In my own language I am independente: Carla Filipe at Serralves
In my own language I am independente gathers Carla Filipe’s 20-year body of work (Vila Nova da Barquinha, Portugal, 1973), curated by Marta Moreira de Almeida, the Museum’s deputy director. Much like memory is not tidy, Carla Filipe’s archival endeavour is heterogeneous and non-hierarchical. Somewhere between a family album and a detective archive, this exhibition is both an anthropological and a self-portrait. As though it were a seismograph, the exhibition identifies political, economic and social strains from the past and present, going beyond the national borders and generating a series of individual and collective meanings.
Carla Filipe was raised in the houses of the Portuguese Railway Company, originally built at the beginning of the 20th century to accommodate the Level Crossing guards and their families. Having experienced this world directly, the artist delves into issues such as social isolation and the structuring of territory. As Casas Desejadas (2006-2011-2023) – a set of six landmarks that displayed the distance from the Level Crossing (P.N.) to the Rossio Railway Station – refers to the workers’ housing programmes that, between the conservative tradition and the international modernism, appeared to tackle the social problem of housing, promoting the country’s urban growth. Alongside the railway signage, the artist uses the graphics of trade union billboards from the post-Carnation Revolution period to create O Memorial ao Vagão Fantasma (2011) (on display until May 2 in the Museum’s lobby), an allusion to an oppressive security system used to thwart acts of sabotage during the 1919 railway workers’ strike, reflecting on labour and social rights. Also, within this context, the artist presents in one of the museum’s rooms a series of polaroids, accompanied by notes, ranging from fact to fiction, including one documenting the garden flowerpots at Campanhã Station, before REFER banned this humanist aspect of labour. This dimension is what Carla Filipe claims when she installs Migração, resistência e exclusão (2016-23) on the terrace of the Serralves Museum restaurant, drawing on the model of the community garden to address issues of ecology and social organisation – “from within the concrete, emerges the utopia of transforming the urban cemetery into life“1.
The first room of the museum’s right wing blurs the lines between art, design, research and activism. Artworks such as Paisagens Pedonais Noturnas (2020) or Escape from Reality (2015) turn this room into an atlas, an empire of images, stretching to the subsequent rooms along the lines of the WWW (World Wide Web). This is where we witness the split between amateur and professional, public and private, past and present, reality and fiction, and encounter cross-cutting themes in the artist’s work such as territory, memory and identity. Celas (2022) combines convent railing patterns and portraits of women such as Carolina Beatriz Ângelo – a member of the women’s republican movement, the first Portuguese woman to perform surgery and cast her vote, making the most of a loophole in electoral legislation – to introduce the History of Feminism in Portugal. An island of inscribed cushions in the centre of the room is the fruit of research and mapping of the countries that have already established the artist’s rights. Amanhã não há arte (2019) invites the viewer to sit on a Robert Smithson quote or fall asleep on article no. 29, providing a convivial setting to rethink the artist’s condition, while at the same time being a critique of apathy.
Whilst the first room is mostly graphic, the second is perhaps a reading room. Ex-votos: domingo, cemitério anónimo e memorial aos ferroviários (2012) is the outcome of the appropriation of excerpts published by the Portuguese Railway Company in the first half of the 20th century, on which the artist adds personal comments. A set of aide-mémoires that take us back in time, through one of the first moments of women’s trade union struggles in Portugal – the Setúbal cannery strike (March 1911) – to the successive suicides on railway lines during the Troika period, where a poem by the neo-realist Manuel Fonseca can also be read, depicting a painter who decides to kill himself because it’s Sunday. The same room is home to Bordas de Alguidar (2011-12), based on the context of the economic crisis, adopting the popular and cartoonish graphics developed by Bordalo Pinheiro at the turn of the 20th century to develop a political satire between the pre-republican past and the neo-liberal today. It criticises the lack of investment in culture and education using the character of Zé Povinho, along with personalities such as Cavaco Silva, Passos Coelho and Angela Merkel.
The corridor bordering the galleries is filled with labour songs compiled by Michel Giacometti and Fernando Lopes-Graça, part of the installation O Povo Reunido, Jamais Será – Representações Gráficas (2009-10) – whose title seems to ironically revert the well-known motto of the 1974 Carnation Revolution – consisting of a pile of tidy, useless chairs and a set of paintings taking their inspiration from political propaganda posters from which the written element has been removed. Ordem de Assalto (2011-20), an installation of food products reminiscent of Portuguese imagery, hung from fishing nets and flax thread, brings us through smell and sight into the heart of a local grocery store. Designed during the turbulent days of the Troika, this work harks back to the food rationing that poverty forces in difficult times. The last room contains Família (2004) and Ser pós-moderno em Portugal (2005) – works of a more intimate but no less political nature, an illustrated diary composed of personal narratives on relatives, friends and time at school, reminiscent of issues addressed throughout the exhibition.
The collectivist phenomenon is a constant in Carla Filipe’s research, from labour strikes to artist-run venues. After studying at FBAUP, the artist was a key player in Porto’s artist-led scene, co-founding Salão Olímpico (2003-05) with Eduardo Matos, Renato Ferrão, Isabel Ribeiro and Rui Ribeiro and Projecto Apêndice (2006-08) with Isabel Ribeiro. The Serralves Library is home to books, artist’s editions and posters produced in the context of informal arenas – ideal platforms for debate, meeting and exchange, genuine networks that stretch beyond the physical space.
In my own language I am independente by Carla Filipe is on show until September 17, 2023 at the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art.