The text introducing the exhibition Faro-Oeste by Pauliana Valente Pimentel explains that the set of thirty photographs (from a larger group, since those now exhibited in Lagos are in a different number from the ones that were on show at Faro’s Municipal Museum from November 2021 until January 2022) is the result of a period the photographer spent in different gypsy camps throughout the Algarve during 2019. The photographer shot in and around the camps – more or less distant from their centers, from Castro Marim and Vila Real de Santo António to the areas of Faro, Boliqueime, and Loulé: the west of the border with Spain, a Far-West that explicitly hints at the spatial environments of the American cinematic imagination populated by wanderers, invasions, disagreements, clashes, and names carrying secrets within themselves: Cerro do Bruxo [the Witch’s Hill], Horta da Areia [Sandy Garden], Alto do Relógio [the Clock’s Slope] and Monte João Preto [João Preto Mount].
“Gypsy communities in Portugal”, note the introductory text signed by Casa Branca [White House], the cultural association which commissioned the pieces, referring to a report by the Council of Europe in early 2020, “continue to be discriminated and to exist on the margins of society, with poor housing conditions, low literacy levels and high unemployment rates”. One of the aims of this exhibition, therefore, consisted in a socially responsible attitude: to present the gypsy communities and their habits, to bring them closer to those largely unaware of them and unfamiliar with them due to cultural distances, even though inhabiting the same geographic space; to attempt, through this approach, to attenuate, or even to eliminate them so sadly frequent propensity for injustice and misjudgments. The artist’s intention was “to show the daily lives of these families, emphasizing their traditions, in order to fight racist and xenophobic prejudices and stereotypes they are constantly targeted with.”
Each of the photographs on display fulfills a double function; each one has a double character: that social design is reflected in the whole cycle of production that culminated in the exhibition, and which comprised the artist’s initial approach to the communities, the rituals of consent, the spending time together, the complicity in the actual process of photographing, up until the opening of the exhibition in a museum, in a cultural center, or in this art gallery. A dignifying process is assumed here – these places of art, the places of the muses, are retreats of respect, places inside which differences are abolished, altars on which attitudes of ignorance and refusal are suspended and undermined to lose their effectiveness. To inhabit these places is to incorporate the possibility of an understanding not only reflected positively upon the communities represented in the photographs but benefiting also non-gypsy communities (where many visitors come from), in that their – our – perception and discerning are increased. Even if they are not neutral (the system in which they organize themselves is mainly non-gypsy), art galleries and museums should offer themselves as fields of impartiality – without indifference.
Parallel to this character or ambition of familiarity and social harmony, the presentification of the gypsy community these photographs offer the non-gypsy viewer never elides, it never obscures, it never makes hides an aesthetic principle that is indeed– as it must be – indifferent, or autonomous to the topics it photographs. Perhaps this is what grants the places of the muses their altar-like appearance, their aura of the temple where values and habits outside them can be suspended. Art may not override the themes it displays – but likewise it should not be subjugated, nor overshadowed, by them. Aesthetic care is a cura, the evidence and respect for a way of presenting, a modality of encouraging dialogue that involves the artist and the rest of the world – and in which one and the other permanently replace one another in the roles of creator and created. Investing in this artistic cura means going past, going beyond oneself – it is an addition to the artist’s social concerns. Think of a specific example: hardly could any photographs of Faro-Oeste be confused with the work of a photo reporter: there is in all of them a staging (regardless of whether, at the time of the shot, that staging was configured; regardless of whether shots resulted from what we call, for ease of speech, chance, luck, or the conscious intention of not interfering with the arrangement of that which one wishes to show) the evidence of which constitutes the most primordial gesture of photography, the framing. But other material aspects deriving from the artist’s resolve illustrate it, such as the decision to capture certain moments, a certain symbolic load, all of which invite a critical attitude – this is the case of the image of one of the community elders, who seems to gaze distractedly into a TV set turned off, with his back ostensibly to the unlit box. The critical question could be formulated as “What kind of coexistence can be established between the social leader of a mostly nomadic community with the greatest symbol of statism and cultural sedentarism?” The purpose, then, is not the mere documentation of a group, but a deep reflection on this group and on others, which, as a rule, are outside, and exclude the former.
The photographic trait configures the aesthetic positioning, placing it side by side with the social exercise and the healthy practice of citizenship. But it is a feature reinforced by decisions and materialities that make up the entire body of the exhibition. First, is the option to print the photographs on very flexible, transparent fabric. The artist does insist on these qualities of the canvas, as well as on the potential of the specific space of that particular Lagos gallery: taking advantage of the pillar in the middle of the room, which functions as the axis onto which the ropes converge (or from which they depart) to build a sort of drying rack on which the cloth-photographs are displayed. Upon entering, the visitor might be entering a gypsy camp, a place where clothes drying racks are rarely absent. Entering the gallery-camp means entering an intimacy that only deepens as each of the images is observed: one sees – as if closely inhabiting – the spaces for cooking, sleeping, living together, and meditating.
The ropes of these multiple clotheslines, combined with the pillar of the gallery, suggest a reading of cultural intersection; the triangles formed by combining the ropes have the symbolic form of tents. The clothesline is, in fact, one of the traits of communion between gypsy and non-gypsy communities, given its expansion throughout southern Europe; in the gypsy camp, these clotheslines are mobile; on the fixed balconies of city-buildings they do not conceal the symbolism of freedom, of movement dictated by the circulation of air, by the indomitable independence of the wind. The clothesline is a topic of the neighborhood between cultures, a leitmotif of approximation.
Another revealing example of the necessary aesthetic imposition is how the artist values the raccords, setting up dialogues between different elements, sometimes within a single photograph. These dialogues can be triggered by a rhythm of repetition of colors, a color rhyme: note the photograph in which a painting is shown representing flowers, the color of which underlines the deep blue of an electric cable cart on the ground. The decorative element of the painting and the pragmatic and utilitarian element of the cart converse with one another, they relate to one another within this familiarity consolidated by chromatic neighborhood.
The experience of entering the gallery with the drying rack of cloth-photographs by Pauliana Valente Pimentel finally incites another level of reflection, one which can be applied both to the social purpose and to the aesthetic dimension I identified above: the transparency of the fabric and the manner in which the photos were printed implies that the same image can be seen from both sides without establishing which is the reverse and which is the right side. In other words, it hinders the fixity of the norm and of what stays outside of the norm (in fact, the very fact that the gallery has two entrances prevents this fixity). When wandering among the photographic canvases, which the visitor must pull away in order to move forward (the artist encourages the touching of the fabrics), the visitor accepts the indeterminacy as to whether what he immediately sees is the right side of the image or its reverse, the reverse or the right side. As in a true dialogue, in which the interlocutors stand or sit on the same, non-hierarchical, conversational level – exchanging thoughts on whatever matters.
Faro-Oeste, by Pauliana Valente Pimentel, can be seen until July 2, 2022 in exhibition hall 1 of Centro Cultural de Lagos.
It is commissioned by Verão Azul Festival, produced by Casa Branca AC (financed by the Portuguese Republic – Culture / DGArtes), curated by Ana Borralho, João Galante, and Catarina Saraiva.
Financial support: Lagos Municipality / Centro Cultural de Lagos.
Co-production: Teatro das Figuras, CineTeatroLouletano / Loulé Municipality.