approaches the favela from the perspective of its residents and focuses on these more generative and positive aspects of these communities. 

Photograph by Dayana Sabany

About Maré

Located in the Northern Zone of Rio, Complexo da Maré is the largest agglomeration of favelas in Latin America, home to an estimated 140,000 individuals. A melting pot of numerous cultures, it houses descendants of slaves, migrants from the Northeast region of Brazil and immigrants from over 15 countries. What initially began in the 1940s as smattering of wooden shacks built by impoverished migrants on an enormous floodplain of Guanabara Bay, Maré has evolved into 16 sprawling neighbourhoods. Most houses are now built of brick and mortar, are multiple stories, and have access to running water and electricity. Many of Maré’s neighbourhoods also have schools, cultural centres, and shopping districts. While a majority of these facilities are still under-resourced, their very existence questions the fervour with which the media deems these places “uninhabitable”. This is not to say that life in Maré is easy. It has undergone an intense militarisation of policing over the last 30 years as the Brazilian government has attempted to combat the local drug gangs fighting each other for dominance. Police tanks can often be found roaming the streets, with helicopters overhead searching for suspected gang members. Such police operations have become a constant and unwelcome reality for the residents. The police also turn a blind eye towards militia groups, comprised mainly of retired and off-duty police officials, that enjoy high levels of impunity. Despite these circumstances, dozens of NGOs in Maré have emerged to demand rights for Maré’s citizens, provide resources and opportunities to its residents, and to facilitate access to social services.

Maré From The Inside: The Exhibit

The experiences of life in Maré have been the research focus of Dr Nicholas Barnes, a Lecturer in the School of International Relations, for over the last ten years.  Alongside several academics, activists and artists from Maré and beyond, they have documented and curated a multimedia exhibit which showcases the artistic and knowledge production of the Maré community to new audiences.

“In order to understand the exhibit and this collaborative project, you would need to understand that I was living and doing research in Complexo da Maré for eighteen months between 2013 and 2015. It was a difficult time to be living in Maré, especially for the residents, because it was the lead up to the World Cup (2014) and the Olympics (2016), and there was a lot of attention on favelas and a large-scale process of militarisation. Despite the fact that it was a tumultuous time to be there, I learned an incredible amount from the communities who were so welcoming, even though it wasn’t really normal for people from the global north to be living there. I created long-term relationships with activists, cultural producers, NGOs, and local artists that co-organized this exhibit, which hopes to tell the stories of the people in Maré on their own terms.”

Photograph by Kamila Camillo

Barnes conducted over three years of fieldwork in Rio de Janeiro, with a special focus on Maré. While he is currently working on a book about gangs and their efforts to govern favela communities, his work on the upcoming exhibit, “Maré from the Inside: Race, Gender and Utopia in Rio de Janeiro’s Favelas,” has evolved from a long-term collaboration with activist, cultural producer, and resident of Maré, Henrique Gomes. Another co-organizer is Andreza Jorge, a feminist activist from Maré and a PhD student in the Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought program at Virginia Tech in the US. Gomes and Jorge have been integral collaborators to the project, offering an insider’s perspective into the workings of Maré. The final co-organizer is Dr Desiree Poets, an assistant professor at Virginia Tech, who grew up in Rio de Janeiro and has been working with urban Indigenous and Black movements and communities there since 2013.

The visual and textual exhibit, which is open to the public from August 4th to 9th and again between the 14th and 17th,aims to deepen an understanding of what life in a favela is like. It looks towards the past, acknowledging favelas roots in colonialism, slavery and resistance. It also encourages the viewer to look toward the future and the prospect of a better tomorrow.  Divided into two main sections, the first guides you through the wide array of homes in Maré through intimate portraits of homeowners and their families. The portraits elucidate how homes are, like museums, curated, how they are meant to be experienced and most importantly, how they wish to be remembered.  The second section delves into life outside the home, on the streets and the public areas of Maré. While the exhibit does address the effects of militarisation, it also brings into perspective the flourishing performing arts and creativity in the region, often used as a method for residents to defy oppression and celebrate resistance. Most importantly, this display has been curated in a way that does not focus on the differences between the residents of Maré and the viewers of the display. It emphasises the similarities that cross borders and nationalities, emphasising that which makes us human; our hopes, our dreams, and a will to live. 

Photograph by Antonello Veneri

Fringe and the Future

This exhibition has already been displayed at various universities in the US, where it has supplemented course materials in Latin American studies. The creators hope to reach a completely new audience at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh this year, inviting visitors from various age groups and different experiences, to immerse themselves in the world of Maré and perhaps broaden their horizons to understand a place they may know little about. Once the exhibition has been hosted by various museum and university spaces in the UK, the researchers hope to return its artistic products to the families which inspired them, or, to have them displayed in Maré as part of the community’s heritage. The exhibit’s message carries great importance; it humanises a group of individuals that are rarely given the privilege to dismantle the negative stereotypes that are so often associated with their home.

For more information about the exhibit and its schedule, please visit their website here.

The featured image of this post was photographed by Francisco Valdean.

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