By Haley Twist
Overlooking Rio de Janeiro and featured on countless postcard images is the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue, arms wide open, towering over the city and its people to shield them from harm and suffering. From his station atop Corcovado Mountain, he overlooks a city of electric carnival colors, tropical beaches and a dazzling coastline of modern architectural wonders.
But other parts of this city, which houses six million people, have fallen into the shadows, seemingly escaping the statue’s shielding succor. They are indigent communities that thrive on their own creativity with few means to keep them alive and indoors. They are the favelas, the shantytowns of Rio, consisting of an estimated one million squatters – whose every day existence is entirely unknown to most Brazilians, never setting foot in a favela.
Brazilian-born photographer Pedro Lobo has removed these squatters from the shadows and placed them in the spotlight with his collection, currently on display at UNC Charlotte’s Center City campus, Favelas: Architecture of Survival.
“Walls can tell a lot about the history of a place,” said Lobo in a 2010 interview with the Charleston City Paper. “Walls speak loudly.”
Lobo, an architecture dropout, attended the Boston School of the Museum of Fine Arts from 1975 to 1979 before taking photos for the Brazilian natural heritage for almost 20 years. He then spent five years surveying and photographing the favelas.
His favela collection consists of 48 photos depicting the makeshift Brazilian architecture crafted from scrap wood, cardboard, metal and other materials, and occasionally highlights some of the people who live there.
The favelas, named after a thorny, skin-irritating plant, originated in 1888 when slavery was abolished in Brazil and eight million people were set free with no housing or jobs. Searching for work and other opportunities, groups of slaves moved to the city and established make-do homes for themselves.
“Favelas became the new slave quarters, only now nobody had to pay for them,” Lobo said at the UNC Charlotte exhibit’s opening night.
Today, the favelas tend to be ruled by drug lords and local gangs, some of which Lobo had to talk with to get into the neighborhoods.
“This culture of exclusion created problems that are at the root of today’s drug and gang culture of violence,” Lobo said.
With Rio playing host to the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, the government is in the process of attempting to decrease the amount of drug trafficking and violence frequently seen in the favelas.
But in the midst of the violence and chaos, Lobo has found artistic appreciation for the hand-crafted architecture. His high-definition photographs pinpoint areas where beauty meets poverty. We see dirty heaps of wood and metal forming collapsible-looking structures against a beautiful backdrop of the periwinkle sky. We see slipshod shacks hidden in a forest featuring brilliant greenery, and we see old brick hillside huts with towering mountains in the background.
While the focal points in Lobo’s collection are the rundown structures and the surrounding environment, he occasionally features the inhabitants of them. In one, a woman sits proudly on a bed too small for her next to a stove adorned with neatly stacked pots and pans. The walls behind her appear as a patchwork quilt, made of overlapping pieces of strewn-together wooden slabs. Amongst the dilapidated living conditions, the woman’s dignity and humanity remains.
“I’m looking at the relationship between men and space and what keeps us human,” said Lobo. “What I saw really intrigued me. I saw the strength of the struggle to survive in adverse conditions.”
Thirty-six of the 48 photos hang in Center City’s art gallery in a quiet white room. Students come by to admire the art. Lobo himself stops by for a panel discussion. Professors who work in the building walk by the photos every day, which will be on display through May 30.
“It’s both awe-inspiring and frightening,” said David Walters, UNC Charlotte’s program coordinator for the Master of Urban Design who works in the Center City building. “What I get is guilt from getting aesthetic pleasure from places of human suffering.”