The Story


The following text originally appeared, in somewhat different form, in the Fall 2000 issue of Art Journal, published by College Art Association:

The Quiet in the Land: Everyday Life, Contemporary Art, and Projeto Axé is the second project organized by The Quiet in the Land. For this project, nineteen artists worked with the children and educators of Projeto Axé, Centro de Defesa e Proteção a Crianças e a Adolescentes (Centre for the Defense and Protection of Children and Adolescents), in Salvador, the capital of the state of Bahia, Brazil. The educators from Axé who participated in the project include, among others, Raimundo Aquila, Ana Paula Tadeu Bispo, Rui Vídero Caldas, Altair Lira, Marle de Oliveira Macedo, Augusto Omolu, and Ana Luisa Prange. The artists are Janine Antoni, Montien Boonma, Cai Guo-Qiang, Chen Zhen, Larry Clark, Willie Cole, Domenico de Clario, Leonardo Drew, João Ewerton, Marepe, Vik Muniz, Mario Cravo Neto, Rivane Neuenschwander, Alberto Pita, Doris Salcedo, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Tunga, Kara Walker, and Nari Ward.

Projeto Axé was founded by the educator and attorney Cesare de Florio La Rocca in Salvador in 1990 to address the devastating situation of the city's street children. At the time of the project, it was serving about one thousand children and teenagers, ranging in age from five to eighteen, mostly black and poor, who live with the burden of centuries of racism, economic injustice, and physical, psychological, and social violence. Axé takes its name from the Yoruba-derived word axé, which refers to the quintessence of the ethos of Candomblé, an Afro-Brazilian religion practiced primarily by the black residents of northeastern Brazil. Although it is difficult to translate precisely the meaning of axé into English, it generally refers to the energy found at the origin of all things, the life source, the power to make things happen. Great leaders have axé, but so can more humble members of society, including street children.

The philosophy of the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, author of Pedagogia do oprimido (The Pedagogy of the Oppressed) and Pedagogia da esperança (The Pedagogy of Hope) provided the inspiration for Axé's "pedagogy of desire," a philosophy of self-reliance, not charity, that involves the cultivation of ethics through aesthetics with the purpose of giving back to the children their dignity and equipping them with the tools they need to positively transform their lives. Axé thus focuses on what the children know and enjoy—music, dance, fashion—rather than assuming what they need. In this regard, it has been guided by the belief that artmaking is essentially a spiritual activity through which human beings can examine the experience, quality, and meaning of their lives.

The educators at Axé bring this mission literally to the streets, because this is where the children are. In order to join Axé, the children must agree to return home and attend school. In return, they are given three meals a day, access to health care and counseling, and the choice to participate in one of Axé's units, where they have the stabilizing opportunity to earn an income for their participation that will replace the money they manage to get from their life on the street. These units, among many others, include Bandaxé, a percussion group; Canteiro dos Desejos (Flowerbed of Desires), which offers programs for children between the ages of five and eleven; Casa de Somes (House of Sounds) (formerly Casa de Cultura [House of Culture]), which organizes a variety of cultural activities; Opaxé, which focuses on papermaking; Modaxé, dedicated to fashion design; and Stampaxé, devoted to printing and papermaking.

During project director France Morin's first visit to Salvador in 1997, she was particularly impressed by how Axé empowered the children by transforming their transgressive energy from a force of destruction into one of creation. These children were learning how to focus this energy positively in their efforts to become fully developed human beings. She was intrigued by the parallels between the function of transgression in the lives of these children and those of the artists, where it often operated as the very source of their creative potential. Although the artists come from various countries, most are relatively privileged citizens of the developed world who travel constantly for their work.

By contrast, the children of Axé are disenfranchised individuals who have rarely ventured outside of Salvador and who have been largely excluded from the benefits of globalization because they are black, poor, and deprived of their basic human rights. The artists and the children have each in their own ways rejected lives of normalcy, as it is defined by the mainstream of society, in order to follow their own paths. The artists in many cases have accepted the instability of a nomadic existence in order to have the freedom to pursue their creative vision; and the children have made the transgressive decision to leave their families for the street and then to leave the street to return home in order to join Axé. Morin wanted to develop a project in which these two groups from such very different backgrounds, but with so many similarities, could work together.

Morin decided to propose to Axé a project in which she would invite a group of artists to live in Salvador for at least six weeks at a time, during which they would immerse themselves in the daily lives of the children and educators of Axé and the city and organize collaborative projects that would unfold organically. Axé considered the proposal for almost two years. It had to ask itself whether the project could be integrated into its programs, whether it had the resources to implement it, and how it would benefit the children and the organization itself. Because of what was at stake, it was also crucial that the participants establish a relationship of trust, which took time. During this period, Morin returned to Salvador several times to discuss the project with Axé's staff, to give presentations of the artists' work to the educators and the children, and to learn more about the people with whom she and the artists would be working. In April 1998, Axé formally agreed to embark on the project. The first group of artists would arrive in Salvador in April 1999, giving the organizers one year to concretize the project and to continue fundraising.

However, during the weeks that preceded the arrival of this first group, the crash of the Brazilian economy not only jeopardized crucial funding that the project was expecting from the Brazilian government, but also the fiscal viability of Axé itself. The artists, Axé, and Morin had to ask themselves very serious questions about whether it was appropriate to move forward with the project under these circumstances: how could we justify an art project at a time when Axé was struggling for its own survival and was preparing to make difficult decisions about its future? Morin and the artists ultimately decided that because the project's premise was that an enriched life is about more than material well-being and art offers human nourishment by providing individuals the tools they need to transform themselves and society, they wanted to move forward with the limited funds they had, as long as Axé agreed that this decision was in the best interests of itself and the children. Axé discussed the crisis and decided that it wanted the project to begin as scheduled.

Morin and the artists lived together in an apartment in the center of Salvador. Several of the artists brought some of their family members with them for part or all of their stays. In this manner, the children of Axé were able to see some of the artists with whom they were working as wives and husbands, mothers and fathers—as human beings for whom art is an inextricable part of life. After a period of orientation, each artist chose a unit of Axé with which to work. The artists then worked with their group every morning or afternoon, according to the group's schedule; they had the rest of the day to themselves, although many chose to use this time to continue work on their projects. Assisted by interpreters and educators from Axé, they assumed responsibility for their respective groups. These highly trained professionals, who knew the children well, ensured that the artists could concentrate fully on developing their projects.

Indeed, from the beginning, it was understood that the artists were there not to educate, but instead, in unison with Axé's philosophy, to strive to empower the children by helping them to understand for themselves, through how they led their own lives, that art does not have to be a privileged activity, but can instead be an approach to the world: a path to self-knowledge, pride, and empowerment. They would help the children in their ongoing efforts to re-embrace their cultural identities through the practice of art and regain their sense of self-worth from within. And the children, by sharing their powerful histories, and their innate sense of transgression, where much art originates, would help the artists to reexamine the relationships of their life and their work to the realm beyond the confines of the art world. It is crucial to emphasize that the artists received as much as, if not more, than they gave.

With the support of Heitor Reis, the director of the Museu de Arte Moderna da Bahia in Salvador, an exhibition consisting of the works created as a result of the project opened at the museum in July 2000. Months before, Morin and the artists had decided that because the project was so inextricably rooted in the life of Salvador, the museum would be the exhibition's only venue. Located on the edge of the Bay of Salvador in the former residence of an aristocratic family, it consists of five main buildings organized around a central courtyard. The works included in the exhibition were dispersed through each of these spaces. Many of these works incorporated elements created by the children themselves, dealt with aspects of the children's African Brazilian heritages, and used materials from their daily lives. By presenting these experience, traditions, and objects, the project sought to make these realities visible to the Salvadoran public who visited the museum.

By developing projects that served to reenchant the world by proposing that reality and poetry could be co-extensive, the artists and the children who participated in The Quiet in the Land discovered how it might be possible to reaffirm the dignity, beauty, and sacredness of every member of society, including the disenfranchised and the excluded; to instill the spaces and activities of daily life with the value traditionally ascribed to art; to reaffirm the social utility of art by reintegrating it with life; and consequently to initiate the process of social transformation, even if only on a modest scale. This process of reenchanting did not emerge by the artists coming to Salvador as missionaries whose purpose was to proselytize and "save the natives," thereby assuaging their own guilty consciences. Nor did it arise by naively denying poverty, racism, injustice, violence, cruelty, or other seemingly endemic problems. Instead, it developed by making the conscious decision to confront these realities with integrity, to draw sustenance from this decision, and to summon the strength to be able to appreciate where one comes from and what one has, but also to acknowledge that one has rights as a citizen, including the right to envision and realize a better future.