Heaven, Hell and Somewhere in Between: Portuguese Popular Art
At the UBC Museum of Anthropology until October 12
Enter Heaven, Hell and Somewhere in Between and surround yourself with saints and devils and roosters and mermaids. Explorers and politicians and Christ on the cross. Flower-bedecked Madonnas, triton-bearing sea gods, hairy Carnaval costumes, and spiky dance masks. Just opened at the Museum of Anthropology, this survey of Portuguese popular art is visually engaging and culturally enriching. It also seeks to challenge stereotypes surrounding what we commonly refer to as folk art—its definition, exhibition, and relationship to the mainstream.
The show, curated by MOA director Anthony Shelton, uses the term popular art not in the 1960s pop-art sense of advertising, mass media, and consumerism (works here are handmade, not mass-produced), but in the sense of an art of the people, existing within the community but outside the academy. Many of the show’s ceramic and wooden sculptures express national and regional character through depictions of folklore, history, and religious beliefs. They also respond in an energetic way to current affairs and economic conditions.
“Heaven” of the exhibition title encompasses depictions of Christian saints, angels, and symbols of salvation or redemption; “hell” is suggested by representations of devils, witches, and damnation; and “in between” interprets the earthly realm of work, play, and politics. Laurinda Pias’s beatific Virgin Mary figurines, in glazed ceramic, are executed with sophistication and painstaking detail (although the overall effect may verge on the kitsch).
More outlandishly expressive and surreal are Júlia Ramalho’s abstracted ceramic figurines depicting the Virtues. All but one of their faces are decidedly womanly and their multiple arms and breasts hold or nurture an array of babies, little creatures, and useful objects. Ramalho’s Vices, such as Envy, Gluttony, and Lust, sport animal heads, horns, and hair, and their arms hold yet more little critters, devilish and otherwise. Still, the facial expressions of the Vices are not that far off those of their virtuous sisters.
Many of the sculptures in clay and wood express the Portuguese people’s vexed relationship with institutionalized religion. Some of the show’s bright-red devils are fierce and monstrous, yes, but others are rather sweet, almost angelic. During a media preview of the show, Shelton spoke about the multifaceted character of the devil in popular art, suggestive not so much of “unadulterated evil” as of more mixed and mutable characteristics. The saints, too, are not about pure goodness or austerity, but express a fondness for drinking and dancing and other earthly temptations.
Subthemes that emerge here include Portugal’s strong relationship with the sea, its people’s identification with navigation and exploration, and memories of a far-flung empire. Beautifully executed and elaborately costumed puppets by Jorge Cerqueira hang in front of a video projection of huge, roiling ocean waves. The puppets represent the stormy discovery of a route to the Indian Ocean and depict a range of characters, historic and imaginary. Curiously, they draw inspiration from folkloric interpretations of ancient Roman deities. They are also inspired by The Lusiads, the 16th-century Portuguese epic by Luis de Camões, recounting the sea voyages of Vasco da Gama. The effect is rich and dramatic.
Portugal’s recent economic woes are also expressed in the show, along with the repeated failure of competing political parties to solve the problems. Three ceramic plaques by Francisco and Manuel Esteves Lima satirize the social and financial crises that Portugal has suffered since 2008. Crammed with little figures representing politicians, government ministers, devils, and an enduring caricature of the Portuguese people known as Zé Povinho, the plaques function as three-dimensional editorial cartoons.
The most remarkable discovery here is David Gomes, a 78-year-old artist who worked as a cabinetmaker before giving himself licence to produce figurative sculpture in wood. (Shelton’s account of accidentally encountering Gomes’s art, in a dark and dusty workshop in the medieval city of Braga, will appear in the show’s forthcoming catalogue.) Gomes’s saints, crucifixes, and satirical eyeglasses are worked in wood and vividly carved. The oval faces, pointed chins, gleaming eyes, and large feet of his figurines convey a connection with place, time, and community—and a powerful individual vision. It’s the kind of vision that informs the best of this exhibition.