Reda Maher

Brazil 360: The moving, tragic and very Brazilian story of the late Jorge Selaron

Reda Maher

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The late Chilean artist Jorge Selaron on the steps he created (Reuters)

When Pope Francis came to Rio de Janeiro for last year’s World Youth Day, the traditional re-enactment of the crucifixion of Christ took place on the Copacabana beach.

Featuring 14 installations, the ‘Via Crucis’ (or ‘Way of the Cross’) represents Christ’s drawn-out crucifixion, from condemnation to tomb. So, in Rio, the Catholic Church created a mini-exhibition for young believers, and anyone else who happened to pass along the famous beachfront.

Most of the artworks were fairly traditional in their style. But one of these installations stood out somewhat.

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If you’ve been following coverage of this World Cup, you have probably noticed the beautifully crafted ‘Escadaria Selaron’, or ‘Selaron’s Steps’.

Forming the backdrop to many shots of fans and celebrities during the tournament, these 215 painted steps first entered the Anglophone consciousness when they appeared in Snoop Dogg and Pharrell’s ‘Beautiful’ music video.

Now they are world famous and, during these past few weeks, have been overrun by fans, particularly Chileans.

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The steps are embossed with a series of ornate, individually designed tiles, some crafted along a theme (such as the recurrent pregnant Afro-Brazilian woman seen above), some just simple representations of Rio life, some utterly random, sourced by Selaron and his friends or donated by fans.

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There is even a map of London, and a tribute to Kazakhstan.

They run all the way up the staircase, and are were dubbed by their creator as “a monument to the Brazilian people”.

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And the Catholic Church decided to create a monument to this monument, with one of its Via Crucis installations on the Copacabana last year, which was heavily influenced by these steps, complete with the legend ‘Brasil eu te amo Selaron’ (Brazil I love you: Selaron), which appears on the real artwork.

The street itself, Rua Manoel Carneiro, is in the process of being renamed Escadaria Selaron; it runs as a hillside staircase up from the bohemian Lapa quarter to the beautiful city village of Santa Teresa.

Created by Chilean artist Jorge Selaron, what was once a poor, run-down neighbourhood has been transformed into a tourist attraction, a thriving bohemian social hub, part of Rio de Janeiro’s 2016 Olympic bid, and all because of one man’s vision.

A friendly, open, visionary man who, aged 65, was found dead on these steps on January 10 last year.

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“They murdered him,” a local man, whose identity will not be revealed, told me. “One of the local lads killed him; he attacked him and burned him alive on his own steps.

“I saw the body. It was murder – he was beaten and burnt – but the police have covered it up.”

Selaron single-handedly turned this area into what it is today. He started what he called his “life work” in 1990 and it has transformed the street.

His vision generated income for locals who, by day, flog gifts and trinkets to tourists, and by night sell cheap beers and cocktails to a mixture of visitors and Cariocas as buskers and street-rappers jam until the small hours.

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What were once run-down old houses are now hostels, hotels, theatres and galleries. Two decades ago years ago, there were few bars and shops at the foot of the steps. Now, while grimy and punky, there are businesses everywhere, and they continue to spring up.

So why would locals and police “cover up” his murder?

“There’s a kind of local mafia here, non-threatening to outsiders, but they operate on their own terms,” the man explained.

“One of the sons worked for Selaron, as did many local people – Selaron never really had any money, because he put it all into his art. He employed local people, either in his workshop, to get hold of materials and tiles, or to record and sell his work.

“This particular guy had it in for Selaron, who had complained to the police that he was being threatened over money.

“And when he was killed it was very embarrassing for them.”

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Money, so often the root of such barbarism. Perhaps the alleged killer had other reasons?

What is clear though is that, given he had reported the threats, the circumstances surrounding Selaron's death were so embarrassing that, according to locals, the police wanted to brush it under the carpet – those who knew him are adamant that it was a cover-up, whether to save face or because it was bad for tourism ahead of the World Cup.

Indeed, after initially hinting at murder, the police homicide division subsequently insisted it was an intricately staged suicide, despite reports Selaron had been beaten as well as covered in paint thinner and set on fire.

And in the months following the artist’s death, the police built a narrative suggesting he had grown increasingly depressed, with homicide chief Renata Araujo claiming he had “asked to be taken to the subway so he could throw himself under the train”.

The alleged perpetrator has not been seen recently – “he has other ‘interests’ and tends to come and go”, I was told – but his extended family, whether complicit or not, remains.

So why the link to the Catholic Church? How and why did the Pope – or those working for him – know to link Selaron’s story to that of Christ?

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Selaron – who hailed from Chile – was a devout Catholic, and his local priest gave a moving sermon on the steps seven days after his death, as per tradition.

With the current Pope hailing from Argentina, there is a strong Latin American link to the Vatican, and someone, somewhere, somehow knew the truth behind Selaron’s story.

The alleged truth being that – whether or not you believe the story of Jesus – this kind, visionary man was crucified by one of those he sought to lead, to help.

There is a much bigger story in this, one that cannot be done justice by a sports reporter covering the World Cup. The circumstances and reasons for Selaron's demise deserve to be investigated in full, whether by the authorities or others, with the full resource and dedication required to squeeze the facts out of the local community. Perhaps this will happen one day.

But, as with a lot of criminal, economic and social injustice in Brazil, right now nobody can prove anything; everyone just knows.

Eurosport’s Reda Maher is on location in Brazil for the duration of the 2014 World Cup - follow him on Twitter @Reda_Maher_LDN

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