Daniel Moreira and Rita Castro Neves – Faca na Pedra at Appleton
The gallery, founded in 2007, is an independent, non-profit-making venue that promotes modern-day knowledge and art. Appleton has three rooms: the GARAGE, with a nomadic programme created by musicians Manuel Mota and David Maranha; the BOX – “a more experimental space”; and the SQUARE, which simulates a more traditional white cube (equally surprising), where the Faca na Pedra exhibition is located.
Daniel Moreira and Rita de Castro Neves are two artists who met in 2015 after separate careers. Together they created a common path between various practices: photography, drawing, video, or performance.
Faca na Pedra arose from the invitation of the Appleton gallery for the two artists to do a two-week residency. In situ, Moreira and Castro Neves pursued the project they have been working on for some time, about the rarest evidence of the past on Portuguese continental soil: the archaeological heritage of Vila Nova de Foz Côa.
The Archaeological Park of the Côa Valley
In 1991, while supervising the construction of the Côa dam, archaeologist Nelson Rebanda identified the first engraved rock (1 from Canada do Inferno) as a possible sample of a rock figure in the region. Although similar figures had already been identified by locals, such as shepherds and millers, the distant origin of such engravings was unknown. This is explained by the late shift in Western thinking towards cave images, which were only recognised as complex human productions of the Palaeolithic period thanks to the development of the scientific method in nineteenth-century research.
This difficulty in recognising the importance and origin of the figures has given rise to cases of neglect at archaeological sites throughout history, such as vandalism and over-exploitation for capitalist purposes. In Foz Côa, during the five years after the first identification, specialists worked non-stop to get the Portuguese government to abandon the construction of the dam. If the dam were completed, the rock figures would be permanently submerged by the dam’s water. Fortunately, in 1996 the work was abandoned, and the Archaeological Park of the Côa Valley was created to protect the largest collection of open-air Palaeolithic art in the world.
The artist duo
The duo Daniel Moreira and Rita de Castro Neves has a keen interest in questions about the relationship of the individual and society with nature and the natural. One example was the Cortelhoexhibition, visible last year in Porto, about the ‘cortelho’ building model, an igloo-shaped shelter typical of the rural landscape of northwest Portugal.
At Appleton’s SQUARE, the duo is now showing Faca na Pedra, an exhibition about the space between being and nature through four works divided between photographs, drawings, and installations.
In contemporary art, exhibitions have a dense and large introductory text. Despite this, the premise in the title “On magic” says a lot about many things – and the best and most extraordinary sets the tone of the exhibition.
Susana Ventura’s text describes the moment of the irreparable break between man and nature that occurred in the Galician-Cartesian revolution, in addition to the inherent forgetting (or erasure) of its intermediary agent: the figure of the magician.
He could also be described as an alchemist, who was aware of man’s power over the natural elements. According to the text, the magician represents the living synthesis of the cosmos, which only in a state of equilibrium dominates the forces of natural knowledge, without being carried away by the power granted. According to Ventura, we must recognise the figure of the magician and that of his subsequent abandonment in our Cartesian tradition to think about the notion of territory in Faca na Pedra. Through his works, he reveals the “attitude of faltering penetration into the secrets of mystery” in places like Vale do Côa.
During their constant visits to the archaeological site, the duo conceived and now exhibits the pieces Vale, Côa, Animalistas and Cavalo, all from 2022. Upon entering the exhibition, the lights are low and focused. The visitor senses the enormity of the Vale installation in the centre of the room. After the first impact, the route takes us through twelve drawings of the Côa work with the meaning of the ancestral figures, between figuration and abstraction. The drawing of the deer (on the front wall on the left) is perhaps one of the most important pieces in the series for me. I see in it the simplicity of the strokes, the ancestral gracefulness of perception, the ability to see everything in the world with innocent eyes.
I confess that the magnificent detail of the little eyes in front of Vale, diagonally across the room, escaped me at first. But this detail made me explore the central installation again. I managed to appreciate the slender lines of the trunks suspended in the centre of Vale, in a mention of mobile cave art, in contrast to the intensity of the small, frontal bestial eyes that made me go back to the beginning.
I was led into a new path again, drawn at length by the technical accuracy and high quality of the animalistic photographs. Next thing I knew, I realised there was a work missing from the room. The fourth and last one: Cavalo.
The best surprises are left for the end. The appearance of Cavalo was breath-taking. Although I have already described the route in detail up to this point, I shall keep this a secret for the visitor, because the mystery fuelled the brilliance of the work.
Perhaps if I hadn’t been so immersed in the photographs, or if I hadn’t gone back to the beginning, I wouldn’t have had time to be surprised by the work of Daniel Moreira and Rita de Castro Neves. If Nelson Rebanda hadn’t looked over and recognised a rock painting, the Côa Valley would have had its fate sealed by water, like an Atlantis punished by man and not by the gods.
If our ancestors had not used the eyes of magic to try to see beyond, we might never have had the opportunity to experience today’s art.
Admittedly, I confess that I am biased on the subject. Cave paintings fascinate me in an inexplicable way.
In them I see the beginning of everything that is Art. Not because they are the ancestral points of formal engravings, but because they represent the human capacity to look into mystery and think about what lies beyond.
We must take it easy and appreciate every moment of Faca na Pedra, accepting its temporal chasm. An exhibition like this requires time and attention. You must leave at Appleton’s door the fifteen seconds of Instagram stories and internalise nature’s time, as well as all the time the rocks of the Côa Valley have taken to reveal their magic to us.
 Lewis-Williams, D. (2016). The Mind in the Cave. Thames and Hudson.