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My Grandmother is More Beautiful than Yours

The love relationship between Umbigo (or at least my navel [‘Umbigo’ means ‘navel’ in Portuguese) and the project A Avó Veio Trabalhar [‘The Grandma Is Here To Work’] has been happening for quite some time now, but without surpassing the platonic threshold. The presentation of the Seven collection was then the perfect leitmotif to finally have a face-to-face meeting.

We are family

The family-oriented nature of A Avó Veio Trabalhar is immediately palpable and felt as soon as one arrives at the door of no. 124 in Rua do Poço dos Negros. Júlia, the three-month female dog of Ângelo Compota – the project’s founder along with Susana António – is constantly moving from one lap to the other and greetings can also be heard, from which one can infer a shared daily routine: everyone has a close relationship and there are references to yesterday and tomorrow. This dynamic is not exclusive of the grandmothers who are part of the project. It also reaches all of the “grandchildren”, friends, volunteers and trainees who visit the place. “People come here to learn a specific labor, but, after 3 hours, they leave with a grandmother”, comments Ângelo about the workshops.

The fact that the atelier is located on a ground floor with doors facing the street also makes it easier to attain this sort of proximity. All their international points of sale, for instance, were obtained simply due to someone who was passing by and decided to enter. That person enjoyed what he encountered and happened to have a store (or a friend had a store), where those pieces would make total sense. They exchanged contacts and the rest is history.

Ângelo and Susana, a psychologist and a designer, launched the project in 2014 in one of the rooms of the daycare center located on the back of Igreja de São Paulo. They had at their disposal the financing of BIP/ZIP (Working Group of the Neighborhoods and Areas of Priority Intervention) and the will to acquire an unusual place – an art gallery was one of the first ideas to come up. They knocked on several doors which remained closed for one reason or another and the priest of the parish was the one who actually helped them. They were welcomed with suspicious glances from the elderly and lodged themselves in a room full of religious imagery, plastic flowers and an organ. After a three-month period, the coldness of that space had been transformed into coziness and the suspicious looks were replaced by the will to be there, even when Ângelo and Susana were not present. What was initially a group of 12 grandmothers quickly became 30. As we speak, they are around 70.

“It’s a project of knowledge exchange and learning, but also one focused on training”, Ângelo explains. With every new collection, they begin by understanding what each grandmother is capable of doing – embroidering, sewing, knitting. From that moment one, Susana embeds those techniques in the development stage of products, which are always a bridge between the past and the present. These are objects that make us recall our grandmas’ house, albeit with colors and patterns which make them part of what we nowadays experience. a joint endeavor, most of the times inspired by the life story of the grandmothers. The Seven collection, for instance, shows us a set of pin holders based on the loves and disaffections of each grandma. They have the shape of full-sized dolls or just their heads, and animals that resemble the ones of La Fontaine. Each has a tag that includes the photo of the grandma who did it and we can only delight ourselves while we think what sort of passions and frustrations she exorcized while sticking those pins.

The grandmothers contribute with their knowledge, but they can also learn new things in exchange. Ângelo and Susana bring people from outside to teach serigraphy or working with the sewing machine. Nowadays, the veteran grandmothers are the ones who pass on the acquired knowledge to the rookies.

The idea to take these ladies (and a gentleman, Domingos, the only grandfather of the group) out of their comfort zone is transversal to the whole project. The initial idea to occupy an unusual place, like an atelier, has evolved to workshops, which frequently happen in new places of the city, spots that grandmas wouldn’t normally visit and ones which they often ignore. In their view, Pensão Amor was still related to a brothel. After they took possession of the space to conduct a workshop, realizing there was a whole new life there, the legend says that some of these grandmas visited the spot by themselves, outside of the scope of work. “We work as an emphatic bridge to these new businessmen in the neighborhoods, we indirectly fight the gentrification that they are struggling with and the loss of their neighborliness”, Ângelo explains.

The partnership with Arraial Pride stems from this same logic, an event that they took part of in 2015. This year, besides making cookies in the form of female and male genitalia, grandmas have also participated in the parade itself. In swimsuits. “It was magical seeing them being applauded in the final, understanding that there a whole world to be discovered and that they can be part of what takes place in today’s society”.

But this route has two ways. It also has to do with exposing the new generations to older people, making them understand that there is life after reaching the 40s and that there is still a lot to learn from these seniors. Follow The Granny is yet another street of this route and other project developed under the scope of BIP/ZIP. 45 elderly individuals, living in several historical neighborhoods, open their houses to tourists and tell them the city’s history through one of their life stories. They show photos of a Lisbon now gone and they take the visitors on a journey back in time. They are the bearers of a collective memory that maps the community’s immaterial heritage, before such becomes unreachable due to the lack of references.

There is more than embroidery for grandmas

The project’s financial sustainability stems from workshops and from the sale of products, but also from a more recent branch of the provision of services. This has to do with the creation of specific products and events for brands or with the partnership with Airbnb, among other things. A Avó Veio Trabalhar appears on the platform as part of a new section devoted to creative tourism. The site’s users can book a workshop at the same time they book a room or a house in Lisbon.

A share of the profits are forwarded to daily logistics – rent, bills, purchasing of materials – and the other part is used to put in motion a whole set of ideas. Everything in order to “increasingly give back these projects to grandmas”, understanding what needs to be done and extending the spectrum of experiences. This is what actually happened when they took eight grandmas to the village of Cem Soldos, for an eight-month period, to work with the local senior community (in a partnership with the Festival Bons Sons), or when many of them stepped into a plane for the first time ever on a trip to the Azores, where they participated in the MUA – Mostra Urbana de Artesanato.
The charm of A Avó Veio Trabalhar starts with the products, but becomes even more solid with its social work. In a world that is still deeply obsessed with eternal youth, it easily distances itself from the idea that someday we all be old. But, if we’re lucky, then we will actually be, and if we even luckier, we will be like these grandmothers – a living and beautiful proof that the old age can be much more than staying at home with a blanket laying on the knees, watching television.

Collaborator of the Umbigo since 2000 and… The relationship has survived several absences and delays. She graduated in Fashion Design, but the images only make her sense if they are sewn with words. She does production so as not to rustle the facet of control freak, dance as a form of breathing and watch horror movies to never lose sight of their demons. Whenever you ask for a biography, say a few profanities and then remember this poem of Al Berto, without ever being sure if you really put it into practice or if it is an eternal purpose of life: "But I like the night and the laughter of ashes, I like the desert, and the chance of life, I like the mistakes, the luck and the unexpected encounters. Almost always on the sacred side of my heart, or where fear has the precariousness of another body"

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