Bela Silva: between ceramics, drawing and fashion

Bela Silva is a Portuguese artist who is currently living and working in Belgium, with an outstanding work that is often associated with ceramics. Her resume includes globally and nationally renowned museums and institutions, having already conducted work in Asia, where ceramics are regarded as one of the most reputable arts, way beyond – as it happens with the artist’s work – the ornamental piece.

One of her greatest commissions is public. In the Alvalade Metro Station, curtains of massive tiles give colour and vibrancy to a building that is rapidly and mechanically used, one which previously welcomed the tiles of Maria Keil. In fact, the tile is a recurring and particular presence in Bela Silva’s work, not only from a professional point of view, but also personally. As she properly reminded us in the following interview, Museu do Azulejo was the first space that hosted an exhibition of hers, and Lisbon is her hometown, where she certainly became accustomed to admiring the vast heritage of Lisbon’s tiling.

However, this commission also stresses the relevance of drawing in her work, which occupies a substantial part of her artistic portfolio as well.

Having said that, working with the industry is not something unusual for this artist. And the invitation, proposed by the renowned fashion brand Hermès, to draw a scarf attests that capacity, whilst combining art and fashion design.

In an interview that precedes the inauguration of her new exhibition Le Tango de Nos Amours, at the Alecrim 50 gallery (on display until March 17th), Bela Silva now talks to us about this alliance, of her work in Belgium and, mainly, the partnership with Hermès.

José Pardal Pina – Before we step into the central subject of this conversation – Hermès’ invitation for a collaboration – we want to know how it is to live and work in Belgium, and the country’s advantages in terms of artistic and cultural production. 

Bela Silva – There are many advantages in working in Belgium: the geographic location, with great proximity to many artistic and cultural hubs, the existence of many collectors and people who are interested in art, a greater purchasing power and the willingness to acquire and invest in art…

JPP – Did you think about coming back to Portugal and Lisbon, when confronted with this (apparent) cultural boom, the successive opening of galleries, and the increasing offer of exhibitions and cultural programming?

BS – This may sound like a cliché, but it’s true: I’m always thinking about coming back when, in Brussels, there are many consecutive days of grey skies, and the light of Lisbon starts to come into my mind… The weather, the light and the heat affect me greatly, I admit, but with my age, reason always prevails. I know that, at least for the time being, it would be a huge mistake on my part to return to Portugal.

JPP – And now – Hermès. In recent times, there have been several partnerships between large fashion brands and artists. Some come to mind right away: Damien Hirst x Alexander McQueen; Yayoi Kusama x Louis Vuitton; Dinos and Jake Chapman x Louis Vuitton; and, then, we have older and historic collaborations, like Andy Warhol x Yves Saint Laurent or Salvador Dali x Elsa Schiaparelli. Do you regard these approaches as natural or is an exhaustion on both parts that motivates these partnerships? Some people consider these as dangerous trends, in the sense that there is a misrepresentation of art at the service of the fashion industry.

BS – These collaborations and partnerships have always existed. I think it’s positive to work with different artists, who lend their fresh and creative perspective to the products, and it can also be challenging for artists when it comes to experiencing other forms of expression and public presentation of their work. I was born amid fashion-related people. Hermès and other brands of haute-couture were not strange for me, and I always had some fascination and interest for many of its products. One could say that it was an old dream and, of course, its materialization was a pleasure.

JPP – How did the invitation happen?

BS – A while ago, I held an exhibition at Galerie du Passage, in Paris, and people from Hermès, who caught my work, got in touch to know have a better understanding of what I was doing, and they liked the ceramics and the drawings. A couple of meetings in Paris followed that and an easy and pleasant relationship was established, which also simplified the discussion of the details needed to achieve this project.

JPP – It may seem a misinterpretation, but the first image that comes to mind when we see the scarves that you beautifully conceived for Hermès, La Maison des Oiseaux Parleurs, is the image of the Portuguese tiling. This seems quite evident in the blueish scarf. Did you recall this visual inheritance while you were developing the project, or did the concept start from something totally different?

BS – I wanted to bring my own influences into this project. I was born in Lisbon and, obviously, the tiles in façades and interiors have always fascinated me, with their exacerbations of ornaments, arabesques and animals, the brightness of the glazes, compositions that often resemble carpets and patterned fabrics.
I recall that my first exhibition in Portugal was held at Museu do Azulejo, I have good memories of that period, and the inspiration for this work also throws back to it.

JPP – How was it like to jump into another artistic field? This endeavour seems to be closer to a visual, two-dimensional composition, and not that much related to ceramics with which you usually work.

BS – But drawing is very important to me! Drawing is the basis of my work, of how I express myself as an artist. I have lots of fun when I’m drawing. Ceramics, in turn, are sources of major headaches with the logistics involved, the technical issues, the baking process, the weight, the physical space it occupies, etc. So, having to be more focused on drawing was nothing odd to me.

JPP – How do you assess this experience and Hermès’ receptivity? Were you granted total freedom?

BS – This collaboration went quite well and was very enjoyable and important to me. I loved working with them. I enjoy working with professional, correct people, who always try to understand my ideas and intentions. And their know-how and taste gave birth to a piece of high quality. And, of course, in these circumstances, I would be very happy to establish future collaborations with other brands that are interested in my work.

The various shades of the scarves can be checked here, with an individual price of 360€.

José Rui Pardal Pina (n. 1988) has a master's degree in architecture from I.S.T. in 2012. In 2016 he joined the Postgraduate Course in Art Curation at FCSH-UNL and began to collaborate in the Umbigo magazine. Curator of Dialogues (2018-), an editorial project that draws a bridge between artists and museums or scientific and cultural institutions with no connection to contemporary art.

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