April 4, 2013

Bel Borba, Beautiful

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“I think the story of every citizen merges with the story of their city,” one man comments to another.  The subtitle of the movie Bel Borba Aqui is “Ume Homem e Uma Cidade,” or “A Man and a City.”  The man is the artist Bel Borba, and the city is Salvador de Bahia, Brazil.  In the ’70s Bel Borba took his work out of the galleries and into the streets, and since then the artist and the city have enjoyed a creative partnership that has elevated Bel Borba to almost mythic status.  He is no longer just a citizen in the city; he is the city. Borba’s artwork is on display on numerous bridges and parks, and dots the yellow and red house crowded neighborhoods. There doesn’t seem to be a corner of Salvador that Borba hasn’t touched.

Part of Borba’s magic is his relationship with the people he serves.  When he works; passersby call out suggestions from the other side of the street, and Borba incorporates their ideas into his project. In the film, he even accepts drawings of flowers from children and immediately begins to duplicate them on the wall. In turn, the people and the city become the subjects of the artist’s work. The fish from the nearby sea, the sea birds, the passerby in the city and their trucks, trains and airplanes, their angels and devils, all figure prominently in each piece of Borba’s work.  His murals are the enchanting reflections of the heart of Salvador.

Bel Borba the man is a whirlwind of creative energy.  He dabbles in metalworking, sculpture, mosaic and painting, and there seems to be no work he doesn’t know how to do.  When he’s not working, he’s cooking, playing with the 20-odd dogs in his yard or cackling at his own jokes and stories. Borba relies on intuition, instinct and spontaneity in his art and in his life. But mostly, he is concerned with preserving and uplifting Salvadorian culture.  His materials come from old boats, abandoned buildings and broken plates — the scraps and rejects of the city.  Borba believes that art should “provoke reflection, tease you.”  Giving a fresh life to the recycled refuse showcases the ever-changing and vibrant nature of the city.

The film does a lot of teasing, but what it lacks is reflection. While directors Andre Costantini and Burt Sun make much of Borba’s persona as an artist that works outside the traditional art institutions, Borba never explains why he decided to take his work in that direction.  Instead, the directors are happy just to watch Borba make art and celebrate his charismatic style.  The shallowness of the story may have something to do with the character of Borba himself.  He talks of a time when he would have given up a finger to have the media spotlight — But now, as he confesses to the camera, “[he] just cannot transform [him]self into an available man,” and makes time for interviews only when pressed. Borba would rather devote his time to making himself and his art available to the public.

When Borba does pause to talk about his art, it is to reveal of the depth of his connection to his work. In one scene, Borba works on constructing a giant Christmas tree from plastic Coke bottles filled with seawater which shimmers at night under a green light. It seems to be a playful send-up of holiday consumerism and corporate gluttony. But Borba then tells the story of how he went into publishing houses and bookstores, looking for damaged or misprinted copies of Brazilian poetry; how he cut those books up and distributed a few lines to each of the bottles. For him, the messages in these bottles signify redemption and salvation.  “I always think that I’m not going to make it, and somehow I always make it,” Borba says.  While not the most thorough of documentaries, the film celebrates the simple magic of Borba’s work and life and the inspiration he provides for his city.

Original Author: Laura Boland