Fernando Rodrigues – Seu Fernando
"My art has an intelligence that only artists of nature can understand ..."
With this phrase, Seu Fernando, known as Fernando da Ilha do Ferro, shows his perspicacity.
He lived in the village of Ilha do Ferro, in the municipality of Pão de Açúcar, Alagoas State. Being illiterate working as a shoemaker since his childhood, at the age of 70, he started sculpting on tree branches and trunks that he found in the bush. His fame quickly spread throughout Brazil and abroad.
Fernando made stools and chairs often containing inscriptions and stories from his imagination. Through his humility and simplicity, he fostered a crucial change in Ilha do Ferro. Other in the village started to be creative due to his inspiration. Today in Brazil, there are few who have not heard of Ilha do Ferro. The village quickly became a tourist destination, thanks to its location on the banks of the São Francisco River.
The artist participated in important exhibitions, such as the opening of the Oscar Niemeyer Museum in Curitiba. At the show, there was a room with the Campana Brothers and Seu Fernando chairs.
Unfortunately, I didn't know him personally. Yes, I knew of him for more than twenty years. I now felt it was time to show his work in São Paulo in a solo exhibition.
Seu Fernando is known by renowned architects who do not hesitate to place his sculptures in the most sophisticated homes. The choice of architect Guilherme Wisnik was natural. Young, open-minded, he opted for curatorial work which he has done very successfully.
Here is our first exhibition for the beginning of 2021. We are hoping that despite Covid-19 pandemic a large number of art enthusiasts come to see it.
The Fantastic in Everyday Life
Fernando Rodrigues dos Santos (1928-2009) or simply “Seu Fernando”, as he was known, worked with the wood he found in his local surroundings, building both rustic pieces of furniture (e.g., benches, tables and chairs) and sculptures of animals that filled his imagination. He used stumps, as he said, which is to say the remains of trunks, branches and also roots that he found in the vicinity of the village of Ilha do Ferro, in Alagoas, the region of Baixo São Francisco where he was born and lived. Wood that in many cases was brought by the river when it flooded and then found by Fernando on its banks or in the river bed when he went out to fish. In general, they are soft and curvilinear or twisted woods typical of caatinga vegetation such as umbuzeiro and mulungu and are sometimes present also in flooded areas of mangroves, as in the case of craibeira. In the video by Maria Amélia Vieira and Dalton Costa named “Fernando Rodrigues, o guardião de memórias” (Fernando Rodrigues, the guardian of memories) from 2007, the artist says that in 1982, due to the construction of a road that was to pass close to Ilha do Ferro, he was forced to cut a mulungu, and because of this he decided to use the wood for other purposes. This was the start of his production of furniture and later of sculptures.
Despite its name, Ilha do Ferro has neither iron nor is it an island but rather a small town located on the left bank of the São Francisco River. With just over 450 inhabitants, it belongs to the municipality of Pão de Açúcar. This region of Baixo São Francisco is a bastion of important handicraft traditions which date back to distant Iberian influences. I am referring precisely to the rich handmade work with wood, on the one hand and the long tradition of embroidery on linen, on the other. The region as a whole keeps the tradition of embroidery alive attracting admirers and buyers from abroad in increasing numbers. The community of Ilha do Ferro, specifically, is responsible for the development of a much celebrated branch of this textile tradition: the Boa Noite embroidery, a name that honors a flower from the region. It is a technique that first unravels the fabric and then fills it with geometric threads forming squares. Since the pattern is not fully complete, it constructs a subtle arrangement of light and hollow spaces although intensely adorned.
This artisanal knowledge passed down from generation to generation between grandparents, mothers and daughters is, to a large extent, the female equivalent of another tradition also important in the region. This is the cultivation of manual wood working among the men with the aim of building more utilitarian objects. Carpentry developed through the construction of boats and ox carts, which is easy to understand, but also with the making of clogs for the feet. Yes! Wooden and leather clogs typical of the rural culture were in common use in the Baixo São Francisco region until the 1960’s when newly designed rubber sandals dominated the market making this manual craft obsolete.
The son of a clerk, Seu Fernando learned to work with wood from his father and worked in the business in his youth. In addition to carving wood, he also built furniture such as beds and cribs, as well as saddles for riding horses and donkeys (cangalha).
When photographer Celso Brandão and museologist Carmen Lúcia Dantas visited Ilha do Ferro in the early 1980s, they were enchanted by some simple wooden benches in a village bar, made by Seu Fernando. They were massive pieces directly carved in logs of bodies with sinuous profiles topped by solid bases and seats. They were reminiscent of the essential purity of some Brancusi sculptures (although conceived far from this point of reference). Unmistakably, they were objects for daily use quite different from those that are known today as being the later works of furniture by Fernando Rodrigues with characteristics that are essentially organic, contorted and unstable.
As Walter Benjamin explains, the history of art from Paleolithic rock paintings to the 20th century describes an arc that moves from a magical conception of the world (art as a "cult value") to a secular, materialistic and often consumerist (art as an “exhibition value”). Indeed, in the case of so-called popular cultures based on artisanal and removed from the canons of Western classical art, artistic production is generally much closer to a “use value”, since it does not exist or does not predominate. In these cultures, the rigid separation between the applied or decorative arts and the fine arts or the arts of the spirit necessarily disconnected from any utilitarian sense. This is what allows Fernando Rodrigues as well as many other master craftsmen, from the interior of Brazil, to make furniture and sculptures without changing their mental or material reference. Thinking about the works shown in this exhibition, for example, both chairs and benches as well as sculptures of wooden sunflowers or fantastic animals have a similar status. The sunflowers strongly geometrized and attached to bases that support them symbolize the sun or the light and resemble, in a way, table lamps that are utilitarian objects. Some benches, on the other hand, whose structure is made up of very dense branches or fasciculated and aerial roots, resemble animals with many legs or tentacles transcending a mere support function. Art and crafts, therefore, are not clearly separated.
Traditionally, artisanal culture is reiterative, that is, it is based on the repetition of procedures transmitted from generation to generation and which remain reasonably stable over time. We can see this reiterative practice in many of the furniture pieces built by Seu Fernando, especially in the chairs. All have side arms, hollow backs with horizontal bars and a curved profile topped in a triangular shape. They also have bases with a triangular shape which rest on the floor on just three feet not four, as is more common to achieve greater stability. This requires a triangular tie between the three feet, in order to prevent the weight of the seated person from separating them. In the case of the beautiful chairs, it seems to me that there is a certain formal standardization that refers to the reiterative practice of artisanal culture, which in turn, is at the historical origin of industrial serialization and design. Thinking about the recurrence of the triangle instead of the square in the formal structure of these pieces, it would be appropriate to reflect on the importance (or not) of the Christian Trinity in the visual imagery of these riverside cultures in Northeast Brazil and its impact on the works of Fernando Rodrigues. Something that would require further research.
In the case of the benches, however, the situation is different. They are smaller and simpler objects that lend themselves to more intense inventive variations; making us perceive them as unique pieces – almost individuals with their own personalities. Some maintain the triangular structure of the chairs reaching the floor at three points. Others have feet that are true antlers of roots that branch organically like mangrove trees. Some are in fact similar to the shape of the facheiros and mandacarus so characteristic of the landscape of Ilha do Ferro. These are feet that sometimes stretch laterally and take a long time to reach the floor transforming the benches into true sculptures that open in space or that open the space. These feet are still branches. Or better yet: “anarchist” branches like those of the Northeastern cashew trees, which grow flat. They are unlike the cashew trees planted in straight lines by the Portuguese in Guinea-Bissau, in the image of João Cabral de Melo Neto that seem to want to parade before military authority.
This very rich formal variation that we see in the benches, as well as in the sculptures, is largely due to the fact that Fernando Rodrigues did not work with commercial woods. Found in the caatinga or brought by the river, these twisted “stumps of wood” are by their own specific forms, true activators from the imagination of the artist from Alagoas. As clear a fertile imagination and much more animistic than Cartesian, this is an imagination that does not espouse the "disenchantment of the world" and therefore, recognizes the forms of life that go through all things. Branches and roots that come to life as furniture or as beings not recognizable in the ordinary world (also called the existing world). Fernando says these are fantastic creatures that live with us and that is why they are in some way men and women too. This is something that can be clearly seen in the audiovisual record called Desvirando bicho captured by Celso Brandão with the artist in his workplace. Fernando Rodrigues tells how humans and animals are transmuted into one another, a little like in the mythopoetic accounts of several Amerindian peoples, as well as in the tale "Meu tio o Iauaretê", by Guimarães Rosa. They are there when narrating stories that cross the modes of appearance and disappearance of these beings, linked to spells and enchantments.
Emboral, Atuleimado, Cunhudo are some of the curious names of sculptures in the form of animals present in this exhibition. Ground birds, mustachioed dogs, menacing or dumb; they make up a metamorphic universe of beings that also mix with written words, often carved or painted on their wooden bodies. Illiterate, at the same time a prolific storyteller, Fernando Rodrigues expands the narrative sense of his sculptural works by adding words, which act as if they were tattoos containing encrypted messages attached to the flesh of creatures.
Between the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s, when she moved to Bahia, Lina Bo Bardi was enchanted by the indigenous art of the Northeast. It was in her words “rich in popular sap” because it was charged with a sense of urgency, opposed to the “consolation of consumer gadgets” that began to colonize the country and the world. It is a self-discovered knowledge that could point the way to a singularly Brazilian industrial design because it adheres to the real needs of the country. We see this expressed in architecture, on the beautiful staircase of Solar do Unhão in Salvador (1959) designed by Lina, in which she combines a rigorous modern geometry with the precious wooden inserts of the ox carts from the hinterland. Today we know that this was a historically defeated wager. A true Brazilian design never came to be formed in terms of a reinterpretation of our popular culture.
When we look at the works of Seu Fernando, we again see the combination of scarce resources and fruitful creativity, not as a sign of exoticism, but a testimony to an art that is very close to people's daily needs and therefore, it reinvents life forms. Fernando Rodrigues has an expressive organicity and a sense of controlled instability that reminds us how much our existence is multi-faceted and varied. In the end, there are insurmountable boundaries between the ordinary and the fantastic.
 Check the beautiful video Fernando Rodrigues, o guardião de memórias (Fernando Rodrigues, the guardian of memories) from 2007, with plot and script by Maria Amelia Vieira, and direction and photograph of Dalton Costa. As it is clear in its narrative, it was due to the construction of a road in 1982 that was to pass close to Ilha do Ferro that Fernando was forced to cut a mulungu and because of this he decided to use the wood for other purposes. This was the start of his production of furniture and later of sculptures.
 The Espaço de Memória Artesão Fernando Rodrigues dos Santos, at Ilha do Ferro is a small museum of folk art of Alagoas State University that brings together the embroidery and handicraft productions with local wood.
 See the text by Carmen Lucia Dantas in the book Rio São Francisco: um nunho de culturas, organized by her in partnership with Douglas Apratto Tenorio. Maceió: Edufal, 2010.
 See Walter Benjamin, A obra de arte na era de sua reprodutibilidade técnica. Porto Alegre: L&PM, 2013 (translation by Gabriel Vallladão Silva). Organized by Márcio Seligmann-Silva. The essay is from 1935-36.
 João Cabral de Melo Neto, “The cashew trees of Guinea-Bissau”, in Obra completa. Rio de Janeiro: Nova Aguilar, 1994, p. 567.
 Lina Bo Bardi, Tempos de grossura: o design no impasse. São Paulo: Instituto Lina Bo e P. M. Bardi, 1994, p. 11.