America-based sculptor and photographer Vik Muniz (b. São Paulo, 1961) has frequently used unexpected materials like chocolate sauce and diamonds to recreate famous artworks, featuring in solo exhibitions at prominent international galleries including the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1999), the Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo, São Paulo (2009), and Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia (2018). In the mid-2000s, he embarked on a project that combined this creative skill with his concern for the environment and poverty in Brazil, where he grew up. Muniz collaborated with local catadores – people whose main source of income is derived from collecting and selling recyclable material from landfill – to create artworks made entirely from rubbish in a series of photographs titled Pictures of Garbage (2008).
Most municipalities in Brazil do not operate state recycling systems, which results in many reusable materials ending up in landfills at sites such as the world’s largest garbage dump, Jardim Gramacho. When Muniz travelled to this dump, he met several catadores, who frequently live on or below the poverty line and face social stigma for their informal jobs that are nonetheless a vital part of waste management in Brazil. Inspired by the catadores’ camaraderie and humour despite their difficult situation, Muniz brought them onto his project as collaborators, including photographing many of them posing as famous artworks to use as the basis of his works.
The artist … takes [experiences] and highlights them for people to re-look at and find them beautiful. … This is what catadores do, they are always looking for what is reusable. The creative experience is a bit like that: we reuse what people have left behind.
In a large local warehouse, Muriz projected his photographs onto the floor and worked with the catadores to shape the materials they had collected to recreate the image. He photographed the results to use the prints as the final artworks, which also meant that the catadores could take their material back and sell it as they normally would. The pieces are stunning, venerating the work of the catadores and highlighting the carelessness of a world that produces so much rubbish. In one of the standout works, catadore Tiaõ Santos poses as the titular figure of Jacques-Louis David’s Death of Marat, collapsed in a bathtub that sits not in a dark bathroom, but at the garbage dump, where he is surrounded by the piles of plastic sheets and toilet lids.
Not only did Muriz call attention to social and environmental issues with these works, but all the profits he made at auction were donated to the workers’ collective, which helped many catadores fix their trucks, go to school, and even build a library. The work Muniz did through this project helped to ease the stigma associated with catadores and contributed to UNESCO recognising Muriz as a Goodwill Ambassador in 2011 for ‘his contributions to education and social development thorough his artistic career’.
As more people pay attention to the world’s growing waste problem, many contemporary artists are responding by using recycled materials. Pieces of Garbage, over a decade old now, is a classic series that combined this emphasis on the environment with concern for the people who are shunned for trying to improve unsustainable systems. To learn more about Muniz’s project and meet some of the catadores he worked with, check out the Oscar-nominated documentary Waste Land, with the trailer featured below.
If you liked this article, you might also enjoy reading about the painting and ceramic work of Kunmanara Carroll.