Looking back to move forward
On a Tuesday afternoon in September, at Galeria Cristina Guerra, we sat down between the two sculptures of the exhibition Power Structures (Crouch-touch-pause-engage) and talked.
Isabel Carlos (IC): This exhibition has reminded me of a couple of Lisbon shows from your early career—the first solo exhibition, in 1990, at CAM — Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, and Zip Zap Circus School, at MNAC — Chiado Museum, a decade later. Both featured some aspects that are little mentioned when talking about your work, in particular the topics of motricity, the body, performativity, and ludicity. I think, indeed, you're at a moment of artistic maturity, to which you return, reinventing a vocabulary you've been developing—like here, for example, as you use pastel on paper again, something I hadn't seen since Sites and Services (1990–1991).
Ângela Ferreira (AF): Such a long question…
IC: Yes, but we'll unpack it as we talk.
AF: You'll find two very strong intentions in this exhibition: the first, that of being substantively aware that I'm starting work with a gallery; I'm not an artist that often changes galleries, it's the third Lisbon gallery I work with. And because of that I felt that I should re-present myself, out of respect for the gallerist, the space, and my work. So, the exhibition holds these intentionalities; and re-presenting my work doesn't mean the modernist idea of innovator, of what has never been seen, of surprise. I wasn't concerned with that, really, mainly because 30 years of work come with a vocabulary and a very large chest of accumulated work that comprises very clear formal and conceptual languages.
Although the aspects of modernism, of architecture, of the African have been rather prominent throughout my career, the truth is a negotiation among forms, images, compositions has always been present. There's a lot happening at the same time, and now I feel comfortable fetching threads from a skein that can and should be explored, which for various reasons haven't flourished so far; and though they have remained numb for 25–30 years, they're mine, and they're very real. Therefore, I feel I'm in a good position to retrieve them, to rehabilitate them, to take them up again.
It's funny you mention those exhibitions, because Sites and Services was in fact the work that proceeded from South Africa to Lisbon. At CAM, I held my first solo institutional exhibition, so that was a defining moment. I must admit that, in contrast to Sites and Services, I now enjoy looking at those 1990 works, and one of the reasons is the relationship between the sculptures and the body, because they were referenced on manual ploughs. None of them was mechanical or had been produced after the industrial revolution; I found those references at the Ethnology Museum, where I did my research in 1989. It was very useful when I return to that museum in 2015, as I had an in-depth knowledge of the archive. All the pieces that I took as starting points for the CAM exhibition comprised some sort of relationship between the body and the land; the ploughs were of interest to me not so much due to a matter of physicality, as is the case now, but rather due to the question of the land. Back then, the process was already a very methodological one. I'd recently arrived from South Africa, utterly unaware of the Portuguese context, of this place, of this land; I knew nobody, and I had the feeling, a political one at that, that it'd be important to establish a connection with the land. I did what somebody who's a sculptor like me would do: I looked for devices-objects relating to the land, and that's how I ended up choosing the ploughs. The fact they're manual has to do with that, but as time goes by I realise I didn't fully explore the aspect of physicality, the relationship with the body—that body that pushes, that stirs the land…
IC: Motricity… now it's more about physicality… The sculptures that push the body to the limit of pain, of effort, of physical exertion: were the 1990 works really something else?
AF: Yes, but they pointed to the body that pushes the ground, and the passage of time makes room for the exercise, maybe not a very modest one, of looking back and noticing things that were done unconsciously at the time. The distance gives me that freedom. At the time, I didn't realise what I was doing; now I'm digging that process of going back and working on more, and the projects eventually connect. For example, there's a series on mining I've been developing. It just so happens that in an installation from 2017 there's a video from a work I made in 2013; things eventually get more complex. Of course, it doesn't help that people might know only one of these works, but we are what we are. Nobody can take the history of our own work from us.
The body was never not a part of it. It appeared in Zip Zap, my performances, Maison Tropical, Random Walk at Galeria Filomena Soares, where you had to go in and make your way through the sculptures.
IC: But now, here, it's more than going in; it's an invitation to…
AF: An invitation to use. And it contains the memory of what they have been. They're the opposite of that 20th-century saying that the tool is an extension of your arm. Here, it is your body that is the extension of the sculptures. You look at them and automatically see bodies, and that's why they articulate so well with the video-slideshow.
IC: Speaking of physicality and how in 1990 it had a more motor character, now being of a more corporeal and performative dimension: any child that comes close to these tires will want to get into them and play around. That's something that was already present in Portugal dos Pequenitos at Galeria Módulo, in 1995, a certain ludic performativity which is now observed in the images of male bodies, particularly in the slideshow. At Módulo, there was a certain perverse ludicity in how you approach the map of Portugal dos Pequenitos (Coimbra); now it's a naughtier ludicity, a…
AF: Sexier ludicity [chuckles]. At my age, I can finally afford the luxury of at least talking about being sexy. To me, these sculptures are rather masculine, not only because of the scale but also because they're made of iron. I find aluminium sculptures, for example, to be more feminine because I can move them about by myself much more easily.
When I got to South Africa, aged 15, after the 25 April, and started watching rugby—those men, mostly Afrikaners—I developed a hatred for the game, because it was extremely aggressive, very politicised, very sexist, and I rejected that. But as the years go by…
IC: But sexism is one thing, and masculinity is another…
AF: Yes, but Apartheid rugby was really sexist, fascist, and racist, and they took honour in being like that. Now the far right is also perfectly comfortable with being fascist. We mustn’t forget.
Well, as the years went by, and mostly through Roger's [her husband, Roger Meintjes] father, who was a rugby player and great fan, I was gradually pulling my family into it, all the more because at the time he was working for a foundation that managed the cases of people who'd get injured while playing—one of the first multiracial foundations in South Africa. I then started to realise the subtleties of the game: the fact that the ball can only be passed sideways or backwards, never forwards, and how respectfully the teams behave towards each other, as it's more about teamwork than solo play, and as it displays a competitive nature which is very different from that of football, because of the generosity (between both teams), for being a much more sophisticated game, despite this brutish aspect. All of a sudden, I became interested in these bodies that I'd found to be abhorrent, particularly when the sport started changing politically, namely from the racial point of view. In that sense, what 30 years ago wasn't sexy at all then turned into a simultaneously conceptual, intellectual, and physical relationship.
IC: Something that has been present since Ancient Greece in the history of sculpture, the representation of the muscle.
AF: Yes, and the bum and the thighs. These are particularly exercised in rugby, so you can't help but look and admire. There's a play here, a liking for the political history that is intricately connected with physicality and the history of sculpture and representation of the male body, of sexuality. Because the way the players huddle together is sexy, too; they touch one another, their bodies fit into one another. In fact, the exhibition's subtitle comprises the words the referee says to restart play before a scrum—the two teams pack closely together with their heads down and push each other, attempting to gain possession of the ball.
It's funny, the ludicity thing, because my master's thesis in South Africa was mainly about ludic folk objects and how the latter could constitute starting points for creating contemporary works of art. I read a lot at the time, for example Homo Ludens, John Huizinga's much-lauded book on the parallels between creativity and play, so I was rather well-read on this subject.
I remember that when I started working I had a moment of lucidity, and wondered: what am I going to do? How am I going to do it? How am I, a Western-educated white person, going to create artworks in South Africa?! And then I started imagining what I could use as referents so as to make artworks that would be immediately understood but could hold a more much complex, specialised conceptual and historical baggage. The ludic (the ludic object) was a way of communicating without resorting to irony or anecdota, allowing the viewer to access the work.
IC: A gateway…
AF: Exactly. I've always tried to give my works an acessible gateway, and this idea of acessibility has never bothered me—quite the opposite, actually. Hence architecture, because everybody knows buildings. They're in the city; every day we pass by them, whether we're poor or rich, white or black, old or young. They're public spaces, for everybody; we all have an opinion about them; many are public buildings we can go into; they're usable.
That's one of the reasons why I enjoy working with architecture, and the ludic is conceptually the same thing.
Over time, the ludic has become harder to use, because it's now a much more slippery slope. Naughtiness, as you say, is tolerated, but it can quickly turn into pretentiousness or irony, which is not of any interest to me; it can become what the English describe as "cheesy"…
IC: Mawkish, dull, tacky, naff…
AF: Yes, and I don't feel like it. So, ludicity is an extremely important, useful tool that works in some circumstances and not in others.
These works are similar to Rega, a public sculpture made out of watering tools that is installed at a park in Vila Nova da Barquinha. It's a declaredly ludic work, as it's a toy kids use and push. No artistic and conceptual quality taken away from it for being ludic, however.
IC: In this exhibition, the ludic is present not only in the sculptures but also in the pastel drawings, which I find deliciously ludic. (chuckles)
AF: (chuckles) They were delicious to make, indeed, and they came from the imperious need to be ludic during lockdown. Those six weeks we spent at home allowed me two things: first, all the time and no hurry; and subsequently the non-pressure that "if nobody ever sees this, that's OK."
We were living in an unbridled society; and while I don't consider myself to be an extremely busy artist, I'd been hurrying from plane to plane, conference to conference, exhibitions, projects. I hadn't stopped in over 10 years.
At home and alone, with nobody watching what I was doing, without knowing for how long this circumstance would last—it could be 3 weeks, 3 months—made it possible for me to play with the drawings.
IC: There's a very seductive side to pastel, texture: one feels like touching it, but then the drawings hold a tension between that tactile appeal and the drawn shapes, which are rolls, balls, compression tools—in short, the vocabulary you've established over the last 30 years, constructivism and architecture being part of it…
AF: And there are other references, namely artists such as Naum Gabo, Gabriel Orozco.
But it's not that I've only now started using pastel again. In this process of returning to my origins, when I held the MAAT exhibition, in 2018 titled Pan African Unity Mural, I deliberately returned to the mural and to my work as an activist from when I was younger, which was my first school. When I re-painted the mural, one of the things that came to mind was that each painted what they were most comfortable with, or what they painted best; we were 14 young people painting, and each one ended up specialising in certain details.
The following year, I held an exhibition at my Mozambique gallery, Arte d'Gema, run by Élia Gemuce—and it's always very difficult, because transporting the works is very expensive, so I thought, once more with no prejudice, no high expectations, I'd return to the place of the murals and copy those details using pastel, and that's what I did. I made ten drawings a bit larger than these; some were acquired by FLAD, and now, for the first time in Lisbon, they can be seen at the collection's exhibition at MAAT. I had a blast making them. I remember painting the miner's undershirt, trying to imitate as best as I could the texture of the cheap Chinese textile it was made of; or writing the sentence on the book the boy was reading, "Free Nelson Mandela," which had been banned, but as the murals were huge, from a distance you couldn't decipher what was written on them.
It was in the wake of that exhibition in Mozambique that I realised pastel was not something to disregard, and at the time I still had the box my father had given me, with 200 pastels I love.
IC: Speaking of the need for portability, tell me about the scale models—which we can also see here, in the gallery's collection. Even though they're small, there's nothing jewel- or miniature-like about them; they have the same vigorous sculptural presence. Are they basically small-scale sculptures?
AF: Yes, and once again I owe it to Élia. I came to the conclusion I have to work in Africa, and with my large, expensive-to-transport things I was making it impracticable to exhibit. I realised I had to approach it earnestly, and I started thinking how I could make light scale models that could be easily assembled and disassembled, that could be transported as hand luggage, without going in the hold.
IC: These are your airmail-sculptures…
AF: Yes, but not due to the exact same reasons of our beloved Chilean artist Eugenio Dittborn, with his airmail-paintings, but they're identically political—I don't wish to put my Mozambican gallery in a tough situation for having fewer resources: it's me who has to shape my work so as to hold exhibitions of the same quality in Mozambique or in Basel, for example.
This has always been my struggle, making no concessions about this triangle in my life and work—Mozambique, South Africa, Portugal—and articulating these three countries, because I could be making a work about a South-African reality, as is the case of this exhibition, and then base another off Margot and Jorge Dias' Portuguese ethnography (A Tendency to Forget, 2015).
The scale models also help me reflect on sculpture. For example, the one with the tires can be disassembled and transported with a total volume of 250 x 40 cm, which is amazing, considering the dimensions of the object (218 x 567 x 59 cm) and the materials—instead of using wood, I'm using PVC, though I'd already used it in the Sites and Services sculptures.
IC: Like in rugby, you look back to move forward.
Isabel Carlos has a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy from the University of Coimbra, and a master’s in Media Studies from the NOVA University Lisbon, with the thesis "Performance ou a Arte num Lugar Incómodo" (1993). She has been an art critic since 1991. She was adviser on exhibitions for Lisbon'94 — European Capital of Culture. She was the co-founder and deputy director of the Institute of Contemporary Art, under the umbrella of the Ministry of Culture (1996–2001). She served as member of the 2003 Venice Biennial, the 2010 Turner Prize, and the 2013 Vincent Award juries, among others. She was co-selector of Arts Mundi, Cardiff (2008). Among the several exhibitions she has organised, the following stand out: On Reason and Emotion, Sydney Biennale (2004); Helena Almeida's Intus, Portugal Pavilion, Venice Biennale (2005); Provisions for the Future, Sharjah Biennale (2009). She was the director of the CAM — Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian from 2009 to 2015.
Translation PT-EN: Diogo Montenegro.
Ângela Ferreira: Power Structures (Crouch-touch-pause-engage). Exhibition views at Cristina Guerra Contemporary Art. Photos: Vasco Stocker Vilhena. Courtesy of the artist and Cristina Guerra Contemporary Art.