How was I to experiment, artistically, with such a unique location? The residency did not have any fixed format or studio space, discarding then traditional demands of art production. So how would I produce an artistic process based entirely on encounters with a supposed ‘other’? These questions intensify throughout meetings with a multitude of characters passing by Tarcísio’s bar daily—drinks at the bar, sidewalk talks, and interactions with business owners of the small establishments in the arcade take place seamlessly. This scenery comprises the housing complex Conjunto Santos Dumont, an urban microcosm built in the 1950s, with 500 apartments and presently over three thousand residents.
In June and July 2017, I was an artist-in-residence at Conjunto Santos Dumont, Rua Paim 235 in Bixiga, an Afro-Italian neighborhood in the center of São Paulo, working mostly from Tarcísio’s bar, Loja #3. I was invited by Lanchonete.org, a collective of artists and urban thinkers to be the first artist-in-residence focused solely on the community in the buildings above and around their physical lanchonete or lunch counter (Tarcísio’s Bar).
The history of mobility of internal populations, particularly, in the case of the Northeast, dates to the beginning of the twentieth century. It is a theme that is notably present within national realist literature. Romances such as Vidas Secas (1938) by author Graciliano Ramos and Grande Sertão: Veredas (1956) by author João Guimarães Rosa mythologize the Northeasterners’ trajectory. From time to time, they have been obliged to move from their places of origin due to droughts, a climatic phenomenon chronic to a large part of the Northeast. Moreover, this occurs in a region that continues to feel the direct effects of colonial heritage. I am from Piauí, which is in the Northeast and is said to be Brazil’s poorest state. The history of the Northeast encodes a certain logic of mobility—its data being the violence of slavery and the extermination of indigenous populations—that has evolved from profound societal traumas into a decades-long migration pattern to the country’s Southeast.
Attracted by opportunities heard about in the expanding Southeast, large populations of Northeast migrants came to São Paulo (presently the continent’s largest city) in the beginning of the twentieth century. This happened with the help of propaganda diffused throughout Brazil, emphasizing the existence of jobs and available housing in the Southeast, driven by its industrialization. This information generated wide interest in populations who had been neglected up until that point, and who now perceived the possibility of making a better livelihood elsewhere. As a result, São Paulo became the largest Northeastern community outside the Northeast. However, this mass migration revealed a country that is historically divided between the agrarian North—poor and mestiço—in contrast with the Southeast, which is rich from European colonization, and in a constant state of rapid development. This pattern of internal migration occurs as a colonial product, which now stigmatizes the Northeast as being a ‘problem’… a place without work or a place that one must leave to find employment.
In the 1950s, São Paulo already had the largest urban population in Brazil. At the same time, the city experienced verticalization, with large buildings challenging previous scales of public space. This was the case with the residential conglomerate Conjunto Santos Dumont, a three-building, modernist housing complex built in 1955 and designed by the architect Aron Kogan. Each building was named after an airplane invented by Santos Dumont—14 Bis, Demozelle, and Caravelle.
The construction of Conjunto Santos Dumont evidences a modernist, utopian ideal of housing that is accessible to all. Santos Dumont is inhabited predominantly by Northeastern migrants, who were originally attracted to affordable housing near their workplaces. It comprises a complex web of relations between housing, work, and the challenge of surviving the pulses of capital. The production of this type of housing, one that is accessible, done in series, and at very low costs is a marker for the utopian legacy of modernist architecture in São Paulo.
From the beginning, Northeastern migrants served as cheap labor, attending to the demands of industrialization and the construction industry. However, contrary to the official discourse on popular housing, the populations that arrived in the city as a new work force faced difficulties finding spaces to live. In this context, the Conjunto Santos Dumont became an alternative, slowly being adapted over time due to the lack of space. This took the form of irregular constructions onto the original blueprint of the buildings, with the intention of creating more accommodations and boarding situations with cheaper rents. As these tenements multiplied, they became an option for new groups that were migrating to the center of São Paulo. However, this long-term economic displacement has created a sense of being a Brazilian without a voice, face, or history… a newcomer to the big city.
Communities made up of Northeasterners often develop resilient ways of adapting to varying circumstances and new locations. And, the identification and subdivision of housing drew from a model previously adopted by earlier migratory groups, such as the Italian and Afro-Brazilian communities living in the same area of central São Paulo.
The use of cellars and tenements for housing, as well as underemployment as a form of income generation, will become two markers that accompany a large part of the population throughout its trajectory in the city, having the tenements and cellars coming to represent, in both the physical and symbolic realms, places that are reserved for the black population, in a general sense. (Castro 2008)
Presently, the street (Rua Paim) and broader neighborhood are in a new cycle of transformation, commonly called ‘renovation’ (but also frequently referred to as beautification or improvement), which involves the replacement of old residents through aggressive real estate development, out-pricing, and other variations on gentrification. This stands in contrast with the historic stigmatization of Rua Paim and Conjunto Santos Dumont as a “degraded” place.
My contact with residents of Rua Paim helped reveal this paradox: the simultaneous discourse of real estate promoters and the street’s actual daily use. And, in my opinion, the spatial and social adaptations—carried out in daily life by Conjunto Santos Dumont locals—defy the tendency of homogenization, which is typical to antagonistic processes of urban renovation (Ferreira 2016). Indeed, the presence of old residents constitute forms of resistance to this renovation. However, the ‘renovation’ propaganda hides behind exclusionary urban politics that have already transformed Santos Dumont into an island of difference in the Center of São Paulo, even within the new version of Rua Paim’s built environment.
In the Arcade of Santos Dumont there are various restaurants, bars, a beauty salon, a “House of the North,” with specialty products produced and shipped directly from small producers in the Northeast. There are also more invisible practices, such as informal commerce that goes from door-to-door, offering services and products such as cellphones, cosmetics, and clothing. The spaces of leisure are simultaneously spaces of work; shopping, selling, trading, meeting, and communal leisure all blur together. Cashing out from ‘jogo do bicho’—a prohibited form of gambling somewhere between lottery and bingo—also creates a frenetic back-and-forth among the ground floor patrons.
Oral history and cultural memory are transmitted through food, music, and regional dialects of Brazilian Portuguese all present in the internal street that separates the three buildings. Therefore, its soundscape is capable of generating a direct connection to the North and the Northeast. This is compounded by the use of pirated radio programs from the region and sounds of forró, a rhythm that is popular amongst Northeasterners, playing in the bars. The Northeastern presence in the Conjunto Santos Dumont is deeply entrenched in the food industry. Cooks, servers and busboys, according to Tarcísio, comprise the largest labor demographic represented in the community today.
Tarcísio Melo is the owner of Bar do Tarcísio, and has resided in 14 Bis since the 1960s. His clientele are friends who he has made since his arrival in São Paulo, a daily circulation of characters from the building: retirees, gamblers, gatekeepers, neighbors, cooks, and servers. “They are the ones who keep the bar open,” affirms Tarcísio. One of his patrons is Zé Nilson, a resident of the building Demozelle, who migrated from Piri Piri (Piauí) in the 1970s. Based on experiences acquired in numerous kitchens, cantinas, and restaurants around São Paulo, Zé has compiled a notebook of over 4000 recipes, originating from cuisines from around the world now mixed with culinary traditions of his native city. The chef speaks of these recipes exhibiting great knowledge, as he seems to have acquired a strong grasp of the history of food though his practical experience.
Evidence of the Northeastern migration and cultural traditions around Rua Paim served as a primary point of connection during my residency. The work began to serve as a metaphor to relationships. Chats within the neighborhood and its innumerous characters, the coffee after lunch with the merchants, the sounds of the radio, and the food served at the bars and restaurants all ended up serving as the subject of my work. Their establishments became a place of sharing and of direct artistic intervention, weaving an affective political articulation with and amongst the community. The food at the bar, as a pretext-place, allowed for a space of sociability that had been lost, and that traverses the walls of the brutal architecture of the buildings and the impulses of capital.
We proposed events offering Northeastern plates that had been suggested by the residents themselves. We served them in public meals, as a first step towards a conversation on a variety of urban topics. The first meal served in the residency was mocotó soup, a delicacy that is present in most Northeastern bars, but that has slowly started to disappear from lunch tables inside of the buildings due to the new eating habits of these populations as they arrive in the big city.
The first event was co-organized by Abdoulaye Guiblia, an immigrant from Burkina Faso who trained at Gastromotiva, a socially-engaged cooking program and partner in the Lanchonete.org project. It was the end of Ramadan, the sacred month in the Muslim calendar in which a fast is followed for 29 days, and Guiblia accepted the challenge of cooking the plate without ever having prepared it before, following only the tips from other cooks and residents of Paim.
Another artistic intervention was called Cordestível, presented in collaboration with the Colombian artist Ingrid Cuestas and her project Sol de Noite, an itinerant laboratory of creative cooking that has traversed Latin America with food-based interventions. Ingrid shared her research on the implications of the act of cooking and swallowing, as actions analogous to the exercise of poetic, political, and artistic thinking. In response, we experimented with the preparation of tapioca using other foods as a base to produce edible pigments. These pigments then served as ink to print onto the tapiocas, using the same printmaking technique that is used on the cordel booklets of northern tradition.
Ingredients were sourced from small producers that arrived to us straight from Piauí, through the Casa do Norte in Conjunto Santos Dumont. At the end of the meetings, we organized the release of a publication with the most popular culinary recipes from the housing complex, as well as the present memories that connected the cooks and residents of the buildings with one another. The Community Communication Agency of Bela Vista, developed by a youth group aged 14-16, developed a radio program that attends to matters of the neighborhood. We invited the ‘news agency’ to be a part of the process at the lunch counter and document my process through interviews, recipe collection and workshop participation.
These workers who supposedly should provide me with information about work conditions and forms of class consciousness, instead offered me something completely different: the feeling of a likeness, a demonstration of equality. They were also spectators and visitors at the heart of their own class. (Rancière 2010, p. 30)
As a researcher I do indeed enter some projects for which it is my responsibility to propose or provide an artistic or social context… to discern a ‘subject’. At first I didn’t know what to expect at Tarcísio’s Bar; however in retrospect Rancière’s idea of the emancipated spectator comes to mind. I was not the sole originator of questions, ideas, images, and situations while working at Paim. In fact, I would argue that both the affective quality that comes from a long-term project and the political quality of lived experience exhibited by Conjunto Santos Dumont denizens engendered a sense of empathy that broke down the social and economic hierarchies one might have otherwise encountered in an urban art intervention.
Castro, Márcio S. Bexiga: An Afro-Italian Neighborhood. São Paulo, Annablume, 2008.
Conniff, M. L. Urban Politics in Brazil: the Ascent of Populism 1925-1945. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981.
Ferreira, Luiza Sassi. The “Renewed” Street: Urban Transformations, Housing, and the Everyday of Paim Street (SP). Master’s Thesis, College of Architecture and Urbanism, University of São Paulo, São Paulo, 2016.
Rancière, Jacques. The Emancipated Spectator. Trans. J Miranda Justo. Lisbon: Orfeu Negro, 2010.
Adler Murada lives and works between São Paulo (BR) and Bruxelles (BE). Artist and researcher, his works propose situations as contemporary artistic practices, cultural and social actions that present themselves as performances, interventions, installations and other temporary projects. These processes and forms draw upon untold or incomplete political histories, and in these terms, involve learning the politics of suppressed communities that glean performative practices while understanding places and digesting narratives that go against hegemonic politic and socio-cultural conditions. Murada does this by examining the social interactions the role that the circulation of objects plays in cycles of production and consumption. Adler was curator of the first edition of the Kuir Bogotá Festival, and participated in the program of artist and curators studies of the Modern Art Museum of São Paulo - MASP. He currently participates in The School of Curating with the Komplot Gallery in Bruxelles (BE). Adler was the first resident in Lanchonete.org's site residency at Conjuntos Santos Dumont, the buildings around our lanchonete.