chipping portraits

Note: Kaia is writing from Rio de Janeiro through December 2015, where she is writing and making art.

We walked out onto the balcony of the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro with our friend Gilmar. Beyond the pier was the Guanabara Bay, in the news recently for the high levels of pollution confronting water athletes preparing to compete in the 2015 Olympics. On the pier, a structures stretches out like a fish skeleton.


What caught my eye, though, was a man's face: someone had chipped paint and plaster on a large wall--maybe 10 meters wide--to depict a man, not young, squinting in the distance, his cheeks covered in a stubble, his chin in a goatee. I turned to Glimar.


Quem é esse? Who is that. Gilmar explained that the man wasn't someone famous, that the artist was striving to make art out of faces in the city, not those with so much power they would be depicted elsewhere.


There are six million people within the city limits of Rio, 13 million in the metropolitan area. Maybe a fifth of the population live in favelas: neighborhoods built up the hillsides (Rio is wedged between hills and the sea). People construct buildings from what materials they have, and then augment those buildings as they gather more materials, and as their families extend. This is what gives the the favelas the look of layered cakes, this adding on, finding ways to fit expanding families by builiding up and out, bit by bit.. These are neighborhoods that are illegible to the outside, with winding, nameless streets that postal workers mostly forgo. People often jerryrig water lines, sewage, electricity.


Chipped into a corner of the wall are shapes reminiscent of the stacked houses in favelas, a sense that this man might be surrounded by his community.


When I returned from the museum to the Copacabana flat we are renting, I tried different search terms: "Rio de Janeiro, chipped plaster, portraits, murals, anonymous." Eventually I arrived at Alexandre Farto AKA Vhils, a Portuguese artist who particularly works with people who live in Rio de Janeiro favelos to chip these portraits of inhabitants. I began to play the most recent video: 


"You can feel the history of the city ... " began Vhils, "in its walls and all the layers they have accumulated. But all these layers accumulating on these walls are also reflected in the people and the way they are shaped. This often chaotic cycle of influence between the city and its inhabitants is something that has interested me greatly because in the end we are something of a product of chance." I think about who he decides to memorialize, and who usually is memorialized, who I expected to see: The famous, the infamous.


"When you work on a wall you see how this matter affects all of those who live in a place," he continued. "It's almost as if you are touching the material that affects and makes people the way they are." This idea is at once profound and very familiar. He uses, as his artistic medium, the materials of the city in which people live.


But so, in a way, do we as writers. We use language, the language that we have used in the most prosaic and profound ways with the people we love. And when we turn to write our memories, our vignettes and verses, of people, we still have it. That language.


There are seven billion of us on the planet. We look toward each other, and we yearn to remember each other, the less famous, our beloved. So we take the task upon ourselves, creating something anew, writing portraits the way Vhils created his from chipped paint and plaster.


Memory prompt

Think about someone you would like to write about, and jot down the language that you associate with this person. Were there particular words that this person used? Phrases? Manners of speech? Expressions? Jokes? Just as Vhils makes his portraits from the city materials that are a part of its inhabitants, how might you use the words that are a part of the person you care about?