Paris-born photographer Vincent Rosenblatt stages “Rio Night Fever,” a fifteen-year retrospective capturing the swinging pop culture with eye-popping sensuality of the young Afro-Brazilian communities in the loved and hated baile funks (funk balls) of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. Set in the two floors of Rio’s Galeria da Gávea, a quaint turn-of-the-nineteenth century Portuguese-style house, painted in the yellow and green of the Brazilian flag, this must-see exhibition displays eighty color-rich images in the photo-documentary tradition with full enjoyment for the eyes as well as deep psychological analysis for the mind. Rosenblatt transforms regulars inside the bubble of a funk ball into elemental gods of pop, rhythm and sex, pumping with primal energy while trying to frenetically escape their quotidian grief, spellbound by the bold lyrics and loud, repetitive freestyle beat of the genre known as Carioca funk, one of the most exciting trends in contemporary pop music, of which Rihanna is a fan.
A smaller version of the exhibition will be shown in April at Galerie du Passage – Pierre Passebon in Paris. The gutsy, cultivated forty-seven-year-old Frenchman would also like to show the exhibition in Brazil but has yet to find a sponsor. Before settling in Rio in 2002, Rosenblatt was a Sorbonne student of anthropology, who was introduced to Brazil by a scholarship that took him to São Paulo in 1999/2000. His work has been published in the New York Times, National Geographic, Le Monde, Gente di Fotografia, GUP, Dummy, I-D, Libération, Courrier International, Dagens Næringsliv, Repubblica Delle Donne, Trax mag and Afisha-Mir, among others. Rosenblatt has participated in solo and collective exhibitions abroad and in Brazil such as “Made by… Feito por brasileiros” at Cidade Matarazzo in 2014 and “Historias Afro-Atlanticas” at the MASP museum in 2018, both in São Paulo. His work is in the permanent collections of the Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP) and CACP Villa Pérochon, both in France, as well as the Vitra Design Museum, in Germany.
Vincent, let’s begin with the main influences in your photography.
Many good insights. I’m a product of what I read in my teens: Central and Eastern Europe literature, authors like Gombrowicz, Bruno Schulz, Babel, Dostoyevsky, Zweig, the Russian theater. I did a lot of theater photography while I lived in Europe. In the nineties, my first work took me on a six-year trip through Eastern Poland with a pitstop in Siberia. At the time I studied history at the Sorbonne before being admitted to the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts (ENSBA). I devoured anthropology, science fiction and painting: Gericault, Manet, German Expressionism, American abstract artists. In Brazil I became hooked on Helio Oiticica, Miguel Rio Branco, Cildo Meireles. I took up photography while I was in France in 1998, but I still had a heavy hand, it was all black-and-white and very posed. Brazil and the funk balls converted me to color photography. Voilà!
What attracts you to the Carioca funk culture?
I admire the way it breaks down barriers of the so-called “politeness,” when it reminds us of the right we have to express ourselves and puts the finger on our repressed society. Funk culture works in a political, pornographic or conflicting limit at the far end of freedom of expression. I believe photography has the same function, to amplify the spectrum of the “visible domain.”
As a pop-culture phenomenon, what are some of its contributions?
Funk is forever changing. I got in touch with funk culture in the turn of the Voltmix and Tamborzão rhythms. I lived the height of the Proibidão, “strongly prohibited” subgenre of funk Carioca music. Now we’re at the 150 BPM and moving. Music and dance change all the time. Several dance steps come from the Carioca Funk like the Passinho Foda (Fuckin’ Step). Carioca Funk is genuine, it influences scenes from L.A. to Berlin. What is it play is much bigger than the music, the balls, the entertainment.
In the favela communities how are the functions distributed to organize the balls?
It works like a collective theater company where each one interprets their roles, from the DJs to the regulars. It’s like a Shakespearean play opening every weekend with its conflicts, alliances, rivalries, solidarity, oppression, fights, power play among genres, love and hate, sex and treason. The ball venue is similar to the Greek agora, the central public space in the ancient world where everything goes on, music, dance, chorus. The crowd arrives around 1am, by 3am to 4am the ball is exploding in a collective catharsis. The favela expresses all its diversity though different fashion styles, raps, dances and hosts “delegations” from other favelas and other command posts, as well as middle-class from the “asphalt” when the ball is talked about. It’s a place where all sorts of relations flourish. Lately with the police oppression many balls closed down. The funk balls are still swinging all over Brazil but much less so in Rio where it was created.
So how did you, a French guy, get in touch with the baile funks?
It happened when I was giving classes to a group of young photographers of the Santa Marta favela and used to pass by the ball. At the time I lived up the mountain of the Santa Teresa neighborhood and the sound of the thumping low pitch made all the buildings of the valley tremble. The lyrics were very heavy, very sexual or warrior-spirited, a genre called proibidões (strongly prohibited). To my ears the tremor sounded like the contemporary “trumpets of Jericho” sending its crude messages aimed at the city’s bourgeois, hypocritical conscience. In 2005, I bought the CD “O Fiel” by Mr. Catra, funk carioca’s deceased godfather, it was the ultimate survival guide from the favela to the asphalt jungle with rules still good today. I couldn’t curb my curiosity so I got into a cab and headed to a funk ball in Rio’s Zona Oeste (West Zone) at the Rio das Pedras favela. Luckily, I was authorized to photograph the ball, which I kept on doing for a long time. Then I discovered the Baile do Boqueirão ball, near Santos Dumont airport, not far from where I lived. In the mid-2000s, the Boqueirão ball at the crossroads of the old town center and the Zona Sul (South Zone) was a major platform for the integration among the funkeiros (funk tribe) of the asphalt and those from the favelas from Rio’s North and South zones. Finally the music, atmosphere, DJs, MCs and the funk conga-line dancers got into my veins. When I was finally accepted I was taken by the funk bosses to the no-photo zones, dangerous areas under police surveillance backed by the government and supported by a hostile press.
How were you allowed access?
There are no “passports” or deals. Each favela is its own community and its geopolitical factors can change in a blink of an eye. When I was allowed to photograph the no-photos zones we were all aware we were risking our lives since they were aimed at by government repression, which is the reason why they wanted me to capture all that beautiful energy before it ended. The images published in the early stages of social media at Orkut and Myspace boosted the balls during “peace” time proving the cultural importance of these communities. I projected my work onto the walls of the balls so they could evaluate the images. The Carioca funk is a huge patchwork of territories, dances, rituals and identities where the bodies of the funkeiro (funk dancer) are personal manifestos of freedom of expression. The funk balls are open parties that also welcome those who live on the city’s “asphalt” streets. The restriction is in the mind of the white middle-class. Like everywhere else you have to behave yourself and show respect for others. The young, white middle-class at the balls feel like they are trampling racial and class barriers inherited from Brazil’s history.
Did you get along with the bosses?
I tried to have the least contact possible. The favela residents have a saying: “Coexistence is not connivance” (convivência não é conivência). Of course there are drug lords that appreciate art and, like the other residents, they feel proud of their community. They are aware of their cultural effervescence and know the significance of having the balls captured in photos for future generations. This work could not exist if it were not for a group of armed guys giving me a free pass to do my job.
How big are these balls?
It can draw some 500 people to the largest that cram as many as 20,000. Nowadays there are fewer balls due to three decades of police repression. It’s nothing like the early 2000s, the funk balls’ boom period I was privileged to witness.
How are you seen in these events?
As a friend and, hopefully, an ally. The DJs announce me as Vicente, in Portuguese, or they called me the French (o Francês).
Do you feel integrated in this sociocultural niche?
The funk ball is a very friendly world. Like the samba schools, there is a sense of belonging to a territory, to a culture. I still keep in contact with many people I photographed during those years. To show them my militant support I had my work published around the world. In 2006, when I first exhibited at Rio’s Oi Futuro Institute, I organized the debate “Funk & Liberdade de Expressão” (Funk and Freedom of Expression) with the participation of the main protagonists of the Carioca funk along with the new generation who now pilot the Festas Pretas (Black Parties) such as Yolo Love Party, Batekoo and Baile do Amor (Love Ball), that have earned me dear friends in Rio.
You mentioned police repression, how bad is it?
I’m what they call a “tourist,” I only lightly witnessed what the favela residents and funkeiros have experienced since they were born: police closing down the balls, destroying their sound system, beating up the innocent. It’s the same story in most balls. In 2009, I saw the Caveirões (BearCats, armored police tank) invading the balls of Morro do Chapadão and Baile da Chatuba da Penha. The drug dealers shouted on the mike: “It’s full of kids, no bullets!” but there were shots from the police, gas bombs, people crying. It was terrifying. If you’re in a ball in the favela you better be aware you might put your life at risk. It’s the same in the favela of Paraisópolis in São Paulo. Where there’s a funk ball there is repression. There is civil war going on threatening and killing favela residents: poor, young Afro-Brazilians.
Has the repression to balls hardened with Bolsonaro as president?
In general, serious historians claim since the end of the Brazilian dictatorship (1964-1985) democracy has yet to set foot at the favela. Be it social, economic, racial, political or police, the oppression changes very little from one government to the other. Even Lula and Dilma sent the army to invade the favelas. Now Rio’s right-wing government appears to have given carte blanche to kill backed by a federal government disrespectful of human rights.
Have you had your camera stolen?
There is no theft in the favelas. You can walk around with valuables, they are the safest places in Rio.
Do you still go to the balls after fifteen years capturing them in pictures?
Yes, and I try to photograph. There are fewer balls now and they are but a shade of the old ones due to the police and the press for thirty years battling to end them, but the funk balls are like a phoenix, it always arises from the ashes. The new Afro-Brazilian protagonists of the funk balls are keeping the funk revolution alive with the Festas Pretas (Black Parties). They say no to racism, homophobia and discrimination by celebrating identity. Some in this new generation of protagonists have seen my work and invited me to keep on shooting during the balls, that now take place in the area around the docks of Rio or in clubs in the town’s north zone but they still remain beautiful, intense celebrations.
What have you learned from Rio’s Afro-Brazilian communities?
They are the ones that make Rio happen culturally speaking and also in terms of affection. It is a privilege to portray this culture.
Before wrapping up a personal curiosity, do you date or are you married to a funkeira (funk lady)?
Unfortunately I’m not their type.
Finally what music do you listen to?
Carioca Funk, of course, and all its derivative styles, Brega Funk, etc. I’ve been a Jazz lover. Rock only during my teens and only from the seventies and eighties, and I’ve never, ever been interested in Brazilian rock.
Vincent Rosenblatt: Rio Night Fever
Through April 3, 2020
Galeria da Gávea, Rio de Janeiro
Rio-born Cynthia Garcia is a respected art historian, art critic and journalist fluent in five languages stationed in São Paulo. Cynthia is a recipient of the 2023 APCA (Paulista Association of Art Critics) award as a contributing editor of Newcity Brazil since its founding in 2015. Her daughter America Cavaliere works in the contemporary art market and her son Pedro Cavaliere, based in LA, is in the international DJ scene.
Contact: [email protected], www.cynthiagarcia.biz