The Daily Heller: Amazonian Painted Letters Rolling on the River

Posted inThe Daily Heller

Letters play an incredible role in the identity of different places in the world. Letters are the expression of language but arguably letters are pure language. This is evident in a recent exhibition and catalog/book by Fernanda Martins titled Letras Que Flutuam (Floating Letters) (Ascom Secult). It introduced me, at least, to a personalized and popularized legacy art of boat decoration found flourishing in its habitat throughout towns comprising the Brazilian state of Pará, along the Amazon River.

These elaborate folk alphabets are similar to other beautiful letter arts in many parts of Central and South America, from the street signs, rótulos, in Mexico, to the Fileteado storefront and street vendor signs in Argentina. Martins’ book traces the contemporary art and craft of Pará’s “master artists” of public art—the indigenous sign painters “who are identified by their own codes.”

“Envisioning boats as texts,” as stated in one of the book’s essays, “typical opened letters would be a boat’s informative illumination perceived as ornaments, arabesques, graphics. These letters bring to light an expressive dimension, they clarify meanings that would remain in the shadows, they are arts of light … aesthetic illustrations with a practical purpose.” The same essay uses the analogy of a tattoo: “They are engraved on the surface yet unveil deep contents. They provide native soul to the body of the letter.”

The Amazon floating letters are inspired by 19th-century wood types and metal engraved letterforms, but do not intentionally signal nostalgia. They imbue the waterways with a timeless and vernacular sense of color and form unique to their place in the world while being universal in decorative type design over history. Or, as the essayist notes: “Illuminated boats are like trees, wetlands, birds, the moon, and the stars; they are elements with strong visuality in the rivers of Pará, Amazon. Floating sociocultural centers for conviviality.”

Apparently, this style of hand-painted sign “can still be frequently found” in the streets of many Amazonian cities, and letters by sign-painters prevail over neon. However, the computer-generated variety are making inroads, too.