Irene Maria F. Blayer
Heaven, Hell and Somewhere In Between: Portuguese Popular Art - Anthony Shelton
Prof. Anthony Shelton
Fernanda Viveiros: The exhibit at the MOA received a lot of attention from local and provincial media because, as you said in an earlier interview, “it blew away people's stereotypes of what folk art is. When you say ‘folk art’ – people think of a rustic,traditional, naïve, and simple kind of art. And when it has been dismissed in this way,you don’t look at it closely.” What was the biggest surprise—or discovery--for you while researching the folk art of Portugal?
Anthony Shelton: My biggest surprise was the complexity and encompassment of folk art or as I prefer to call it popular art. Folk art is a very fluid field that lacks definitions and, as a category, is often avoided by both anthropology and art history and is only reluctantly collected or exhibited by anthropology museums and art galleries. It is an awkward category, sometimes despised, generally only ill understood
and in some instances collapsed into ‘outsider art’ and long dismissed as naïve, rustic or even pathological. I represents, if you like, almost the ‘primitive’ within technological and industrial society; an embarrassing and vulgar substratum that troubles our artificial and veiled so-called sophistication. On the other hand, folk art has been interpreted as expressing the soul of a people and consequently a mark of national identity, usually through the historical persistence, virtue, optimism, spirituality, free form or spontaneous creativity supposedly reflected in its subject, bright colors and materials. Both views are mistaken and are deeply ideologically flawed but they do point to the complexity of folk art. To understand it we must know its changing historical contexts, religious and ceremonial significances, its political usages and its relationship to different classes, markets and the wider art world from which it is marginalized. It follows that folk art in Portugal, viewed in its full complexity is different from folk art in Hungary or Peru. Folk art is really not a very helpful category. We need to start from raw expressions and not pre-conceived categories.
Fernanda Viveiros (Interviewer)
The following excerpt is taken from the "Introduction" to Heaven, Hell and Somewhere In Between
“God wills it, man dreams it, (the work) is born.”
—Fernando Pessoa, “O Infante”
—Fernando Pessoa, “O Infante”
In a country full of shrines and miracles, heavy with its otherworldly preoccupations and divine, and nowadays usually less than divine, machinations, and once described by the writer Miguel Torga as the Kingdom of the Marvellous, there is a special place of dreams, a seldom-disturbed refuge, that has escaped all transformation by the external market for cultural goods and experiences. Hemmed in between the great baroque church of Santa Cruz and the small oratory chapel of Our Lady of the Tower, chiselled from one of the remaining gates of the medieval city of Braga, the Rua do Anjo winds its way up a gentle hill. Once busy with cabinetmakers and antiquarians, most of its shops are now closed, and except for a few establishments selling cheap factory-made furniture and a nondescript bar, the only clatter comes from the busy traffic that imperils children and other passersby alike. On a bend of this short, narrow street of three-storied buildings stands, at number 23a, the premises of David Silva Gomes, an extraordinary cabinetmaker and an unsurpassed bricoleur of all sorts of material contraptions.
Gomes’s shop is surrounded by grand buildings that express and recollect acts of gratitude and miraculous occurrences drenched in fantastic stories. At the end of the street stands the impressive facade of the seventeenth-century church of Santa Cruz and the grand hospital of São Marcos, founded in 1508 and topped by a balustrade supporting twelve giant figures of the apostles. The small oratory of Nossa Senhora da Torre, near the top of this short thoroughfare, was constructed between 1756 and 1759 to thank the Virgin for protecting the city from the Great Earthquake of 1755. Next to it the seminary church contains four magnificent side chapels with superb polychromatic sculptures of heroic size of the four evangelists. One chapel contains a relief sculpture of the Tree of Jesse, named after the father of King David, which traces the bloodline of Christ through its luxuriant stone foliage. São Jorge, so Saramago tells us, regularly haunted Braga’s streets until his horse tripped on its modern tramlines. It was here in Braga that the 1926 military coup that eventually brought the dictator Salazar to power was planned.
The first time I stumbled upon Gomes’s shop, in April or May 2009, it appeared suddenly and unexpectedly like an apparition. Walking past its closed narrow green metal door, I obliquely glimpsed through its small square window a dark unlit interior, where I saw the ghostly outlines of objects obscured behind three fabulously painted and decorated baroque crosses that stood tightly huddled together, filling the little window. The glass was dirty and smudged and the objects behind it were cluttered and cobwebbed, as if they had remained undisturbed for centuries. Not quite believing in apparitions, I continued to walk down the hill, trying to contain my excitement until, five or six buildings later, I was unable to stop myself from turning around and retracing my steps back to number 23a.
I peered again into the dark window and, exhilarated by its contents, gently pushed the door open and entered. I wandered around that timeless dark interior as if in a dream. The shop was full of wondrous and improbable objects that lay jumbled in a sea of shadows. It was, it seemed, deserted, but I dallied for longer than I usually would in reeling euphoria and amazement. I called, perhaps too softly, yet nobody appeared, and after some taciturn minutes I left the shop to continue my exploration of the city. Less than a few minutes passed before I was magnetically drawn back to those gloomy magical premises again, determined this time to find or wait for the return of the shop’s owner. At the back of the shop were two splintered doors with windows that looked into a large workshop even darker than the rest of the premises. I hesitatingly opened the door and quickly apologized for my intrusion, and out stepped David Gomes.
The man immediately began addressing me, leaving me in no doubt that he had already seen me repeatedly enter his premises and was curious as to what I was searching for. Without respite in his conversation, he said he thought I had come to steal his artifacts and creations, and if such was my intent I should not hesitate to carry them all away. He asked rhetorically why I hadn’t already done so, insisting that nothing was of any use to him anymore, since nobody bought the things he made. So began my first meeting with David Gomes.
Prof. Anthony Shelton has been the Director of the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia since August 1, 2004. An anthropologist, administrator, curator and teacher originally from Britain, Prof. Shelton is a leader in museology, cultural criticism, and the anthropology of art and aesthetics.Â Dr. Shelton has 24 years of teaching, curatorial, and management experience. He has held posts at the British Museum Royal Pavilion Art Gallery and Museum, the Horniman Museum, London and at the Universities of Sussex, University College London and Coimbra, Portugal. Of the 13 exhibitions Dr. Shelton has curated or co-curated, three of the more innovative include African Worlds (Horniman 1999), Fetishism (Brighton, Nottingham, Norwich 1995), and Exotics: North American Indian Portraits of Europeans (Brighton 1991) - all of which used strong visual imagery to question notions of material culture and encourage discussion about the interplay of image, language, and meaning. He is currently curating two exhibitions: Luminescence: The Silver of Peru (MOA 2012) and Heaven, Hell and Somewhere In Between (MOA 2014). Prof. Shelton has published extensively in the areas of visual culture, criticalmuseology, history of collecting and various aspects of Mexican cultural history. His works include Art, Anthropology, and Aesthetics (with J. Coote eds. 19, 1992); Museums and Changing Perspectives of Culture (1995); Fetishism: Visualizing Power and Desire (1995); Collectors: Individuals and Institutions (2001); Collectors: Expressions of Self and Others (2001); and Heaven, Hell and Somewhere In Between (2015).
Fernanda Viveiros, Publicist, Raincoast Books - Richmond British Columbia, Canada