Apiaí: reinventing pottery

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As part of Gift Brazil’s Great Craft Tour, we visited Apiaí, a small town located 320km from São Paulo city surrounded by lush Atlantic rainforest and one of the most important and traditional pottery hubs in southeast Brazil.

Apiaí wants to make its priviledged location and outdoor activities more known to tourists, that is not what we came for: we wanted to know more about the the pottery history in the town and the people making it, employing a mix of techniques inherited by indigenous tribes and African slaves.

During the eighteenth century, the region surrounding Apiaí – also known as the Ribeira do Iguape Valley, or simply Rbeira Valley – was populated by former African slaves that had been freed or escaped their captivity. The fugitives then married local women and became farmers, who also produced their own clay pots, crockery and decorative objects.

Way before the African slaves arrived, the previous occupants of the region, the Tupi-Guarani indigenous group, also prduced a great deal of ceramic items. Remains of burial urns were actually found at a site identified as an indigenous cemetery in the region and those items are now replicated by Apiaí artisans.

Making and firing techniques seen today in Apiaí are a mix of both ethnic groups. It is certainly not as elaborate as the Marajoara pottery from the north of Brazil, but it crtainly does have its own unique charm: decorative items include anthropomorphic shapes, Picasso-esque facial expressions with large and slanted eyes. Utilitarian pieces are made with superimposed rolls smoothed with corncobs or pieces of tree bark, then polished dry with river pebbles.

The items are then painted with a mix based on yellow clay. The clay is extracted from the banks of rivers in the region, following sustainability guidelines set the city council.

An important source of income

Pottery is a tradition passed down generations in Apiaí for centuries, but it did not become a real source of income until less than a decade ago, when the government partnered with private sector organizations to lead a corporate social responsibility initiative with women from the region – who until then worked as agricultors with their families.

One of the government’s goals was to erradicate child labour and kids who helped their families in the field could go back to school, since the project allowed mothers to earn extra money by selling their manual work and getting the production organized. A professional designer also provided tips to the artisans and helped them to develop their existing designs, all inspired in the fauna and flora of the region.

The Apiaí artisan association was formed in 2005 and 12 makers are part of it. According to current president Lourdes Aparecida Camargo de Lima, craft gives a good boost to the earnings of the crafters’ families, but it is not enough as a sole source of income.

“Having the association and a proper set-up for all of us to work together is positive, but we still have to help our husbands on our crops,” she says.

“We produce tomatoes, beans, corn…but farming is difficult during the winter months between June and August [the Apiaí region is said to have the coldest winter in the state of São Paulo] so we really need to have an alternative means to earn some money around that time,” she adds.

Today, the artisans produce 800 pieces per month, helped by a newly-built firing kiln. As well as trying to teach their children about the art of pottery, the crafters from Apiaí also hold workshops to any person from the region who wants to become a potter.

“Out of 40 people we teach our techniques to, about five end up making items regularly. It isn’t much, but it is something. We are doing everything we can to keep our tradition alive.”

All images by Gift Brazil.