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GringoView: about time to discover Brazil’s rich folk art heritage

(Opinion) It’s about time the artificial quality barrier that appears to exist between things foreign and Brazilian should be broken down.

What is foreign and therefore considered valuable, exciting, and accepted, and what is indigenously Brazilian, often dismissed as of peripheral importance, makes no sense.

When this gringo first came to Brazil and chanced upon the wonderful, culturally reflective Brazilian primitive, folk, and naïve art, I asked myself why was there so little local interest in it?

My sense that I had ‘discovered’ it was simply an acknowledgment of its low place on the Brazilian artistic totem pole.

The Gods must have smiled upon me and magically caused me to meet the extraordinary Olinda artist José Barbosa who became an immediate friend and generously took me in tow to meet many of his fellow artists.

Had that not happened, I might never have experienced the rich naïve folk art of Brazil’s Northeast and other regions of the country, and I would have been much the poorer for it.

Hopefully, this major initiative celebrating 50 years of the Armorial Movement may be something of a breakthrough, although a somewhat limited one, and provides only a taste of the feast of artistic accomplishment that exists.

This exhibition which includes music and dance performances, is certainly worth visiting before it closes on Sept. 22 at the beautiful CCBB São Paulo and moves to Brasilia in October.

The virtual tour is the next best thing for those who can’t visit in person.

Were it not for the passion of the playwright, teacher, painter, and renowned writer Ariano Suassuna (1927-2014) and his wife, Zélia, this artistic movement, launched in Recife in October 1970, would almost certainly not have existed at all?

Sponsorship by Banco do Brasil and BB Seguros, through the Federal Law on Incentives to Culture, helped.

Visitors familiar with Ariano’s fictional universe may be surprised to be greeted at the entrance by a larger-than-life three-dimensional Onça Caetana, inspired by the author and created for the exhibit by Belo Horizonte puppeteers.

Caetana is a name that the country people habitually use to refer to death. It is striking if an unusual figure leads you into an exhibition dedicated to life.

There is much to see, and it is easy to enjoy the four floors with 140 beautifully displayed works of folkloric art, costumes, and paintings; many of them never have before left Recife.

Visitors even have the chance to print their own souvenir woodcuts from carved woodblocks of José Francisco Borges, famous for his carved wood and woodcut prints that grace a whole floor of the exhibition.

One special room is devoted to Gilvan Samico, one of the most important Brazilian artists to receive national and international recognition for the perfect way he is able to unite erudite and popular in the difficult technique of engraving.

This room also displays the artist’s splendid paintings, a little-known facet of his work, but each one a delight of great significance to his production.

Each of the other floors displays exceptional work by leading artists whom the curator chose not only for their artistic brilliance but because they are representative of Ariano’s Movimento Armorial, the movement he founded and described as ‘erudite’, a movement combining all art forms to rediscover the cultural roots which he felt were being lost.

It was surprising but totally consistent to turn one corner and see a large clothes-line display of the famous ‘cordel’ leaflets.

What a subtle and imaginative “flag” signaling that like these simple and economical publications, some illustrated with woodcuts and traditionally displayed for sale hung on cords, ropes, twine, or string, we are reminded of the very common origin of folkloric art.
Definitions are always tricky.

One person’s erudite folk art is another’s ‘decoration’ or ‘tourist souvenirs’.

It is hard to know which came first; Ariano and Zélia deep dive into the roots of popular Brazilian culture or their creation of an erudite intellectual backdrop for their own formidable artistic endeavors.

Had the exhibition had less of their own excellent artistic output and a wider canvas of the many Northeastern artists, the question would answer itself.

In the superb and valuable exhibition catalog, amazingly and unfortunately not available for sale or even distribution in its existing pdf version, the exhibition’s curator, Denise Mattar, decries the unproductively polarized society in which we are living today, and writes:

“The objective of this exhibition is to bring all these arts together, introducing the author’s pioneering and engaging work to new generations, and showing how he proposed a return to Brazilian roots, with deep respect for diversity and the traditions of black, indigenous, and white people, presenting all this in a manner that is magical and playful and witty – with humor that makes one think.”

If this excellent exhibition falls somewhat short of that lofty objective, we are still very fortunate to have it.

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