Zé do Chalé | sculptor of the void | from 15/04/2013 to 30/05/2013

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Zé do Chalé

Well! I start to write this text feeling down! I never met Zé do Chalé. He died in 2007, at the ripe old age of 105, and I never had the chance to meet him!

I was already a regular visitor to the Northeast, but always those crazy journeys. I would arrive in Recife by night, this being my base, and then the following day I would get a car and hit the road, going to one place, then another, then another, sleeping in tiny hamlets and roadside hotels. When I visited another capital city, like Maceió, for example, I would stay an extra day and then my destination was soon the airport. I have seen a lot of things, and met a lot of people – but I never got to meet Zé do Chalé! This genius was something I missed. It was a serious fault on my part! I knew about him. He lived in Aracaju, in the state of Sergipe, a place that is not too difficult to get to...

I can’t recall whether the first time I saw one of his works was with Maria Amelia and Dalton or with Celso Brandão. In any case, both have an impressive collection and also have met him (I envy them for both things... white envy, of course!)

I well remember the disputes that his works would cause. Of course! He started to sculpt the Trophies, as he called them, at the age of 89. These were real fights. Once I bought one through a friend, who sent it to São Paulo through an unknown person, and this work ended up in the hands of a third party. There was no pardon! It was very hard to stomach the idea of being left without the sculpture. It was like this. We all saw the exceptional quality of that work and the limited production caused the struggle.

It was by no means easy to decide to present a commercial exhibition. I would like to keep all the works for myself, but if I did this, then the name and the works of this great sculptor would remain unknown, something that I do not consider fair, neither towards himself nor towards the lovers of art. The partnership with the Karandash art gallery was therefore of paramount importance. They have a large collection, and agreed to show off the works and make them available. This is a sign of pure generosity!

Cauê Alves’ admiration for the works of Zé do Chalé was immediate, and with the invitation for him to be the curator we shall continue with our permanent movement seeking acceptance of the idea that art knows no bounds.

Vilma Eid

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 Zé do Chalé: a sculptor of the void

Cauê Alves


In the origin of what we now call a work of art, or, in other words, in the works known as the most ancient artistic works made by man, there is some theological grounds. Walter Benjamin, in his famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, said that the cult value, even in the more profane forms of worshiping beauty, is connected to the concept of a work as a magical instrument. It was only during the history of humanity that the exhibition value surpassed the value of worship, which assigned completely new values to the works of art.

The works of Zé do Chalé (José Cândido dos Santos, Porto das Folhas, Sergipe, 1902 – Aracaju, Sergipe, 2008] spontaneously once again take up this magical origin of art. They are done by a self-learner artist who produced sculptures according to divine guidance. According to Zé do Chalé, it was God who gave him the ability and also the responsibility to carve out the sculptures. At the same time, he admits that the inspiration comes from his own mind, from interior images and dreams. Being descended from the Xocó tribe of Native Brazilians, on the Island of São Pedro in the Brazilian State of Sergipe, his religiousness was interwoven with syncretism of the traditions and symbologies of Roman Catholicism and also Native Brazilian religions, in an incredible mix between the sacred and the profane.

Even though he was a practicing Catholic, his works could not be considered sacred in the sense of being carved for Catholic liturgy. On the contrary, they are inspired by a generic religious sentiment or desire that does not seek to produce works for worship or for religious ceremonies, but these works do indeed end up being objects of worship. These sculptures do not represent religious dogmas or truths. They therefore escape the power of the priest at the Church, as they are based on the private power of the person executing them rather than on the Catholic doctrine. They can, indeed, even raise the spirit of those who contemplate, in a broad sense, like those of the healer (benzedor) and medicine man (pajé), but the power is founded before in the exhibition value, in its beauty and independence, rather than in its worship value.

Much of the production of Zé do Chalé consists of miniatures and also gables of churches and chapels; some of them look like ostensories, but in general they are like trophies and cups, as the artist himself referred to the works. In a predominantly vertical layout, his sculptures have several cut forms that normally culminate in a thin, high and sleek tip, in a kind of  minaret that points to the sky. Typical of Muslim architecture, the minaret is the place from where the people are called to prayer. However, within the works of Zé do Chalé, they seem to be related to the tips of arrows and spears, which are instruments that Native Brazilians use for hunting. There are also many geometric shapes and figurative elements, such as stars, the sun, the moon, birds (the Holy Spirit), the heart (Sacred Heart), a crown and Gothic rose shapes. There is even one item that resembles a Jewish candelabrum, but the religious symbols, such as crosses, leave no doubts as to the relationship with Christianity. The details of the production that warrant special attention due to their expressive force include the chains made from one single trunk and without amendments.

In the first works of Zé do Chalé there were many crosses and also ex-votos inside bottles, in a kind of collage of materials in which some empty spaces already appeared. However, the most admirable aspect of his work is the sculpted empty spaces. There are spheres inside hollow columns and cylinders, made out of one trunk, and even one sphere inside another empty sphere. The representation of the void has a lot of spiritual experience. This is as if the dense wooden material, which is the finite starting point of the sculptor, could undergo transmutation and go well beyond its materiality and finitude, thus getting close to infinity. The empty space is something which is not totally full, and does not have limits or contours, and is therefore untouchable. The only way of visualising empty spaces is by surrounding it with dense objects, and this is what Zé do Chalé does in his work. He manages to deal with absence with the same propriety as he deals with presence. Even better, he shows that, within every presence, there is an absence which sustains it from the inside.

In some of the works there is an interior void, a centre in which the lack of matter, which would be the negative, does indeed acquire positivity. This is a significant void to the extent that it is more than just a vacuum, something invisible, a lack of thought, but rather has an association with the divine element which is present in things. Physically, the void is there, but it alludes to a metaphysical world which goes well beyond physics and beyond the visible nature of the world. The void that is sculpted by Zé do Chalé is suspended in the air, as if it never touched the floor. There is a mental element within it. It is not by chance that the author, while still alive, stated: “My inspiration comes from the brain. [...] I do everything without drawing, it is all in my mind. My wisdom is given by God”.[1] In this way, we see that the conceptual and the mystic are well connected in the works of Zé do Chalé. The contemplation which is present in his works is the same one in the concentration in divine objects, the application of the mind in abstractions, a kind of thought and meditation about the infinite and the incommensurable.

Maybe what encouraged Zé do Chalé to create his works was this possibility of getting closer to God, as the act of creation has a divine element. For the artist, it was He who created everything, God being the absolute principle, responsible for the origin of the Universe and also the laws that govern it. It is evident that these issues are also present in his work, in the symbolic field. The most instigating way that he found to present this idea was by means of the void.

Art critic Guy Brett has already addressed the presence of the void in art, especially the attraction of several artists of the post-war period by the notion of the void: “It is possible to see an international vector connecting artists such as Klein, Manzoni, Fontana, Takis, Medalla, Soto,Tobey, Newman, Cage, the Campos Brothers, Lygia Clark, Oiticica, Camargo, Houédard, Li Yuan-chia and, of course, Mira Schendel. This thought vector connects several different practices, from painting to conceptual art, and from poetry to music”.[2]

The void is, indeed, this essential and original base. In the same way that silence makes music possible, it is the void that rests inside the work of the artist, as if it is the wrong side inside the right side, or the invisible that allows sight. In a more general sense, it is a proper characteristic of the whole tradition of sculpture, even the classic kind, to deal with the full and the void, the concave and the convex, light and shadows. However, the way in which the notion of the void appears in Zé do Chalé has a singular property, something which at the same time connects and also detaches itself from the international vector that Guy Brett had mentioned.

It is connected because, even though this work is sculpture, there is something immaterial inside it, a mention of the void, an absence which, by several different means, could be approximated to the notion of the immaterial sensitivity zone as proposed by Yves Klein, who spent his whole life seeking the absolute void, or also the valuing of silence in John Cage. Maybe even of a work like that of Nelson Felix. However, it detaches itself as there is an isolation of his production, due to historical and life circumstances, as well as the strong presence of Catholicism in his work. The sculptures by Zé do Chalé do not have any direct links with Oriental and Buddhist tradition, and similarly no contact with the experimental art of the 1960s.

The truth is that his production is not in art books, and is quite literally outside the scope of history, as are many other artists who have produced what has been called “popular art”. However, the traditions of modern, popular or erudite origin are directly or indirectly present in contemporary art. History has shown us that fixed classifications and also closed definitions of what is and what is not contemporary art no longer correspond to reality. Ever since the advent of pop art, an excluding definition separating the popular and the erudite has become complicated. The fact that these frontiers have become more and more hazy is by no means recent. For this reason, Zé do Chalé can also be regarded as a contemporary artist, in the time sense of the term and also due to his actions breaking with tradition.

The fact that he is religious does not make him that different. By way of example, Mondrian and Kandinsky are among those who can be considered deeply spiritualised, and their works cannot be reduced to formal issues. Among the contemporary artists, Joseph Beuys may be the most famous of the xamã artists, and the relation with the divine or the spiritual element is not beyond the horizon of many more among this group of artists. Mira Schendel was also an artist who was faced with the spiritual element in art, and the way in which she devised the void forms a vast field for investigation of philosophical issues. In her works, she has tried to deliberately break with the classic dichotomy between materialism and spiritualism.

Therefore, it is not spirituality or religiousness which makes Zé do Chalé stand out, placing him in another tradition other than that of contemporary art, but rather a notion which is hard to define, which is that of “popular”. Normally the term “popular” is applied by the members of other social classes to define the work of the less affluent segments of the population, known as the people. On many occasions the popular is associated to the regional and also to the traditional, or alternatively it is linked to folklore, which is a victim of modernity. Other times, the popular is romanticised to the extent that is understood as something pure, the primitive which has not been contaminated by urban life, which is therefore closer to nature and therefore anonymous, without a signature. However, this is always the art of the dominated segments of society. However, we must avoid the opposition between the dominators and the dominated, with these being considered isolated and fixed categories, as antagonic totalities. In the words of Marilena Chauí, this is not a matter of “[...] addressing Popular Culture as some other culture beside (or at the base of) the dominant culture, but as something that happens inside this same culture, even though this may be to resist it”.[3] 


Without intending to establish a relationship of cause and effect between life and work, as if the work of Zé do Chalé was the product or the result of his life, it is essential that we know something about the personal history of this artist. Indeed, the life of Zé do Chalé is only interesting to us because of the provocation caused by his work. It is his artistic work that gives a meaning to his life, and his work seems to have demanded the life that he took to produce his work.

Zé do Chalé was a fisherman, son of a Native Brazilian mother, and grew up in a Xocó settlement on the island of São Pedro, in the municipality of Porto das Folhas, in the Brazilian state of Sergipe, a site of former Jesuit missions. After the 19th Century, the Capuchins settled among the Xocó, where they constructed St Peter’s Chapel and where they catechised many of the Native Brazilians. Zé do Chalé lived in the area for almost forty years, until he was driven out by threats from farmers, and also political bosses (coronéis) linked to registry office owners, who wanted to take over Native Brazilian land on the island of São Pedro. The Xocó people fought for many years until they finally secured ownership of their land in the Courts, in 1991. At the time when Zé do Chalé lived in the settlement, he had already carved out many canoes in wood. After some stints in settlements and cities around the São Francisco river, both on the Sergipe and Alagoas sides, and other places such as Limoeiro, Vila Santana, Ilha de Madalena and Penedo, he finally settled with his family in 1958 in the Brazilian city of Aracaju, capital of the State of Sergipe, far from his roots and from his forefathers, even though he would always be visiting the settlement. In other words, he was subjected to a cultural loss, the invalidation of much of his knowledge and values. However, to assimilate his work, there is no need to resort to the concept of folklore, as he does not fear the urban life of Aracaju – indeed, this was where he really appeared and, not even for this reason, he did not have to forsake his Xocó origin.

The nickname of Zé do Chalé, or Chalet Joe, came from his manual skill for the construction of chalets, wooden houses as a rule, with roofs in two levels covered with straw (sapê), a trade which he enhanced while in Aracaju. He settled on the city outskirts, and went to work in the construction trade, constructing doors, windows and also wooden roofs. On learning the carpentry profession, he soon carried out work with a better finish than his bosses and teachers did. He worked as a carpenter, as a stonemason and also as a construction foreman until he was 89 years old, when he retired.

It was only when he had turned 90 years old, about 1992, when he no longer had the strength for construction work, but was still lucid and in good general health, that Zé do Chalé started to dedicate himself to sculpture. In the beginning, he would carve out the trophies for his children’s football championships. He had also built all the furniture of his home, and made not only Native Brazilian pieces but also the traditional furniture of the white people, including a Styrofoam oratory that was later sculpted out in wood, and also the frames for the images of saints that he kept in his home.

The sculptures gave him a bit of extra cash to top up his income. He continued to work until the age of 105, which means that he produced these pieces for about fifteen years. In the last years of his life, one of his eight children, Zacarias dos Santos, helped him with the hardest part of the job, which was the sanding and also the final touches for the sculptures. However, the power of his work lies less in perfection than in the elaboration work and also in the inventiveness shown in his pieces. Later, his son would sign the initials JC on some of them. However, Zé do Chalé never signed any of his own works. This was not because he regarded them as anonymous creations, collective jobs or the work of God, as if there was no-one behind the work, but just because he could never learn to read and write.   


Discovered by chance by photographer Celso Brandão on a visit to the settlement on the island of São Pedro, when he saw some of the pieces that the artist had given to his countrymen as presents, Zé do Chalé is described by Brandão as being a simple yet elegant man, a lord, who knew much about the history of the Xocó tribe, an oral tradition inherited from his parents. He sang many local tunes (cantigas), recited prayers and poems in verse, always by heart. He had an excellent memory and all his work was based on what he remembered, without models, drawings or previous standards to be imitated. For this reason, he would use the traditional instruments such as gouges, rasps, levels, saws and hammers. Zé do Chalé also used many different types of wood, including sucupira, cedar,mulungu, umburana, pine, maçaranduba, jackfruit wood, paraíba – many of these from the Native Brazilian reserve. He would also buy wood and wood compensate and would reuse others.

            He did little work in his short career as a sculptor, including some boats and also some human figures (carrancas and Native Brazilians), in wood. However, the most important works by Zé do Chalé are those which extend beyond wooden materials, and this express the unsayable, the fantasies and magic visions that went beyond the discourse and representation. This is the expression of the numinous, the wider understanding of the complex reaction between art and religiousness which is not restricted to the officialised rites of the established religions and ceremonies. More than that, we can say that the art of Zé do Chalé, not depending on a transcendent belief such as religion, can provide a full experience, be it a spontaneous religious feeling or an important aesthetic experience. These experiences arise from his skill in sculpting the void.


BRETT, GUY. “Ativamente o Vazio” [Actively the Void] In: SALZSTEIN, Sônia. (org.) No vazio do mundo. [In the void of the world]  São Paulo: Fiesp/ Marca D’Água, 1996.

CHAUI, Marilena. Conformismo e Resistência. Aspectos da cultura popular no Brasil. [Conformism and Resistance: Aspects of Popular Culture in Brazil] São Paulo: Brasiliense, 1986.

CHAVES, Wagner Diniz (org.). Troféus: geografia simbólica de Zé do Chalé. [Trophies: the symbolic geography of Zé do Chalé], Maceió: Edufal, 2012.

FROTA, Lélia Coelho. Pequeno dicionário da arte do povo brasileiro, século XX. [Small Dictionary of the art of the Brazilian People] Rio de Janeiro, Ed . Aeroplano, 2005, p. 234.

RAFAEL, Ulisses Neves (org.). Zé do Chalé: o antigo dono da flecha. [Zé do Chalé: the old owner of the arrow] Rio de Janeiro: IPHAN, CNFCP, 2007.

[1]Statement given by Zé do Chalé to Godelieve and published in the text by Etienne Samain, “Zé do Chalé, uma arte de ser gente” [Zé do Chalé, the art of being a person], In: CHAVES, Wagner Diniz (org.) Troféus: geografia simbólica de Zé do Chalé. [Trophies: the symbolic geography of Zé do Chalé], page 10.

[2] BRETT, GUY. “Ativamente o Vazio” [Actively the Void] In: SALZSTEIN, Sônia. (org.) No vazio do mundo. [In the void of the world]  São Paulo: Fiesp/ Marca D’Água, 1996, page  510

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Zé do Chalé: sculptor of the void

ZÉ DO CHALÉ: sculptor of the void


Between 15 April (opening at 7 p.m.) to 30 May 2013 

With the curatorship of Cauê Alves, the Estação Art Gallery, with the support of the Karandash Gallery, brings to São Paulo the rare works of sculptor Zé do Chalé (Neópolis, Sergipe, 1902 / Aracaju, Sergipe, 2008). The 25 wooden sculptures of trophies, as the artist himself called them, bring out a panorama of his production, largely consisting of miniatures and frontages of churches and chapels, with symbols like crosses, stars, the sun and the moon, birds, hearts and so on.

Once again, the Estação Gallery has a contemporary art critic analysing some work that has mistakenly been called “popular art”. In the opinion of Mr Alves, this is the term ascribed to artistic productions that are not in books on the history of art and which needs a definition which expresses its true meaning. According to the curator, also, with modern traditions more and more present in contemporary art, the frontier between the erudite and the popular gets more hazy and less marked. “Zé do Chalé can also be understood as being a contemporary artist, in the time sense of the term and also due to his method of action, breaking from tradition”, he adds.

A self-learner, Zé do Chalé said that his creation was divine and that God had given him the skill and the responsibility of producing sculptures. According to the artist, the images came from his own head, through dreams: “my inspiration comes from my brain. […] I do everything without drawing, everything is in my head. My judgement comes from God”, said the artist. “His religiousness was permeated with a form of syncretism of traditions and symbols from Roman Catholicism and from Native Brazilian origins, in an amazing blend of the sacred and the profane”, the curator says.

Another important trait is the predominant verticality of his sculptures, which normally end in fine, high and sleek tips. In a unique manner, Zé do Chalé would create these sculptures based on empty spaces, the usual method as used by some sculptors. The strength of his work lies in the preparation and the inventivensss of the pieces, like the chains made from a trunk without amendments. Cauê Alves sees, in the production by this artist, an isolation caused by a historical life circumstance, as well as a strong presence of Catholicism. “There is no direct connection with Oriental tradition, and neither do we note any form of contact with the experimental art of the 1960s”. Also according to the curator, the work by Zé do Chalé brings harmony between the Native Brazilian ancestral heritage and the modernity of city life. 

About Zé do Chalé

José Candido dos Santos was born in Neópolis, in the Brazilian state of Sergipe, and his ancestry was of the Xocó tribe of Native Brazilians, on St Peter’s Island, also in Sergipe. He always had strong links with the community along the São Francisco River, which he visited every year and where he had worked as a carpenter when he was young. The nickname is due to his vast work experience as a construction foreman. Zé was a self-learner and started to produce sculptures at the age of 89, when he retired from the civil construction trade but was still healthy and lucid. Discovered entirely by chance by photographer Celso Brandão, Zé produced sculptures until his death at the age of 105, leaving a small yet significant production of sculptures. All came forth out of the imagination of a house builder who went past the bounds of real housing to create dream buildings or trophies.


Zé do Chalé - Sculptures

Opening: 15 April at 7 p.m. (guests)

Exhibition runs until 30 May 2013, from Monday to Friday between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. and Saturdays between 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Admittance free.

Estação Art Gallery

Rua Ferreira de Araújo, 625 – Pinheiros SP

Telephone: ++ 55 11 3813-7253

Press Information

Pool de Comunicação – Marcy Junqueira

Contacts: Marcy Junqueira and Martim Pelisson

Telephone: ++ 55 11 3032-1599

marcy@pooldecomunciacao.com.br / martim@pooldecomunicacao.com.br


Zé do Chalé | sculptor of the void. Exhibition from 15 April to 30 May 2013. Curator: Cauê Alves.


Galeria Estação