In the context of Things Founded in Silence, a National Museum of Contemporary Art — Chiado Museum programme, curated by Marta Rema, this installation by Susana Mendes Silva (b. 1972) invites us not only to discover but also, above all, to enter its universe and even empathise with it and with the main figure it focuses on: poet and writer Judith Teixeira (1880–1959), also known by the pen name Lena de Valois. Susana Mendes Silva is a visual artist who has developed her performing side in that vein, committing herself often to researching into gender and female identity issues and sometimes to exploring aspects in which the female condition is potentially or actually subsided or supressed in potency or in actuality. But there is something clearly expressed in this work: the fact that Mendes Silva is first and foremost a persistent story-teller. This installation promptly offers the viewer the presentation of a plot, conveyed in the white text on the black wall: "Travar-lhe a insubmissão feminina, estigmatizar-lhe o desejo, censurá-la de 'sáfica', de 'fufa', de 'desavergonhada', caricaturá-la nua, disforme, com o peito descaído, queimar-lhe a obra em pira pública, deixar que se liberte a pulsão misógina dos seus pares literários, afirmar que a sua obra não presta." [To hamper her female insubordination, to stigmatise her desire, to reproach her as "Sapphic," "dyke," "shameless," to caricature her as naked, grotesque, with saggy breasts, to burn her work in public pyre, to let the misogynous urge of her literary peers transpire, to claim her work is good for nothing.]
Two problems are thus identified as action triggers: discrimination of the woman rooted in the expression of her sexuality and discrimination of the poet. The latter due to the former.
Judith Teixeira would emerge in Lisbon's literary world in 1922, using her real name already. She later published her poems in her first work, Decadência, poemas (1923), which was seized by the Civil Government of Lisbon soon after being released. Curiously enough, the former facilities of this institution are today part of the National Museum of Contemporary Art — Chiado Museum. And suddenly everything makes more sense. Years later, with the Europa magazine or the publication of other works, particularly Nua, poemas de Bizâncio (1926), Judith would be persistently, publicly accused of immorality and poor literary quality—the latter, of course, surely ascribable to the former.
As a matter of fact, even the future head of government Marcello Caetano would haughtily, conceitedly criticise Judith's lines in Ordem Nova, which he used to write for. So, through allusions to specifically feminine areas and universes—which become apparent in some projected images, in the texts, in the central sculpture, evocative of both the female genitalia and the voice the artist lends to the narrative that echoes throughout the space—what Susana Mendes Silva brings us is the lack of recognition for an apparently homosexual woman, a poet as it happens, who has been placed on the margins of a narrative within the history of Portuguese poetry exactly because of the marginal way (by the standards of the time) she lived and related to people. That is, had her poetry been written by a man, it would possibly have enjoyed general recognition. But how were people to accept, let alone recognise and praise, a woman who writes lines like: "E morderam-se as bocas abrasadas, em contorções de fúria, ensanguentadas!" [And so the burning mouths bit one another, in raging contortions, bloodied!] This is not an instance of patronising female dilettantism. It is much more than that. It is abrasive to the established, accepted world.
Judith's last book was Satânia, novelas (1927). A long silence ensued. She apparently died alone, like she had probably lived, with the fatal omission of her name and her work. In 1996, & etc. published her three poetry books and the conference/manifesto De Mim, conferência (1926, which appropriately comprises a seminal text for Susana Mendes Silva's installation), with an introduction by Vítor Silva Tavares and organised by Maria Jorge and Luís Manuel Gaspar. History has been remade and has grown richer, granting a place to the marginal, to the minority, to dissidence. To be a dissident is to be alone, whether by option or by inevitability, which is practically almost the same.
Judith's poems have been tardily positioned within a literary modernism to which they deservedly belong.
Complemented by two performances and a performative reading where a Judith Teixeira poem is said in sign language and in Mirandese, Susana Mendes Silva's intervention repositions the voice of the poet in place; that is, Mendes Silva gives voice to the poet using her own, as an artist and performer. The viewer, who probably was not familiar with the poet's work, considering her exclusion from literary history, finally comes across it. And such an introduction is a consistent, timely one. The installation provides a visual, evocative, sonorous, textual, documental focus, and in various ways, indeed, tells a story that is important to tell, to bring to light. In the difficult times we are living, laden with intricately linked events, this story can help bring other stories, other people, other narratives into view. History is not and can never be a closed space. On the contrary, it is an organic, flawed path, particularly as regards the history of women—artists or not. It is never too late to remake it.
Isabel Nogueira (n. 1974). Contemporary art historian, university professor, essayist. PhD in Fine Arts / Sciences of Art (Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Lisbon) and post-doctorate in History of Contemporary Art and Theory of Image (University of Coimbra and Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne). Most recent books: "Teoria da arte no século XX: modernismo, vanguarda, neovanguarda, pós-modernismo" (University of Coimbra press, 2012; 2nd ed. 2014); "Artes plásticas e crítica em Portugal nos anos 70 e 80: vanguarda e pós-modernismo" (University of Coimbra press, 2013; 2nd ed. 2015); "Théorie de l’art au xxe siècle: modernisme, avant-garde, néo-avant-garde, postmodernisme" (Éditions L'Harmattan, 2013); "Modernidade avulso: escritos sobre arte” (Edições A Ronda da Noite, 2014). She is a member of AICA (International Association of Art Critics).
Translation PT-EN: Diogo Montenegro.
Susana Mendes Silva: Como Silenciar uma Poeta. Exhibition view at MNAC: Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporânea. Photos: Nuno Barroso. Courtesy of the artist and MNAC: Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporânea.
Susana Mendes Silva, Performances De mim; Tradução #1 e #2. Photos: Alípio Padilha. Courtesy of the artist.