Exodus Stations #3

Interview with José de Guimarães

Marta Jecu Recorded April 2018

MARTA JECU: In your current exhibition in Museu Fundação Oriente in Lisbon (running 16th March – 03rd June 2018), you work with non-European historic objects which you combine with your recent works of art. What are the principles on which you base these inter-connections?

JOSÉ DE GUIMARÃES: This exhibition was based on my personal Chinese art collections but also on some objects from the museum. For exhibiting these miniature Chinese objects (for example small jade pieces from the Han dynasty), I needed some suitable display structures. The jade objects are the starting point of this ambivalent display elaborated by me with the purpose of integrating the Chinese objects. They also create a connection to my other artistic works exhibited.

M.J.: So you are creating devices to show these objects?

J.d.G.: Exactly!

M.J.: Is this always your working principle?

J.d.G.: No, not always. When I am doing a montage with African pieces, they can be shown independently in space. The jade pieces are very small. Not all my pieces function as display structures. I have also exhibited at Museu Fundação Oriente previous works of mine, which I feel function well, for example, with an Indian object that I have in my collection, so I show them in relation to each other.

For me the object’s ‘box’ is a very important symbolic element connected to travel and it is very present in my exhibitions. When I was in Angola I saw families coming and going, always accompanied by boxes full of things, of their domestic belongings. Therefore, the box functions as a recipient of a personal universe. The box has been a recurrent element in my work since 1960. The boxes that I create as display structures are especially made for certain collection items. With these boxes I have constructed islands of grouped objects and ideas inside the exhibition in Museu de Oriente.

I have also created windows inside the display which give access to some museum pieces, which are also sporadically integrated into the exhibition.

M.J.: What were the criteria for combining your work and the collection objects?

J.d.G.: It depends. In 1975 I did my first museum intervention in the Museum of Angoulême, France, which holds an important collection of African Art. Here I introduced my sculptures in paper inside the showcases that held the African pieces.

M.J.: There was probably no other artist working in this direction at that time?

J.d.G.: No, definitely not. At that time, I did not have an African art collection yet. The objects were coming from the museum’s excellent collection. The curatorial text was written by Pierre Gaudibert and included in the publication that was launched with this exhibition.

M.J.: What was the intention that determined your approach?

J.d.G.: My idea was to join artefacts from different occidental and oriental cultures. In Europe, the exhibiting of occidental works has always had a great predominance over the display of other cultural areas. When I did this show, nobody could image that works which are included now in the Quai Branly Museum could be exhibited in the Louvre – like just happened recently. My proposal was connected to the fact that occidental art always occupied a first ‘position’. I wanted to demonstrate that there was no time in art, that there are no geographical coordinates from the point of view of artistic value, and in that sense we should show contemporary production along with prehistoric art with the same dignity and intention.

Consequently, I started to produce these boxes to show 3000 year-old pieces wrapped up in my contemporary works. I see this process also in terms of an organic digestion of cultural works which is similar to the process of cultural anthropophagia. The antique works are digested by the contemporary works.

M.J.: In this sense you are following processes of anthropophagia, of cultural perpetuation, where cultural forms are incorporating other cultural forms, and generating new forms. You are not looking at them from historic or geographical points of view, but from the point of view of processes of creation?

J.d.G.: For me, historic coordinates are nevertheless important; the piece must have a quality, a historic presence. I saw a great exhibition in 2007 at Palazzo Fortuny in Venice, called Artempo (http://fortuny.visitmuve.it/en/mostre-en/archivio-mostre-en/artempo-where-times-becomes-art-1/2007/06/6039/progetto-29/), where ancient objects from different times and cultures were intermingled with contemporary works in an exceptional montage. This is a principle I also work with.

M.J.: Do you integrate the coordinates of the ancient pieces (time, period etc.) when exhibiting them together with your works?

J.d.G.: Yes, this information is always integrated both in the exhibition sheet, which includes all the information on the pieces, and in the exhibition catalogue. All the collection pieces are identified.

M.J.: Similarly, you also mingle older and newer pieces of your work – for example in the Museu do Oriente exhibition, the neon pieces are combined with newer works. Besides your exhibitions in art museums, which were your most important exhibitions in ethnological collections or museums?

J.d.G.: I have three collections: African, pre-Columbian and Asian. The first time I worked in an Asian art museum was in Museu do Oriente. I did another big show in the Afro-Brasilian museum in Sao Paulo (Museu AfroBrasil, Sao Paulo), where I just showed African works and my own work. I have generally worked more with African objects in the context of museums. I did another big show in Lisbon called Africa where I exhibited a big part of my African collection and my work, which took place in Patio da Gallé. I had already exhibited my Chinese collection of jades and bronzes in Lisbon in the Cultural and Scientific Museum of Macao (http://www.cccm.pt/). I also worked with the Collection Würth in Rome exhibiting my African objects collection and my work. African art objects are big, spacious, so they are easier to show than Chinese objects, for example, which are smaller and more pretentious. Next year I will do a big exhibition in the Musée Würth France Erstein. I will also do another show in the Anthropological Museum of Vancouver next year.

M.J.: You started to develop this methodology of work right after coming back from Angola?

J.d.G.: Even while I was in Angola in, I had organised an exhibition of tribal Angolan art with objects from the National museum of Luanda’s collections in the museum. I didn’t work with my own artistic work, but with museum pieces which were neglected and forgotten in the museum’s storage area. The exhibition in 1972 was called ‘Weapons, Insignias and Native Objects’.

M.J.: How was the exhibition trajectory constructed?

J.d.G.: The show created a display around the idea of African objects of power representation.

M.J.: In this epoch, was there a movement of thought in this direction? Did you meet other artists or art promoters who were valuing and showing African art in conjunction with contemporary creations? I am thinking about modernism’s attempts to fuse material, but also of later epochs right before or after the Independence Wars.

J.d.G.: I think that the difference between practices in modernism and what was done in later epochs comes from the fact that the Modernists had not actually lived in Africa, therefore their approach was completely different from our approach. The fact that I have lived in Angola for 7 years, and studied in the field, and understood the African way of living determined my understanding of the language of African art. An important project for me was to develop ideographical alphabets – languages and forms of African art.

M.J.: For you, this methodology has to do with real life, with ethnographical aspects, whereas previous generations were more interested in aesthetic aspects?

J.d.G.: Yes, that is true. In the book on my work1 written by Pierre Restany, we have identified an alphabet made up of 142 symbols. This is a process I started in 1970-1972, and consists of an ideographic alphabet of original forms, which I have elaborated upon, taking as a starting point African forms that I have experienced and studied in Africa.

M.J.: Did you collaborate with ethnologists while you were in Africa, or afterwards, to build your collection and your own understanding of this ‘African language’?

J.d.G.: In the ’50s, I worked as an amateur archaeologist and I started in the north of Portugal. I always liked stones, archaeological remains so I participated in archaeological excavations of the Tertiary period (Cenozoic epoch). These is a marine epoch, so I found a lot of fossils of shells and I also put together a collection of those. This was another significant direction of investigation in my work.

M.J.: In your work, therefore, there is always this component of scientific work, associated with your artistic work? Collecting historic objects includes a huge scientific investment, right?

J.d.G.: Yes, definitely. My collection pieces are not assembled based on tourist knowledge. Instead I try to get to know these sculptures from their origins, by visiting museums and getting to know the works of anthropologists and archaeologists. My information on China, for example, is connected to the neolithic era.

M.J.: Do you integrate this historic information into your work? Or do you see it rather as a de-contextualisation of the historic pieces by integrating them into your contemporary pieces?

J.d.G.: From my point of view it represents an integration of historical information into my work. This is achieved through the ideographical language that I have developed. The morphemes that it contains do not transmit folkloric aspects. It is very easy to work on India, China etc. by approaching their folkloric, artificial side in the sense of picturesque representations, for example. Therefore, I have created this abstract ideographical alphabet, composed of forms which transport a certain content, and which I have used to construct my artistic work for many years now. These forms carry for me also a work of investigation. When I do, for example, a series on the Portuguese 16th century poet Luís de Camões, I deconstruct both a mythical figure and a series of historic events.

M.J.: In what way do you understand this procedure of deconstruction?

J.d.G.: For me, it represents a process of dismantling. Beginning in 1975, I started working with a fragmentation of forms. For example, this painting of mine is a dismantling of a Rubens painting, but I have also worked with deconstruction in paper sculpture. I use various references that interest me: mythological, biblical, historical, while I analyse certain aspects of these events and the historical figures that interest me.

M.J.: Please describe your initial museological concept and programme for the CIAJG museum in Guimarães (Centro Internacional das Artes José de Guimarães)?

J.d.G.: The museum was conceived 20 years ago, when I made a donation of my own work to the city of Guimarães, and my intention at that time was that these works become the embryo of a contemporary art museum. The museum only opened in 2012. At that time, I also started to consolidate my collection of African, pre-Columbian and Chinese art, and this museum project changed, therefore, with these other collections. Having started as a museum of contemporary art, it became an international centre where my three collections would be joined with my artistic work. The centre was designed for contemporary artistic production that would be inspired by the historic collections. It was, in fact, thought of as a ‘museum of the world’ that would show simultaneously pieces that span from prehistoric epochs to contemporary times – an interest that was always essential to me.

There was a fortunate coincidence as well. When I exhibited my African art objects collection in São Paulo at the museum of Afro-Brazilian art, the Portuguese Prime Minister and Minister of Culture were invited to attend the opening. They were impressed by the enormous quantity of objects that I exhibited and the fact that they were shown for the first time in a foreign museum. The prime minister at that time, José Sócrates, decided to associate the creation of a new museum with the inauguration of Guimarães as European Capital of Culture. I had the opportunity to talk beforehand with the architects who were chosen for the realisation of the museum projects (Pitágoras Arquitetos
) and could participate at the programming of the museum’s activities according to my collections and the architectural space. When this project started to gain pace, I invited the curator Nuno Faria to be Artistic Director of the project. The project depends on the Guimarães city hall, but unfortunately we have not even a minimal administrative body – which is a great problem.

M.J.: Are the objects in the actual collection of the museum exclusively your objects, or did the museum acquire more objects at a later stage?

J.d.G.: The objects are exclusively from my collections, and the museological concept from the start was to join my artistic works and my collections with the work of other contemporary artists. New works produced during residencies in the museum by other artists are inspired by these collections, and the aim is to establish a direct relation between these sources.

M.J.: Do you involve yourself also in the curatorial decisions at the museum?

J.d.G.: No, Nuno Faria takes the curatorial decisions, but usually this is based on a dialogue with me. I do not intervene in his choices, as my perspective is an artistic one.

M.J.: A last question: have you also been driven by an ethnological urge to guard and transmit this cultural heritage, or was it rather an interest in reinterpreting it from a contemporary and personal perspective?

J.d.G.: My intention is to re-value these cultures, to give them the importance they were not given historically in Occidental cultures. I am referring especially to African arts which did not benefit (like the Chinese or pre-Columbian arts) from the interest in antiquaries in past decades. In the past, the West has mostly valued objects originating from the Dutch West India Company’s trade interests, like porcelains made especially for the expectations of Europeans. These objects do not interest me. My interest is instead archaeological and goes into the direction of Aby Warburg’s work.