Though it might be small, Portugal isn’t lacking when it comes to important contributions to global culture – be it through food, literature or art. Here are Portugal’s most exciting contemporary artists, from the internationally established to the up-and-comers who are worth tracking down next time you’re in one of the cities exhibiting them.
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With three appearances at the Venice Biennale and major exhibitions at the Palace of Versailles and Manchester Art Gallery, Joana Vasconcelos is undoubtedly one of Portugal’s most high profile contemporary artists. Her style centers on taking feminine objects and placing them into expected contexts – usually with colorful, playful results. ‘My creative process is based upon the appropriation, decontextualization and subversion of pre-existent objects and everyday realities,’ she told The Culture Trip. ‘Lilicoptère’ consists of a helicopter covered in pink ostrich feathers and crystals, originally conceived for her Versailles exhibition. She chose ostrich feathers, she explained, because they were a favorite of Marie Antoinette. Meanwhile ‘Britannia’, which was made for the Manchester exhibition, is a serpentine trail of a seemingly infinite variety of colorful textiles.
Painter Adriana Molder brings influences from film and drama into her stark portraits, in which she captures the faces of characters caught at crucial moments in a narrative. Indeed, she trained as a stage designer before turning to study fine art and drawing. Her portraits, often made without color, evoke black-and-white films, though as she explained to The Culture Trip, ‘I wanted to work in black and white, [though] … now there are other colors naturally joining my work.’ Strong, gripping tones of sanguine red often punctuate the faces in her work. Many of the portraits are inspired by characters in novels, such as 19th century Portuguese novel The Goat-Footed Lady, or Virgina Woolf’s The Haunted House.
Paula Rego is firmly established in the international art world for her paintings, which often draw upon fairy tales and children’s stories to create surreal, satirical narratives. ‘War’ illustrates a scene not unlike a 19th century war epic – except in this case, most of the characters have been transformed into lifeless-looking rabbits. ‘The Maids’ takes a scene from the Jean Genet’s play of the same name, in which two maids attend to a wealthy family whom they go on to murder. The painting manages to juxtapose soft colors and a scene of apparent domestic tranquility with ominous undertones: the pet appears to be some sort of monster, while the young woman appears, upon closer inspection, to have a mustache.
Santiago Ribeiro is one of Portugal’s most active surrealist painters, updating the genre for the 21st century. Consistent motifs in his work reoccur in a suitably dream-like fashion, with anonymous naked figures assembled like ants, and rectangular and conical structures. In ‘The City of Slat’, these figures march along infinite production lines, trapped inside this city; in ‘Butterflies’, they acquire wings, appearing to be free themselves. Santiago Ribeiro is currently organizing International Surrealism Now, the latest installment in a series of surrealist exhibitions around the world, in his native Coimbra.
Jorge Santos was born in 1959 in Angola to a Portuguese family, but left for Portugal when the civil war began in 1975, before moving to the United States in 1982. His paintings strive for a hyperrealism, at times mistakable for a photo – yet it is clear that nothing is quite what it seems. There are strong sexual undertones – indeed, overtones in much of his work— which depict everything from a domestic family to a lone figure. The scenes are boxed into tight, almost claustrophobic frames, creating a tension and an artificiality that almost contradicts the precision of the brushwork. And that’s the point; Santos’ paintings give the viewer plenty to think about.
Catarina Botelho trained as a painter before turning to photography. Her work portrays simple, almost mundane, subject matter, but brings out an unseen beauty in the settings. The ‘Time and Manner’ series, for example, pictures laundry baskets, brooms and washing-up liquid against the marble of a laundry room. Yet we also stop to appreciate the beauty of the marble, and the gentle colors and forms of the objects placed against it. ‘Between the Words and Us’ similarly takes the disorder of a construction site and thrusts it before us, revealing the forms and colors that constitute it.
Francisco Vidal was born in Portugal to an Angolan father and Cape Verdean mother, and his work engages with this Lusophone African identity. Despite being born and raised in Portugal, ‘the rhythm of my body makes my work African,’ he explains. His drawing ‘Black Panthers’, for example, captures this trans-national black identity in depicting a map of the world, with Africa at its epicenter, and other parts of the diaspora, such as Portugal, the United States and Brazil, emphasized. ‘Black Pietá’ is simply a negative of Michelangelo’s ‘Pietá’, with the effect of creating a black Christ and black Mary.
Pedro Cabrita Reis
Having represented Portugal at the 2013 Venice Biennale and exhibited extensively across the world, Pedro Cabrita Reis is one of the country’s most high-profile artists. He takes industrial materials – metal bars, neon lighting, and electrical wires – and uses them to take over the exhibition space itself. His ‘A remote whisper’ for the Venice exhibition did just this, and even added workmen’s jackets to emphasize the process of creation in art. Some works, such as ‘The Moscow Piece’– a neon light, some shoddily applied paint, loose wire hanging – takes this motif to an extreme, almost as if attempting to deceive the viewer into mistaking the work for a building site.
Vasco Araújo works with a wide variety of mediums – video, sculpture and painting, among others – to convey his messages, which tend to center on questions of power and identity across history and culture. ‘Botany’ for example, consists of a series of photos of plant life assembled on (and in) a table. Mixed up among the scenes of plant life are pictures of colonial-era Africans, questioning our associations of the jungle and exoticism. ‘My Servant’ exhibits suit collars, symbols of patriarchy and power, in a box overlaid with a text written by the imagined master, with his thoughts about his servant.
Carla Filipe was the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation’s artist in residency in London in 2010, before returning to her home of Porto. Her multi-medium works combine pieces she has created with historical archives, giving a sense of continuity with history. For example, her Da Cauda à Cabeça is based on her research into Portuguese railway systems, and in the work she creates a comprehensive portrait of railways in Portugal, through sculptures using industrial materials, archives about the people who worked in the museums, and video footage, both real and fictional.
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