Meet Domingos, the famous favela artist of Rio de Janeiro

Meet Domingos, the famous favela artist of Rio de Janeiro

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Up in the hillside away from Rio’s golden shores is Santa Teresa, a charming neighbourhood of cobbled streets and boundless views over the city below. The winding roads are lined by aging mansions, many of which have been transformed by local artists into open-house studios and art galleries.

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In Largo de Guimarães, the main square of Santa Teresa, is the Camayoc Huasi gallery, a multi-purpose venue where artists can come to work and where visitors pop in to browse the local art and pick up unique souvenirs (and where we visit on our Made In Rio de Janeiro tour). It’s here where Domingos Cardoso da Silva, a local artist, can be found painting to the sound of jazz or some classical Brazilian tune drifting softly in the background.

Entering the shop, I pass several small paintings capturing Rio’s famous scenes such as the Christ, the Sugarloaf and the black and white motif of Copacabana’s promenade. Hanging on the walls is a delightful mishmash of huge, colourful canvases. And there, tucked into the corner on an artist’s stool, is Domingos, paintbrush poised in front of a half-finished painting, his faraway look shifting into a wide smile as he spots me.

colourful painting of a Rio favela

One of Domingos’ iconic works | Photo by Sarah Brown

Domingos is famous for his large paintings of favelas that he brings to life with acrylics in bright, bold colours. Using a spatula, he applies the base before adding additional colours to define the facades of the houses. Finally, he uses thick black paint to pick out details and create a 3D effect. Although he diverges into other themes such as portraits, his most defining and popular work is his favela paintings.

“I really admire favelas, because favelas have a really crazy architecture, don’t they?” he says. “They don’t really have any kind of architecture. The guy makes a house one on top of the other, and they don’t fall. Then, one paints one house green, the other yellow, the other red, and it turns into a beautiful scene. I really like painting favelas; I like the chaos, the confusion, the disorder. There is a poetry in the painting that I like.”

paint-splattered sign at the entrance to a gallery in Rio

Camayoc Huasi gallery is a multi-purpose venue dedicated to local art | Photo by Sarah Brown

Domingos was born in Maranhão in the northeast of Brazil and moved to Rio de Janeiro to study. Painting had always been a part of his life and 15 years ago he decided to become a professional artist when he realised there was a steady stream of people interested in buying his work. Like many creatives before him, he moved to Santa Teresa, Rio’s artistic hub, to live the life of an artist.

“Santa Teresa has a good atmosphere for artists,” he explains. “I don’t see myself leaving Santa Teresa to live in another place because I depend a lot on this neighbourhood. Santa Teresa is well-known outside of Brazil, it’s always included in the tourist itinerary. It’s a really interesting neighbourhood, it’s cool, it has a really good atmosphere.”

Domingos has worked in the studio-meets-shop for the last 10 years. Every day he arrives at 11am before settling down to paint, switching between painting and attending to customers. Sometimes, when customers arrive, he barely notices them as he sits absorbed in his work. But he says he always has time to chat with visitors, and their arrivals never bother or interrupt him. “I don’t have this thing of needing to paint alone.” Just as well seeing the number of visitors the shop receives.

Brazilian artist at work on a canvas

“I paint calmly, I don’t feel rushed to finish a painting” | Photo by Sarah Brown

“The place has an atmosphere of being at home,” he adds. “People arrive here, feel at home, feel free. It isn’t a shop where you need to buy something. People can come in, have a look, just feel at home.”

His point is proved when two tourists walk into the shop and aimlessly drift from one painting to the next. Their presence pauses our chat as I begin to trace their paths to admire the same paintings as them. Domingos unconsciously picks up his paintbrush and adds a few extra strokes to the painting in front of him. He is sitting on a small wooden stool with a paint-splattered apron hugging his body, a chaos of opened acrylics and mixing palettes surrounding him. Yet even though his workspace seems a cluster of materials, Domingos remains perfectly serene.

“I work calmly,” he say. “I paint calmly, I don’t feel rushed to finish a painting. I have clients that receive their work five months later! I don’t paint because I already received the money and I have to deliver it quickly. On the contrary, I work on the painting in my time, I put in my love, my feelings. The clients, when they receive it, they are happy because I paint with love.”

He seems perfectly at ease behind the easel. He describes how he has always painted for pleasure for as long as he can remember. When he was growing up, the main artistic influence in his life was his father, a self-taught musician who had learned to play the accordion alone. “I think this creativity, I think it came from my dad,” Domingos says. “We have art in our blood.”

painting of a favela scene in Rio

One of Domingos’ paintings, ready for an art-loving customer | Photo by Sarah Brown

As a self-sufficient artist, Domingos depends largely on tourism. Events like the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics were fruitful times for him, yet to keep his livelihood going, ongoing sustainable tourism is important — tourists need to shop local, from artists like him, rather than buying mass-produced items.

“Each artist does different work from the other and it’s great that tourists visit and buy local art,” he says. “You are helping the local artist, you are helping the local art scene, and you are helping to produce more local work.”

As I go to leave, I take the opportunity to wander around the store to check out the many wonderful pieces of art that each represent a small part of a vast, complex culture. I look back and see Domingos has already returned to his painting, his eyes locked to the image in front of him, his thoughts slowly conveying themselves in the hundreds of brushstrokes that he careful adds to the canvas. I leave him in peace to paint his vibrant, signature favela.

Address: Rua Almirante Alexandrino, 342, Santa Teresa, Rio de Janeiro, 20241-260. Tel: +55 (21) 3117 3977.

You can visit Domingos, as well as other local Rio artists, on our Made In Rio de Janeiro tour.

Made In Rio de Janeiro

We’ll start our Rio de Janeiro shopping tour riding like the locals do – aboard the subway. We’ll take public transit from Copacabana to reach a local outdoor shopping area in the heart of Rio’s downtown. A bit like a farmers’ market but also nothing like it at the same time, it’s a local scene you’ll just have to see for yourself!

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Sarah Brown

Travel writer and journalist in Rio de Janeiro. Nature, hiking, travel and coffee lover and owner of a never-ending bucket list.

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