Folk Art of Northeast Brazil

Popular Art of the Northeast
Popular Art of the Northeast

The Folk Art of Northeast Brazil of Brazil reflects the extension of its territory and the diversity of its culture and some types of work are found, with small variations, in all states.

While relying on tradition, the popular art of the Northeast discovers new languages, techniques and materials: the ability to reinvent itself attests to its inexhaustible vitality.

Craft production in the Northeast reflects the extent of its territory and the diversity of its culture.

Take the example of the lace-makers: all along the northeastern coast – and in various parts of the hinterland, especially in the towns bordering the São Francisco river – there are women who, leaning on cushions or wooden frames, wield needles or bobbins and produce fine braids like those brought by the first Europeans who arrived in the colony.

They are wefts and embroideries that, depending on the technique, are given names such as labyrinth, boa-noite, filé, redendê – and that usually leave the coastal villages to win the fashion circuit of the Brazilian capitals.

bobbin lace in the northeast
bobbin lace



There are crafts whose authorship dissolves in the collective and there are those that bear the mark of the artisan.

The masks, costumes and embroidered clothes used in Carnival, bumba-meu-boi and folias-de-reis, as well as the clothes and objects used in Afro-Brazilian rituals or the puppets called mamulengos, are made by artists who are almost always anonymous.

Figuras de Barro, Vitalino Pereira dos Santos
Clay figures, Vitalino Pereira dos Santos

On the other hand, in Caruaru, in the agreste of Pernambuco, Vitalino Pereira dos Santos (1909-63) gave the clay figures typical of the region a style and language all his own, with which he portrayed scenes from the daily life of the sertanejo; he formed a legion of followers, living up to the title of “master”.

Today, his children and grandchildren continue his work, and the neighborhood where he was born, Alto do Moura, was considered by Unesco to be the largest center of figurative art in the Americas.

Not far from there, in Pernambuco’s Zona da Mata, ceramics is also a source of income for more than half the population of the town of Trucunhaém.

Researcher Lélia Coelho Frota points out that if the thematic axis of Caruaru’s ceramics is the record of everyday life, Trucunhaém’s is essentially focused on the sacred and the solemn, visible in the saints molded by Maria Amélia and Zezinho and in the magnificent lions of master Nuca (1937-2004).


Lace is also a popular art in the northeast and is present in clothes, scarves, towels and other articles, having an important economic role in the North, Northeast and South regions.

The so-called cushion or bobbin lace is developed by the hands of lace makers who work with a cushion, a cardboard full of holes, thread and bobbins (small wooden pieces similar to spindles).

Brought by the Portuguese and Azorean settlers, this technique is a traditional work from various parts of the Brazilian coast.

The cards are passed down from generation to generation and some motifs are exclusive to one family. Although lace is not originally a Brazilian product, it has become a local product through acculturation.


Lace is a form of textile handicraft, whose historical origin dates back to the 15th and 16th centuries, and whose paternity is claimed by Flanders and Italy. Flanders calls itself the inventor of bobbin lace and Italy claims the patent for needle lace, from which Renaissance lace originated.

Bilro Lace
Bilro Lace

The first category of lace is lace made with bobbin, called “bobbin lace”.

The bobbin is a small instrument composed of a short rod whose tip has a spherical shape.

At the other end of the rod is attached a quantity of thread, which in the handling of the artisan, is attached to a standard design or drawing of the lace to be developed.

The production of this type of lace requires the use of several bobbins, whose quantity varies according to the complexity of the design. Bilro lace is produced on cushions resting on the artisan’s lap, or sitting on a wooden easel in front of her.

The yarn used by bobbin lace makers is cotton, predominantly white because of tradition and because it does not hinder vision. The mold used is called “pique”.

The design models are old, being passed down from one generation to another. To obtain new models, the lace makers lend the piques to each other, or get samples from other places. Some rare lace makers make the lace from the head, without using a mold.

The lace created can take several forms:

  1. beaks or tips that will be used to decorate edges of fabrics, or to be applied between two pieces of fabric.
  2. bedspreads, tablecloths, centerpieces and napkins
  3. lace in the form of flowers, hearts, fans, among others, for applications on fabric, to decorate it
  4. flaps: whole pieces, which will be used on the necklines of sweaters, blouses and dresses.

Lace and embroidery are the predominant handicraft activities in Ceará, present in about 104 municipalities.

According to the Monitoring System of the Ceará Handicrafts Center SAC-CEART, 700 artisans are registered for the “bobbin lace” typology, where 99.4% are women and 0.6% are men.

Records indicate that this typology has existed in Ceará since colonization, having spread inland and in coastal areas, concentrating mainly in the municipalities of Aquiraz, Aracati, Beberibe, Acaraú and Trairi.

The development of handicrafts can become a hallmark of the region. This is the case for the district of Prainha with the Renda de Bilro, located in the municipality of Aquiraz.

The municipality of Aquiraz has been in existence for more than three centuries, and has an estimated population of 72,628 residents. The strong tourist appeal and a
history related to handicrafts stand out as its relevant characteristics.


Perhaps nothing is more typical of Northeastern popular art than cordel literature.

In cordel literature, literature and image intersect in the pamphlets sold in the streets and markets of the sertão: on the covers, woodcuts illustrate the verses, which go through all sorts of themes – from love stories and folklore legends to social denunciation and political criticism.

Bezerros, a neighbor of Caruaru, in Pernambuco, calls itself the “capital of cordel” and is home to some of its biggest names, starting with the octogenarian J. Borges, poet, singer and illustrator.

The same tradition survives in Ceará’s Juazeiro do Norte, where the mythical master Noza (1897-1984), also a sculptor, lived: today there are workshops in the city where artisans reproduce his famous images of Father Cícero carved in wood.


Alongside the images of Father Cícero made in Juazeiro do Norte, there is a tradition of art and woodwork linked to religious imagery in the Northeast.

In Cachoeira, in the Recôncavo Baiano, Louco – the name by which the sculptor Boaventura da Silva Filho (1932-92) became known – was known for producing Catholic saints and orixás, longilinear images of great impact.

As custom dictates, Louco’s craft was passed on to his fans and disciples, and today sacred pieces are produced in the city in the workshops of Louco Filho, Doidão, Dory and Mimo.

In Triunfo, Pernambuco, Chico Santeiro carves images of St. Francis, St. Peter, St. Anthony and Our Lady, dressing them in luxurious clothes.

In Acari, Rio Grande do Norte, Ambrósio Córdula also makes wooden saints, cribs and angels.

Religiosity is also present in the ex-votos, a tradition that dates back to the 18th century and which, unfortunately, seems to be on the verge of extinction.

The old painted boards with scenes of miraculous cures are no longer produced; the wooden images representing mainly body parts, carved in gratitude for some grace achieved, survive, and are still found in the so-called “miracle rooms” of churches, sanctuaries and pilgrimage centers.

Today, Aberaldo, from the island of Ferro (Alagoas), gives a new dimension to ex-votos, coloring them and turning them into decorative pieces.

The mysticism of the Sertanejo is also reflected in the famous frowns with which the boatmen of the São Francisco River sought to ward off evil spirits that might threaten their journey.

In Santa Maria das Vitórias, Bahia, Francisco Biquiba dy Lafuente Guarani (1884-1987) sculpted some of the most notable. In the 1960s, the carrancas became a decorative fever throughout the country and began to be produced on a large scale – losing some of the strength of the originals – in towns along the entire course of the river, especially in Petrolina, Pernambuco.

Wood is also the raw material for everyday objects, furniture and toys. In the same Acari where Master Ambrósio produces his saints, Manuel Jerônimo Filho builds exquisite trucks.

In Maranhão, Nhozinho (1904-74) transformed the malleable wood of the buriti tree into small dolls that reproduced the typical characters of the state and figures of the bumba-meu-boi; his work can be seen in São Luís, in the museum that bears his name.

Other northeastern paineiras offer raw material for artisans from the hinterland and the coast: with the fiber of the carnauba, residents of the Parnaíba delta, in Piauí, manufacture baskets, objects and ornaments; from the straw of the ouricuri, artisans from the coast of Alagoas make. carpets, bags and hats.


Ceramics is one of the most developed forms of popular art and handicraft in Brazil. Divided between utilitarian and figurative ceramics, this art made by the Indians was later mixed with the European clay tradition, and African patterns, and developed in regions conducive to the extraction of its raw material – clay.

In the fairs and markets of the Northeast, you can see clay dolls that reconstitute typical figures of the region: cangaceiros, retirantes, vendors, musicians and lace makers. The most famous are those of Pernambuco’s Mestre Vitalino (1909-1963), who left dozens of descendants and disciples.

Figurative ceramics are also prominent in the states of Pará, Ceará, Pernambuco, Alagoas, Sergipe, Bahia, Espírito Santo, São Paulo and Santa Catarina. In the other states, ceramics are more of the utilitarian type (pots, pans, vases, etc.).


This art form is widespread in the Brazilian Northeast, especially in Rio Grande do Norte and Ceará, the birthplace of its creator, where several artisans earn their living from the production and sale of these pieces.

Bottles of colored sands
Bottles of colored sands

The making of engravings in bottles using colored sands is also called cyclogravure and appeared in the 1950s on the beach of Majorlândia, in Ceará, where there was a lady named Joana Carneiro, who filled bottles with sands of different colors collected in the hills of the region. And, when filling them, she arranged the colors in circular shapes, with spaces around two centimeters for each portion of sand placed.

Once, she was filling a liter with these sands when, moments before finishing the work, the liter overturned. As the container was not yet completely full, the sands were thrown to the side and accidentally formed a drawing which, to the eyes of a son present at the time, looked like a landscape.

The lady’s son was named Antônio Eduardo Carneiro, who would later become known as “Toinho da Areia Colorida” (Toinho of the Colored Sand) for his ability to “draw with sands”. He was responsible for creating the first landscapes in bottles using colored sands.

In spite of the denomination of “colored sand bottles”, other containers are also used in their confection such as: chalices, tulips, bulges and various other types and forms of casings, as long as they are made of transparent glass and without color, so that the colors of the sands are appreciated with all fidelity.

The vast majority of the sands used in this work are colored by nature. Only the green and blue colors are produced from white sand with the addition of dyes. The lighter or darker tones are obtained from the mixture of existing colors.

The price of the pieces varies according to the size of the container, and also the complexity of the design. The more elaborate, the higher the price. Smaller pieces cost around R$ 10.00 per unit. As for the larger ones, they can cost up to R$ 1,000.00, or more.


The pieces produced in Maragojipinho have a very high cultural value and a great potential for growth and appreciation. Increasingly the quality of the pieces increases in the conquest of new consumers.

Boi Bilha
Boi Bilha

Most of the pieces made in Maragogipinho are unmistakable due to the finish with tauá, an engobe from clay, rich in iron oxide that gives a reddish color to the pieces.
Another local characteristic is drawing with tabatinga, which is white liquid clay, very abundant in the region.

In Maragogipinho thousands of utilitarian and decorative pieces are produced and the production volume reaches about 18 thousand pieces per month. These pieces are distributed to several Brazilian states such as São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Goiás, Santa Catarina, Ceará, Paraná and the Federal District.

The objects that present in their forms, clear indigenous, African and Portuguese influences have a very large variety of size and shape. We can find objects that measure from 2cm to more than 1.50m in height.

The artisans, men and women, still use the crude tools of centuries ago, such as the wooden lathe.

Typical clay pieces
Typical pieces

The clay potters work on foot and in a wood-fired oven, and every month they model, decorate and fire a rich variety of pieces. They are moringas, pots, carvings, porrões, bilhas, pots, vases, plates, cups, bowls, jugs, lamps, sacred sculptures, decorative objects, among others.

The excellence of Maragogipinho ceramics has been recognized.

In 2004 the community exported a container of pieces to Europe and two of its pieces competed for the UNESCO Craftsmanship Award for Latin America and the Caribbean.

The boi-bilha, a piece that is a combination of the figure of the northeastern ox and the bilha of Portuguese origin, received an Honorable Mention from the UN.

In partnerships with export companies, more than 40 thousand pieces have already been exported and circulate in countries such as Germany, Spain and Italy.
To publicize their products, in addition to participating in fairs throughout Brazil, the Maragogipinho community has the help of agencies such as SEBRAE and thus make big sales. The most recent was for the Tok & amp; Stok store with the sale of more than a thousand pieces.

This boosts the community since the demand for quality products for this audience is very high


Folk Art, at once a cultural manifestation and a source of income, moves between the reproduction of traditional knowledge and the discovery of new techniques and materials.

In the Northeast, crafts handed down from generation to generation adapt to circumstances and the urgencies of survival.

In Acari, scrap cars are transformed into dolls and toys by the hands of Dimauri Lima de Souza.

The colored sand that forms landscapes inside bottles, a typical souvenir of Ceará, is now obtained thanks to the use of industrialized dyes – there was a time when only the sands of various shades of the dunes of Majorlândia, on the east coast of the capital, were used.

In Santana do Cariri, in the hinterland of the same state, the town hall encourages the making of replica fossils to prevent the predatory sale of the local archaeological heritage.

The myriad of objects that make up what is indistinctly called Northeastern handicrafts – cloths, hammocks, miniatures, toys, drawings, ex-votos, saddles, leather, ornaments, utilities – is recreated every day.

Folk Art in the Northeast

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