Pés de Barro: Ana Jotta, Eduardo Navarro, Formabesta, Gabriel Chaile, Isabel Carvalho, Neïl Beloufa, Pauline Curnier Jardin and Tamara Henderson at Galeria Municipal do Porto
«What if the future is a technology as old and unique as clay? […] What if feet of clay root people to the earth, connecting them by the same matter? And what if feet of clay makes it possible to establish a post-technological communication, which does not require networks or cables?» These are some of the questions posed by curators Chus Martínez and Filipa Ramos in Pés de Barro, which is on show at Galeria Municipal do Porto until August 22.
The group exhibition, where clay, pottery and ceramics are the highlights, presents works by Ana Jotta, Eduardo Navarro, Formabesta (Salvador and Juan Cidrás), Gabriel Chaile, Isabel Carvalho, Neïl Beloufa, Pauline Curnier Jardin and Tamara Henderson. Something not very common in the most recent exhibition projects, especially as a material associated with an art practice and to an exclusive exhibition. Although pottery and ceramics are part of Portuguese culture, associated with names such as Bordalo Pinheiro, Querubim Lapa or Rosa Ramalho, Pés de Barro presents a new point of view on the use of clay in contemporary arts and curatorship. It is important to highlight the participation of the African-American visual artist Simone Leigh (with a strong body of ceramic works) in the next edition of the Venice Biennale (2022). Clay, often associated with the dichotomies functionality/non-functionality, ceramics/sculpture or craftsmanship/art, questions the meaning of art, but also what this exhibition proposes to us: the way we relate, communicate and interact with nature, the planet and humanity, as well as a new way of thinking about the future.
We begin the exhibition with Peaux de Dame (2021) by Pauline Curnier, female figures in synthetic leather, with large breasts and voluptuous hips, reminiscent of Jacques Demy’s Donkey Skin (1970). They seem to dance on the walls, guiding us to a black box painted red, where Grotta profunda, les humeurs du gouffre (2011) by the same author is projected. This film, with a «mystical-pagan narrative» divided into two chapters, as indicated in the exhibition text, follows the transformation of the young Bernadette. She, after receiving a visit from the Virgin Mary, enters a lugubrious cave. The transformative journey leads her to meet various mysterious and burlesque characters, such as Mermaid-monkey, True Women or Chocolate-vanilla. The costumes recall those of the Bauhaus Triadic Ballet of the Cabaret Voltaire, or futurist performances, where geometry, absurdity and abstraction predominate. Bernadette, in this obscure place, and considering the caricatured characters she meets, wonders about the history of humanity and species: «What if the four elements had created the creatures?»; «What if nature could make art?»; «What if the grotto itself made this feast?». This film has a slightly theatrical set and staging, as well as red-dominated cinematography. It reminds us of Derek Jarman, or the surrealism and the performative character of Maya Deren; or even, the first chapter, The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964) by Pasolini, considering the black and white, the religious theme and the austerity. The film answers the curators’ questions, in particular the reflection on the need to descend or burrow into the depths of the earth, to create again a connection with nature and other beings, and to try to disconnect from an exclusively anthropocentric thinking.
After leaving Pauline’s grotta, we immediately encounter Luchona (2021) by Gabriel Chaile – fighter in English. A sculpture made of raw clay, wood and earth, whose large dimensions dominate the exhibition space. This monumental presence is a tribute to women in Latin America who are jocularly referred to as luchonas – young single mothers who, because they go out at night instead of staying with their children, are considered immature and irresponsible. Chaile rests the structure on the earth, where its smell is a metaphor for our roots. The lower part of the sculpture is spherically shaped and decorated with round shapes and eggs, reminding us of the goddesses of fertility. It is a kind of obelisk with rectangular geometric figures, imposing a phallic form overall. Is it a metaphor for the patriarchal structure of society? And for the class struggle? A new way of thinking about our connection to the earth, perhaps using our senses?
La morale de l’histoire (Chapters 1-6) (2019) by Neïl Beloufa is a black box multimedia installation. At the entrance, we can pick up the carefully edited and illustrated script. The arrangement of each chapter in relief, worked with acrylic resin, was surprising, given the voiceover that narrates the events to us, side by side with the projection of visual and sound effects that go with the narrative, involving us in a physical, sensory and expansive way. La morale de l’histoire, as stated in the exhibition text «is an allegory of capitalism and a children’s fable about an old, thirsty camel who gets lost in the desert, where he is then helped by young desert foxes who build him a wall at the expense of ants». This follows the curatorial line, allowing us to reflect on the relationships between humans, the planet’s resources, and other beings.
Pés de Barro shows us a new look at the possibilities of clay in artistic and curatorial practices, as well as in contemporary thought. The curators not only present us with works in ceramics, through a singular path, but works by multidisciplinary artists, going beyond that same material. There is a strong focus on the moving image, without ignoring Womb Life (2018-19) by Tamara Henderson, which was not mentioned as it could not be fully seen due to the presence of natural light; accompanied by Eyetongue (2021) by Eduardo Navarro, a large mural piece commissioned for this exhibition. We end with a sentence taken from the curatorial text, which sets the motto of Pés de Barro: «We made this exhibition thinking about the simple pleasure of lying on the ground next to a friend, counting the clouds, talking nonsense and being touched by the sun in the same way that heat touches clay and transforms it into ceramics.»