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Interview with Barbara Piwowarska, artistic director of Casa São Roque

With a program whose artistic direction is authored by curator and art historian Barbara Piwowarska, Casa São Roque – Centro de Arte, restored and opened to the public in October 2019 as a new art centre in Porto, is committed to revitalizing an eastern part of the city, leaving its mark on the agenda and the contemporary art milieu. The following interview with Barbara Piwowarska sought to make known the guidelines for the exhibition program at Casa São Roque, as well as its main challenges.

Mafalda Teixeira – Working as an artistic director and curator of Casa São Roque, what are your main challenges in developing such a project from scratch in such an old particular space, typical for Porto, but not typical for contemporary art?

Barbara Piwowarska – This challenge is very complex, consisting of several factors. I would not say it is a project made from scratch, as it was planned by its founder, private collector Pedro Álvares Ribeiro (Peter Meeker) and the Municipality of Porto already many years ago. Before I joined Casa São Roque, there was an existing building – a ruined palacete Casa Ramos Pinto, and its rehabilitation was in progress. The whole project was deeply related to the pre-existing (formed over many years) contemporary art collection known as Peter Meeker Collection, located in several places, including its main part as deposit at the Serralves Museum. I would say: I joined the existing plan and existing situation as someone from outside of Portugal – being invited to influence it, to comment it and fill it in with international exhibitions program in dialogue with the collection. What I found the most interesting from the beginning until today, was the fact that we entered someone’s living house and we transformed it into a contemporary art centre. Former Casa Ramos Pinto was turned into Casa São Roque. The house has fully changed its function and identity. The original mansion was built in 1759 as part of Quinta da Lameira, and was used as a hunting lodge, typical of those owned by the wealthy families of Porto. In the nineteenth century it belonged to the family of Maria Virginia de Castro, who in 1888 married António Ramos Pinto, one of the well-known producers and exporters of Port wine. In 1900–1911 the house was remodelled by the Portuense-Parisian architect José Marques da Silva, a very interesting figure, who influenced the process of modernisation of Porto. The building is a perfect example of this «modernisation»: the bourgeois eclecticism in his redaction, playfully mixing historicisms and styles, from neo-empire to art nouveau or seaside French chalet, in more than 20 rooms. The exhibition program has to interact with these spaces. It is like working in the «anti-white cube».

MT – Since its opening in late 2019, there have been two exhibition projects presented at Casa São Roque: the individual Inventória by Ana Jotta and the collective project Footnote 14: Angel of History. While amor vacui predominates in the first exhibition, in the second one we are surprised by the horror vacui. However, in both projects, there is a clear intention to dialogue with contemporary art, the house and its history. As curator of both exhibitions, was it your intention to play with these antitheses – full and empty – in the same spaces?

BP – Yes, exactly, both exhibitions were reversed-mirroring each other, presenting two different encounters with the bourgeois interior. In 2019 I tried to build the sequence of exhibitions for several years that would make a «succession», revisit Casa São Roque’s identity, that would also catch the moment of «transformation» – the moment of change from living space into an art centre, and what does it mean today. That was the task for these two exhibitions, to dialogue directly with the house and to test it in two completely different ways. The inaugural one was fully artistic interpretation and site-specific intervention by Portuguese artist Ana Jotta, who displayed her own works as objects, as few things – in a way «as if the owner just left, or didn’t move in yet». The second one was my own Footnote project, with a «crowded» historical approach, but applying «methodology of the margins». It commented on local contexts by revealing many transversal histories: of the family of Walter Benjamin, of his exile(s), of his never-completed escape through Portugal, of his great-granddaughter Lais Benjamin Campos being born in Berlin having Brazilian father with origins from near Porto, and many others. By this project I was trying to tell unknown stories from Berlin, Paris, Lisbon and São Paulo, crossing together in Lourosa, Espinho and Porto. Participants included artists, scholars and teachers Aura Rosenberg, Chantal Benjamin, Lais Benjamin Campos, Marcelo de Souza Campos Granja, Patrizia Bach, Arno Gisinger, Frances Scholz, R.H. Quaytman, Joanna Zielińska, Jean-Luc Moulène, Jean-Michel Alberola, André Cepeda, Paulo Nozolino and Sismógrafo, and authors João Barrento, Susana Camanho and Maria Filomena Molder. And of course, it might be worth to mention that, due to the pandemic crisis, we were able to organize only two exhibitions up until now. Each of them was accompanied by a bilingual publication.

MT – What will be the other exhibitions like?

BP – Next projects are consequences of the latter ones. We decided to always present rotation of solo show – group show, after each other, and also to include works of artists from the collection in each exhibition. So the next one will be the solo show of Jean-Luc Moulène, Técnico Libertário, to be open on October 16, a French artist who also participated in Footnote 14. It will clash with the primary functions of Casa São Roque’s rooms and test a new dynamic between works and spaces. After his show, we are preparing a group project in collaboration with the City University of New York (CUNY), which we will co-curate together with Alaina Claire Feldman, director of the Mishkin Gallery of Baruch College. This research project called The Studio and The House will elaborate on the artist’s atelier paradigm (historical study-cases such as Kurt Schwitters or Andy Warhol, but especially contemporary ones challenged by the pandemic experience). We will investigate this «old-fashioned» distinction between the place where art is produced and where life is lived.

MT – The exhibition Footnote 14: Angel of History is part of the Footnote project that you have been developing since 2010, devoted to past and present phenomena that require a comment. Did the specific character of Casa São Roque influence the choice of the German-Jewish philosopher and writer Walter Benjamin for the fourteenth iteration of the project?

BP – Yes, Casa São Roque building and its unobvious status needed such a comment, after the inaugural show of Ana Jotta, Inventória, that was directly site-specific, before further development of the contemporary art program. I needed to stop for a while and ask: what does it mean to be at home? Footnote project was the best tool to be used on this stage, as it is research-based, and on «margins of history» as such. It also acted well in the whole plan: in a longer sequence of exhibitions devoted to the notion of the house, a former bourgeois living space. So the fourteenth iteration Footnote 14: Angel of History focused on a dialogue with Walter Benjamin (born in Berlin in 1892, died in Portbou in 1940), who appeared as the main reference for the critique of the notion of the intérieur bourgeois, providing a great vehicle to comment on the past and present of the space. Benjamin remains an eminent expert on the everyday life of the bourgeoisie and the society of high Capitalism, as portrayed in his Arcades Project dedicated to Paris, but also in his autobiographical Berlin Childhood around 1900. This book, consisting of many short texts, depicts life from the same turn of centuries when Casa São Roque building took its present shape.

MT – For Footnote 14, R.H. Quaytman made a stucco panel entitled São Roque, which includes the reconstruction of a rosette from the ceiling of the house and which resulted from the artist’s collaboration with the stucco workshop in Maia. The re-reading of works and decorative pieces belonging to the Casa São Roque estate by contemporary national and international artists, the promotion of contacts and collaborations between these with local workshops and craftsmen, is something that Casa São Roque, as a new cultural space in the city, is interested to cultivate?

BP – We are making commissions and produce new site-specific installations for each exhibition, inviting participating artists for local collaborations, and to work with local producers. For her exhibition, Ana Jotta did Dormir – a permanent bronze sculpture-plaque made for the garden next to the house, in Parque São Roque, that was also generously donated by her to the collection. The work was made in Fundição Cosme in Canelas de Baixo, Vila Nova de Gaia, in a foundry near Porto with which Jotta worked for over many years. R.H. Quaytman developed collaboration with Revivis – a bigger conservation company in Maia, that has a very good stucco workshop. The same company did the renovation of the fully destroyed stuccos at Casa São Roque in 2019. Interestingly, Quaytman participated in the first Footnote from the series: Footnote 1: Phantom Limb in Warsaw, as well as in other iterations, including Footnote 6: As Model in New York. Her stucco panel called São Roque was painted in colours that included a rose tone of the camellia tree that she found in the garden, and a black geometric triangle section typical for her paintings. I would not say the final work is an example of a craft, but it involves craft in a really brilliant and playful way. The rosette was originally made by the Meira family workshop around 1900.

MT – The architectural and decorative apparatus of Casa São Roque make it a striking example of urban and elite constructions in Porto’s society. Assessing itself as a heritage and memory asset of the city, how has the artistic programming of Casa São Roque, as a cultural centre, contributed to the revitalization of the eastern part of Porto and what is the receptivity of the local population to the developed program?

BP – We are part of a longer process and wider municipal plan of activation and cultural gentrification of this part of the town. I hope we contribute to it deeply. Casa São Roque is aside Porto’s touristic heart, in the working-class district Campanhã, that is now being intensively transformed. We are near Estação de Porto-Campanhã (biggest train station in the city), Estádio do Dragão and the border with the district Bonfim. So our main audience are mostly local inhabitants, who know well Parque São Roque, and have noticed that the yellow building (former Casa Ramos Pinto) was renovated and opened in 2019 as an art centre after being in state of ruin from the 1970s. They appreciated this fact and comment on this while visiting. Casa São Roque building includes also a cafeteria with access to a big garden, where you can read books related to our exhibitions and collection. We have also international visitors, mostly from the art world, and recently also some tourists. There is a strong group of permanent local visitors coming frequently, including all generations: families with children, seniors, teenagers from high schools and students. Footnote 14 was construed for all of them – as an educational project – accessible also for those who don’t know who is Walter Benjamin. Our team is guiding and interacting with each visitor, explaining the project. Besides permanent collaboration with University of Porto (mostly its Faculty of Fine Arts) and Escola Superior de Educação, in the past two years we developed deep collaboration with Marques da Silva Foundation, located in nearby Praça do Marquês de Pombal, and with Agrupamento das Escolas do Cerco – a group of schools with which we co-organize extensive educational program for children from the neighbourhood.

Mafalda Teixeira, Master’s Degree in History of Art, Heritage and Visual Culture from the Faculty of Letters of the University of Porto. She has an internship and worked in the Temporary Exhibitions department of the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona. During the master’s degree, she did a curricular internship in production at the Municipal Gallery of Oporto. Currently, she is devoted to research in the History of Modern and Contemporary Art, and publishes scientific articles.

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