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This is going to be a long post, so please get comfortable, get yourself a cuppa and settle down.
We didn’t believe that we would be able to achieve something with the depth and legacy of our South Africa residency, here in Brazil. We only had two weeks, there was effectively a zero budget, and of course, there is the language issue to surmount. We needn’t have worried, what emerged was something beautiful, emotionally charged, playful, political and has made a lasting difference to diverse groups of people and, hopefully, will have an effect on the city here for the future.
Before you go any further, you need to get up to speed by reading about the Catraieiros. From our first day here we fell in love with these guys, the work they do, their honesty, nobility and strength, and we became more and more determined to make a piece of work with and for them. The tradition of ferrying people across the bay to and from the island upon which the old city of Vitoria stands, reaches back through time for five hundred years. Father to son, the knowledge and skills required to do this important job have been handed down, and yet, through rapacious development, financial pressures and an indifferent local government, this tradition, which is at the heart of Vitorian society, is in danger of imminent extinction. The catraias in which the ferrymen ply their trade are becoming fewer each year, and where scores of the little boats used to go back and forth across the bay, there are now barely a dozen or so.
The catraieros struggle on, charging a mere 2 Reals for their service (about 65p), but the experience of being rowed across the bay, in the open air, chatting to the boatman and the other passengers is a world away from the juddering, overcrowded buses which are the only alternative. Back and forth they go all day, every day, good humoured and hard working men, but neglected, almost invisible to their fellow citizens, despite their long and proud history, generations and generations of service. Where their were once half a dozen crossing points, there is now only one, a tiny, yellow walkway down which the half dozen passengers go for each short hop to the other side.
The landing place across the bay in Paul (pronounced pow-oo) shocked us when we first went over. A crumbling, dilapidated, tumble-down concrete nightmare, stinking of piss, filthy with dirt and dust – a metaphor for the neglect heaped upon the Catraieiros and their boats, the catraias. Directly across the bay, back in downtown Vitoria is the shining yellow Government building, their Council House, where daily decisions are made – mainly in the name of the dollar, cruel optimism masking the true needs of a people – identity, community, love – why must development always be without a heart?
Our first work created was a film, ‘starring’ one of our catraieiro amigos, Nero. You can see it below, and it should be quite obvious what it is about. The poem is by local writer, Cae Guimaraes and uses the words ‘ Mute, I have no voice’ in different orders – the word for mute also means change.
During the first part of the process we created a poem of our own. Like all of our work, it was a collaboration – an amalgam of words which appeared through our collaborative process, through interviewing people on the street – which we then put together to tell the story:
A life not yet gone
Water, like a waiting predator
Development, without heart
This is a rusty place.
Walking, without seeing
A receding sense of being at home
The blurring of the mirror
And, when water stops, everything stops.
Great feelings don’t have a face, or a form
I ask some questions
And I know I’ve arrived when I feel the breeze
I had to stop typing there for a bit, because I began to cry. This has been a very emotional time for us, we’ve connected, and connected with, so many people – gone deep very quickly and our hearts have been very much in the work. This is not the first time I have cried during the process, and I’m a bloke from Smethwick!
So, through the process (you can see the tip of that little iceberg in previous posts), an action began to emerge. We returned to what we now call ‘Casa Catraia’ – the ammonia-reeking hovel, where the guys repair their boats, again and again. This is where it would happen.
The catraieiros, it seemed to us, were having their dignity stripped away from them, and no better metaphor for this was the state of their ‘base’, over here in Paul (remember – pow-oo). So, we endeavoured to change this, to transform this dilapidated, semi-derelict, graffiti-covered place, into an oasis of beauty. We started to assemble our troops – the groups we had worked with already – our ‘Catraieiros Group’, the Expurgacao collective. Other synergies began to emerge.
Our Brummie (and adopted Brummies, Ellis and Riognagh, from Honeyfeet) musicians were around, so we thought we would take advantage of the opportunity. The amazing artist, Glen Anderson was on hand, and we roped in him, and a bunch of the students he’d been working in from the local University, UFES.
On Thursday afternoon, we set to work – firstly, by cleaning, cleaning,cleaning. We washed the floor, the walls – everything we could reach. And then the painting began. We laid down a coat of thick, white paint over everything in site, and in only a few short hours, with a little help from our friends, a transformation began to occur.
Everyone worked their socks off, there was an amazing energy – and it was a lot of fun as, over the course of the day, over a score of volunteers pitched in to help. By the end of day one, things were starting to change. On Friday morning, we returned to carry on, at first Glen and myself continued laying down the undercoat by ourselves, but were soon joined by our team of willing workers. The decor started to go on top of the white paint beneath, story after story emerging on the surface of Casa Catraia.
The third, and final day dawned. This afternoon we would hold a launch party for our manifesto – ‘Development With Heart’.
But first we had to continue the beautification process. The students returned, and put the finishing touches to their work. Glen began making what turned out to be an amazing piece – which our photos do no justice to at all. Hopefully, either Leon Trimble or Dan Burwood will have done better, we’ll have to wait and see as they are, as I write, somewhere over the Atlantic on their return flight to Brumtown (safe journey, guys). Glen also wrote the name ‘Catraieiros’ in large, bold, black lettering on the wall, facing Vitoria, a statement – ‘we are here!’. Everything looked better, no litter, no awful ‘tag graff’ and, best of all, the reek of piss was no longer present. People began to arrive, lots of locals from the neighbouring favela, artists from across the water, friends and allies, stepping off the boat with expressions of wonder – was this the same place? How could all this have changed, so much? Musicians came, Honeyfeet, local samba players, DJs Switch and Feva. Someone ran off and found some decks, a PA appeared – this was crowdsourcing at its best, organic, responsive, authentic. Beer arrived, sold by the lovely lady from the local restaurant, a barbecue was started by the catraieiros – people were smiling, happy. No more ammonia, no more amnesia, there was life/were lives here – a rebirth in process. The musicians played, Honeyfeet were, as always amazing, making simple, complex, transformative music, joined by a local sitar player. I cried again. The party continued grew, changed – B-boys arrived, capoiera and spinning, hip-hop dancing ensued. The samba players joined in – it became the best party of the festival.
At the centre of this joyful maelstrom were the catraieiros, always, the catraieiros. Somehow bigger, smiling more than we had ever seen before, their dignity retained. Success. Our work here was done. Our shoulders relaxed and we began to dance with the best of them, our new-found family surrounding us and suffusing Casa Catraia with joy, laughter, life. I think I’m going to cry again.
We were supposed to finish at 5pm, but, in true Brazilian fashion we eventually left at 7.30, more and more people appearing out of the boats (we don’t seem to have any photos, think we may have been a little, erm, ‘emotional’ by then). We were rowed back by Roni (Honi), who had been the first to row us across (was it only 12 days before?), this time accompanied by his wife and three of his children, Sandra’s new best friends. We were honoured and humbled, satisfied and replete in the knowledge that we had made more ‘Ronseal’ art. We had done our job.
So, our conclusions, what were we trying to achieve, and did we achieve it? We wanted to:
- Make the issue of the loss of the catraieiros tradition visible. We did this literally, by making Casa Catraia over, painting it white, making it colourful. You can now see it from right across the bay, an oasis amongst the encroaching and overwhelming port – and importantly from the Government building.
- Give the guys back some dignity. I think we’ve achieved this. Rather than a piss-stinking hellhole, their base is now a perfect place to relax, to be inside, and for others to use. Even if they do not survive the developments, at least they can bow out with some pride. Everyone who crosses, now looks at the place, and hopefully it’s denizens, differently.
- Given the people a chance to make a statement. People feel overwhelmed by the port and the resource-fuelled development. They don’t feel that their Government is listening to them, feel they have no power and, consequently little has been done. Bringing together people to make this action in only a few days, with a budget of near enough zero has proved what is possible if people get together, handed them the opportunity of taking charge of their own lives, if even in a small way. This is a beginning, and it is now up to them to build on this. During the event many people said – ‘what a great place to have a book/cd/film launch/barbecue/party/screening ,etc, etc – we hope this was not just the Brahma talking (local beer).
- We have created something physically beautiful as well, which hopefully will change, get added to and develop. The film and the poem are also (IOHO), beautiful works that will last (we got to show the film to hundreds of people on Saturday, it’s online and we will be screening it during Espirito Brum).
We have had an amazing almost two weeks here in Vitoria – none of this would have been possible on our own, so we’d like to give the biggest of big-ups to: Tessa Burwood and Soesen Edan, the Professional Incredibles, Caio Perim who took it upon himself to be our unofficial local guide and project manager, Thiara, Thairo, Rafael and Clara from our Catraieiros group, the Brumziliant crew for pitching in, Glen Anderson and his students for their beautiful work(s), Gabriel Ramos for being consistent, the Expurgacao collective, Instituto Quorum and their tireless workers, Samea, Diani, Marcella and the rest of you, Papo Furado and the Casa Aberta posse for giving us love. Everybody else who helped us, pitched in, begged, borrowed or stole stuff and just joined in joyfully. Thanks.
And of course, the Catraieiros – you’d better still be here when we come back next year, guys.
Peace to all from Sandra, Simon and Lee. Friction, Art where you live, wherever you live.
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