Local cooperative QRER developed a course to teach the long-lost “esparto” weaving techniques.
Located in the village of Querença, just outside Loulé, QRER, the Cooperative for the Development of Low-Density Territories, has been developing a course to teach the cordgrass weaving technique, «which was on the verge of extinction», explains João Ministro, a collaborator and sustainable nature tourism entrepreneur.
Cordgrass (Stipa tenacissima and esparto in Portuguese) is a plant that grows naturally in the Algarve’s Barrocal. Esparto is also a basketry technique used to work this plant, also known as “empreita do esparto” (cordgrass work), which was widely used to make rugs, baskets and carrycots because of its resistant nature.
“60 or 70 years ago, a large community of craftsmen around Alte, especially in Sarnadas, used this technique. There was a lot of commerce at the time. But cordgrass is a difficult plant to work with. It requires a hard, difficult and time-consuming preparation process. It needs to be soaked in water for several days, and after that, it has to be worked. Over time, it was abandoned, not least because craftsmanship has greatly devalued”, says João Ministro.
This does not mean, however, that the technique does not arouse the interest of a new generation of artisans. Its recovery started last year with the completion of a course on the transmission of master/apprentice knowledge, which successfully brought together a group of eight people over a month.
“Two or three already had some knowledge, but for most trainees, this was really the first experience they had with this material”. This year, the second phase of the course took place between September 26 and October 7, during a creative residency to “give continuity to people’s desire to start a professional activity around cordgrass. It brought together designers [Alexandra Gonçalves and Ana Rita Contente], some of the trainees who had participated in the previous course and others who wanted to make a living from handicrafts”, he explains.
For the residency, «within the foreseen duration and with the objectives set, curator Hugo da Silva also established a maximum of eight participants to make the work viable», adds Susana Calado Martins, a QRER collaborator.
“They didn’t participate as apprentices, despite being beginners. The residency was a professional experience because everyone was hired to develop original products”, she adds.
“The experiments turned out to be very creative. We have pieces that are mainly artistic, others that are utilitarian and also a mix between the two. For example, there are several lamps, one of a large dimension, out of the ordinary. One of the participants, Milena Kalte, who is based at the QRIAR – Creative Incubator of the Algarve, decided, in this residency, to make pieces following a line she was developing: animal masks. This goes back to the roots of the traditional cordgrass activity. In the past, people made donkey and chicken heads”, decorative pieces that are rare nowadays.
However, these are not imitations of the past. “As Milena has a background in anthropology, she is researching animals linked to the Algarve territory, whether they are true from a biological point of view, such as the lynx, or fantastic creatures, from the popular imagination”. In this case, she was inspired by the legend of Zorra Berradeira. A monster with the appearance of a goat, whose howls of fury, at night, it was said, announced doom and terrified the people of the Algarve.
“This anthropological component helps to enrich the products and make them more interesting. We also have pieces made using various techniques. Cordgrass is not always worked the same way. It can be worked raw and sewn, and there are several techniques for knots. Some participants applied several techniques they learned in the same piece”, points out Susana Calado Martins.
Despite being “utilitarian and decorative”, in her opinion, the future of cordgrass will involve innovation “because it is a really unique material. In terms of execution, artistic production may become more competitive” from a contemporary creation perspective.
At the moment, “we have artisans who have mastered the technique. Now they need to develop their ideas. This residence served that purpose. The prototypes will be improved until the end of the year to be part of a public exhibition in January”, organised by the Loulé municipality. “The works will be presented and, we hope, commercialised”, says João Ministro.
For now, the pieces resulting from the residency “are under evaluation. There are technical details to finish. They still need to improve, resolve details and understand the processes. For example, the execution time of each piece. Some of the participants do not know how to estimate. Because it was a moment of creation, of testing, of taking it apart and doing it again, of figuring out what works and what doesn’t. With the added pressure of having to be ready on the last day, it was not a normal work pace. But it is important to remember that this art takes a lot of time. Every piece, even those that seem smaller, takes a long time to complete”, adds Susana Calado Martins.
Source: Barlavento / Bruno Filipe Pires