Rosa Ramalho was the most renowned creator of Figurado de Barcelos [Figures of Barcelos]. These originate from a Neolithic clay tradition that is specific to this town in northern Portugal. Such figures are distinguished from other pottery pieces by their spontaneous, playful character, rather than being designed for any practical purpose.
The clay modeller’s pieces are enigmatic and disconcerting, interweaving everyday life with fantastical and religious elements with abandon. The “dolls” that she used to mould and expand upon the tradition and imagery variously take the form of Christ figures, saints, devils and little shrines, “wild beasts” and hybrid creatures such as werewolves or men with the head of a donkey. Yet there are also women in ox-drawn carts and children on bicycles. Such pieces evoke and are infused with the narratives and ancestral rituals of the region.
Ramalho’s pieces bear the standard traits of the form, but also have startling, grotesque features. They range from a monochrome ochre to exuberantly colourful creations. Her unique work, an expression of the artist’s eccentricity and surreal vision, initially garnered support from contemporary artists – first António Quadros and later Ernesto de Sousa in the 1950s and 60s – against the backdrop of an ethnographic movement that would go on to encourage the breaking down of barriers between popular and high art, raising the profile of the former as ‘naive art’, free of the codes prevalent in modern and contemporary art.