Small wooden sculpture that represents a house

"Things go well when we like what we do. And I really like what I do."


In Pernambuco (Brazil), clay, wood and straw become art with international recognition

July 4, 2019 - When he was just 8 years old, Zé Alves de Olinda, the now 66 year old Brazilian, would go with his little pocketknife to the middle of the forest in his neighborhood, in the city of Recife (PE, Brazil), and carve logs along the way. "I would make dolls from dry branches, windows opening or closing", he recalls. He couldn’t have imagined that wood would still be his great ally in his craftsmanship, the trade he’s had for the past 35 years. It’s with creativity, patience and talent that, in the hands of artisans like Zé Alves, raw materials such as wood, vegetable fiber, clay and straw are no longer just supplies but instead, true works of art disguised as sculptures, embroidery, lace, ceramics and baskets.

As the state’s cultural heritage, craftsmanship in Pernambuco is an artistic manifestation passed down from generation to generation. The pieces tell life stories, reflect the culture and, above all, keep the local identity of the craft alive. To pay homage to this vocation, for the past 20 years Fenearte (The National Fair for the Craft Business) has taken place in the state. The objective is to promote and disseminate traditional culture, stimulating the growth of craftsmen and artisans who exhibit and market their pieces in the event.

Considered the largest handicraft fair in Latin America, this year Fenearte has the support of Jeep, which continues the relationship with the culture of Pernambuco, where the Jeep Automotive Plant is located. "At Fenearte we identify the potential for generating work and income from the Pernambuco talent. Supporting the fair means giving value to those who make this popular culture", says Antonio Filosa, FCA president for Latin America.

The artisan Zé Alves de OlindaZé Alves de Olinda discovered his talent as an artisan when he was a child and, for the past 35 years, has been working on making handicrafts

Held between July 3 and 14, Fenearte will gather 5 thousand exhibitors this year, among artisans and masters, who will occupy 800 stands - three quarters of which are for artists from Pernambuco. In the fair’s cauldron of creativity you can see fashion shows and go to lectures focused on popular culture, visit art halls and decoration exhibits. In addition, you can also get acquainted with the craft from various parts of the world, since the fair will have participation of artists from 21 countries, among them Indonesia, Senegal, Australia, Argentina, Czech Republic, Peru, Tunisia, Uruguay, Portugal, Serra Lioness, Egypt, French Polynesia and Kenya.

With the theme "Ciranda of all the arts", the fair has the honor this year of paying tribute to the Ciranda (a popular dance where everyone holds hands in a great circle to sing and dance), where Mestre Baracho (deceased in 1988), Dona Duda and Lia de Itamaracá (carrying the title of Living Heritage of Pernambuco) are all considered precursors of the rhythm.

Fenearte fairFenearte attracts more than 300 thousand visitors and generates around R$ 40 million per edition

From the darkened cinnamon-brown wood, allied to the synthetic enamel and the wire, Zé Alves de Olinda gives shape to his sculptures with strong African influence, such as slave ships, weather vanes, saci pererês (a character in Brazilian folklore), Indians and tribal warriors; all in black and red, part of his trademark. The inspiration came through the art of Nhô Caboclo, a Fulni-ô Indian from the township of Aguas Belas, interior of Pernambuco, with whom he began to work at the age of 17, when he was called to join the Nega Fulô Arts and Crafts gallery. "Nhô Caboclo was my master and everything I have today I owe it to him. If it hadn’t been for his inspiration, I wouldn’t have followed my gift as an artisan", he says proudly.

In one day, Zé Alves de Olinda says he makes about 100 wooden dolls. Although they seem similar, my work, he says, is by no means instinctive. "My job has creativity. You have to imagine and think a lot to be able to create", he says. As a participant of Fenearte since its first edition, he says that the fair is of extreme importance both for the dissemination of his work and his livelihood, since he earns a living from his art. "The fair shows the crafts of Pernambuco to the world, and it’s very important for my work which is then taken far away.

"Far away" for him means countries like Portugal, Mexico, France and Switzerland, where Zé has already exhibited his pieces. Internationally recognized these days, Zé Alves de Olinda continues his craft and perpetuates popular culture by training children and adolescents in communities and schools. "By passing down my knowledge to them, I am transmitting our culture, our history", he says. “I am so proud”. "I never imagined I would get to where I am now. I feel honored to have been born with the gift of crafts", he smiles.

Indian Nhô CabocloZé Alves de Olinda draws inspiration from his master, the Indian Nhô Caboclo, with whom he worked in his youth

The fair’s coordinator, Márcia Souto, points out that, more than a way of disseminating crafts, Fenearte marks a change in the life of the craftsmen and women of Pernambuco. "The fair has become a way for this art to circulate around the world. In addition, it changes the economic reality of some regions, especially for the professionals who work in this trade", she says, noting that the fair generates around R$ 40 million per edition. "Often times the pieces sold at the fair represent the year's earnings for the artist", she says.

For her, having Jeep’s support shows the recognition for the greatest asset the people of Pernambuco have: culture. "By supporting Fenearte, the brand brings its values ​​closer to ours and that means a lot, because it shows that Jeep understands the importance of handicrafts for Pernambuco", she says.

Just listen to the 52 year old artisan José Abias da Silva, known simply as Abias, who lives in the Northern Woods of Pernambuco. He says that he was invited by the brand to do what he likes most in life: his art. "Jeep called me up to create a wooden sculpture as a tribute to the artisans from Pernambuco. Then, with my knife and my sickle, I carved animals like a chameleon and an armadillo into three branches of wood", he says. The piece was installed in the Communication Center of the Jeep Automotive Plant. "I felt that my art was really valued", says Abias.

The artisan José Abias da SilvaThe artisan José Abias da Silva, a neighbor of the Jeep Automotive Plant

It’s a dialogue with nature – engraved on branches and trunks like that of the aforementioned animal sculpture – that inspires the work of Abias, a self-proclaimed "branch artist". "I just shape the wood. And since I live in the middle of the forest, I use the pruned or dry branches, roots that have been cut off, but I don’t tear down any trees to do my work", he says proudly. With a lot of creativity and personality, the twigs become characters of the Pernambuco culture: musicians, chameleons, praying mantis, helicopters and giant wheels.

Abias tells us that the animals of the Brazilian fauna and objects like the Ferris wheel are memories of his childhood, when he began his history with handicrafts. "When I was about 9, I would make my own toys because my parents did not have money. So I transformed everything I found: cans, fallen coconut trunks and coconut straw", he recalls.

Dry branches transformed into artDry branches transformed into art in the hands of Abias

But it was only when he was about 25 years of age and working in his hometown as a waiter that Abias took advantage of Roberto Vital’s space. As a friend and also craftsman Roberto invited him to expose some of his signature pieces. "I remember that Roberto was called to present his work at Fenearte and I kept wondering when my turn would come", he recalls. That’s when in 2004 Abias was called to participate, for the first time, in the fair through the Igarassu City Hall. At that moment he decided to leave behind his job as a waiter and begin earning a living through his art.

"I often say that Fenearte was the gateway to the recognition of my work and my livelihood", he says, estimating that around 95% of his local and national clients were acquired through the publicity given at the fair. "Today, craftsmanship is everything to me, because it has changed my life. Before, I used to work for others. Now I work for myself and, from branch to branch, I have managed to build my home, and today I even help my family. I think things work out when we like what we do. And I really like what I do", he says.


Words: Isabela Alves

Pictures: Marketing

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