Puppets and Pictures

In October last year I finally got round to visiting Brazil. Much like the trip itself, this series of blog posts is long overdue.

My journey began in Fortaleza where I took in the CAIXA Cultural. A quirk of Brazil is that their banks heavily sponsor the arts in exchange for generous tax breaks. This saves the government from funding museums when they are ostensibly preoccupied with trying to resolve the societal issues found in a country of some 200 million people. The irony of dodgy financial institutions bailing out dodgy politicians while inequality remains rife (the six richest Brazilan men own the same wealth as the poorest 50% of the population) isn’t lost on old Ropey. On the plus side, the galleries I visited on my trip  – and I went to a fair few – were all free to enter. Hurray!

At the CAIXA Cultural Fortaleza I saw two exhibitions. The first was O Ordinário (The Ordinary) by one of the leading lights of contemporary Brazilian comics, Rafael Sica. The exhibition contained over 200 drawings, sketches, doodles, etchings and prints offering a sideways slant on daily metropolitan existence. The works ranged from small panel cartoons to large and densely packed poster-sized images. Also included were original and replica sketchbooks and ‘Desenhe Errado’ (Draw Wrong), a ‘collective exercise’ allowing visitors to contribute to a series of ongoing notebooks with their own drawings.

The smaller cartoons were housed in a specially constructed shed-like room, the white strips of torn paper starkly contrasting with the black wooden walls. These curious little vignettes each told a tale of the ridiculousness and mundanity of city life, all with a slightly surreal twist. I saw shades of the Daily Mail cartoonist Mac, half remembered from an old seventies annual Pa Rope once gave me rather than any contemporary reading of that rotten rag of a paper, rendering a kind of caricatured and warped version of recognisable elements of modern life. There were hints of Robert Crumb too, along with Elzie Crisler Segar’s ‘Thimble Theatre’ strips and the Max and Dave Fleischer’s Pop Eye animation that gave us those distinctive and memorable long legs and wobbly arms.

Most of Sica’s works are ‘silent’, in the sense that they have plenty of people and interactions, but no text or dialogue. As a result, the short stories are open to interpretation by the ‘reader’, though all seem to hark back to themes of urban isolation, neurotic loneliness and the unfathomable chaos of the modern world. Classic holiday fare for me.

The bigger works are rich in detail, often showing a solitary figure lost in a monochrome world of rubbish, stark industrial backdrops or cold alienating nature.  From the hunched boy atop a tiny island, forlornly staring at the sea, unaware that it is teeming with life below the surface, to the same little guy sat at the foot of a towering mountain of trash, the pictures have a captivating depth, an allure that draws you in to study the details of the works.

Sica began his career in the late nineties, publishing cartoons in various papers around the city of Pelotas in the south of Brazil. His big break came in the noughties when he got a gig doing a strip in Folha de S. Paulo, the biggest daily paper in São Paulo. Around the same time he launched his blog ‘Ordinario’ – initially intended as an online portfolio but soon finding itself to be one of the most visited comic sites in the country.

The exhibition was a trippy ride – but not an entirely bleak one. There were wry smiles to be had and at least I now know what it would be like if John and Yoko met Cleopatra. Weirdly I can’t remember if I added anything to ‘Desenhe Errado’, but it seems inconceivable that I didn’t. Check out my photo gallery below with apologies for any wonky ones.

“O meu processo de criação é bem do gosto do fazer, de estar sempre em movimento, sempre desenhando, essa coisa de não encarar o papel em branco, de estar sempre em processo com o trabalho, porque o quadrinho é uma arte muito aberta. É completamente um plano da narrativa e também uma questão do olhar pessoal”

“My creative process is a good taste of doing, always moving, always drawing, this thing of not facing blank paper, of always being in process with work, because the comic is a very open art. It is completely a narrative plan and also a personal look”

– Rafael Sica (quote here). 

If the ‘ordinary’ of the ground floor seemed surreal, then upstairs at the gallery held even freakier delights. Mundo Giramundo (roughly translated: Globetrotter’s World) was an exhibition of puppets, dolls and marionettes representing barely 10% of the Giramundo Museum’s 1500 strong collection. Included amongst the 150 items on display are characters from adults’ and kids’ theatrical shows, television, film and even musical tours such as Groco and Ziglo from Música de Brinquedo (Toy Music) by the band Pato Fu.

The pieces on show cover a fairly broad church, from small hand puppets, to more traditional wire-controlled marionettes, to gigantic mind-boggling monsters that were truly eerie when motionless under the harsh museum lights. In the horror film of my inner thoughts these ugly buggers came to life and followed me round the gallery, silently cackling while lumbering clumsily into the other exhibits, awaking each of them in turn to join the chase, until I had an army of freakish ghouls hounding me through the gift shop and out into the warm open air of the Fortaleza. A bit like Ghostbusters meets Sesame Street. To be fair, I’d watch that and so would you and you know it.

The stated goal of the show is ‘the formation of an audience and the creation of a space for critical reflection on puppet theatre through multidisciplinary activities’ but a more achievable ambition would be to scare the pants off unsuspecting tourists like Old Rope. It’s a well established scientific fact that puppets and dolls are evil and will one day come to life to terrorise us all.

There were dolls from well known stories, such as Snow White, Pinocchio or Peter and The Wolf (the most performed show by Giramundo), playing card style kings and queens, priests, devils and multiple appearances by the Grim Reaper. My faves included a bunch of grotesque PVC oddities (all white save for their brown nipples), a hunched Ghandi-esque character and a sort of giant pupae military figure. Chilling stuff.

Founded by Álvaro Apocalypse and his wife Terezinha Veloso, Giramundo is now run by daughter Beatriz Apocalypse and has a team of 35 to 40 people, touring extensively and bagging awards left right and centre.

The touring has taken its toll on some of the stars. The exhibition in Fortaleza was the last outing for the puppets from “Sleeping Beauty”, who after a long career are ready for retirement. “Now they are too fragile to travel, so they’ll have to stay at the Museum in Belo Horizonte,” says the director.

In addition to the horrors that are the working puppets, the show also boasts an “anatomy table”, which details the construction of a doll. According to Beatriz, the process begins with small sketches, of which one is chosen and transformed into a ‘technical project’ – where the intricate mechanisms are thrashed out in a couple of days. “Then the project goes to the group workshop, where the manufacturing time varies depending on the size and complexity of the puppet. An average puppet, such as the one on the table [see my photo], takes about a month to get ready, with about eight hours of daily work,” she said. It’s no easy task to build a standing army of evil marionettes.

The show isn’t just about creeping you out and giving you nightmares though. You also get to learn a thing or two about these silent soldiers of darkness. In addition to puppets (which have wires), there are ‘tringle puppets’ (these are similar in that they also need wires, but they include a metal rod fixed to the head, and their movement is more abrupt, less “sweet”) and others whose techniques have no name at all. Some require actors to be inside the creatures, controlling them whilst wearing them as a sort of costume.

Regardless of how the puppets are operated one thing was clear, it was nearly closing time and there was no way in hell I was gonna be hanging around when they turned off the lights. If this lot don’t come to life and have petrifying puppet parties after the museum closes then I’ll eat my little scale-model toy top hat. It was time to beat a hasty retreat and seek out the sanctuary of some sun and seafood.

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