by Lindsay Spratt, Sub Editor
RIO DE JANEIRO – Thousands of bricks cling to the hillside. It is not a favela, but favelas in miniature, each red brick this time a building in itself. Red bricks, blue bricks, green and plant-edged; there are homes, shops, bars, discos and football pitches, even the police and their helicopter are present.
If the favelas are built on morros (hills), then naturally these mini favelas form a morrinho (little hill). Project Morrinho is located in the favela Vila Pereira da Silva, known as ‘Pereirão’, in the Zona Sul neighborhood of Laranjeiras.
High on the same mountain as the statue of Christ the Redeemer, it is a small community of around 2,000 residents and was the first in Rio to open its own hostel, Pousada Favelinha. It easy to see why, when you first set eyes on the view. Sugar Loaf and the silhouettes of the peaks of Guanabara Bay rise from below, with the blue sky framing above.
It was here that Nelcirlan Souza de Oliveira arrived in 1998 from Baixada Fluminense, a region in the state of Rio de Janeiro. At the age of fourteen, he was impressed by the style of the buildings in his new home: their brick structures and close proximity to each other. He decided to build an open-air model for his own amusement, using bricks and other salvaged materials, mounted onto the hillside just like the homes in the favela.
As Morrinho grew, so did the scope of its representation. It became not just a model of Pereirão, but a model of many different communities, today standing at 300 square meters and continuing to creep up the hillside. The bricks are even painted in various colors to signify the different favelas: some are red to suggest control under the drug faction Comando Vermelho (Red Command). Others are bright turquoise to represent the favela nearby in which all the houses are painted in this color.
The foliage on the hill has continued to grow around the bricks, adding another life-like dimension along with the trails and makeshift paths between the communities.
A downside to this open-air feature are the occasional mudslides which displace some of the buildings and their inhabitants, characters made from three of four LEGO bricks.
They sport various colors and come with different accessories including ponytails for the girls, headphones and come Carnival week, sparkly costumes. Some of them also carry rifles strapped to their sides, representing the reality of living with drug trafficking in these communities.
As Nelcirlan’s project began to grow, it attracted the interest of other boys in Pereirão, seven of whom are responsible for the modern-day NGO that it is Morrinho. My guide to Morrinho was Felipe Souza Dias, and he explained to me how the strong sense of community in the favela prompted the boys to combine efforts and work on the model together.
“Living in an apartment block, most of the time you don’t know your neighbors. The favela is a community of people who share their lives much more and help each other out. Nelcirlan’s project grew as other boys in the favela took an interest in it and began adding to it.”
In 2001, a film crew came to Morrinho to make a documentary on the project. Its success and the interest fueled by this first exposure to the public set in motion the series of events leading to the creation of Morrinho NGO.
What started out as a teenager’s hobby has become an internationally-successful brand, art exhibition and educational tool. With funding from La Caixa, the group has presented reconstructions of Morrinho in exhibitions all over Brazil and further afield in Vienna, Innsbruck, Berlin, Munich, Paris, Barcelona, Venice and New York.
Morrinho NGO not only aims to promote Morrinho in Brazil and abroad but also works towards providing professional skills for the members of the Pereirão community. This includes funding classes and workshops in the refurbished office at the model’s edge, and inviting younger children in the community to participate in the maintenance and expansion of the model.
Another of Morrinho’s many facets is TV Morrinho, which produces short videos dramatizing everyday life for Morrinho’s LEGO dolls. These clips are then posted on YouTube and also screened at Morrinho exhibitions. Videos have also been commissioned by Nikelodeon and Coca-Cola, among others.
For more information on Morrinho and to watch Morrinho TV, consult the official website: http://www.morrinho.com/.
Guided Tours of Morrinho can be organized by sending an email request to the following address: firstname.lastname@example.org.