The cascading mosaic of colour of the staircase of the Convent of Santa Theresa was the lifetime achievement of Chilean artist Jorge Selarón and a gift which has become a landmark of his beloved city of Rio de Janeiro.
This bleak Thursday in January, the man who transformed the once stained and fetid staircase into an explosion of colour and energy in a “tribute to the Brazilian people,” was found dead, his body incinerated on his own masterpiece in Lapa, in suspicious circumstances which followed reports of a conflict with a colleague who worked in his studio and who has close relations associated with Rio de Janeiro’s criminal factions.
Snug between the hills of Santa Teresa and the plaza of Cinelândia, Lapa is an edgy bohemian district, full of weird and wonderful personalities, ramshackle colonial architecture, pickpockets, samba and twice weekly a seething hedonistic nightlife that fills the streets. Among Lapa’s scenic icons are the high white arches over which rides the Santa Theresa tram and of course, the living sculpture of Escadaria Selarón, Selarón’s Staircase.
The stairs are an ever changing riot of hues, a giant evolving mosaic of thousands of tiles painted by hand or gifted by tourists from all over the globe, who come to admire, take photos and donate tiles from their homelands. On equal standing with the statue of Christ the Redeemer and the Sugar Loaf Mountain, the stairs are an icon of Rio and have been featured in commercials, films, documentaries, the pages of National Geographic and a music video with Snoop Dog and Pharrell Williams. In 2005, the staircase was officially recognized as a city landmark, the artist was declared an honorary Carioca and even featured in Rio’s 2016 Olympic bid, “The Passion Unites Us.”
Born in 1947, Selarón left his hometown in Chile to travel the world at the sweet age of seventeen. Passing through 57 countries before landing in Brazil in 1983, the quirky little man with outrageously bushy mutton chop sideburns was captivated by the Cidade Maravilhosa and its energy.
“I’m a genius!” declared Selarón, “I made the most fantastic staircase ever in the history of humanity. In Rio de Janeiro! Because it couldn’t have happened in any other city!”
“Here in Lapa everyone knew him; he was the face of this bohemian, artistic neighborhood. He was a simple man, who loved this life, sitting here, watching the kids play, chatting people up,” said a local tour guide. The anguish over his passing and violent manner of his death were felt keenly across the city as friends, neighbours and strangers, who only knew him through his work, braved the weather to lay flowers and light candles in the wind and rain.
“We can speak of Lapa before and after Selarón. He changed the face of Rio. His death is something brutish, that makes no sense,” said Jocimar Batista de Jesus, aka “Mestre Duda Pirata,” a longtime friend and neighbour.
Work on the staircase began in 1990, Selarón had little money or food and no experience with sculpture but he began adding to the steps using whatever he could get his hands on. Recycling discarded tiles, pieces of mirror and bits of porcelain, “The neighbors helped as they could. I brought him tiles from my trips, from Spain, Holland, as I traveled. As it grew, people began to contribute, to send him tiles, to bring them to Rio when they came to visit.” Over twenty two years, the steps were lovingly nurtured from grey concrete bones to a terraced mosaic rainbow in constant flux as Selarón worked and reworked the sculpture.
AP Journalist Juliana Barbasa, described some details of the Escadaria Selarón. Crowded in a corner are tiles showing a woman in traditional dress from Minho, Portugal, next to a Buddha in seated lotus position, next to a depiction of St. Jorge slaying a dragon. A few steps ahead, Indian deities fan out around a tile representing the principal sites of Berlin. Farther up are tiles showing Bob Marley, antique French tiles and others with flowing Arabic calligraphy, all flanked by the flaming red and eye-popping yellow Selaron chose as the dominant colors.
A mysterious image pops up in all of Selaron’s work – a hugely pregnant black woman, often shown holding a fish. Her pictures appear throughout the stairs, some of them discreet, some monumental. In one painting that spans several tiles, Selaron gives himself, mutton chops and all, the same pregnant belly and prominent breasts, along with a sign that says, “Brazil, I love you.”
The artist introduces the character to visitors in his own words, painted, of course, on a tile: “On the 7th of December of 1999, I was moved to tears. All that was needed was for me to paint the pregnant woman who is in all my paintings.”
He never revealed who she was, writing only that it was a personal matter. With that last touch, he ran out of room. So he started substituting the tiles, he explained, turning the staircase into a fluid, evolving piece, perennially changing to reflect the interests, origins or obsessions of contributors, with Selaron first among them. The staircase that was born of this “great folly,” as he wrote on a tile, is full of stories, notes, poignant mementos of those who pass by and leave something of themselves.
“It’s like if the stairway was alive. It’s always changing and becoming more beautiful. You see and feel the difference,” said Selaron, “I will only end this mad and singular dream on the last day of my life,” he wrote on the wall.
Selarón – The Movie
Snoop Dogg and Pharrell Williams, “Beautiful” featuring the Stairs of Selaron