Black jell-O birthday party: António Olaio at NO.NO

I have a confession to make.

Although António Olaio is a well-known and widely acclaimed artist in the Portuguese cultural scene – and beyond – I had never, out of sheer ignorance, tried to explore his work more thoroughly. That does not mean that this was a first for me. We had met before, but had never been formally introduced (my fault). But Olaio’s work has no need for a deeper understanding of his artistic career to forge a rapport, whatever kind it may be. Actually, trying to find a meaning for his work solely through that route – despite the distinct authorial imprint revealed by the recurrent methodology – is harmful. All it can do is warn us that, before entering the exhibition venue, we need to put our disbelief on hold.

For this purpose – without trying to engage in a common, and somewhat dull, referencing exercise and following up on the exhibition’s text – I use David Santos’ piece to bolster two or three aspects, which neither depict nor denounce, but rather point to where to “look”.[1]

  1. António Olaio persistently strives for the infinite outline of his personal cosmogony.
  2. This endeavour, albeit individual, is meant to trigger the forces of our collective imagination.
  3. The result is poetic and paradoxical, whose force lies in the estrangement generated by the transmutation of reality, the modus operandi for achieving the above two points.

That said, now let’s move on to Black Jell-O Birthday Party, the artist’s first solo exhibition at Lisbon’s NO.NO gallery.

A birthday is a symbolic occasion, a source of celebration and sorrow. It signals birth, genesis, beginnings. It divides a larger cycle by cycles: existence, or life; pointing out milestones – another step forward – towards an inescapable end. Each person’s relationship with this event is personal, but understanding this nostalgic strain is a platitude, and this is where the artist takes us into his intricate narrative.

I visited the exhibition twice. The first time by myself and the second in the context of “Passeio da Estrela” – an exemplary joint initiative of several galleries in the Estrela and Campo de Ourique neighbourhoods – to attend the performance and book launch, titled Where Paris uses to be. I will say that the latter complemented the former.

The absence of colour in the paintings definitely provides a projection of what the viewer wants to see, emphasising how reality is changed in a way that is unique to painting. They bear the symbols behind their title and the surrealism required to load the images with the tension I described earlier. The looping video – with a visual style that falls into the same category as the other pieces – also carries this aura. And what it lacks in painting is fortified by the music, an original creation by the artist – in partnership with Manuel Guimarães -, as is often the case.

I thought I knew what to expect and this only heightened the surprise.

During my second visit – to watch the performance – in a room jammed with people – like a real celebration – the artist stood up from the crowd, climbing onto a stool with candles between his fingers, which he lit and blew out (repeatedly), signalling the passage of time over an indefinite period. Years went by in seconds, and objects were lost, starting with the candles and finishing with his wallet – almost relinquishing the identity of the one who defines time, turning it into common time, and into art (if only for the sheer absurdity of the act) – and he keeps on dancing, either to remember or to forget. He sings two original songs in a heavy, melancholic voice.

A friend said that she felt the whole exhibition had been turned into the most perfect setting. Lights off, paintings in the background, and the soundless screen running the video, as if it had been switched on temporarily because it was time to sing happy birthday and blow out the candles and there wasn’t enough motivation to turn it off. I can’t help but agree.

Regardless of whether it’s fortuitous or not, this is where the exhibition is cemented.

The exhibition Black jell-O birthday party by António Olaio will be on show until January 13, 2024 at the NO.NO gallery in Lisbon.


[1] All the ideas mentioned were taken from the exhibition text, written by David Santos.

Tiago Leonardo (Lisbon, 2000) graduated in Art and Heritage Sciences (FBAUL) and attended the Cultural Journalism course (SNBA). He is currently finishing his master's degree in Aesthetics and Artistic Studies, specializing in cinema and photography (NOVA/FSSH) where he focuses his research on post-photography within the Portuguese artistic context. In his work as a writer, he collaborates with several publications; such as the CineBlog of the Philosophy Institute of the UNL, FITA Magazine, among others.

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