This is not a poem, but it is a love story. 20 years of Adorna

Punk. Rebellious. Defiant. Obstinate. Dreamer.

Such is the seed of the Adorna project, the same as the person who gave birth to it. Estefânia r. de Almeida, the teenager who decided one day to carve out a new path and relinquish her French nationality, embraced Portugal permanently and has never left us since. She has been running the Adorna gallery since 2003, a move that started as an artistic gesture aimed at contemporary jewellery which, more than just straight lines, served its purpose when modelled on installation objects, an unassuming crossover between sculpture and performance, later joined forces with photography, adopting a distinctly modern, eclectic and censorship-free approach. The whole of it is three-dimensionality and hybridisation. The truth is that one cannot deny her artistic, curatorial and crafting hand, skilful and industrious, with a fondness for handling materials and tools; nor can one deny her blunt, upfront voice, shedding excessive adornments and commas that can render discourse hermetic. This behaviour prioritises personal taste over sales, a risk taken out of passion rather than the need to survive. Difficulties are always there.

The gallery, guided by personal choices, expresses Estefânia’s vision, one that is as multidisciplinary both in form and motif – from photography to performance, video art, sculpture and music. An exhibition venue for national and international artists which, more than that, is a meeting point for sharing between the public, the works and their authors.

Celebrating its twentieth anniversary this year, Adorna invites everyone to Rua do Rosário, in Porto, to raise a toast to art in general, to the endurance of those who foster it on a daily basis, and to those who bring it to life and/or who, by visiting it, give it reason to continue to enjoy happy years of life.

You were born in Paris but have been living in Portugal since 1994. What story brought you here?

When I was fifteen, I came across a fascinating group of people, all of them fine arts, architecture and philosophy students, avant-garde makers in the fields of music, performance and others, with whom I immediately identified. We had a free, emancipated and fruitful spirit, sharing many interests, promoting film circles and pseudo-intellectual dinners. I ended up being a bridge between France and Portugal at the time – my parents were emigrants and so I had a house over here – for French culture, from visual art to literature and fashion, whilst I soaked up their ideals and liberated thinking. We were equals. I never experienced any inequality in the then small town of Póvoa de Varzim, or even in Porto, compared to Paris, where I lived among conservatism, trifling interests, a lack of transparency, authenticity or empathy. I hated being French and a child of immigrants, which is when I had an epiphany: without even discussing it with my family, I renounced my French nationality at the age of seventeen and became Portuguese. A pure anarchist act.

Then, in 2003, the Adorna Corações project was born, focusing on contemporary jewellery. A few years later it became a photography gallery and finally evolved into what is now Adorna – a place for reflection, encounters and acknowledgement of contemporary photography. What brings and separates these two passions?

I would say that contemporary photography and jewellery are similar, as they are both easily overlooked in the art world. The physicality of both is another common denominator. I believe that searching for their differences is not important, as contemporary photography is increasingly becoming three-dimensional, going beyond the sheet of paper, while contemporary jewellery is becoming less of an ornament and more of an art object.

Can you pinpoint the moment when your focus shifted from jewellery to photography?

In fact, already in 1994, I was very much involved in photography and images. I was an assistant director for the France Culture television channel and had just started a photography course, which I ended up ditching because I felt I wasn’t any good at it. But I didn’t stop at classes, and that’s how I learnt so much from other great masters, who were all over Paris at the time: the museums and art galleries, from Beaubourg, Fondation Cartier Brésson, Viviane Esders‘ gallery, later Rencontres d’Arles, among so many others. My brother was also studying photography and he set up a darkroom at home. My connection to this universe was unavoidable, and that’s how I started collecting. When I opened Adorna Corações, the seed was already there, it was just a matter of time to find opportunities to exhibit, which happened naturally. By 2015 I was barely doing any exhibitions with jewellery installations, and I was beginning to see more and more artists and powerful proposals for photographic exhibitions. And so it goes. Finally, in 2019, there was a break-up, including a name change.

But are you still involved in contemporary jewellery making?

Yes, but I only create pieces on request, whether to take part in exhibitions or for clients and friends, which may be more artistic or traditional. Nevertheless, my creative interests run along sculptural paths, such as installation objects.

What would you say are the features of Adorna today that best reflect the gallery’s operations and the selection of artists with whom you collaborate?

My personal taste and choices, first and foremost. I exhibit the work of artists I have always admired and strived to display, as well as the work of emerging artists I came across by accident and fell in love with. Secondly, I’m incapable of working with artists who aren’t people of honour, generosity and respect for others. If art is to have the slightest chance of adding something positive to this world, we can’t waste time working with people who don’t respect those around them. Of course, I’m also attracted by the work’s pertinence and message.

This year is Adorna‘s twentieth anniversary, a wonderful milestone dedicated to the public and the city of Porto. Of course, these roads are always lined with a few bumps and setbacks. What are the biggest barriers you face today?

In a capitalist society, the hardest hurdle is keeping the doors open of this independent venue, which I run entirely by myself and which has never received any support, either from the state or from the private sector. I still encounter some resistance and lack of involvement from certain social strata of the Porto audience when it comes to artistic work done by someone from outside their social circle.

But, in two decades, you’ve also learnt much about tolerance and resilience. What lessons have you drawn from this journey?

Several. That we should be constantly up-to-date, open and available; that nothing is ever achieved alone; and the importance of listening to others, but also – and above all – to ourselves, with no fear of falling into ridicule, or of doing/ambiguously carrying out what seems impossible.

Only when we understand that we are an active and vital part of the world are we able to bring about change or achieve the “impossible”. That said, have you “done” enough to be where you’ve always wanted to be, or do you still have unfulfilled dreams?

I’m very happy with how I have progressed so far, but of course I still have dreams on the horizon. I feel a sense of fulfilment when I see artists from Adorna entering museums, as happened this year with Michael Ackerman at the Pompidou. This obviously takes time and is never a sure thing. I’m not denying that it’s extremely gratifying to be recognised by established institutions, but the recognition of my community comes first, the one that surrounds me and is formed by people who are somewhat outsiders to the more established art world. That recognition does fulfil me.

What can we expect from the twentieth anniversary celebrations?

The official celebration will be held on January 20 (at about the same time as Miguel Bombarda’s concurrent inaugurations). In the meantime, I’m making preparations and the doors are open to anyone who wants to come and see the exhibition. It will be a group show around the theme of Retrato (Portrait), a concept that toys with the expectations of how an art gallery’s anniversary should be celebrated. Note that I’m going over the official opening date (Adorna won’t be twenty years old in 2024), added to the fact that I’m combining works from the gallery’s collection with works I’ve gathered personally, which won’t be for sale. Using the old exhibition formats, the walls will be covered in works, whilst on the mezzanine I’ve set up a dark room, where a single slide projector on a tray will let visitors see a selection of portraits from Bruno Silva’s Lázaro project, along with music composed by Veredas.

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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