João Ayres’ painting and João Nisa’s landscapes at Galeria Zé dos Bois
Nanquim Preto sobre fundo branco and Primeiras Impressões de uma Paisagem are the two most recent exhibitions at Galeria Zé dos Bois. The first is an individual exhibition by João Ayres, a painter who marked modernism in Mozambique in the late 1940s and 1950s. The second, by João Nisa, presents a mysterious audio-visual installation with landscapes filmed inside the Águas Livres Aqueduct in Lisbon.
In the exhibition Nanquim preto sobre fundo branco the paintings and drawings by João Ayres (1921-2001) emerge into the light on the first floor of Galeria Zé dos Bois. Seeking to reclaim the painter’s legacy, the exhibition looks at João Ayres’ first decade of artistic production, an important figure in Mozambique’s art, the country where he lived for almost thirty years.
João Ayres, born in Lisbon, left for Mozambique in 1946, where he worked as a drawing and painting teacher at Núcleo de Arte de Maputo. The exhibition opens with paintings from 1947 to 1949, works that depict the Mozambican reality. They are neo-realist paintings, with an intense use of black colour in broad, rigorous strokes, which in most cases outline and accentuate the body shapes. We highlight the work Cais do Gorjão (1948), in which Ayres paints workers on the docks of Maputo. It is a restless and heavy composition, marked by the representation of the bare hands and feet of the workers, in contrast to the slender bodies. The hands denote effort and labour. At a time when Mozambique was under colonial rule, João Ayres used the colonised person as the protagonist of his paintings, exposing and lamenting their social condition.
The second nucleus is made up of drawings from 1956 and 1957, done in black ink on paper (lending the exhibition its title), standing out for their departure from figuration. In this series, the drawing has black lines that explore forms and patterns close to abstraction. Ayres seems to be inspired by naturalistic elements, stylising them and converting strokes and shapes into a free geometrization.
The paintings and drawings in the final part of the exhibition – painted about ten years after the pieces in the first room – represent a decade of artistic production influenced by Mozambican culture. João Ayres introduced a new expression in his strokes, simplifying shapes and lines, letting colour invade the painting. With free and vibrant compositions, the black lines outline the coloured forms and the abstraction is total. In this room, we point out an untitled painting from 1958, made on wood, where the edges of the canvas were cut to fit the painted geometric shapes, giving the work a three-dimensional side. In the final part of the exhibition, there are several Makonde sculptures and wall masks from southern Mozambique (from the 1940s), which seem to have been an important reference for João Ayres’ art.
The presence of João Ayres in Maputo influenced a generation of local artists, such as Malangatana, José Júlio, António Bronze, Mankew or Bertina Lopes, who were students of the painter. And, as Alda Costa (Mozambican contemporary art historian) says, João Ayres, although still poorly known/recognised, was an “Active participant, together with some other artists, in a new moment in the history of Mozambican art. He lived through a complex period, divided between various cultures, in a situation of domination and inequality, but he also lived through a time full of ideals and futures.”
On the second floor of Galeria Zé dos Bois, we find Primeiras Impressões de uma Paisagem, a solo exhibition by João Nisa (Lisbon,1971) about the structural relationship that some galleries of the Águas Livres Aqueduct have with the camera obscura.
The camera obscura is an optical device that powered the invention of photography in the 19th century. The relationship between this device and the Águas Livres Aqueduct was established in an investigation by Diogo Saldanha, who confronted the building’s structure with the photographic principle. The intervention in the building’s wall openings was pondered to enhance the projection of exterior images inside the aqueduct. Based on this kind of intervention, João Nisa executed this project, transforming a segment of the Águas Livres Aqueduct into a kind of pinhole camera. The images inverted and projected onto the building’s stone walls were filmed and then worked on by the artist, producing several images of the aqueduct’s surrounding landscape. Sound was also recorded inside the aqueduct, coming from the water still flowing through the pipes of the old building and by others invading the interior of the galleries.
Entering the exhibition hall is like entering a camera obscura. The only light comes from the first large projected landscape, dazzling the eyes that are surprised to look at it for the first time. We see a natural landscape, trees swaying in the wind, and the sound we hear appears to follow what we see. The exhibition is made up of six projections, with fixed planes and changing durations, which are progressively crowded. As we walk through the various projections, we feel ourselves getting closer and closer to the outside elements. This gradual approach adds to the landscape roads, cars, animals or precarious constructions, also portraying a peripheral Lisbon.
The final projection of this landscape sequence is a shot of a wall of the aqueduct, marked by a narrow strip at the top of the image, where we see a set of branches blown by the wind. This is the most static shot of all and the closest to a photographic image.
In this immersive labyrinth of living landscapes, João Nisa creates an intimate relationship with the architecture of the Águas Livres Aqueduct, transforming it into a camera obscura (a complex technical process of capturing images), where the irregularities of the stone wall join the projected landscape, in a surprising union between interior and exterior.
The exhibitions Nanquim preto sobre fundo branco and Primeiras Impressões de uma Paisagem are at Galeria Zé dos Bois until January 7, 2023.
 Costa, Alda (2022). João Ayres em contexto: Os anos em Moçambique. Page 1