Sun, Aug 26, 2012 - Page 12 News List

The Olympic bogey

Sculptors, painters and designers hope a rare Beijing precedent will save their community in a former confectionery factory

By Jonathan Watts  /  The Guardian, Rio de Janeiro

Thirty days before lock up.

photo: AFP

A community of artists in a former confectionery factory in Rio de Janeiro have turned to lawyers, aerosol cans and cachaca (sugar-cane liquor) to overturn an eviction order from developers trying to capitalize on the regeneration of the city before the World Cup and Olympic Games.

Their campaign — one of several disputes triggered by the US$33 billion redevelopment plans for Rio — has drawn the attention of the mayor, Eduardo Paes, and led to questions about the city’s priorities as it moves into the international spotlight.

In the past three years, about 50 artists — including sculptors, painters, fashion designers and sound engineers — have created studios and offices in the Behring factory, which once produced chocolates and sweets but is now adorned with baths suspended from the ceiling by chains, factory equipment transformed into furniture and other installations.

Located in Rio’s neglected port area, the 80-year-old building offered cheap rent and open space near the city center. But the property was recently auctioned and the new owners, Syn Brazil, told residents they had 30 days to get out.

“We made something really nice here, but now we are fighting a big monster called money,” said Rodrigo Villas, a graffiti artist who hangs wooden birds from electric cables on the streets. “It’s a shame. This place is unique in Rio.”

The artists at Orestes 28 — the factory’s address — have hired lawyers, lobbied the mayor and registered as a cultural organization. Some plan to spray paint the building in protest. Others say the experience has brought them together.

Alexandre Rangel, a painter, sculptor and installation artist, said: “When we received the eviction notices, we were disorientated at first, but artists are political beings. We got organized. It has helped us draw closer together.”

Theirs is not the only conflict as Rio prepares for 2014 and 2016. Protesters have petitioned city hall against evictions on the site of the proposed Olympic Village. But the artists have a selling point.

Similar communities have sprung up in many old factories around the world. The Dashanzi 798 art district in Beijing was also threatened with demolition before the 2008 Olympics, but artists there successfully lobbied the authorities to make it a cultural hub for the city. The residents of Orestes 28 are now trying to do the same.

Their campaign has been backed by the mayor, who has decreed the factory a site of historical and cultural importance. Washington Fajardo, a heritage official, said: “We hope to establish a new model in which the city hall owns the establishment while the artists collectively manage it.”

The artists are still uneasy. Although the eviction was rescinded, they fear the mayor’s promises may only last until forthcoming municipal elections. “We hope things are going in the right direction,” said Vivian Caccun, who led the wave of artists into the factory in 2009.

Brazil’s art scene is thriving thanks to the economic boom and tax breaks for corporate sponsors. Banks, telecom firms, chambers of commerce and even the post office group Correiros have art galleries. The most ambitious plan is for a vast art “Disneyland” that Bernardo Paz, an iron tycoon, wants to build at the Inhotim Cultural Institute in Minas Gerais state.

The infusion of cash has created opportunities for big Brazilian artists such as Helio Oiticica, Cildo Meireles and Vik Muniz. But art experts say the grassroots, collaborative work at the Behring factory offers something rarely seen here before

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