by Brandon Caro
Hordes of onlookers, tourists and locals alike, brave the rain to gather at the Escalade Selaron in Rio’s Lapa district. In many ways, the scene is unremarkable. People have been coming to these stairs to take pictures and observe the great masterpiece of the Chilean born artist Jorge Selaron for decades. The stairs, whose ornate tiles depict images ranging from representations of great works like Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel to original cityscapes of Rio that feature Sugar Loaf Mountain and the unmistakable statue of Christ the Redeemer, were officially minted as a city landmark in 2005. And Selaron, though born abroad, was recognized formally as a Carioca, or citizen of Rio. But a closer look at the scene at the Escalade Selaron reveals sad faces, many crying openly, in mourning over the loss of the great artist, who was found dead at the bottom of his famous mosaic steps the morning of January 10th.
Initially police in Rio suspected foul play. The January 11th edition of the Brazilian Newspaper O Globo reported that Selaron had been receiving death threats from his long-time assistant Paulo Sergio Rabello for as many as 50 days before his death. According to the January 11th edition of O Globo, Rabello had been removed from Selaron’s will and had begun threatening to kill the artist.
However, according to the January 12th edition of O Globo, Rio police suspect the cause of death to be suicide by self-immolation. Selaron was found with a lighter on his person and with burns all over his body. A can of paint thinner lay beside him.
Orlando Bavan, a local shop owner, says, “He used to come here every afternoon to eat something… a corn cake.” But lately, says Orlando "he [Selaron] was very sad, from a few weeks until now… He asked me once what… somebody…has to do… and he wants to [be cremated] and he wants to pay right away.”
Though the police in Rio are now leaning toward suicide as a cause of death, they are not able to definitively rule out the possibility that Selaron was murdered. As of right now, the details of his death remain a mystery.
What is not a mystery, however, is the obvious effort of the Brazilian and local Rio governments to forcibly change Rio’s reputation as one of the world’s most dangerous, violent major cities in preparation for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games.
To many long time residents of Rio the military’s controversial policy of pacification of the favelas has yielded tremendous results. Ironically, the neighborhood in which Selaron died, the Lapa district, has become increasingly peaceful, attracting thousands of international tourists to congregate near and walk through the steps in the dead of night, a prospect which, a few years earlier, would have meant trouble.
Even the favales, neighborhoods of shanty style houses built into the great hills that surround Rio have become not only safe for foreigners to pass through, but living in them has become a rite of passage for the foreign hipster youth.
Rio has largely achieved its goal of reducing crime, especially crime against foreigners, in advance of the global spotlight that will be forced upon it come the World Cup and Olympic Games. But the artist who has helped this great city, through his colorful tiles and hundreds if not thousands of canvases that adorn the shops and galleries of Lapa, Santa Teraza, and indeed, all of Rio, will not be around to observe this great new change.
Instead, he will pass into the great garden of immortality. His work, his paintings and of course his great stairs will be enshrined and cherished as divine gifts, and will be tethered inseparably to the identity of Rio De Janeiro for all time.
Brandon Caro is writer and reporter who reports on, among other things, the arts, fashion, and the War in Afghanistan. His work has been featured in The New York Times, and the Daily Beast. He resides in Brooklyn.