‘It was in a second-hand bookshop in Rio di Janiero, in 1999, that I first came across the work of José Borges: a small black-and-white woodcut, adorning the cover of a flimsy ‘chapbook’. It showed a devil prodding a young man dressed in jeans and a tee-shirt. The image had such graphic power and wit – and quality. I thought I had discovered an unsung genius.
I soon learnt that José Borges was one of Brazil’s most celebrated folk artists. Indeed he is famous across the globe, having exhibited everywhere from the Louvre to the Smithsonian Institute. A collection of his work is held by the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe. In Brazil he is – very properly - considered a Living Cultural Treasure.
Born in 1935 in the village of Bezerros, in the North Eastern province of Pernambuco, Borges creates vividly imagined woodblock prints that derive from the centuries-old Brazilian tradition of ‘literatura de cordel’ – cheaply-produced illustrated pamphlets recounting popular tales, both sacred and profane. Borges initially made small-scale woodcuts to illustrate such stories, but in the 1960s he started increasing the scale of his work, creating stand-alone images that carried the cordel tradition into new and challenging areas.
Borges’ prints – whatever their scale - have a unique immediacy. They combine a distinctive blend of bold imagery, lyrical simplicity and a teasing sense of narrative. His motifs – human and animal – are all deeply felt; drawn, as they are, from the rural life, the myths and the dreams of his native Pernambuco. This is Folk Art that is at once universal and highly personal.’