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Southwest West Meets Northeast in Shoestring Productions: Brazilian Storytelling through Contemporary Woodcuts, Artists’ Books, and Small Press Books

(The following is a collaborative guest post by Seonaid Valiant, Curator of Latin American Studies in the Arizona State University Library’s Distinctive Collections and Suzanne Schadl, Chief of the Latin American, Caribbean and European Division.)

The Library of Congress has a spectacular cordel collection, which includes several works by a contemporary Brazilian poet and writer Jarid Arraes. Her focus on the stories of Black women in northeastern Brazilian history is worthy of note. Researchers will be delighted to see her works alongside woodblock prints and artists’ books in an exhibit at Arizona State University (ASU). “Shoestring Productions: Brazilian Storytelling through Contemporary Woodcuts, Artists’ Books, and Small Press Books (1997-2021),” which is on display at ASU Libraries from October 21, 2021-December 9, 2021, highlights a small part of a collection of more than 150 woodcuts, artists’ books, and small press books from Brazil at the ASU Library. The exhibit features a mixture of handmade and small-run productions that link illustration and poetry with the crafts of woodblock engravers, printers, seamsters, graphic designers, collage artists and poets.

The Latin American, Caribbean, and European Division was pleased to collaborate with the Curator for Latin American Studies at ASU in developing a booklet about the pieces exhibited and the historical circumstances from which they evolved. As books and art, cordel literature, woodcuts, and artists’ books inhabit several transactional spaces, embodying and provoking layered interactions around printed words or images and sounds, material textures, referential signals, and meaning. Fine motor and conceptual skills are essential to produce these works because they connect tactile and visual perception with memory and emotion. These works bring together a variety of techniques, ranging from hand printed and hand sewn books and imbedded papers, to pieces that incorporate photocopy and collage technology, as well as carpentry, brickmaking, pottery and printing making.

[Photograph of case display of In tracts published by PUXAD_NHO, one side is a brightly colored graphic print, while on the other side, authors tell stories that can be altered according to the way the reader folds the paper. Featured here are prints of fish and coral in black and orange ink.]

In tracts published by Puxad_nho, one side is a brightly colored graphic print, while on the other side, authors tell stories that can be altered according to the way the reader folds the paper. Image courtesy of Seonaid Valiant.

Woodblock Prints

The exhibit includes selected wood block prints, also known as xilogravuras, from the collection Via Sacra de Antonio Concelheiro (1997) by Joel Borges. This printmaker was born in northeastern Brazil in the 1930s. Several men in the Borges family honed their skills as carpenters and potters before discovering their talents for carving woodblocks with knives in the 1960s. One of these family members, the famed cordelista, José Francisco Borges, created a number of prints featured in the Literatura de cordel Brazilian chapbook collection at the Library of Congress.

Case display featuring artists’ books by that depict a woman with a headpiece that is hand sewn in to the book, (Ricardo Rodrigues), a concrete poem with a bright graphic design in red and brown (Luiza Leite and Tatiana Podlubny) and a photo collage of family histories (Photo Film Americano).

Case display featuring: Máscaras by Ricardo Rodrigues. Published by Canoas, Rio de Janeiro, 2017; Dentes, frascos e fósforos. Poem by Luiza Leite, illustrated by Tatiana Podlubny; Published by fadainflada, 2017; E anida Published by Photo Film Americano, Rio de Janeiro, 2017. Image courtesy of Seonaid Valiant.

In the series of prints exhibited at ASU, Joel Borges retells the historical events of the Canudos, which took place in Brazil from 1896 to 1897. After several cycles of drought and shifting politics during the transition from monarchy to republic, many impoverished Brazilians in the northeastern backlands followed the charismatic leader Antonio Vicente Mendes Maciel, known as Antonio Concelheiro (the counselor), into a simple remote existence in a settlement called Canudos. Their efforts to build a church sparked a conflict with the local Catholic Church and the Republican military. After three failed attempts to overwhelm this settlement, the Republican military ultimately destroyed it, killing nearly 30,000 people in 1897. Antonio Concelheiro responded with a hunger strike that resulted in his death that same year. He has since become a folk figure in Brazilian culture and is the subject of hundreds of books, movies and songs.

Photograph of an ASU Library staff member installing the install the series of woodblock prints, Via Sacra de Antonio Concelheiro by Joel Borges, 1997. The seven prints portray the events of the War of Canudos in 1896-1897 with black ink on white paper.

ASU Library staff install the series of woodblock prints, Via Sacra de Antonio Concelheiro by Joel Borges, 1997. Image courtesy of Seonaid Valiant.

Mary Karasch, Professor Emerita from Oakland University and  established researcher in the Hispanic Reading Room, donated the set of prints to the ASU Library. Karasch remarked on her collecting, “At this point in my life, I have spent 50 years admiring and collecting Brazil’s original and beautiful popular art, and the unique ways in which it draws on Indigenous, African, and European cultural traditions continue to fascinate me.”


This exhibit also features a number of cordels, a uniquely Brazilian genre that took root among Indigenous and Afro-Brazilian poets in northeastern Brazil after the Portuguese introduced this form in the 16th century. The name, derived from the Portuguese word for rope, corda, refers to the traditional practice of hanging the pamphlets on a piece of string in a marketplace. The genre has traditionally been a way to celebrate local stories and comment on public policies. A recently published Library of Congress Story Map, Self-Publishing from Brazil’s Margins, offers an interactive glimpse at the layered art of cordel literature.

As noted, the ASU exhibit highlights the work Jarid Arraes, born in 1991 to a family of cordel writers in Juazeiro do Norte in northeastern Brazil. The daughter of Hamurábi Batista and the granddaughter of Abraão Batista, Jarid Arraes has published three books of poetry and more than 70 cordels. Her work focuses on bringing the stories of Black Brazilian women to the cordel form by introducing subjects such as motherhood, the body, lesbian lifestyles, stylized hair, sports, and activism. She won an Associação Paulista de Críticos de Arte Literature award for “Redemoinha da hot” (Swirl on a Hot Day). For more information about Jarid Arraes, consult her books at either of our libraries.

Photocollage of five cordels by Jarid Arraes. The covers tell about the lives of black women by focusing on images related to girls and women such as stylized hair, sports, dolls, and family.

Collage of cordels by poet and artist Jarid Arraes. Published by FIM, São Paulo, undated. Image courtesy of Seonaid Valiant.

Printing and Poetry

Though Arraes has published independently and with major publishing houses, several modern Brazilian writers have not had access to major publishers, and they are establishing their own collectives to carry forth a strong tradition in Brazilian literature of linking storytelling and graphic arts with performance. It is difficult to talk about artists’ books or small press publications in Brazil without mention of the conceptual precursor – concrete poetry – born simultaneously out of Brazil, Switzerland and Sweden. This form expresses meaning through the clever placement of print on the page, drawing attention to the relationships between typography, blank space, visual perception, and written words. With carefully arranged sequences of print in communication with blank space, typography and paper are both the raw and processed material in concrete poetry.

Featured in the ASU exhibit are three works by the graphic designer Tatiana Podlubny and the poet Luiza Leite, who founded the publishing house A Fada Inflada (The Inflated Fairy) in Rio de Janeiro in 2007. To date, they have collaborated on at least seven books. Leite wrote, “We believe that the authors need to be involved in the circulation of their creations in order to guarantee that they reach an audience outside of the standard publication market.” Brightly colored and minimal in text, the books tell bold stories about the changing lifestyles of Brazilians through graphic images and poetry. Featured in the ASU exhibit are works from A Fada Inflada, such as Azulzim (Blueish) (2011), Dentes, frascos e fósforos (Teeth, Bottles and Matches) (2016), and Perímetro (Perimeter) (2014).

[Photocollage of small press books by A fada inflada and Puxad_nho. The covers are in strong colors of red, black, and dark pink and feature images of a young man, a horse, the interior of a mouth, and abstract images of hands.

Collage of publications by the small press houses A fada inflada and Puxad_nho. Image courtesy of Seonaid Valiant.

Learn More:

This blog contains excerpts from “Shoestring Productions: The Exhibit” by Seonaid Valiant and “Tying the Knot: Theory to practice in Brazilian Print, 1922-2021″ by Suzanne M. Schadl in “Shoestring Productions: Brazilian Storytelling through Contemporary Woodcuts, Artists’ Books, and Small Press Books (1997-2021), published by ASU Library, 2021. The exhibit will run through December 9, 2021, in the lobby of the Design and the Arts Library at ASU, Tempe, during library hours. Contact Seonaid Valiant PHD, MLIS, Curator for Latin American Studies, for more information about the exhibit.

Arraes, Jarid, “Carolina Maria de Jesus” (São Paulo: Publisher not identified, 201?).

— “Dandara dos Palmares” (São Paulo: Publisher not identified, 201?).

— “Laudelina de Campos” (São Paulo: Publisher not identified, 201?).

— “Luisa Mahin” (São Paulo: Publisher not identified, 201?).

“Maria Felipa” (São Paulo: Publisher not identified, (201?).

“Chica gosta é de mulher” (São Paulo: Publisher not identified, 201?).

“Zeferina” (São Paulo: Publisher not identified, 201?)

— “Zacimba” Gaba (São Paulo: Publisher not identified, 201?).

“Tia Ciata” (São Paulo: Publisher not identified, 201?).

— “Tereza de Benguela” (São Paulo: Publisher not identified, 201?).

“Mariana crioula” (São Paulo: Publisher not identified, 201?).

— “Lave suas cueca” (São Paulo: Publisher not identified, 201?).

“Empregada doméstica não é escrava” (São Paulo: Publisher not identified, 201?).

“Travesti não é bagunça” (São Paulo: Publisher not identified, 201?).

“Tia Simoa” (São Paulo: Publisher not identified, 201?).

“A bailarina gorda” (São Paulo: Publisher not identified, 201?).

“Maria Aranha” (São Paulo: Publisher not identified, 201?).

“A boneca preta de Juju” (São Paulo: Publisher not identified, 201?).

“Os cachinhos encantados da princesa” (São Paulo: Publisher not identified, 201?).

“Vanda e a escova regressive” (São Paulo: Publisher not identified, 201?).

“Selections Heroínas negras brasileiras em 15 cordéis.” São Paulo, Brazil: Pólen, 2017.

“Um buraco com meu nome.” São Paulo, Brazil: Ferina, 2018.

“Redemoinho em dia quente.” Rio de Janeiro: Alfaguara, 2019

Bessa, Antonio Sergio, Editor.  “Form and feeling: the making of concretism in Brazil.”  New York: Fordham University Press, 2021.

Borges, J. (José), “A arte de J. Borges : do cordel à xilogravura”/ The art of J. Borges from cordel to woodcuts, Curated by José Octavio Penteado, Tânia Mills, Pieter Tjabbes. Brasília: Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil, 2004.

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