Sometimes, the means by which a creative chooses to communicate their work can be as powerful or significant as the work itself. A simple or subtle decision can elevate a project from interesting to captivating, embodying a concept in a French fold or an exaggerated leading. Brazilian-born Mico Toledo’s – a creative director a Wieden + Kennedy London – recent personal project Velho Chico is one of those projects.
A series of photographs documenting the people and stories around the backwoods of the Velho Chico region of northeastern Brazil, the project includes a website and zine designed by Adam Hunt. with illustrations by Sophy Hollington. It’s the embodiment of the area, exploring its communities’ connections to myth and folklore in an altogether apposite medium.
Velho Chico, which translates to “Old Francisco”, is the nickname given to the São Francisco, Brazil’s longest river. A common facet of Brazilian culture, this nickname is “how the dwellers of its banks and surrounding areas affectionately refer to it, as if the river itself was a member of their family, a neighbour, an old friend,” Mico explains. “I was initially drawn to it by reading Brazilian novelists such as Jorge Amado, Euclides da Cunha, and Rachel de Queiroz, that have the Sertão region and the Velho Chico river as a backstage for their stories, characters and narratives.” As an area rich with folklore, it also struck Mico as the perfect place to explore the crossover of fiction and reality; a space in which he could discover characters and stories within a given framework.
During his visits – first in December 2016, and then later between December 2017 and January 2018 – Mico met Paloma, a transgender artist living in a tiny town called Tatuamunha. “Paloma was living in front of the house I was renting for a few days and she stood out, sporting a flamboyant look as she stood next to her pink house in a middle of a very conservative and macho place, almost as a symbol of resistance in a country that routinely disrespects the rights of LGBTQ+ people,” Mico recalls. Learning her story over a number of visits, during which Mico found himself moved to tears, he eventually took her portrait, two of which appear in the final edit. In one, she appears in front of her house where the words “Everything for Love” embellish the gates above her head. The simple compositional choice lending a conceptual and narrative layer to the image.
This approach is representative of Velho Chico, in which all images are imbued with the atmosphere of the region; their aesthetics hinting at the communities’ rich culture and folklore. “I knew I wanted to tell this story in a way that felt true to the region and its aesthetics,” Mico explains, “and one of the things that is ubiquitous to the region are the Cordel Literature Books – an inexpensive pamphlet depicting local folklore, poems, and woodcut illustrations.” These small books, which are produced and sold locally, are hung from strings and displayed in markets. “After I got the photos from the lab I knew I could enhance the narrative with illustrations that created a dialogue with the photos, and provided a wider backstory,” he adds.
Initially wanting to work with a local artist, Mico stumbled across the work of illustrator Sophy Hollington which provided the perfect alternative as “their lack of connectivity proved to be very hard to collaborate with”. With its distinctive linocut style, it was Sophy’s ability to capture a whimsical and folky look that seemed to encompass everything Mico had seen while photographing the region which captured his attention. “I think Sophy’s work brought so much to this project because it created almost a new folklore language to this old-school style,” he outlines, “It was important to me not to copy the old woodcut-style illustrations, but to create a modern version of it.”
It’s in these decisions that the strength of the project lies. With its multiple outputs, Velho Chico is a testament to narrative potentials that combining media can produce. By combining photography, illustration and a digital output, the project augments tradition, creating a new visual language, adding depth to an already rich story.
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