Interview with Henrique Tavares Ferreira, now on Umbigo’s cover of the month

Henrique Tavares Ferreira addresses the why and the how, thinking and its manifestation, on Umbigo’s December cover. Merging science and art, his gesture is an empowering way of sending a much needed message, a warning or a reminder, which neither dictates nor passes judgement, but only poeticises.

From the fetish for the architecture of means, the interior and exterior, the intimacies of the home, the family and the self, sculptures-installations or performative happenings emerge which, albeit plastically distinct, carry a common concept and intention: the possibility of penetrating the issue, aspiring not to “take the picture of what you see, but to be inside it.”

The author, closely associated with the A Saramaga project, comprising creative dynamics and artistic residencies, is above all keen on continuing to create and, in the meantime, promoting the decentralisation of these practices by welcoming artists to Cartaxo who are invited to enter into dialogue.

Henrique’s artistic and scientific roots run together. Are they as separate as they are united?

By definition, the artistic process differs from the scientific method, not following the same steps or submitting to a methodological constraint, even if they share the need to search for a language or thought. They both answer a question with something that can be entirely different from the original idea; this is even more prevalent in art as the creative process evolves: the material can give way, the concept can change, new references can arise, etc. In this way, artistic construction itself constantly leads us to new associations, as a never-ending process. Whereas science inquires, attains an answer, establishes a thesis and then stops until it raises new questions, art is a continuous cycle of questions-reactions that may have an apparent end in a particular object, but which holds a fertile inclination to generate another artefact and a new process/study. I have always harboured a strong passion for the endless quest for answers that both entail, something that I find fascinating in science because it happens more pragmatically, and in art because it is more poetic.

The HIV Crisis Still project is a good illustration of how both doctrines intersect. Do you feel that being in a position of sustained scientific knowledge, more than the aesthetics of the works you create, you are driven by the politicisation-awareness of their content?

Certainly. With this project, my intention was exactly to take a public stand, to pass on a clear message and reminder that, even though there is now a treatment for HIV, it is still a disease that needs to be controlled, explained and in many ways dematerialised, especially the stigma that comes with it. There is still a long way to go. As I have been working in the field of infectious diseases, this is something I hold dear. Pointing out these cases allows them to develop favourably through prevention, by raising awareness and spreading knowledge. I simply use the artistic process allied to scientific thinking to make it more viable.

This drive to raise awareness through the artistic act is also visible in Cape Town Water Crisis. Based on this case, but also generalising it, can art go where established policies and common sense often falter?

These are difficult questions to answer, as we are too small to work on issues of this magnitude. When I speak about HIV, water scarcity and housing issues, I am driven by the urge and the need to intervene in issues that are pressing in society, which I feel have a civic duty to raise awareness. It is impossible, in fact, to achieve tangible results with this type of action, nor to know how far-reaching it will be. But all these initiatives are capable of making one more person talk about the subject, who can then assimilate the content and spread the message. That’s the goal. In this dialogue, I acknowledge art’s vital ability to raise a need without imposing it or interfering with the other person’s freedom. On the other hand, major political demonstrations, although crucial for drawing attention and getting to the bottom of things, can sometimes be counterproductive, depending on how they communicate. Through artistic practice, I strive for a language somewhere between what is required to be discussed, respect for individual boundaries, and encouraging self-reflection on individual behaviour and responsibility.

The Maramais project, centred on housing issues and the illegal/reality pairing of the inhabitants of Ilha do Farol, echoes similar thoughts. May we delve into this story a little?

Ilha do Farol is part of Ria Formosa, a maze of channels, islands, marshes and sandbanks along the Algarve coast, providing it with its own identity and unique ecosystem. People have always intervened and inhabited the landscape for the sake of survival and fishing, which is why small dwellings have been built, gradually eroding the region. Two realities thus clash: the ecological duty to preserve this ecosystem, and a population that has taken root illegally, with no means to stop them.

What is environmentally correct can be humanly improper?

This is a point I wanted to address, yet again through artistic discourse: the struggle between the ecological duty to tear down houses that damage the coast, and the people trying to protect their lives. The relationship between the legal and the illegal, environmental and human integrity.

I was conceptually motivated by what we do on the edge when we must protect the environment, but also people and their humanity; while, from an aesthetic viewpoint, the materialisation of this project was bound up with the local architectural solutions that the population found to survive. I’m talking about the adoption of improvised construction methods, using everyday materials, lacking technical knowledge, but stemming from the need to adapt to the environment.

This project also awakened a concept that has followed you ever since: domesticity.

In reality, it happened earlier, when I was living in Alpedrinha, Fundão, a town where transhumance is annually celebrated: a centuries-old Iberian tradition to commemorate the transition of sheep/goat grazing from the mountains to the valley, and vice versa. This is where I began to devote myself to the natural and the human, to what is of nature and what is processed, both in symbiosis and in complete disruption. Once again, I’m drawn to the architectural and the sociological: the shelters used for gathering flocks, welcoming shepherds, celebrations… I look at architecture, but I want to strip away the formal nature of its design and look at it from a more emotional standpoint, from the perspective of those occupying it, their reasons, adjustments, uses… Consider the domus in ancient Rome – the house, the place of protection from the outside world. An architectural privacy designed to shelter love, leisure, illness and intimacy. This made me think of the bedroom/bed as the most intimate of places and use references to this space and the actions that take place there, from birth to death; the materialisation of which embraces elements of this same spectrum, such as sheets, embroidery, lace…

This leads us to the sculpture-installations in the series Ocupação Natural, where the natural gesture and the human gesture collide, starting precisely with embroidery. Why this encounter? And what message is embroidery communicating here, since it is a traditionally feminine method?

The duality in each piece emerged from my role in Francisco Trêpa’s Caring is Sharing project, where I had to conceive a piece inspired by a dialogue with the artist Gabriel Junqueira, who presented a video in which, in a future devoid of humanity, nature took over buildings and a tree with a prominent trunk ran through the walls of a building. These pieces respond by reflecting what manifests itself from the inside out. The outside is filled with the same precious things that are usually kept private.

Going back to domestic and bedroom matters, embroidery is a metaphor for the role of women. It reflects the association between the feminine and duties related to the family, the home, the making of objects… Something that has historically been dissolved or transformed: do women want to be housewives? What is the interpretation of this will? What is the new domesticity? Moreover, the private area of the house is often externalised, both by welcoming friends and even in the symbolic throwing of quilts out of windows during processions. In both situations, our longings and secrets are laid bare, since the quilt, the bed, the room is our rawest, purest truth: I am showing the place where my father died, where I make love, where my child will be born…

What’s next for you?

I will soon be opening a project at Corrente in Lisbon, addressing my domestic life through the cathartic and satirical transformation of a personal health issue. I have another exhibition planned for next year, where I will continue to explore the domestic, but as a site-specific installation. I won’t stop.

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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