“The moment when one thing turns into another is the most beautiful moment.”
Thus superstar Brazilian artist Vik Muniz expresses something of his motivation in using unconventional, found materials to create surprising photographic portraits of marginalized people. He once used the sugar from their crops to portray the deprived children of Caribbean plantation workers.
As he was working to create a project using garbage, searching for the subject of the portraits, filmmaker Lucy Walker chronicled the discussions and the process. The journey led Muniz to the catadores who pick through Jardim Gramacho, the world’s largest landfill, located on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. The resulting film, Waste Land, (I watched it on Netflix) shows that after meeting the catadores, Muniz decided to turn the project into a collaboration with them. (Read and see more here.)
Essentially self-designated pickers of recyclable materials, it is difficult to imagine a more marginalized population than the catadores. They pick through the garbage discarded by other Brazilians to find valuable recyclables.
Waste Land portrays the dignity and suffering of these workers. Muniz decides to give the proceeds from the photographs he creates of the finished pieces to the catadores. The funds, which were significant, were used to improve their lives: the building of a community center, a library, an education center, and to maintain trucks for the pickers union that one of the catadores founded.
Jardim Gramacho is scheduled to be closed this year, and the association of pickers is joining efforts to provide job training so that the catadores can find other employment and betters lives.
The Sundance Film Festival said that Walker’s film offers “stirring evidence of the transformative power of art and the dignity that can be found in personal determination.” But it is Muniz himself who shows us how art can elevate materials and how it can elevate humanity. This is art, and artistic process which produces real change in the world. Transformative. Generative.
There is something amazing about the miracle of one thing becoming another. It is the creative moment. The pickers look at garbage and see things of value. Muniz takes recyclables and makes art.
What are you transforming? What are you generating?
The illusion wanes, and in time we return
to our noisy cities where the blue
appears only in fragments
high up among the towering shapes.
Then rain leaching the earth.
Tedious, winter burdens the roofs,
and light is a miser, the soul bitter.
Yet, one day through an open gate,
among the green luxuriance of a yard,
the yellow lemons fire
and the heart melts,
and golden songs pour
into the breast
from the raised cornets of the sun.
from "The Lemon Trees"
by Eugenio Montale
(Translated by Lee Gerlach)