How to silence a poet, by Susana Mendes Silva, at MNAC
Silence can be understood in many ways. Its meaning is the end of any noise, the absence of speech, secrecy, the omission of an explanation or in the interruption of communication. To have silence, it is necessary to have a speech. Citing the text of the project entitled Things Founded in Silence, “speaking and not speaking are two ways of being in the world on which life often depends”.
Part of this project, the exhibition How to silence a poet by Susana Mendes Silva (Lisbon, 1972), curated by Marta Rema, comes from the silence to which the Portuguese poet Judith Teixeira (1880-1959) was subjected due to the (i)morality of her work.
In 1923, her first book Decadência, together with the books Canções by António Botto and Sodoma Divinizada by Raul Real, was seized and burned in a campaign led by the conservative Liga de Acção dos Estudantes de Lisboa against “the decadent artists, the poets of Sodom, the publishers, authors and sellers of immoral books”. The burning took place in the convent of São Francisco, the former facilities of the Lisbon Civil Government, and today part of the National Museum of Contemporary Art (MNAC), where the exhibition takes place. The eroticism, homosexuality and feminine insubordination of Judith’s work led her to be “silenced”, remaining unfairly in oblivion until recently.
Upon entering the exhibition, we heard: “António Ferro, in a lecture on Colette on November 6, 1920, diagnosed the impossibility of having a modern Portuguese writer like her, because Lisbon was not Paris: ‘In Portugal, Colette would be impossible. All the scribblers, all the dirty elements of my land, would fall on her, accusing her of being immoral, futile, extravagant!’. Then, Susana Mendes Silva reads the writer’s daring poem, entitled Flores de Cactus, “Dazzling cactus flowers; Mirroring, blood reddish! (…)”.
The room’s dim ambience, where various elements are illuminated, evokes the rebellious, courageous, daring universe of Judith Teixeira’s feminine, lesbian lust, challenging prejudices that still exist today. Beyond the sound, through which the words described in the previous paragraph are heard, projected images and a sculptural object compose the whole as a single installation.
In the foreground are the words of Marcello Caetano, published in the pro-fascist magazine Ordem Nova in 1926, about an “Art without any morals”, where the author refers to the “obscene books” of António Botto, Raul Leal and “a shameless Judith Teixeira”. “Without any other choice, those filthy papers that stank the city were burned.” At the end of the room, a projected question mark cast doubt on the title of the exhibition“How to silence a poet (?), questioning all the reasons that fed the violent attacks on the writer and her silencing until death.
The sculptural object on the floor has three wooden slats, supports of a mattress that was once part of a bed structure. The slats are triangularly arranged, supporting representations of the clitoris, the female sex organ. On the wall, one can read the “recipe” to silence someone, in particular a woman, and an image of Judith Teixeira’s face, virtually unknown.
Besides the exhibition, there were three performances. According to Susana Silva, they are part of the work she developed for MNAC. In Tradução #1, with Alda Calvo, and Tradução #2, with Patrícia Carmo, the poem Flores de Cactus was translated into Portuguese sign language and Mirandese. In De mim, Marta Rema did the performative reading of the conference, where Judith Teixeira explains “my reasons about Life, Aesthetics, Morals” (1926), the only modernist manifesto written by a Portuguese female artist, where the author defends herself against the attacks and criticism she suffered since 1923.
All these elements call into question the censorship, violence and humiliation to which Judith was exposed. They also make her work stand out as the only Portuguese “modernist poet”, according to António Manuel Couto Viana. He also states about her poetic work: “separating the wheat from the weeds, I think she deserves better luck than silence, ignorance”.
A silence “in front of an increasingly noisy world, where, nevertheless, silences still thrive, where there is still a need to give voice”, Marta Rema affirms. The exhibition How to silence a poet points to current issues. After all, almost a century later, we continue to face several forms of discrimination: social, cultural, ethnic, political, religious or even sexual.
The unique voice of Judith Teixeira, a rare female witness of the modernist period in Portugal, is now finally heard, through the exhibition How to silence a poet by Susana Mendes Silva. Perhaps by coincidence, it was opened to the public on June 10, 2020, the Day of Portugal, and the month of LGBT pride. It ends on 30 August at MNAC, in Lisbon.