Loulé Design Lab | Loulé Criativo
In the thirties of the last century, Portuguese intellectuals were worried and even alarmed1 about the possible extinction of a Portuguese popular culture. This fear seemed to be associated with the idea that an industrialist philosophy would take over everything. Therefore, a form of Portuguese primitive reality would be annihilated, which allowed a solid differentiation in comparison with other countries. With this levelling modernist contamination, the disappearance of a Portuguese way of life, more rural, of an “ancestral wisdom and a true depository of tradition” (Ana Vasconcelos) was at stake.
This ancestral wisdom, according to the anthropologist António Medeiros, attracted elites of “poets, photographers, painters, ethnographers” to the rural country, who quickly stylized and intellectualised these forms of culture. For the anthropologist Vera Marques Vieira, the questions also had to do with the country’s image abroad. For this reason, at major international fairs, the Portuguese made an effort to show a strong country from an iconographic standpoint, seeking to put an end to a deep-rooted idea that the country was poor, dismayed and irremediable.
After a few decades, and after a period of indifference to popular art – not to be confused with mass art, or “pop art”, since, in Portuguese, popular art is closer to the English term folk art – the most educated layers, including designers, environmentalists, artists and architects, began to be attentive once again to the artefacts and utilitarian objects of small rural communities. Designers, for example, identified qualities in this ancient material culture that could provide solutions to some urgent environmental problems. Handicraft items, from an environmental point of view, do not have as much impact as mass-produced objects. The destruction of ecosystems due to a reductionist and globalizing industry culture, embedded in ULM principles, of absolute belief in what is new and in innovation, has discredited designers in relation to the honesty of technological breakthroughs. Would they all be for the benefit of societies? Or would they respond only to economic demands?
The materials used by artisans are closer to what is deemed environmentally friendly. Let’s now take a look at a Portuguese case: the Loulé Criativo project, of the Loulé City Hall, motivated its craftsmen, especially palm weaving artisans, to resume their activity. This is a traditional activity of Portuguese basketry, which uses the palm plant as the cornerstone material for creating objects.
The Loulé Criativo project, aware of the importance of popular art and crafts when it comes to strengthening the identity of the region and the country, helped to create a network of artisan workshops in Loulé, located mainly in the small streets of the old part of the city. And this became a tourist attraction.
If a city or region does not protect its roots, and if what it has to offer to the visitor does not differ much from the latter’s place of origin, how can it be a strong tourist industry? How can the tourist be interested and wish to return?
The network of artisans in Loulé keeps the tradition alive. It’s an example that people need tradition, memory and identity to stay alive.
On the streets you can hear the boilermakers shaping the copper, with rhythmic strokes. Or the artisans at Casa da Empreita interweaving the dry palm leaves, turning them into slender shapes, like baskets or lamps. The Loulé Design Lab project, created by Loulé Criativo and composed of resident designers and artists, helped shape these palm weaving creations. Henrique Ralheta, director of Loulé Design Lab, guided the designers’ work together with the artisans. In pairs, designers and craftsmen worked side by side: the designers with their ideas and drawings, the craftsmen with their manual knowledge learned from their youth. The result was the birth of pieces that combine tradition with innovative ideas, a consequence of an effort made by designers and craftsmen in constant learning and dialogue. This work gave rise to an exhibition of Loulé Criativo.
In the exhibition, we can see the palm worked by artisans Maria Odete Rocha, Maria Valentina Silva, Maria Cremilde Lourenço, Inácia Coelho, Maria Almerinda Miguel, Lurdes Malveira Costa, Maria Odete Dias, Maria Duartina Mendes, Ludovina Bota, Alzira Maria Neves, Maria Margarida Cortez Ferreira and her husband Jorge dos Santos. The designers who gave suggestions to the craftswomen and helped shape the project were Fernando Madeira, Eurico Brito, Sílvia Rodrigues, Sandra Louro, Catarina Guerreiro, Sofia Correia, Verónica Guerreiro, Ana Hermenegildo, Sandra Neto, Paulo Tomé, João Carrilho, Pedro Ramalhete, Ana Rita Contente. The experience between designers and craftsmen was also extended to other craft activities, such as copper work. The designers who collaborated with the boilermakers were: Christopher Whitelaw, in partnership with the boilermaker Jurgen Cramer, the designer Andreia Pintassilgo in partnership with the artisan David Ganhão Cabrita, or the designer Ana Rita Contente with Analide Carmo. Also present were artists and ceramists such as Bernardette Martins, Ortiz Manoli, José Machado Pires and Razvan Crestin.
1 Medeiros, António, No meio das memórias de Sarah Affonso: O Minho, in Sarah Affonso e a Arte Popular do Minho, Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, July 2019, p. 5.