Interview with Marta Mestre, curator of CIAJG
Recently, Centro Internacional das Artes José de Guimarães (CIAJG) entered a new cycle with the arrival of curator Marta Mestre. Besides the never-ending mission of preservation, dissemination and rehabilitation of the work of an important Portuguese artist, there is now a refreshing (and urgent) vision about art in Portugal. The strength of these new programming cycles, choosing artists less seen in national institutions, because they are young or international, is meaningful. Marta Mestre’s important career in Brazil may be a differentiating factor; but, above all, it is the curious and disinterested look at the “usual exhibitions” that promise to make Guimarães an obligatory stop for those who want to delve into new narratives and visual explorations.
During the summer, I visited CIAJG, during the first cycle On the edges of fiction. Between a visit-conversation about José de Guimarães and the exhibitions on show, Marta Mestre presented her vision of the museum’s present and future.
Marta Mestre – The 60s and 70s were rather important periods in experimentation and José de Guimarães is a unique artist. On the other hand, he also establishes an unprecedented dialogue with Africa in Portugal. What interested me to start the dialogue on fiction was the fragment [of a silkscreen], a pair of scissors: the woman has scissors with which she cuts and glues reality. It is the artistic process of the real as collage. In other words, the idea of filmmaking montage. This puts us in an active role: not only as passive observers, but also as producers of meaning. The surrealist process is quite important for José de Guimarães. The heritage of the surrealist language where signified and signifier float. Here, we are not under the logic of the real, but under the logic of the transformation of the real. Therefore, this work is a kind of mobile to guide the visitor.
Francisco Correia – I was immediately excited by the idea of fiction. There was a time when fiction did not seem to be enough for art and art needed direct connections with the issues of the “real”. As if the ability to fantasise wasn’t capable of questioning and offering new possibilities to the world we live in.
MM – There was a moment when fiction went into crisis. But there is also the idea that historical discourse is insufficient. It is flawed, it does not tell the real, it does not narrate the real. Interestingly, here [at CIAJG] we had an interesting conversation with Luís Trindade, a historian, who says that they also use the same writing techniques as fiction writers. The manipulation of the writing technique is used in the supposedly scientific or literary territory. It is from here that we must look again at history and understand what its relationship is with reality and facts. It is something that must be questioned again.
In On the edges of fiction, the starting point is this active role of the manipulation of reality, visible right from the first room of the African Alphabet. This room has been like this since the beginning. It is the choice to begin the museum’s journey, with the work that José de Guimarães developed between 1970 and 1974, a summarised amalgam of African and European imagery. The echo of experimental poetry between the 60s and 70s is also visible, with E. M. de Melo e Castro, Ana Hatherly, Salette Tavares, etc. We opted to remove one of the elements of the Alphabet and inserted a pot lid from the people of Cabinda, in the north of Angola. On this pot lid stories are told. It’s a tradition that is vanishing, but it used to tell stories and proverbs in the community. For example: “You have to bring more food home” or “Tomorrow it will rain and there will be no party”. These synthetic and ideogrammatic narratives inspired José de Guimarães and we thought it was relevant to present this element pedagogically.
FC – I didn’t know the African Alphabet.
MM – It’s very interesting because it dates back to the 1970s, before the revolution. José de Guimarães went to Angola twice, he took part in the Colonial War as a communications operator. On the second trip, when he was part of the Service Commission, he began to take an interest in the country. But it was only much later that he started collecting African art. His desire to collect only started in the 1980s and all the objects that we have and that he collected were not bought in Africa. After Angola, he never went back to Africa. His collection was bought in Brussels, Paris or Lisbon. “What are the challenges of this collection perspective of extra-European objects?”. This is something that the Museum must face and also deserves to be the subject of future debates.
FC – Although Marta has just joined the CIAJG, you have the intention to renew the public, but also the artists in temporary exhibitions. In Portugal, for a long time, there was a generation of artists that kept rotating between institutions. To renew the museum, is it also necessary to renew the programming?
MM – Yes. In music, people relate differently with musicians. They can go to a concert, but they can also buy the record and consume it. In art, that doesn’t happen. People don’t have that closeness with artists, we must create it. They want to see the artist. To hear the artist’s words, they must go into the museum. Our idea is to start with living labs, where artists transmit their work vocally. We did that with Fernão Cruz and the students of the visual arts degree from Minho University. It was amazing, they understood what Fernão had to do to have exhibitions and step into the scene. It’s passing the torch on. Hearing it from the artist is different from hearing it from the curator or someone else. The museum must have that polyphonic side, which I often talk about. And the artist must be pivotal.
FC – I want to underline the intent of internationalization to open the doors of CIAJG. To me, it seems an important effort. To get out of the edge of Europe a little bit, you must open the doors.
MM – To stand out as an international project, we must talk about local things. Nowadays, with the idea of blockbusters and homogenisation, everything looks alike. A museum, to be different, must present an interesting perspective for its location. It’s essential to combine themes and issues of the Minho territory, full of spiritual and religious artistic output. Its contradictions or being a city that goes back to the notion of nationality: what it means to be the cradle of the nation, approaching this with care and respect, but fearlessly. On the other hand, we have a strongly African collection, which tells that story. We have many potential questions and reflections. We must communicate them and that depends mostly on the word of the artists and the way they can speak about it.
CIAJG will inaugurate the second cycle of temporary exhibitions on 2 October, entitled Ficcionar o Museu.