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Redes da Maré

"Our mission has always been to make a structural difference in our community: to think about the reality of those 16 favelas."

With 140,000 inhabitants across 16 favelas, the complex of Maré is the biggest collection of favelas in Rio de Janeiro. Eliana Sousa Silva, who grew up in this community after moving to the Nova Holanda favela aged seven, co-founded Redes da Maré in 1997 to improve living conditions in the favelas, challenge inequality, and build towards structural change. The organisation now has a staff of 121, of whom roughly 60% are from the community, 40% from elsewhere, led by a board of five directors, including Silva. It has an annual turnover of approximately R$6m (Brazilian Real equivalent to £1.5m), and blends local and international funding from sources including Action Aid, Banco Itaú, NGOs, trusts and foundations, and individual donations. It receives no structural funding from the state. The interview for this case study was conducted with the support of one of Redes da Maré’s partners, People’s Palace Projects at Queen Mary University of London, whose artistic director Paul Heritage provided simultaneous translation of Silva’s Portuguese.

Mission: structural change for the favelas in Rio de Janeiro

Redes da Maré’s mission, says Eliana Silva, is “directly related to the trajectory of how it started. It was set up by people who live in one of the 16 favelas that make up the complex of Maré, and our mission has always been to make a structural difference in our community: to think about the reality of those 16 favelas, and try to understand what are the dimensions in human lives, and what are the rights within those dimensions, that the state does not recognise or protect for the people who live in this territory. We worked out that there were five dimensions that would incorporate all those different rights that people are entitled to: education, art and culture, communication, territorial development, and public security. If we could work on these five dimensions, over the years we would be able to see that there would be an improvement of people’s lives in Maré.”

This conviction comes also from Silva’s own trajectory, as one of the very few people – at the time, less than 0.5% – from the favelas to study at university. Silva can see how “investment in herself led to wider change”, and that’s the journey she seeks to replicate. “Our actions are always based on personal impact, we want to raise the educational levels of individual people, but our overall mission is not about the individual: it’s raising that educational level so that they can be aware of their political responsibilities and the political actions that they can take to make change. So education of the individual is a process, not an end result.”

“Our overall mission is not about the individual: it’s raising that educational level so that they can be aware of their political responsibilities and the political actions that they can take to make change. So education of the individual is a process, not an end result.”

Art and culture are fundamental to that process – but, Silva argues, you can’t widen access to art without also “working on the necessary mediations that enable people to benefit from the right to arts and culture: addressing issues of violence and increasing the possibility that people can live safe and secure lives”. Redes da Maré operates in “a context in which armed civil gangs exercise a right to control people’s lives, where the state is absent, except in the confrontation between military police and those people who are dominating your life violently. We don’t know enough about the collateral damage that comes from that: how people internalise a sense that they don’t have the right to health, education, security, arts and culture.” For Silva, the “so-called war on drugs stems from a set of cultural assumptions about favela residents that perpetuates the failure to deliver the basic right of a safe and secure environment, in which other rights can be delivered. And so the first shift that needs to happen is to see security as a human right in itself.”

The art of place-making

In each of the five dimensions Redes da Maré has identified as basic human rights – education, art and culture, communication, territorial development, and public security – it operates “a methodology that is repeated across them. The first stage is always to increase our knowledge about that particular axis, and to produce new knowledge about it: because what we notice when we think about favelas and peripheral communities is that there’s a lot of representation of them, and very little knowledge or production of knowledge about them. The second stage is to propose solutions to the problems that are identified, and the third is to influence the creation of public policies that will support those actions and make those necessary changes.” Underpinning everything is “the belief that it is necessary to raise consciousness in the community, and more specifically to invest in the potential of the people in that community.”

How this works in practice can be seen through three key projects, all related to arts and culture but demonstrating the ways in which this “dimension” integrates with the other four to support structural change:

1: Centro de Artes da Maré

When Redes began there was “just one cultural institution in the territories”: named after musician Herbert Vianna, the Lona Cultural is “like a tent, a big top: it’s actually precarious”, and nothing like the prestigious cultural buildings “in the southern zone of the city, which is the elite zone. It creates hierarchies of who is producing culture, how it’s produced, and who it’s produced for.” In 2009, Redes challenged this hierarchy by transforming two large warehouses into the Centre of Arts of Maré – and immediately inviting Lia Rodrigues, “one of Brazil’s leading contemporary choreographers, to establish her dance company there”. This was essential, says Silva, to “break the logic that stigmatises a cultural centre as being of the favela, rather than of the city. We’re not only thinking about how the community can have access to great art, but how art, and artists, can have access to the realities of that community – and how the flow of culture can be redirected”.

“We’re not only thinking about how the community can have access to great art, but how art, and artists, can have access to the realities of that community – and how the flow of culture can be redirected.”

The Centre sits on Avenida Brasil: “the liminal space between the formal city, the transport routes, and the entrance to the favela. This is significant because these territories are not easy for people who don’t know them to enter: there’s fear, there’s prejudices. We’ve exploited that easy access to run a lot of debates, to invite speakers, to see the cultural centre as a space of meeting. A theatre course for undergraduates and postgraduates has relocated from the Federal University to take place in the Centre of the Arts at Maré. With Lia Rodrigues, new productions always open in Maré, before they tour to Paris or Berlin, which brings a public to the favela who never would have come. Again, it’s changing that flow of culture.”

2: Arts and Tiles

Redes da Maré has since won the contract to programme the Lona Cultural, as well as continuing to run workshops in its original building, now an education centre. Among its many programmes – in visual arts, dance, poetry, photography, etc – one of the most popular and effective is the ceramics project Arts and Tiles. “It’s based on literature, so the people who do the course read a certain book or author, and then are given exercises to start interpreting the book or author to produce designs for tiles. These are then put up on to the walls of the houses in the favelas to create an open gallery. They’re also put around trees to create places people can sit, because there is very little public space in the favela – which takes the tiles to another of the dimensions, territorial development.”

3: My Street Has a Story

This project was part of an extensive mapping exercise that began at the very beginning of Redes da Maré’s existence. “Until the 1990s, the favelas didn’t actually feature on the map of Rio. They were just white or grey spaces on the map, as if they didn’t exist.” Silva’s background is in sociology, so she set about conducting a full census of the territory, and sent “70 young people out street by street to map the favela. They needed this information in order to insist with the mayor’s office that these streets appear on the map of the city. But it was also a chance to name those streets: many of them weren’t named, they were just numbered. This collective naming has happened over a long period, and many of the arts and culture projects have been linked to that – for instance, once a name is decided, it’s put up in ceramics.” In particular, the project My Street Has a Story invited “everyone in the street to tell stories of the street, and decide collectively what that name would be through that storytelling”. Some of these stories were then reproduced on a map published by Redes da Maré.

People’s Palace Projects

Through its long-standing partnership with People’s Palace Projects, an art research centre set up by Paul Heritage within the drama department of Queen Mary, University of London, but working internationally to think about the role of creativity in times of social crisis, Redes da Maré has been able to build knowledge and cultural projects in an international exchange with the UK. Their first project together enabled Silva “to engage in a dialogue about the thinking behind policing in Britain: why is it done in this way, what are the values, and what are the consequences of that?” This was in the context of a particularly difficult period in the life of Maré: the 15-month army occupation that “cost approximately R$200m and made no difference in the levels of violence”. The project also enabled Redes da Maré to make a film called Occupation, “based on surveys and interviews, with a different way of seeing” the effects of militarised policing.

A second collaboration, The House of Women, aimed “to think about how we could improve the conditions of women’s lives in Maré. We wanted to understand the violences that affect women and girls here, so we interviewed 800 women, created eight focus groups and conducted 20 in-depth, semi-structured interviews, and between those three tools we could produce sociological research, data sets, but also an artistic product: a full-length installation using interviews with these 20 women, that makes visible not just the violence but the overcoming of that violence by those women.” The partnership also enabled Redes da Maré to partner with Queen Mary University of London to conduct “the same research with Brazilian migrant women in London, to reflect on the condition of women from these communities and what happens when they migrate to other cities”, which became the basis of a play performed at the Casa Festival in London. A second installation of the Rio research was also exhibited at the South Bank Centre in London.

What next?

The emphasis on sociological research for all projects means Silva has a full set of data for the difference Redes da Maré has made to the favela community. For instance: “There were seven schools in Maré when Redes started, now there are 44 schools. And we’ve established two libraries: there are no libraries in Maré except those that Redes runs.” Where it was fewer than 0.5% of the favela population who went to university 20 years ago, now that figure is 2%. Thinking of that figure another way: “In 2017, 42 people were killed by gun fire in Maré – but 70 people from Maré in that year went to university. Of the 15 young people who took our dance course, 13 of them are now at university doing dance. There is evidence in all sorts of different ways that people who involve themselves in arts and culture from a very young age, whatever the courses, get more involved in other aspects of the community’s lives. I’m optimistic about the future, because I can see that the work I began 20 years ago has all these people now involved: it’s work that mobilises people with a really positive, collective perspective.”

“There is evidence in all sorts of different ways that people who involve themselves in arts and culture from a very young age, whatever the courses, get more involved in other aspects of the community’s lives.”

Her “major challenge is to think about sustainability, and particularly how we can pass Redes to the community itself to sustain and run it. Too much of the funding is project dependent and has to be renegotiated constantly: it creates an anxiety that affects the work. We want to create a community fund, based on investment funds, which will enable us to invest in a much more secure financial structure.”

Image: Maré children by Elisangela Leite.

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