Oficinas do Convento and the work of the earth lighting up the city

Tiago Fróis (artistic director) and João Rolaça (researcher and programmer).

Understanding the cultural life in Montemor-o-Novo is not easy. The city has a busy agenda, which makes cultural associations fight among themselves for a prominent place and Oficinas do Convento (OC) is one of those cases. Working on culture, fine arts and heritage, the programming is stimulated by the connection to Montemor, in an intimate collaboration with local cultural agents and artists, respecting the constraints of the place, the material and immaterial legacy. The results are like cultural assets for the inhabitant: artistic creations that encompass different generations and disciplines, past and future, national and international community; saving knowledge and techniques, in an ongoing process of discovery and activation of urban space and traditional architecture.

According to the team, OC creates reservoirs where people can meet to conspire, after all “activism” is a trait of those who one day decided to unite and put Montemor on the map of Portuguese artistic and cultural production and promotion.

How was the OC born?

It was formally created in 1996, but the association appeared before, on the initiative of a group of plastic artists and other people who wanted to develop the city of Montemor-o-Novo locally. We knew it would be easy to develop the project as a collective and so we merged Marca – a local development association – and OC – a cultural association on matters of cultural programming and creation.

When we took over the management, Convento de São Francisco (once the municipal building yards) was abandoned, but had a studio given by the municipality to the artists. We did a survey of the telheiros – traditional brick production units – and the project began to rehabilitate these infrastructures and the production of ceramics. We wanted to examine the earth and the local raw material to bring it to the present through technology, encouraging the crossing, updating and adaptation of techniques and traditions to the contemporary context. On the one hand we are very much attached to heritage and the past, on the other we have our eyes on the present and future.

What impact do you feel you have had on the city in these 27 years of activity? How important are cultural organisations in this transformation?

Of the eleven members of this team, most were not born in Montemor. Today they are here because our collaborative, intersectional and multidisciplinary structure and work establishes points with the local context and people, allowing projects to be developed. This boosts the expansion and settlement of the community in this territory. And the role of local cultural policy, which granted us a significant venue, is extremely important.

The OC was directly or indirectly at the root of other associations, with which we enjoy a healthy and cooperative relationship, requesting equipment, staff or solving other programmatic issues. The DNA of cultural associations is intrinsically collaborative; thanks to this connection between entities, the city has today an enormous offer and resources. We are even programming things for the periphery, like the case of the PreOcupada festival, which started in the centre of Montemor, but is now almost all in the village of Casa Branca, 20 km away. We have evolved in favour of opportunities and the need to decentralise things, but also to stimulate and attract attention to other places, which represent new challenges and bring us closer to the community. All venues can be seen from an artistic, community, social or sustainable perspective.

As a venue dedicated to creation and reflection, how does OC go beyond its local context to address the urgencies of today’s world?

We believe that the centre is where we are and this allows us to engage in finding solutions and conditions that can permit other forms of activism. OC is fed by a cooperative network, articulated with different layers of contemporary life: inhabiting, enjoying, relating, caring; this philosophy is intrinsic to our DNA and programming. An example of our concerns is the partnership with BI0N – Building Impact Zero Network, an exchange network of European organisations dedicated to low environmental impact construction techniques.

The impact of OC is dependent on its global reach, even if the starting point is local and specific – i.e. what is around us and how we are going to build with that resource(s). We give great emphasis to earth because it is an accessible raw material, available in our territory, with building potential. But in another region the construction would be done with different materials; but the principle of action and creation is locally centred. These are issues that make sense today and now, but with universal and contemporary ramifications.

The project Oficinas da Cerâmica e da Terra is a significant part of your identity. What distinguishes your venues and what is the relationship with Convento de S. Francisco?

The OC has four complementary units – Convento de S. Francisco, Centro de Investigação Ceramica, Laboratório de Terra and Telheiro da Encosta do Castelo – whose expansion has taken place according to a productive and resource-managing organization, associated with collaborative work, exchanges and volunteering. The Convento is the headquarters, dedicated to more artistic and creative production; the other units are part of Oficinas de Cerâmica e da Terra. Centro de Investigação Cerâmica is a workshop for artistic endeavours in ceramics where artistic residencies, trainings and other events and experiences take place and can be used by the artistic and non-artistic, local and non-local community. Laboratório de Terra is an architectural space in raw earth and dedicated to construction techniques, where there are also trainings (many of them international). And Telheiro da Encosta do Castelo is an artisanal brick production unit, using local clay and firing with traditional techniques, mixing the productive and vernacular side with contemporary artistic creation, using the same materials and processes. A space for research, innovation and experimentation based on the place and the methods and technologies of the past.

This cooperative profile leads me to think about the collaborative dynamics at OC. Do the resident artists also partake in the (re)construction of the space?

Maintenance that does not require specific technical knowledge or resources can be done by teams of volunteers who become more autonomous within the structure. In some situations, the users of the venue propose solutions. On the other hand, the residences are research engines in terms that interest us and that we think are relevant in the near future, trying to bridge the gap between the research developed and our needs.

We work with openness and prefer proactivity. The people who join the project can do it autonomously, renting the space, but we can also establish exchange relationships, where we give the floor to someone who provides us with their know-how, collaborating with us in different needs. This warrants the transmission of methodologies and values, with the possibility of interaction and collaboration with all kinds of audiences, both from a more commercial point of view and in supporting younger/emerging artistic creation.

What will 2023 look like for OC?

The intersection of multiple complementary disciplines, the fruit of international cooperation with other entities, and also national or local work.

We highlight the international project SEEDS – Sustainable Development of Artistic Tools, based on artistic residencies to bring art and sustainability together, creating materials and artistic tools developed with sustainable techniques and methodologies. There will be other residencies, such as those on product design, sonosculture and on brick as creative matter and discourse; there is also a project of artistic residencies curated by Oficinas do Convento, Osso Colectivo (São Gregório, Caldas da Rainha), Maus Hábitos (Porto) and Pó de Vir a Ser (Évora).

Our upcoming events include the exhibition “Mater” opening on March 23 at the White Pavilion of Lisbon Municipal Galleries to explore the work of three renowned artists who have a close relationship with OC. And the annual event “Pre0cupada” at the end of June, in collaboration with other associations, with proposals from creators in residence. To finish, masterclasses and workshops on earth arts and ceramics, constructive techniques, screen printing, and digital production for artistic processes.

Master in Curatorial Studies from the University of Coimbra, and with a degree in Photography from the Portuguese Institute of Photography in Porto, and in Cultural Planning and Management, Mafalda develops her work in the areas of production, communication and activation, within the scope of Photography Festivals and Visual Arts - Encontros da Imagem, in Braga (Portugal) and Fotofestiwal, in Lodz (Poland). She also collaborated with Porto / Post / Doc: Film & Media Festival and Curtas Vila do Conde-Festival Internacional de Cinema. In 2020, and she was one of those responsible for the curatorial project of the exhibition “AEIOU: Os Espacialistas em Pro (ex)cess”, developed at Colégio das Artes, University of Coimbra. As a photographer, she was involved in laboratory projects of analogue photography and educational programs for Silverlab (Porto) and Passos Audiovisuais Associação Cultural (Braga), while dedicating herself to photography in a professional format or, spontaneously, in personal projects.

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