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Ceramics: Amazonian cultural wealth

Joining art and tradition, pieces that are among the oldest heritages in the region seek new markets and means to continue guaranteeing income to communities

Cleo Soares and Daleth Oliveira / O Liberal - Translated by Bruce Moraes / CCAA Belém

Stories from ancient cultures tend to be impressive for the greatness of architectural heritages.  Before the arrival of the Europeans for what was called the colonization of the Americas, complex societies developed in Mexico, Central America and the Andes region – such as the Inca, Maya and Aztec – and left important records of their knowledge. astronomical, mathematical and agricultural, as well as imposing architectural works and artistic features of great refinement and beauty.  And in the rest of the Americas, including the portion of the Amazon territory that today corresponds to Brazil, other indigenous communities, nomadic or semi-nomadic, also stood out.  They lived basically from hunting, fishing and the cultivation of some agricultural species.

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These were also societies with significant populations, and which had a way of life integrated with nature.  This was expressed in the construction of utilitarian and cult-valued artifacts, but also in the use of natural resources such as clay, to practice arts of rare beauty.  In this art, the Marajoara peoples stood out in the Brazilian Amazon, who inhabited various points of the landscape of the Marajó archipelago, and the Tapajó, settled around the Tapajós River - which during the colonization of Brazil became the western region of the great territory of what was then called the Province of Grão-Pará.

The most popular indigenous ceramics in the Amazon were mainly inherited from these two cultures, the marajoara and the tapajônica.  But, although they are the best known, they are not unique in the Amazon, explains the archaeologist and professor at the Federal University of Pará (UFPA), Daiana Travassos.  “In the state of Amapá we have the ceramics of Maracá;  and in the Central Amazon, Guarita, among others”, cites the researcher.

In addition to being considered one of the greatest cultural riches in Brazil, ceramics from the Amazon are the oldest in the South American continent.  It all started long before the Portuguese colonized the country. The first records of the use of ceramics in the Brazilian Amazon, already proven by science, take us back over seven thousand years.  It was used by the population who previously lived in a region 80 kilometers from where the city of Santarém is located, in the Tapajós region.

(Sidney Oliveira / O Liberal)

It is the oldest archaeological site in the Americas, the Taperinha site.  “These first ceramics were quite simple.  They are bowls with a red painted decoration and some decorative features, produced by fishermen who were in a sedentary process, which is the cultural transition from nomadic to permanent colonization”, explains professor Daiana.

She says that, as far as is known, these pieces were used in everyday use, such as to store food.  But after this period, many other populations started to use ceramics as a cultural expression.  Made of clay, manual strength, techniques and millenary culture, the fact is that ceramics crosses generations, valuing the Amazonian identity and generating income for hundreds of artisans in the region.

Preservation of the Amazon passes through the archaeological heritage

The State of Pará has a very rich archaeological heritage, with emphasis on Marajoara and Tapajônica archaeology.  The collections recognized within Brazil and internationally can be found at the Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi (MPEG), a scientific institution based in Belém, the capital of Pará, at the Museu do Marajó, in Cachoeira do Arari, city of the Archipelago of Marajó, and at the National Museum, in Rio de Janeiro.

Excavation (Paula Sampaio / Divulgação)

The pieces preserved at the Goeldi Museum help recount the millenary trajectory of these Amazonian populations, recalls MPEG archaeologist Helena Lima.  “The stories of these ancestral communities and traditions are recounted through the material traces that have survived time and human action.  Each type of incision, ceramic materials and styles found in archeological sites refer to a way of life and the environment of that population”, details the researcher.

Currently, the collection of the Technical Reserve of Archeology at the Goeldi Museum exceeds two million items, including fragments and entire pieces, containing artifacts from various indigenous peoples who lived in the Amazon before and during the arrival of European settlers in the region.  Operating since 1997, on the Goeldi Museum Research Campus, the reserve has its origins in the 19th century, from the creation of the institution: it was one of the first Brazilian archaeological collections, listed by the Brazilian Institute of Cultural Heritage (now IPHAN) in 1940.

Helena Lima, researcher (Ascom / Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi)

Between the 1950s and 1980s, important private collections and pieces, gathered from research in almost every state in the Brazilian Legal Amazon, were incorporated into the MPEG collection.  Ceramic objects are highlighted, but also artifacts in rock, wood, bone, earthenware and iron, as well as examples of "rock art", in originals and in graphic reproductions.

"There are ceramists who don't have much education, but managed to put their children through college through the sale of ceramics" - Socorro Abreu, Sócia

However, despite the amount of relics of Tapajônica and Marajoara art, produced in the past and preserved in MPEG, there is still much of the historical heritage to be valued and preserved.  And this is the case with the work of artisans, in addition to the new archaeological sites.  “The Emilio Goeldi Museum is a place of memory, guard and a place of communication with society.  But the greatest legacy of these peoples is in people's lives, in the art of ceramics, in the expressions found today in Icoaraci and Marajó.  In addition, we still have our archaeological sites that have not yet been explored, which need to remain so, preserved”, ponders Helena Lima.

Ceramic production gained new poles

For years, Goeldi's collection has inspired potters in the production of replicas of Marajoara and Tapajônica pieces.  As already done by Mestre Cardoso, precursor of contemporary Marajoara art made in Pará, in the 1970s, since 2017 artisans from the pole of Paracuri, in the district of Icoaraci, in Belém, can be inspired by preserved pieces and recreate them for sale, through the project “Replicando the past: socialization of the archaeological collection of the Goeldi Museum through the ceramic handicraft of Icoaraci”.

(Igor Mota / O Liberal)

After seeing the MPEG pieces, Mestre Cardoso, who died in 2006, asked permission to copy them.  With the authorization, he would have started to produce replicas of Marajoara ceramics and sell them.  This was the initial incentive for the production of other artisans in Vila de Icoaraci.  With the initiative, which is currently suspended due to the covid-19 pandemic, the organization of the Goeldi Museum wants to encourage artisans to manufacture their art pieces with archaeological value.

“In addition to publicizing the museum's collection, we aim to enhance the ceramic handicrafts of the potter community in Icoaraci, inspired by the archaeological styles of the Amazon.  In this way, we add cultural value to handcrafted products, based on the archaeological knowledge produced by the Goeldi Museum”, justifies Helena Lima, project coordinator.  It is an added incentive to preserve the tradition of ancestral Amazonian cultures.

(Igor Mota / O Liberal)

The proof of this is that today Icoaraci is the main producer of indigenous ceramics in the Amazon, mainly inspired by the Marajoara and Tapajonic styles.  But in addition to this world-renowned hub, Pará has other ceramic production centers in expansion, in Parauapebas, Oriximiná, Santarém and Bragança.

Fostering entrepreneurs

The sale of pieces with historical and cultural value is a source of income for hundreds of artisans throughout Pará. For this reason, ceramic poles receive direct incentives from the Brazilian Micro and Small Business Support Service (Sebrae) in the state, with support technical training and inclusion of products in commercial events, such as large fairs. The support extends to artisans from well-known centers, such as those on the island of Marajó, and Paracuri, in Icoaraci, and also to the lesser known ones, in the municipalities of Santarém and Bragança.

(Sidney Oliveira / O Liberal)

In the last workshops, trainings and fairs, Sebrae do Pará has already directly benefited 14 individual micro-entrepreneurs (MEI) of ceramics and supported two factories - Cerâmica São Mateus and A Fazendinha, both located in Bragança, in the northeast of the state.

According to Vera Rodrigues, an analyst at Sebrae Pará, the qualifications are segmented.  “Our service reaches the entire ceramic production chain.  Our technicians offer everything from training in the correct removal of clay to training in the administrative part of the business and sales, so that artisans can make the most of the profitability capacity of the ceramic trade”.

"Unfortunately, in the northern region everything is more expensive. It is very expensive to ship anywhere in Brazil or in the world", Bruno Gonçalves.

Vera also claims that most of the sales in large volumes are made at business fairs organized by Sebrae.  A good example is the Círio Fair, which united two fairs previously held in isolation, during the religious festivities of the Círio de Nossa Senhora de Nazaré, in Belém, the largest in the tourist calendar in the capital: the Miriti Fair and the Fair of Ceramic Crafts.

In the unified format, the Círio Fair has been held since last year at Praça do Porto Futuro, in the port area of Belém. , but all the pieces on display were available at a network of partner stores, mobilized by Sebrae to help artisan sales.  “This year we must repeat this format, which was fundamental to guarantee the success of last year's edition”, highlights Vera Rodrigues.

Ceramicists face new challenges to the profession

In the best known ceramic production center in the Metropolitan Region of Belém, Paracuri, in the district of Icoaraci, numerous families managed to establish themselves and guarantee the livelihood of the house, keeping the art of ceramics alive and passing it on from generation to generation.  The Society of Artisans and Friends of Icoaraci (Soami) currently has 60 member families.  And many of them live exclusively from the income obtained from the sale of the pieces.  “It is the only source of income for most families, so it is of great importance to all of us.  I usually say that it's from ceramics that we put beans on our tables.  There are ceramists who don't have much education, but managed to put their children through college through the sale of ceramics”, says Socorro Abreu, founding partner of Soami.

Manoel Claci, 66, has been working with handicrafts for over 30 years.  He says he found personal satisfaction in this profession.  “I started working with Marajoara ceramics because I felt good.  I thought it was a product I could work with without much worry, because it makes me feel fulfilled.  And it has helped me financially”, he emphasizes.

Bruno Gonçalves, who is 40 years old and has been a ceramist since he was 20, says that he learned this art from his father, the well-known master Doca Leite.  Today he keeps in memory the memories of a childhood marked by games between the storage boxes of the pieces.

Manoel Claci (Sidney Oliveira / O Liberal)

Currently, the representations found in Paracuri's potteries also reflect more than Amazonian traditions.  There are also works based on cultural hybridism between native peoples and colonizers, bringing together influences from Marajoara, Tapajônica, African and even oriental art.  The price of the pieces can vary from R$ 3 to R$ 3 thousand.  It all depends on the size and style of each art.

But artisans warn: the ceramics market is increasingly difficult, and the main factors for the drop in sales are the low demand by local residents and the lack of other public policies to encourage this tradition, in addition to the challenge in logistics - which makes it difficult to ship goods to other states and markets outside Brazil. 

"Unfortunately, in the northern region everything is more expensive. We have social networks to publicize our work, but when it comes to shipping, then it ends with us. It is very expensive to ship anywhere in Brazil or in the world", says Bruno.

In addition, another factor influencing sales is the lack of dissemination of local stories.  For many years, knowledge was previously only transmitted orally.  Today they are more widespread, with access to the internet.  But Manoel Glaci says that the Brazilian population knows little about its history.  And this directly affects the valuation of the products.  “If you don't have knowledge, you don't look like a story, but like any other object, and that makes people not very interested.  Outsiders, when buying, are already looking for some definite things”.

(Sidney Oliveira / O Liberal)

Social networks have become great allies of potters.  In addition to being a source of knowledge, commercial profiles became good tools to maintain sales during the pandemic, as the lack of tourists greatly impacted sales.  Bruno Gonçalves reports that in the 1980s and 1990s his family managed to export their productions to various regions-and that, until four years ago, at the height of sales, 300 to 500 pieces were sold per month.  However, nowadays, this number reaches a maximum of 200 items.  Last year, during the height of the pandemic, they had to turn to government aid.

The potters point out that the main sales item are the decorative plates on the walls, usually stamped with figures of animals from the Brazilian fauna or with the nomenclature of cities in the region, in addition to gardening items.

For artisans, the recognition of their work is also a great source of inspiration.  “People who work with handicrafts are gratified when people praise them”, says Bruno.

Although the ceramists appreciate their art, the low valuation and the drop in the market put the future of making the pieces at risk.  Although knowledge is passed on between generations, many artisans say they prefer their children to follow other professions.  “This case of perpetuating our handicraft, unfortunately, is a big concern, because most of the children of artisans are no longer in the handicraft area, due to all these problems.  Unfortunately, making a living from handicrafts is increasingly difficult”, reveals the son of the master Doca Leite.

What was the Marajoara society?
The Marajoara were regionally organized societies that intensively managed the landscapes of Ilha do Marajó, between 400 and 1,300 years after Christ (DC).  They had a dense population and expanded to 20,000 square meters over 900 years.  They organized their settlements hierarchically, practiced an intensive fishing economy, participated in extensive exchange networks and were dominated by elites, who organized work and access to fishing resources, religious activities and the production of ceramics, whose iconography communicated an entire system sociopolitical”, explains professor Daiana Travassos.

Marajó's past (Sidney Oliveira / O Liberal)

In this system, society was divided according to purchasing power. “These societies built earth platforms, known today as tesos, in the seasonally flooded fields to the east of the island.  The distribution and size of these treasures indicate their hierarchical social organization, the treasures being inhabited by the local elites larger and less numerous, also serving as a burial place for prestigious people;  while the smaller and more numerous were inhabited by the common people”.

The researcher also explains that the elite members were located in the headwaters of rivers, where the Marajoaras built dams and dams to trap fish during the dry season.  “The Marajoaras had their work organized, in addition to the specialized production of their sophisticated ceramics, with the wide use of excisions and black, red and white paintings, which make up the iconographic language of Marajoara ceramics”, explains the professor.

Who were the Tapajó?
The Tapajó were a traditional population that was organized regionally along the right bank of the Tapajós River, from 900 AD. The villages of the Tapajó were distributed along riverside areas and in the interior of the forest, on the Belterra plateau, in the west of Pará.  “The Porto de Santarém and Aldeia sites, under the current city of Santarém, were the largest settlements and the center of their regional system,” explains Daiana Travassos.

Tapajonic Ceramics (Sidney Oliveira / O Liberal)

According to the archaeologist, the regional organization of this population seems to have been more collaborative between riverside settlements and those in the interior of the forest, exchanging fish and products from their agroforestry systems.  The funerary practices of the Tapajó were different from those of the marajoaras, as they cremated their dead and deposited the ashes in ceramic funerary urns.

As for the specialized production of ceramics, the Tapajó were excellent producers of ceramics and stone art, like the muiraquitãs.  The standardization of shapes and decorations indicate the use of caryatid, neck and globular vases in corn harvesting rituals, weddings and burials.  “The small size of bowls, plates and jars points to the individual use of these objects in collective ceremonies, possibly to mark the social places of each participant”, explains Diana.

She states that, in Tapajônica ceramics, the predominance of incision, modeling, dotting and painting or red engobe techniques also communicates its rich symbolic world.  “Through natural and stylized representations of animals, humans and abstract chimeras, they materialize a world of beings in metamorphosis, depending on the perspective from which objects are observed”.

(Text on "Ceramics face new challenges to the profession" was contributed by Emilly Melo, an intern, under the supervision of Keila Ferreira and Cleo Soares)

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