Literatura de cordel, or “literature on a string,” is a Brazilian form of narrative poetry that reflects a popular voice and collective imagination. Widely prevalent in rural northeast Brazil by the late nineteenth century, these chapbooks were indispensable sources of news, folklore, moral counsel, and social and political commentary. The cordel encompass myriad oral poetry traditions, from European romance ballads to Brazilian desafios (improvised verse dialogues) and pelejas (verbal duels). Aptly named for their mode of display, cordel were hung from lines of string in street corner stalls and at markets—a practice still common today. Their striking covers, often featuring woodblock prints, captured the attention of the predominantly illiterate public, who would purchase them and enlist literate members of the community (or the cordelistas themselves) to perform their contents.
The more recently produced literatura de cordel on view in this exhibition range from handmade pamphlets to polished publications from small independent presses. Although most cordel are undated, clues can be gleaned from their covers, which feature contemporary events, places, and figures (such as polarizing Brazilian and American presidents Dilma Rousseff and George Bush). Reflecting as they do on art, culture, politics, and themes of urban life, their appeal now extends to middle-class Brazilians and university intellectuals. To this day, literatura de cordel remains a candid reflection of both dominant ideologies and countercultural expressions.
Literatura de Cordel is organized by the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University and curated by Georgia Erger, Curatorial Assistant, in association with Special Collections, Michigan State University Libraries. Support for this exhibition is provided by the Alan and Rebecca Ross endowed exhibitions fund.