Interview with John Romão, artistic director of BoCA Bienal

John Romão, inspired by shedding light on different representations that are often hidden or denied opportunities, runs BoCA (Biennial of Contemporary Arts) based on a certain sense of marginalisation, with which he naturally identifies, a reflection of his history born on the “other side”. BoCA’s programming echoes all of this: its approach to the world and artistic practices as a connecting and dialoguing territory aimed at achieving a greater humanity. Be it through its multiple branches or through the biennial that now runs until October 15 in Lisbon and Faro.

What led to the birth of BoCA?

BoCA, as its name implies, combines references from different realms, a meeting of artistic territories and audiences. It all started with a question that crosses all times and many different voices, and can be interpreted not only as a mirror of civil society, but also in the artistic context: how can we live together? We often refer to the arts in the plural, yet a certain amount of segmentation persists, not because the arts are censoring access to each other, but because our self-censorship is devising imaginary barriers between the different artistic domains. By challenging this shared experience, my intention is to bring together audiences with a range of interests and specialisations, who can then shape a collective entity out of difference. To fulfil this premise, we have built a project that dwells in a place of borders and intersections between territories of visibility, all of it trans in its identity – transdisciplinary, trans-territorial, trans-geographical, trans-spatial. It begins from its Lisbon epicentre and extends to include collaboration with other cities in each edition, absorbing multiple geographies in the capital. There is also an artistic crossover when we invite established artists in specific fields to embark on other paths for the first time; reinforcing the intersection between audiences that may be genuinely interested in the format or the artists’ career paths, coming together to ponder the same artistic object.

One of BoCA’s greatest assets is a cultural and mutually reinforcing ecosystem between different geographical locations. What factors drive these choices?

When BoCA was first held between Lisbon and Porto, I was keen to officialise the existing bond between the two capitals, surrounding a flow of projects that is common in the performing arts (especially theatre and music), whilst expanding it to other styles of performance or the visual arts. Later, Braga came along, where we collaborated with two very powerful cultural centres that I identify with – Theatro Circo and Gnration -, consolidating the connection to the north and capitalising on the flow of audiences that already existed between Porto and Braga. The third edition saw us heading south to test out other geographies through the Lisbon-Almada-Faro partnership, and the Algarve capital is returning this year as a result of a highly positive relationship in the past.

These geographical experiences have allowed us to encounter highly specific locations, where we have developed projects that mark BoCA’s history by providing an exclusive and fruitful curatorial and artistic approach due to their traits. One such case was the Mosteiro de Tibães, where Angélica Liddell’s work resulted in a project that is still travelling around the world today; or João Pais Filipe’s first sculpture exhibition at Casa do Volfrâmio. These partnerships are an opportunity to get closer to and fall in love with lesser-known areas and, at the same time, they can be strategic: by presenting Angélica Liddell in Braga, we have effectively encouraged visitors to travel from Porto.

The Defence of Nature project is based on annual plantations in a collaborative model between local populations and artistic and academic communities. How is BoCA hoping to spark awareness, inspire behaviour and lead to effective change?

Art projects, particularly performance efforts (one of BoCA’s cornerstones), often have a somewhat ephemeral quality, and this project was precisely born out of an eagerness to develop something that could have an ongoing relationship over time. Extending itself to 10 years – not least because nature must be given time to flourish -, it stands in opposition to the conventional artistic object that is conceived, installed, appreciated and then disposed of. In this case, however, the work of art arises over the course of a decade of communal labour and the works are installed/planted by each participant, reinforcing the personal relationship with the artistic/natural object created.

The major turning point in this project, nevertheless, is the fact that it combines an artistic with an ecological gesture, creating a co-responsibility between the environment/ecology and the arts, so that two apparently disconnected universes can cooperate. We have engaged the municipalities of Lisbon, Almada and Faro, whose departments of culture and environment and green areas have had to enter dialogue and work together. BoCA then took on the role of bringing together and healing open wounds. By fusing the environment departments with the arts, something that is naturally thought-provoking and creative, we have fostered local participation, something that I believe is liable to stir more, generate more and connect more.

From this project, and looking at things in general, how do you recognise the level of public engagement in the art scene?

BoCA runs many different projects, especially because we are interested in testing different ways of engaging with and relating to the artistic object. One prime example is the project that takes place at Maat’s coal square, where I invite an artist to design an installation which will then have a performative activation or a varied public programme. This happened in 2021 with Grada Kilomba and now in 2023 with Gabriel Chaile, and it always brings together different audiences, be it those who come for the art installation, the ones who attend the subsequent activations, or the public just passing by, as they are open events with free admission. Something else that is important is that both projects (2021 and 2023) are attached to a historical past, turning each event into a place between times – mourning the past on the one hand, and celebrating the present and standing up for human rights and freedom on the other. As such, they go beyond the artistic realm and, by virtue of their themes and occurrence in the public sphere, are also powerfully political. Most importantly, they appeal to an audience which is representative of the issues addressed, who are generally on the fringes and, through this meeting and sharing, come to feel represented, as the city welcomes them and their concerns.

How does the motto Visible Present define this year’s purpose and mission, in the biennial’s fourth edition?

This is a concept on which I suggest reading the programme. It is a statement on the present and the less well-lit or hidden layers of the major lights of centre and power. Yet again, I hope to raise issues of identity and representativeness and reflect on our relationship with the present, profoundly influenced by our personal experience as social, cultural and economic individuals. This ambiguity between the visible and the non-visible, a reflection of our commitment to our surroundings, leads me to ask: What is visible or non-visible and to whom? To look is a decision between what we focus on and what we exclude from the perspective of our eyes. When we are hyper-attentive, we may notice details that have never before been recognised or seen in the same way by someone else. Whereas the hyper-visible is so overexposed that it is easily overlooked; as with things that do not directly affect us or that we normalise, such as structural racism. Discussing hypervisibility in this edition is intended to shift the burden onto us and our choices. In other words, this is a spectrum in the relationship not only with the present, but also with the past and history, both of which often define us.

When analysing seven years of BoCA, what have been the most significant points in its history?

There is always a “risk” at BoCA, since we are founded on new commissions and on an experimental model. We work without knowing what is coming, although in a deliberate, careful way, backed up by a system in place, so that something significant can happen. The Cuban artist and activist Tânia Bruguera, for instance, made such an impact by bringing theatre to BoCA for the first time that she is now going to continue. We have defined ourselves as a kind of playground, which avoids the limitations so often imposed on artists by the market; it focuses instead on the experience, not its commercialisation. And this experimental ethos, which reinforces BoCA’s identity, allows artists the opportunity to explore and eventually enter territories they otherwise would not. Furthermore, our institutional connections give a certain degree of flexibility to these organisations, which often produce good results and open up ways of doing and thinking in the light of current events.

What about the future?

Our ambition is to obtain more and better financial capacities to ensure our development and all that we have shown we are capable of. We are confident that we will continue to operate on a national and international scale, moving from this year’s commissions to the next biennial in 2025, and always forging new relationships with other geographies in Portugal and abroad.

The BoCA 2023 programme can be found at:

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.

Signup for our newsletter!

I accept the Privacy Policy

Subscribe Umbigo

4 issues > €34

(free shipping to Portugal)