J. Borges: Woodcut Print Artist from Bezerros, Pernambuco
by Bill Hinchberger
Bill Hinchberger J. Borges shuffles through some prints
Bezerros, Pernambuco - J. Borges rarely leaves his hometown, but his mind sometimes wanders. The Arrival of the Prostitute in Heaven, The Case of the Girl who Met the Bogeyman, The Dictionary of Dreams and Tribute to the 100th Anniversary of Abolition – those are some of the titles of traditional chapbooks authored and illustrated by this multi-talented artist whose woodcut prints have been featured in exhibitions at places like the University of New Mexico’s Tamarind Institute and Zurich’s Helmhaus Museum. Scholars point to Borges’ work to help explain why Brazil maintains a vibrant woodblock print tradition, something that has died out in many parts of the world.
Borges lives about 100 kilometers inland from Pernambuco state capital Recife. The 60,000-strong town he calls home, Bezerros, numbers among those rare places that still reflect the spirit of their names. “Bezerro” means calf. Hang out on any street corner for a while and you’ll no doubt witness a bunch of little animals scampering through the streets.
At kilometer 106 on the Luiz Gonzaga Highway (BR 232) stands a whitewashed building called the “Casa de Cultura Serra Negra.” Dank and cluttered inside, with its roadside location, it is reminiscent of an auto mechanics shop. For decades it served as Borges’ atelier. As increasing numbers of children, nephews and cousins followed him into the chapbook business, the master recently moved to new digs. The functional new workshop reflects his unassuming character. Roomier and with better lighting than his old place, it still could pass for a simple country home.
There visitors can purchase chapbooks, prints and original woodblock molds (prints go for as little as R$20 and chapbooks sell for R$1). They can also get a glimpse of a vintage mechanical printing machine and, if they’re lucky, see Borges at work carving his next mold.
If Borges’ atelier is nothing like those of other internationally-renowned artists who share museum walls with him, his life story couldn’t be any more different either.
Borges was born in the northeastern outback in 1935, “when the telephone was a shout,” as he puts it in his memoir. With only 10 months of formal schooling, completed at the age of 12, he seemed destined to the fate of the Brazilian Northeastern Everyman – bumming around from one odd job to the next. But one of those early jobs involved selling chapbooks, called “cordel” literature because they are often sold hanging from chords or strings. With a tradition that can be traced to Europe, the pamphlets, written in verse, remain a popular way to communicate fables, tall tales, political commentary and more in the Northeast Brazilian outback.
“When I was a kid, the only leisure activity we had was to read cordel literature,” recalled Borges. “The way people watch telenovelas today, we read cordel booklets.”
While working as a salesman, Borges decided to try his hand at writing a story. He showed it to a veteran “cordelista,” who encouraged him to publish. It took eight years for Borges to save up the cash to self-publish his first edition. With nothing left over to pay an illustrator for the cover, which needed a requisite black-ink woodblock print, he had to produce his own artwork.
Now he has authored over 200 chapbooks and says that he’s lost count of how many he’s illustrated for less graphically-inclined storyteller-poets. His Gráfica Borges also prints booklets. “I get lots of orders to do cordel booklets,” he said – including some that serve as company training manuals or that teach the basics of things like how to take out a bank loan. “Country hicks don’t like to read magazines, but if you give him a cordel booklet he’ll read it – and enjoy it,” Borges said.
In the 1970s, his work was discovered by mainstream artists and other leading cultural figures. Writer Ariano Suassuna “said I was the best in the Northeast. Now he says I’m the best in the world,” noted Borges with a smile.
Borges followed the advice of some admirers to produce folio-sized stand-alone prints. Often in color, they depict the same fantastic and folkloric rural characters as the booklets: The Hangover Bar, The Cowboy Mass, The Girl Who Turned into a Snake, and The Macumba Ceremony. These have attracted the attention of museums and collectors.
Borges only uses wood to create his molds. “An art professor came here once and proposed that we work together on some ‘xilogravuras’ in plaster,” he said, incredulous at the ignorance of the college prof. “I told him that ‘xilogravura’ (which literally means woodcutting) is only in wood.”
To create the titles and author credits, Borges had to become adept at writing backwards – which he now does as fluently as the rest of us write normally. But inevitably he slips up, getting wrong an “S” or a “2” – which, surprisingly, turns out to be a good thing. “When I would make a mistake collectors would call it ‘naïf’ and decide to buy it,” he laughed.