Coffee Pushcarts: An Aesthetic Intervention
Alberto Pita was born in 1961 in Salvador, Brazil, where he currently lives. An artist who makes works for Carnaval and is employed as Assistant Coordinator of Culture, Aesthetics, and Art with Projeto Axé, Pita initiated his project in November 1999 as a collaboration with twenty-one children and teenagers from Opaxé, Modaxé, and Stampaxé.
Born and raised in Salvador, Pita developed a project emerging out of his longstanding involvement with cafezinho pushcarts—pushcarts typically in the form of a small truck, very common in the city, from which street vendors sell coffee, usually sweetened with sugar, dispensed from carafes and served in small plastic cups. At about the age of thirteen, Pita himself created the first cafezinho pushcart in Salvador. Originally, street vendors had sold coffee on the street by simply carrying boxes that held everything they needed. Pita has stated that he was inspired to add wheels to his box, thereby transforming it into a cart, by observing the cars of the Plano Inclinado Gonçalves, a popular mode of transportation between Salvador's Cidade Baixa (Lower City) and Cidade Alta (Upper City). Although he decorated his cafezinho pushcart with blue and white geometric patterns, he never regarded it as an object of aesthetic or cultural value.
But many years later, the cafezinho pushcart would find its way into Pita's art. He initiated his project by discussing The Quiet in the Land and his own work with the children. As part of this discussion, he explained why cafezinho vendors are an important part of Salvador's urban culture. Subsequently, he screened a videotape entitled Preto no Branco by the filmmaker Joel de Almeida, whom Pita had invited to talk to the children about his project—a sociological portrait featuring interviews with several of Salvador's cafezinho vendors about their lives. The video helped the children to understand that the cafezinho pushcarts are not just objects, but an essential means of livelihood (the typical vendor earns R$15-20 on an average day and R$70 on a good one), as well as an important form of self-expression and self-identity, for these men. Indeed, for many cafezinho vendors, making and decorating their cafezinho pushcarts is a true labor of love. De Almeida also showed the children how to use a video camera.
Pita next asked the children to divide themselves into seven groups of three and to name themselves. The group names included Raça (Race), Consciencia Negra (Black Consciousness), Afoxé, Consciencia Human (Human Consciousness), and Os Morenos (The Browns). Each group was responsible for designing and building two cafezinho pushcarts each: fourteen is the number of Ogum, Pita's orixá (deity), associated with the street, who opens up pathways. Pita, de Almeida, and the children ventured into the city for several days, meeting, interviewing, and videotaping the vendors, mostly around Mercado Modelo and in Pelourinho. Back at Opaxé, they made drawings of the cafezinho pushcarts that they intended to build. One child made an especially ambitious drawing that incorporated Elevador Lacerda, located just in front of Mercado Modelo, which connects the Cidade Baixa and the Cidade Alta. After the groups finished their drawings, they began to construct their cafezinho pushcarts, which gave them hands-on experience in carpentry and painting. They held a party at Opaxé to celebrate the completion of the project on February 4, 2000. During the opening of the exhibition at the Museu de Art Moderna da Bahia, the children circulated with their cafezinho pushcarts in the area around the museum, along with other cafezinho vendors who had been invited for the occasion; coffee was distributed from one of the pushcarts. With this project, Pita sought to help the children see their own culture from a new perspective and to understand that the sources of contemporary art can lie anywhere, including within the activities and objects of one's everyday life.