Playing in your backyard

There is something joyful about reuniting people with their places. Even if a man disappears – either because he dies or goes away -, even if places fall apart (even more than we are used to accepting; we will still say “That place will always be there”), the world continues to allow more than evidence of life, signs of fire, of this magical reunion between a place and a person. (How many times, in the brief years during which my paths have crossed with Manuel Baptista’s, have we greeted each other inside the Faro Municipal Museum or the Trem gallery of which he was the first curator, a few metres down the road, a venue which, since July 1st of this year, has rightly been named after him?). Manuel Baptista’s work extends beyond the city where the artist was born and where he lived for much of his time – but the ways in which people’s lives flow are elastic, not wasted or lost. One leaves, returns, leaves again, returns once more, on journeys of reinvigoration and growth, even when the reason for returning is said to be fatigue. This is what Manuel Baptista did and this is what this exhibition reveals, put together by João Pinharanda, who worked closely with the artist in preparing other shows. Death is heartbreaking, but it eases the pain to know that Manuel was carried away without ever ceasing to perceive himself as a creator.

The curator explains in the exhibition’s introductory text (and on one of the self-guided tours) how he found, in a poem by Fiama Hasse Pais Brandão (1938-2007), a poet who lived at the same time as Manuel Baptista, the title for this exhibition, which is as much a retrospective as it is a forward-looking glimpse. Natureza paralela, a poem first published in Relâmpagomagazine in 1978, includes a stanza whose final line indicates an operation to denaturalise the natural through graphic processes. Referencing the “moss” of the previous verse, it reads: “Its texture has the perfection of the ri/ ng shape. When the dust dries out/ the roots cannot absorb it. They only drink from the ear/th when the soil is moistened or drenched.” The line breaking leads to incompleteness, to ruptures in meaning that can only be restored by the equally forced reassembly of verses (in other words, their annulment as verses). As if in a chiasm of impossibilities, a drawing accepted by thought as natural is in fact truncated; and that truncation is based on accepting the thought of those bits of words. Manuel Baptista’s pieces shown inNatureza Paralela were made between 1962 and 2022 (the artist started to have his work exhibited in the capital’s galleries and then outside Portugal in the late 1950s) and are intended to point, as samples, to different stages or to illustrate recurring topics in his more than 65-year career. Some of them are based on this denaturalisation and re-naturalisation of the natural suggested by Brandão’s poem. For instance, this can be seen in the watercolours made of the Algarve coast’s cliffs, their shapes, colours and material accents. The colours themselves seem to be the outcome of a research into the material with which the artist prepared the watercolour paints: by capturing the natural, they suggest an abstraction that entails denaturalisation, but whose coming into being as a work happens by reconciling that break, by re-familiarising what has become unfamiliar. These are among the oldest pieces, but at the same time they have an echo in the present – see Falésia I, exhibited in the cloister of the Museum building, devised in the 1960s and only completed in 2011; the pieces on display on the two walls of Trem – Manuel Baptista, or, in the same gallery, the two “bushes”, one in wood and the other in plexiglass, medium-sized affirmative sculptures that act as the centrepiece of the venue and embody the three-dimensionality of what is portrayed; or the drawings with inverted triangles, near the end of the abstraction trail, in one of the rooms on the upper floor of the Museum’s cloisters.

During the childhood years (the age when verbal language is non-existent or frail, the age when it is being formed – fans is the present participle of the verb fari, “to speak”; with the negative prefix in-, the Latin word infans designates someone who cannot speak), nothing in the world is natural to the child, in the usual sense; everything is new and hence strange. The peculiarity of this life period is that foreignness is welcomed with great kindness. The need and willingness to know moulds the way the world is embraced. Manuel Baptista was a keen toy collector: he started by keeping those that belonged to his own childhood and continued, throughout his life, to add many others, from times other than his own, from places other than his own, increasing the number of children’s items around him, wordless playing objects – those that, without saying much, narrate stories, remind us of challenges, bravery and joy. One can understand, therefore, that he has infused his art with these signs of a world whose arms are open to what is coming for the first time, to what, no matter how strange it may seem, will become natural. This is true not only when the artist includes figures or materials that point to childhood, but also in the playful manner in which he interacts with the exhibition’s visitors. João Pinharanda’s curatorial approach took on Manuel Baptista’s attitude and smile and ensured that the works’ journey through the rooms was marked by a playful interaction. Maybe the initial stage of this communal play is in the chapel area, in the large sphere lined with sisal, a giant spinning top throwing off balance a supposed centre of the senses; this continues, for example, in the trompe l’oeil of the “fan” resulting from the arrangement, as if they were sunbeams – only half of them – over a horizon, of painted fabric patches; and perhaps its pinnacle is the moment when the visitor comes across the showcase in which the artist’s glasses are stored among notebooks with sketches of multiple works (some included in the exhibition). The glasses remind us of him and emphasise his absence; without saying anything, they tell us that Manuel Baptista is no longer there, but that his vision lives on and is reflected, filtered through those iconic round lenses, in each of the works on display.

Exhibiting Manuel Baptista’s works in Faro (from the first ones he displayed to those he was working on when his heart stopped beating in April this year) is a way of indicating that an artist’s home, no matter how big the world may be, is very much here. 

The exhibition Natureza Paralela, curated by João Pinharanda, can be seen until October 1 in several locations at the Faro Municipal Museum and Trem – Manuel Baptista.

Ana Isabel Soares (b. 1970) has a PhD in Literary Theory (Lisbon, 2003), and has been teaching in the Algarve University (Faro, Portugal) since 1996. She was one of the founders of AIM – Portuguese Association of Moving Image Researchers. Her interests are in literature, visual arts, and cinema. She writes, translates, and publishes in Portuguese and international publications. She is a full member of CIAC – Research Centre for Arts and Communication.

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