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A postcard from Rio Art Museum

Rio Art Museum under construction.

Rio Art Museum under construction.

Published in The Age on June 29, 2013.

All visits to Rio Art Museum begin in the lift. At the Guggenheim in New York, one can choose whether to climb the spiral or to descend, as Frank Lloyd Wright intended. The curators in Rio de Janeiro insist: up to the roof you go.

There’s a good reason for this. The first artwork on display, unmatched by any other in the collection, is Guanabara Bay, the soft lines and eruptions of rock that have inspired so many songs. The rippling white concrete canopy that connects the museum’s two buildings is beautiful, too – a lost bossa nova lyric floating on the water.

Oscar Niemeyer’s Contemporary Art Museum is a more striking structure, a flying saucer perched on a cliff in Niteroi, but that sister city across the bay is as remote as the desert to the inhabitants of Rio, and about as interesting. The latest addition to the cultural scene is downtown, where past, present and future collide.

Viewed from above, the city is a clattering samba. There are building sites everywhere you look. The museum is presented as an icon of Rio’s transformation from a violent third world holiday destination to a modern metropolis capable of hosting the World Cup and the Olympic Games, so much so that the President of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, cut the ribbon herself.

The surrounding docks are being restored at a cost of A$4 billion. My guide points out the Museum of Tomorrow going up on a pier, the light rail network under construction, the ugly overpass that will soon be knocked down, creating a waterfront promenade the equal of Sydney or Barcelona. She shows me where four gleaming Trump Towers will stand and gestures towards run-down houses that were worth A$30,000 three years ago and now sell for A$180,000 or more.

We stroll down into the museum, through Rio’s brightest eras, rendered in oils, watercolours, still photographs and videos. We see Corcovado mountain without Christ the Redeemer, the Sugar Loaf without cable cars, Copacabana beach before bikinis. We pass through the Belle Epoque, when rich white families paraded along Avenida Central, sniffing perfume from their handkerchiefs, while poor blacks invented “a much better Carnival… explicitly from the navel downwards” – in the words of Ruy Castro.

We visit the early 1960s, when Tom Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes set a new global standard of cool, creating a bossa nova sound and an archetype – the Girl from Ipanema – that has survived the worst indignities that chillout compilations and hotel lobbies can devise. Maria do Carmo Secco’s Espaços Perdidos, clippings of long gone art deco buildings arranged in a wastepaper bin, testifies to the city’s mania for reinvention.

The lost decades that followed the transfer of the nation’s capital to Brasilia are represented, too. Lygia Pape’s video of the Favela da Mare, shot in 1972, finds beauty in shocking poverty. On the ground floor, there is a scale model of a slum made from recycled bricks, wires, wood and leftover paint by a group of teenagers. The exhibitions present a city where the astonishingly rich and appallingly poor share a confined space, and where culture is defined by the resulting friction.

Samba was born in Pedra do Sal, a short walk from the museum, in Candomblé salons where priestesses of the Afro-Brazilian religion hosted mixed race soirees. The first blocks and parades were informal gatherings of friends. At Samba City, a complex of warehouses and stages where rival schools make costumes and refine routines, Carnival is a year-round business.

Until recently, the only museum in the neighbourhood was the New Blacks Institute, a memorial to the estimated 30,000 Africans who died shortly after arriving in chains. A couple doing renovations found bones in the basement, called the police, and discovered that their house was built on top of the largest mass grave in the Americas. The owners still live there, and although there is milky glass in the display cases and some enthusiastic amateur art on the walls, they offer a fascinating tour, in Portuguese, to anyone who asks nicely.

The following evening, I returned to the institute for a meeting of the Morro da Providencia residents association. When I told the taxi driver where I was headed, he turned around to look me in the eye: “It’s too dangerous, I don’t go there,” he said. “You gringos are mad.” Gentrification’s momentum is surely unstoppable, but the backstreets are not safe after dark – too many crack addicts.

The view from Providencia.

The view from Providencia.

Providencia is the oldest favela in Rio. It is also in the heart of the port redevelopment zone. When city officials began marking houses for destruction, to construct a cable car to the top of the hill, a photographer, Mauricio Hora, blew up giant images of the people threatened with eviction and pasted them on the walls.

At the meeting, tempers were running high. “Providencia has been here for a century. The houses were made of wood and every time there was a storm they were washed away,” Roberto Marinho said. “Why didn’t the government do anything about this? Because the city still had space to grow. Now the only space left is the favelas.” He portrayed the redevelopment as shameless profiteering at the expense of one of the last working class neighbourhoods close to downtown. “Should we leave people living in poor conditions forever because there is a risk for gentrification? This is very strange thinking,” countered Alberto Silva, who oversees the project.

By the time Rio hosts the Olympic Games, in 2016, the cable car will be running, sparing visitors a sweaty climb through the alleys. Tourist guides will present a sanitised history (not literally – nobody expects the city to do anything about the open sewer) that emphasises the vital cultural role of the favela. The view from the top will be spectacular – a foreground of improvised houses, the restored docklands, Sugar Loaf mountain and the bay – but it will be an artwork that many in Providencia can no longer afford.