Brazil’s beautiful books

This is not my photo. This is Ademar Ferreira Mota, a.k.a. Chocolate, 63. He is a camelo from Itajai, Litoral Centro-Norte, and was the star of a documentary called O Vendedor de Versos . Click on the image to see the report and a youtube video of Chocolate.

Cycling along the very touristy Tambau Beach on his way to the money changer on Avenida Nego, Kris stopped to check out a camelô (street vendor with a rolling/moveable cart) selling cheap little pocketbooks on the esplanade. With ugly paper covers and dark grey paper inside, the tiny books are just something for people to read as they lie on their towels in the sun, and then throw away before leaving the beach. Just seeing books for sale on the beach was weird: to think that people would choose to read! Kris assumed they would be nasty little romance, crime, or espionage novelettes— bite-sized disposable pulp fiction for the masses, but when he browsed the covers he was amazed to find authors he knew well: Julio Cortazar. Mario Vargas Llosa. Dostoevsky. Joseph Conrad. Dickens. Chekhov, of all people. It was astounding. To occupy themselves while sunbathing, Brasileiros read the classics. God almighty.

I found the same thing when I went to check out the bookstores in João Pessoa’s shopping malls; what strikes us is the high quality of the books available.

Livraria LeituraI mean two things by “quality”. First, the selection of titles/ authors is delightful. Charles Bukowski’s poetry, for instance, is conspicuous. I saw the complete essays of Virginia Woolf, in a gorgeous edition, with a jacket covered in velvet-flocked scarlet leaves and flowers; a massive tome of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories, with all the fantastic illustrations Harry Clarke did for them. The Complete Odes of Pablo Neruda (this one had me sorely tempted.) Just hundreds of the best literature, art, philosophy books, all beautifully presented and prominently displayed at the front of the bookstores, not just relegated to a small shelf in the back.

I also mean the physical forms of the books themselves, the books as objects. Fine publishing seems to be alive and well in Brazil; there were so many really beautifully produced books: embossed jackets, stamped foil titles, gilt or coloured page edges, ribbon bookmarks, sometimes a mix of different papers in one book, coloured printing on thick, soft ivory paper like cloth. Sometimes the text was printed in colour, too. Some of the books had deluxe finishing touches, like embroidered fabric bellybands, or clamshell boxes with leather straps and buckles. Some of the art books were oversized, nearly two feet long and a foot wide, with black & white photographs printed in silver halide.

A bookstore here is like a church for people who worship good design and beautifully made things. I spent hours in every one, looking at everything, though I could hardly buy these books (and I really longed to be able to buy these books in English. Some titles, like Neruda’s Complete Odes, are out of print in English. Very sad, as they are poems rich enough to eat…)

Once or twice I found a pretty book and was pleasantly surprised to find that it cost the same as a cheap hole-in-the-wall lunch, so I skipped lunch, bought the book, and snuck it home.

Po de Lua (Moondust) by Clarice Freire

Books from Brazil

Ivory pages with blue edges, this pretty book looks like someone’s Moleskine sktchbook, with all the text written by hand, and little drawings in coloured pencil. Not sure if it’s a poem, but the subtitle is “To lighten the seriousness of things”; I think it’s light, inspirational philosophy.

Freire is a young Pernambucana, from Recife (just two hours away from here). She plays with the way words are made up, connecting different parts to each other like Lego, coining new ideas and meanings.

Books from Brazil

Books from BrazilClarice Freire’s Po de Lua website has more of her drawings and poems.

Books from Brazil

Por Que Oxala Usa Ekodide by Descóredes M Dos Santos, with illsutrations by Lenio Braga, 1966.

Books from Brazil

Ekodide is a feather from an Amazon parrot, used in the initiation rituals of Orixa (Orisha) and Candomblé. This beautiful book, with its quirky handwritten text and powerful drawings by Lenio Braga, tells the story of how the ekodide came to be used in the rituals.

Books from Brazil

Books from Brazil

Fantasias by Flávio de Carvalho, with poems by Katia Canton

These gouache paintings were done by Carvalho, an architect and designer, as costumes for the ballet performance A Cangaceira, in 1953. Contemporary poems by American Katia Canton accompany each of the 15 designs.

Books from Brazil

Books from Brazil

Books from Brazil

Books from BrazilBuying brand new books is A Big No-No on this trip. Our budget can’t handle such extravagance and the rule is self-imposed. We are supposed to stick to second-hand bookstores, or (better yet) swap the books we’ve finished reading for different ones on the yacht club’s shelves (usually a dismal, ragtag selection of pulp novels), but I simply couldn’t resist these three art books, and bought them as my souvenirs of Brazil, as well as for the inspiration.

Find your tribe : : Arte Nomade

A month in Brazil had passed, and we had acquired enough rudimentary Portuguese to express ourselves and hold simple conversations. We started looking to establish a rapport with some locals. This usually (but not always) means locating the artists. A shared enthusiasm for creativity and skills is another way of ‘speaking’. This affinity can fill the gaps—or, sometimes, outright replace—imperfect language skills. So when we spotted the Arte Nomade bus, parked under a tree across the Jacaré riverside park, we headed straight for it. Up close, we saw that the visual impact of the bus was created by a surprising combination of unexpected elements, each layer cranking our amazement up another notch as we came to understand what we were seeing, and how it had been used.

First, there was an encrustation of assorted stainless steel bits and pieces, all skillfully welded together to form elaborate sculptural ‘growths’. These were riding spurs, cooking pots, colanders, forks and spoons, canisters, pipes, twisted cables, rings, screws, buttons, bolts, perforated sheets…a lifetime of saving or scavenging stainless steel from workshops and garage sales, it seemed, had been welded into this gleaming reef of metal.


Tucked into the stainless steel’s nooks and crannies, and creating a remarkable contrast with its metallic sheen, were animal parts (horns, skulls, bones), an occasional cameo of Krishna or some moon goddess, or a baby doll’s head looking soft and pinkly incongruous among the silver pieces;

there were dried plant parts (branches, roots, pinecones, seed pods), large glass globes (marbles, old fishing buoys), hunks and clusters of quartz crystals

(the main crystal, mounted on the front of the bus, was the size of a loaf of bread!), and, perhaps most astounding of all, living plants…succulents, cacti, tiny leguminous sprouts.To a Western eye, perhaps this assemblage would come across as gruesome, or creepy, but from the point of view of Eastern philosophy, this was no more than the way things are: Life, Death, Rebirth. The Soul and the Body and the different elements…that 8-tonne-bus crawled with symbols, like a hippie van that had made it all the way to Nirvana, and then had come back.
We introduced ourselves to its owners. Pardal, and his partner Rosa, were uncompromising artists who had quit their day jobs, decades earlier, and were committed to living solely for the creation of their art. Not only did they support themselves by this work, but they refused to compromise their artistic visions and pander to the tastes and understanding of the general public to make themselves more popular. That would be hard to do in developed countries like the U.S. or Australia…imagine how difficult it would be to do this in a not-quite-stable economy like Brazil’s!


Pardal designed and built one-of-a-kind sculptures, incorporating stainless steel, plants, crystals and waterworks, much as he had on his bus (only the small fountain [!] on the back of the bus wasn’t operational at the time of these photographs!). Rosa handled his public relations, running around and discussing the sculptures with their clients. She also made beautiful one-off pieces of jewellery, artfully distorting spoons and forks (you could hardly recognise them) into settings for semi-precious stones, crystals, shards of rock with tiny fossilised fish or prehistoric plants, a curl of horn, a nosegay of feathers.

We became frequent visitors to the Arte Nomade bus…any time Pardal’s motorbike—also smothered in his signature style—was parked by the door, we knew he was home. He always had time for us, making a pot of jasmine tea to share and then sitting in the doorway of his crazy bus, talking about the effects of art upon life, the meaning of being human, how to live in a genuine and meaningful way, and about his sculpture ideas for an upcoming festival in Europe.

A gentle, ageing Buddhist who’d spent many years in India—vegetarian, non-drinker, non-smoker (also, contrary to the stereotype, he didn’t use ganja)—I remember him telling me, one night, as I slapped at mosquitos on my legs: “You know, every time you kill one of these, you are destroying a really amazing, tiny, tiny mechanical engine…unique in the world and impossible for our finest engineers to replicate!” He never scolded or preached, though, and this was said with a mischievous smile. He had the sort of eyes one would describe as ‘twinkling”.

Most of the time he never spoke ill of anything or anyone. His attitude to the foibles of the world was “It exists, and so there is a reason it exists…we don’t have to know the reason.” He had an incredible faith in the human being, which he didn’t talk about so much as put into practice. He never locked his bus when he and Rosa went away—despite it being all that they had, and full of expensive welding and metalworking tools; his motorcycle didn’t require a key to start. He, too, believed in the “problem with a gift in its hands”, saying that if anything was stolen, it was to lighten their burden of possessions or to prepare them for something better; he also believed in karma.

Once I found him in a slightly world-weary mood, frustrated by the stupidity of strangers who would knock on his door and then seem to want to argue with him, or attack his beliefs and lifestyle, just for the heck of it. As though it weren’t enough for them to live their conventional, phoney, dissatisfied lives; they must also browbeat others into conforming to the same (and then they’d want to take selfies with his bus.) Twice I heard him (mis)quote Mark Twain: “The more I know of man, the more I like animals,” and a tired look would flitter over his face. He’d had enough of the crowds, and he longed to take his mobile home, motorbike, and Rosa off into the empty hinterland, where they could live like hermits, tend a vegetable garden, and be surrounded by only nature. “But,” he shrugged, “it is not always so easy, nowadays.”

Even less settled than we are, Pardal had neither postal nor e-mail address. When we left Jacaré, we lost our only means of communicating with him…namely, to walk along the beach to where his Arte Nomade bus sat, in the shade of a tree, overlooking the rio Paraiba, and call his name through the open door of the mobile home. I wonder whether we’ll ever see or hear of him again.

Ceramics : Casa do Artista Popular

Casa do Artista Popular
Brasileiro artesans produces a prodigious amount of ceramic sculptures, mainly in terracotta.
Casa do Artista Popular
I didn’t take as many photos as I should have—so this post is no indication—but one sees these large, traditional or fantastic, figurines in every souvenir shop, every lobby, every restaurant.

Casa do Artista Popular

There are whole towns, in the interior, that do nothing else but craft tiny scenes from everyday life, boys chasing chickens, women selling vegetables…though I didn’t see them here.
Ceramics
The lights are very “gallery-esque” at the Casa Do Artista Popular (tiny, amber spotlights that one can hardly see by) so I’m afraid many of these photos will be blurry or dark, but they give an idea…

With their tremendous talent for shaping and working clay, one wonders why there seems to be so little experimentation. But I guess that’s what makes it folk art: the artisans have the techniques, but no imagination or desire to break away; they are happy to produce the same time-honoured designs of their forebears.
Ceramics
It probably took a couple of hundred years for them to venture from making religious figures to making secular figures…it’ll probably take another few centuries before the village potters attempt anything so outlandish as a flower vase in the shape of a house…

Woodwork : Casa do Artista Popular

Casa do Artista Popular
More folk arts from the Casa DO Artista Popular…woodwork, this time.
We love the little wall-hung dioramas featuring the workspaces of various craftsmen, such as those who repair the facades of the many old buildings in the city,
Casa do Artista Popular
Madeira (wood) folk art
the pharmacists
Madeira (wood) folk art
the cachaça (rum) makers
Madeira (wood) folk art
and leatherworkers.
Madeira (wood) folk art
Also, this little view of a home interior, with a tiny radio on the shelf, and a sewing machine:
Casa do Artista Popular
Madeira (wood) folk art

The doll room : Casa do Artista Popular

Casa do Artista PopularReally good stuff at the Casa do Artista Popular in downtown João Pessoa. Rooms devoted to various folk arts and crafts. I loved the doll room. Tiny fabric foliões (revelers) just over an inch high, above.

Papier maché puppets…Casa do Artista Popular

Mechanical figurines with whirligigs that produce movements…

Casa do Artista Popular
Large mosaics made entirely of prettily-dressed dolls…
Casa do Artista Popular
and gypsy rag dolls complete with wooden clogs and travel suitcases…
Casa do Artista PopularThe Casa do Artista Popular is a small museum of folk art and crafts, set in a beautifully restored old building overlooking the Parque da Independência, 56 – Centro, João Pessoa – PB