The secrets and traditions of ceramists from Marajó Island, Belém

Victor Gouvêa

Marcus Steinmeyer / Illustrations: Claudia Furnari

Vamos/LATAM is promoting a series of encounters to connect the continent. This time, Argentine ceramist Miriam Brügmann left Córdoba to partner with Carlos Amaral on Marajó Island, in North Brazil, the cradle of an ancient ceramics culture


Argentine ceramist Miriam Brügmann takes inspiration from the aesthetics of Japanese Kawaii and director Hayao Miyazaki, sells her pieces online, and has scheduled travels to Peru and the Middle East. Born in Córdoba, she’s a citizen of the world. At the other end of South America, more precisely on Marajó Island, in the state of Pará, in the north of the Brazilian Amazon, artisan Carlos Amaral awaits her. A descendant of Aruã Indians, he's one of the few people who maintain the tradition of Marajoara ceramics, which he learned from his mother. The earliest clay objects from the area date back to 500 BC.



Latino meeting

After getting off the ferry that brought her from Belém to Marajó on the Pará River, Brügmann tries a spoonful of açaí. Her eyes widen with surprise at the taste. The forest bids her welcome with its flavors, colors, sounds, and muggy heat. “My conception of nature is that we are all part of it, and the animals are its masters,” she reflects, showing photos of pieces with zoomorphic figures. One of the most frequent apparitions in her work is the jaguar, which, for the artist, represents power.


Amaral receives her at Casa da Cerâmica, his modest workshop and store in the center of Soure. He appears shirtless, wearing patuá necklaces, and greets her with a clenched fist against his chest, bowing his head. She is hypnotized and ready to absorb the ancient wisdom he has inherited. His work instruments are on the table: pieces of rocks whose powder lends colors; boar tusks which provide polish; a stingray's barb to scratch out his drawings. Everything just as his ancestors did. The only exception is the vise, which wasn't used in the past.



Amaral produces a container known as igaçaba in Tupi-Guarani, a native language of Brazil. “I've never seen elastic clay like this,” the Argentine woman marvels. Where does she get the clay she uses? Art supply stores, of course. Amaral laughs, “We belong to the same universe, but we're from different planets.” And he reveals that one of the secrets of his material is that it's harvested from the swamp under a last quarter moon, so it won't crack after being molded. Once trampled by Benê, his friend and master of homogenization, it's drizzled with a mixture made from the trunk of a cumaté, a tree found in the region. It guarantees that the pieces won't split when baked. “I only manage this in ovens with controlled temperatures,” Brügmann compares.


Seeing him spread natural ochre pigment with his fingers, she asks if it doesn't hurt his hands. “My skin is rough. Like buffalo skin,” he jokes, referring to the animals found all over the island. He calls polishing with the bone “provocation,” an act she practices in supervised movements on the piece of their shared authorship.



Animal connection

Dry, smooth, and polished, Amaral's small pot is ready to be drawn on. “My mother used to go to the back of the yard and isolate herself to produce the engravings, like a kind of permission to let the drawing out,” Amaral recalls. He says that the most ancient pieces had labyrinths, maps, locales, and animals, each one with a distinct meaning. Of the 120 known symbols, the black-fronted piping guan represents agility, eyes express care, and the panther – get this – is power, just as she believes.



Brügmann pulls some of her work from her bag: “I need to show what I do, because it is totally connected to your meanings of the animals.” She hands over as presents a vase shaped like a cat and a few hand-painted dishes, shooting the Indian through his heart. In return, he grabs his work utensils and gives them to the young woman. “For you to remember the primitive. As distant and isolated as we are, the animals connect us,” he says. She starts to sketch one of her creations on the piece that the Brazilian crafted. She turns the pot upside down, signs it, and gives it to him to make his mark.


Amaral decides to show her the place where he gets his clay, and Brügmann looks vibrant. “I'm going to see the raw material in its natural state!” Arriving at the edge of a flooded area, he warns her that they might get dirty. Without batting an eye, she removes her sandals and wades up to her knees in the mud. Digging a hole about 24 inches [60 cm] deep, it's already possible to find the material. After, he drags her into the forest, pointing out an immense cumaté tree, which the faithful scout Benê climbs with the agility of a young boy. The excursion ends with a dip in the Paracauari River, with the Indian recounting legends and other tales.



Inspired by the first excursion, Brügmann delves deeper into the region's beauty, and wants to paint a mural to leave in the city. Watched by curious onlookers, she colors a wall with the figure of a jaguar and a woman. Before her departure, she stops at Amaral's house to leave him a letter whose contents are unknown to us. With the envelope, a new friendship is sealed, as solid as a piece of Marajó ceramic.


Marajó Island

Getting there

Those who want to get to Soure, on Marajó Island, must go to the waterway terminal in Belém, the capital of Pará, and take one of the speedboats, which make the trip in two hours.



There are few accommodation options in Soure. Among the recommended hotels are Casarão Amazônia, installed in a restored historical blue house, and Pousada O Canto do Francês, which is simpler but offers a good infrastructure.


LATAM has direct flights to Belém from São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Miami, and 4 other destinations.