In a Queens Diorama, a Favela Comes to Life by David Gonzalez

October 2, 2013 | Queens College

New York Times Article

Flushing, September 30, 2013 — A model city has arisen at Queens College. It is a sprawling, crazy-colored jumble of bricks and wires, concrete and plastic on the plaza steps near the library. Look closely and parts resemble Rio de Janeiro, down to the Christ figure overlooking that city Nearby is our on Empire State Building.

It is neither here nor there, but here and there.

The diorama is one of three built on campus by Brazilian artisans for the college’s yearlong celebration of all things Brazilian. They are fanciful renditions of Brazilian favelas, or shantytowns, which in recent years have acquired a chic allure, even if most people associate them with pop-culture portrayals of violence and drugs.

The models have cops and robbers, tanks and jeeps. But they also have couples on dates and children at play. In other words, life, just as it is in the neighborhoods where the artisans grew up scavenging materials to build elaborate tiny models.QC Morrinho 1 revised for web

“The favelas have young people who want to learn,” said Cilan Oliveira whose group, Projeto Morrinho or “Little Hill Project,” has built similar installations in Barcelona, Paris and the Venice Biennale. “We’re not just prostitutes and drug addicts. It’s not just a favela, but a life the world has to see.”

If that’s their goal, Queens College is an apt setting, with an international student body trying to change its own fortunes, like many others in the City University system. John Collins, a professor of anthropology who brought the artisans here, said he wanted to use the diorama to start conversations across cities and cultures.

“It’s about giving the space for people to develop alternate ways to read the city,” Mr. Collins said. “CUNY has always been a place for working class students who are struggling but brilliant. By putting them into dialogue, it can show the visitors from Rio a more complex picture of what the U.S. really is. And it opens to our students discussions about places that can be tied together.”

Mr. Oliveira, 30, didn’t set out to be an artist in 1998 when he started playing on the dusty hillside behind his family’s home in Rio’s Laranjeiras neighborhood. He was 14, new to the favela and not allowed to stray far from home because his parents feared he would become caught in the cross-fire between drug dealers and the police who had moved in to pacify the area.

He and his brother Maycon, built little houses, first with tiles that washed away with every rain and later with bricks from nearby homes under construction. Other youngsters discovered the little favela and joined the game. Each player builds a section and defends it while trying to invade other little neighborhoods, said Alessandro Angelini, who did his dissertation on Morrinho. But it also features stores, outdoor music stages with lights, trams and utilities. He added that the models built in Queens are not replicas of the original ones, but improvised hybrids done with local student volunteers.

The transformation of Mr. Oliveira’s childhood pastime into an art-world sensation is akin to what happened decades ago in New York with graffiti and hip-hop.

“There has always been this industry of seizing on a local practice, calling it culture and turning it into something that becomes a commodity and spectacle,” said Mr. Angelini, who teaches at Mount Holyoke College. “What Morrinho’s doing with the bricks is more or less what hip-hop did with records in the verbal form, in terms of taking what’s around you and working and reworking it. They’re doing a material version of sampling.”

Monica Awad, a senior anthropology major who helped build the model, said it has opened her eyes to possibilities that she never imagined. “Interacting with different cultures lifts something in you,” she said. “There is a lot more to a favela than just violence. Here are regular people, working hard, having a good time. I learned a lot about favelas, what you can and can’t do.”

This is what Mr. Oliveira hopes his young neighbors back home will learn from his experiences, where a game about their community changed his life. Two of his friends now work in a museum, another is a filmmaker, and Mr. Oliveira is a tour guide.

“Will it change the community’s reality?” he said. “It changed my reality.”

One thing remains constant: the game. In the plaza at Queens College, he and Rafael Moraes, a fellow artisan, hunched over the tiny favela and began moving cars and figures, talking in a child’s high-pitched voice. They were intense and playful.

And what is the game’s objective?

“It never ends,” Mr. Oliveira said. “Never ends.”

For more about Queens College visit http://www.qc.cuny.edu/Pages/default.aspx

Contact: Maria Matteo
Assistant Director of News Services
718-997-5593
maria.matteo@qc.cuny.edu