By Doug Gray, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Dutch duo Haas&Hahn (Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn) are the two artists behind a bold painting project that began in one of Rio’s most marginalized favelas and spread around the world as a unique solution to a longstanding urban problem. Fresh from revitalizing one of Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods, the pair are back in Rio and as ambitious as ever.
Finding themselves in Vila Cruzeiro in 2006, between the two painters and members of the local community an iconic, 150-meter mural of a boy flying a kite was agreed upon as the image to adorn several buildings next to the local football pitch. What was originally intended as a tool for pride and ownership in the region became a news sensation, fronted by a pair of Europeans living and working in a part of the city many Cariocas feared to tread.
“We first went to Vila Cruzeiro with fellow Dutchman Nanko van Buuren of Ibiss,” says Hahn. “His organization helped set up a social center in the heart of the favela. As the community was getting very, very bad press at that time, he challenged us: ‘If your projects works here, it’ll work anywhere’.”
By the time they had finished, the world’s media was behind them. Their third project, a painting on the main square in Botafogo’s Dona Marta favela, has become a tourist attraction following its pacification, rivalling Lapa’s iconic steps by the late Chilean artist Selaron.
The two artists’ next goal is to raise enough money via Kickstarter to return to Vila Cruzeiro on an even bigger scale. In under two weeks they had already received a quarter of their target and have again received support from some unlikely corners, including the Saatchi Gallery.
“The feedback has been enormous,” continues Hahn. “Our goal is to raise at least US$100,000. With this money we will be able to build the base, train the first team and pay for wages and materials to paint the first houses. Every additional dollar will let the project grow in scale and duration. The more money we raise, the longer we can go on and the more houses can be painted. If the whole hill is painted, there is always another hill.”
Since leaving Rio to take the project to Europe and the U.S., a neighbourhood in Philadelphia became the focus of their attentions. The sustainable system they deployed in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods will be central to their future success in Rio if they want Favela Painting to become a sustainable concern.
“We will try to realize the same method in Vila Cruzeiro, because only then could a project like this potentially go on for ever,” says Hahn. “We would also like to realize more possibilities for students and scholars to interact and help with the project. This way we can grow an army of painters that feels maximum ownership over the project and knows how to work around problems… while we build the next team.”
Between the Dona Marta and Philadelphia work there were several trips back to Brazil, not least to restore the ‘Boy with Kite’. “It was very damaged due to weather and all the bullet holes suffered during the police invasion,” states Hahn, matter-of-factly. “Together with our crew leader Angelo Campos our painters, and one of his Philly painters, restored a painting that took us over a month to create in less than a week!”
The knock-on effects for those involved in the projects are clear, be it the painters’ involvement in a positive, collective effort, or a forgotten corner of Rio being turned into a work of art that locals and tourists alike become drawn to.
“We have seen Vila Cruzeiro go through massive change over time. Sometimes it was relatively peaceful sometimes extremely violent. What has always stayed the same was the people. Obviously painting cannot solve any major problems directly,” says Urhahn. “These type of art projects can, however, call attention in a positive way and help cross bridges between social divides.”
Sadly, their work has never been formally recognised or applauded by the authorities. “We received an enormous amount of feedback from all over the world. From visitors, inhabitants and random people from all around the world. But never directly from Brazilian politicians.” Though certainly not their stated goal, perhaps their latest efforts will draw a little more official recognition.
Follow or donate via Favela Painting’s official Kickstarter page (kickstarter.com)