Sketch for a museum: 1, Mónica de Miranda

Sketch for a museum is a round of interviews to expand on the growing reference to colonial and post-colonial issues on the Portuguese art scene in recent years. The primary purpose is to stimulate dialogue between a series of artistic practices and initiatives that have claimed an appropriate forum for this discussion, highlighting an institutional void at a cultural and artistic level. For this first interview, Guilherme Vilhena Martins speaks to artist and curator Mónica de Miranda, one of Portugal’s representatives at the Venice Biennale.

G: A key point of the Greenhouse project, with which you will be representing Portugal at the next Venice Biennale alongside Sónia Vaz Borges and Vânia Gala, is the building of a “Creole Garden” as a reference to the “private plantations grown by enslaved people as acts of resistance and food sources”. How were these plantations an act of resistance? Does this form of resistance resonate with today?

MM: As you said, our project for the official Portuguese representation at the Venice Biennale is to create a “Creole garden” inside Palazzo Franchetti, including a sound installation, sculptures, dance, workshops, readings and participatory events. Greenhouse describes it as a space of creation and imagination based on the relationship between the ideas of ecology, decolonisation, diaspora and migration. The project is divided into four actions: Jardim (Installation, Space, Time); Arquivo Vivo (Sound, Movement, Performance), Escola (Education, History, Revolution) and Assembleias (Public, Communities and Publication).

Creole gardens were an act of resistance as they challenged the forced labour system of monocultural plantations in colonial empires. By adopting alternative cultivation methods such as permaculture and prioritising multiplicity, these plantations contributed not only to food and medicine, but also to a sense of belonging and identity. Cultivating the land according to their own traditions and needs, these people asserted a place of autonomy. The plantations were not just areas for cultivation, but a symbol of resistance and resilience, a place where people could claim their own dignity and freedom. As Amílcar Cabral advocated, defending the land is defending our humanity, and the soil, as an active agent of history, with its continuous transformation processes, is part of the decolonisation movement.

With counter-planting techniques built on the variety of species and flavours, Creole gardens form an ecosystem in which plants protect each other. This not only defied the monoculture rationale, but also boosted the resilience of the agricultural system, making it less vulnerable to pests and diseases. In light of climate change, this issue has now become key to the demands for justice and decolonisation. This response comes from an intersectional, eco-feminist standpoint that argues, together with Vandana Shiva, that capitalism’s extractivist and monocultural system equally affects the body of nature and human bodies, both individual and collective.

Either because of its density, biodiversity or because it consists of plants from tropical botany and cultivated according to the permaculture and syntropic agriculture principles, the “Creole garden” promotes a space of possibility, multiplicity, liberation and survival, amplified by a vast range of interdisciplinary and transformative actions.

G: As well as the garden, as you pointed out, there will also be a vast public programme comprising a living archive and an educational area. How important is it to combine the artistic side with a practical and educational component?

MM: Greenhouse‘s artistic or visual realm is discursive and complemented by a practical and educational sphere, led by Sónia Vaz Borges and Vânia Gala. It comes from collective processes of creation, dialogue and interaction between various artists, the curator and the public itself. Like a garden, where multiple processes and agencies become entangled to ensure the ecosystem’s survival and upkeep, the work of art also comes to life through the many interconnections between artists, researchers, audiences and, in this case, the living beings that make up the garden-installation.

With performances, readings, workshops, talks, actions and agricultural practices, we call on the public to engage with the work, to talk and interact with it. We are interested in developing an aesthetic based on communication, so that the work itself is not sealed off, but opens up room for different reflections. We see ourselves as responsible to the audience within the narrative we are presenting, what it reveals about the world, its social circumstances and realities.

Drawing on Rancière, we still need to liberate the audience from its passive role to a level of potential action and knowledge. With this collective work, we not only think about the public when we make the garden and the sound installation, but also when we design the schools and the performance programmes, all of which involve another level of public interaction. The work is interactive and collective, which is why understanding these dynamics in themselves is important, putting the curator, the artist and the academic on the same footing.

Ultimately, creating a living archive with the establishment of a school, performance actions and a chain of encounters between artists, audiences and communities in an ever-growing garden aims to foster spaces for fantasy, imagination, new stories and critical fabulations.

G: One of Greenhouse‘s aims is precisely to foster “a discursive space of possibility, multiplicity, liberation and survival” within the Venice Biennale. Is this easier or more difficult to create as part of the Biennale? What are the challenges?

MM: The Venice Biennale provides a space to help the creative process because there is a moment of connection, of interaction between contemporary artists and professionals from different backgrounds. This crossing of discourses and practices can have a rhizomatic impact on shaping new discursive spaces, especially in this edition, whose theme is Foreigners Everywhere – Stranieri Ovunque, presenting a wide range of proposals that defy hegemonic discourses and representational practices.

There are several dynamics we must also pay attention to. We are trying to build this space within an established, historical structure that has its own ways of working. Imagining new possibilities and attaining artistic freedom within this structure, within an existing and established format, is definitely a challenge.

G: The wide-ranging, educational, quasi-forum format invites slower, more sustained participation. That is also an important element of your work, since you have been involved in a number of collaborative and associative projects over the years, such as HANGAR – Centro de Investigação Artística, of which you are the founder. Does the “space” that you are trying to take to Venice already exist in Portugal or is HANGAR a response to its absence?

MM: HANGAR is an answer to a lack of plural and participative artistic proposals from the Global South in Lisbon. When I moved back to Lisbon after having lived in England, I encountered an art that was very much orientated towards European canons, a reflection of “art for art’s sake”, shut off from the Global South’s issues. In this respect, HANGAR has always been a space of resistance, creativity and intersection between different areas, but mainly the visual arts, whose mission is to unite different geographies, to establish a place that catalyses experiences and connects artists, researchers and other initiatives, promoting the discussion of emerging contemporary art. Simultaneously, we are looking to provide a platform for emerging professionals from Lisbon’s Afro-diasporic communities, as well as those established on a global level, to develop Portugal’s contemporary art scene.

The collaborative factor is always part of my work, both as HANGAR’s artistic director, in my visual arts practice and as a researcher. Participatory processes demand time and dedication, which is why my projects often take a long time to develop because they are based on extensive research and collaboration. At HANGAR, the focus is on artistic endeavour and on providing space for important debates that have limited room to manifest themselves in Portugal.

Greenhouse‘s collective purpose is to bring this kind of arena to Portugal’s representation, questioning this nation-space by building spaces that encourage sharing and reflection on the very notion of border and identity, offering a place for education and discussion, reminiscent of the militant education assemblies of Amílcar Cabral and Carmen Pereira of the PAIGC and many others, which were held in the forests during the liberation struggles.

I believe that education is the bedrock of society, and we must therefore continue to seek more inclusive and effective forms of education for a fairer future, not overlooking the fact that educational settings are also subject to ideological instrumentalising. The fundamental point is to search for, mobilise and create schools or educational structures that are committed to social transformation, both practically and theoretically.

Guilherme Vilhena Martins (Lisbon, 1996; lives in Berlin) is a writer and curator. He holds a degree in Philosophy from Lisbon Nova University and is currently finishing an MA in the same field at Freie Universität Berlin. His literary work consists of two books - 'Háptica' (douda correria, 2020), 'Voz/ Estudo de Som' (author's edition, 2022) - and texts, chronicles and reviews written for different magazines in Portuguese and English, among which Umbigo and Frieze. He has managed and edited 'Alcazar', an interdisciplinary literary project that brought together writers and visual artists around the idea of collective transdisciplinary writing. Besides, he has curated several exhibitions in Portugal and Germany and is one of the co-founders of EGEU, a project space established in 2019 in Lisbon. Vilhena Martins is interested in artistic practice as a critical tool and a form of discussion. His work revolves around the notions of waste, fulfilment and desire, as well as their different instantiations. Lately, he’s been focusing on the phenomenon of tourism.

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