Exodus Stations #3

Artistic and Museologic Object: The Vision of José de Guimarães


The project EXODUS STATIONS #3 is an outcome of EXODUS STATIONS #2 which took place in November 2017 at Iwalewahaus, Bayreuth. EXODUS STATIONS #2 explored the collecting, archiving and museological practices of the founding figure of Iwalewahaus, Ulli Beier, while opening his estate archive to the interpretation of two contemporary artists. As a result the idea came about to explore other European collectors, travelers, artists and adventurers that played an important role in African modernism.

This project aims to foreground the thoughts and practices of the Portuguese artist José de Guimarães (born 1935). He, like Ulli Beier and many other cultural figures in the epoch of African Independence, not only collected indigeneous art, but also aimed to create interactions between contemporary production in the African countries where they resided and in Europe.

José de Guimarães and Ulli Beier are cultural figures that break down the borders between disciplines, professional boundaries, and the limits between territories. They are scientists, travellers, adventurers and collectors. Their institutions offer models of guarding and displaying objects, documents, memories and images that connect these categories. By involving contemporary art, they imagined new ways of museologising objects as alternatives to colonial collecting. These new forms of evaluating material culture, and new practices of cultural promotion, contributed to the progressive development of new understandings of so-called ethnic or traditional art in Europe, more appropriate to the new post-colonial situation and which transported a critical awareness.

This project started with an interview that I conducted with José de Guimarães regarding the theoretical questions which are fundamental to his approach: fusing African objects from his collections with his own contemporary works. This principle of hybridity not only characterises his works, but also the nature of a museum that he founded in 2012, the Centro Internacional das Artes José de Guimarães (CIAJG), which aims to open his personal collections of African, Chinese and pre-Columbian arts to the interpretation of contemporary artists. The museum’s director Nuno Faria elaborated a curatorial direction that takes as a referent José de Guimarães’s own working methodology: referencing the historic material, by incorporating new meanings into contemporary forms. In that sense the museum’s function extends beyond a simple housing of these collections: it creates a context to these objects – as conceptual referents. Dialogues are created between the collections and the new material realised, that expand the initial references. For José de Guimarães this approach is motivated by an archaeological interest that, as he explains in the interview, comes close to the iconological method of Aby Warburg’s fascinating ‘Atlas of Mnemosyne’.

Back in 1928, Warburg was constructing a database of images from all cultures and times, gathering around 1000 images (reproductions of all types), that he was pinning together on about 70 wooden boards. For Warburg these boards represented visual research tools.1 Contrary to an illustrative and didactic usage (images illustrating a certain topic), Warburg turns the boards into a platform for association and content generation, incorporating the principle of Dada collage. Working together with his cultural analysis writing, the boards functioned as a ‘Denkraum’- thinking space.2 He followed, for example, recurrent classical motifs throughout art history up to contemporary topics like social life, sport and politics.3 Warburg’s method of research was further developed through the ‘iconology’ of Erwin Panofsky, an assistant of Warburg and cultural analyst, who put together the basis of what is called ‘Bildwissenschaft’ in the German academic realm today. ‘Iconology’ follows the migration and transformation of certain motifs in art history up to the present, and highlights the changing content with which they are invested, according to shifting social and political patterns.

José de Guimarães’ work cannot exactly be called a scientific research platform. His way of following a theme from one cultural, historic and geographical space into his own contemporaneity, with his own artistic tools, is a process of understanding made with the subjective tools of a contemporary artist. In both cases, nevertheless, meaning is extracted from a historical drawer and applied to the ‘here and now’, which creates innovatory forms of understanding in displaying historic material, thus defying its ‘museologisation’.

As he explains in the interview below, José de Guimarães’ created ideographic alphabets through his painting. Essentially, Guimarães’ approach is against exoticising the material he works with. As he explains, he intends to avoid reproducing in his own artistic practice a picturesque, folkloric formal content of the historic and ‘ethnological’ material he works upon. His appropriation of cultural material is not formal, but is based on personal research (or collaboration with researchers) of the history of the collected items. His aim is to create an abstract, yet personal language, that transports a certain content and is universally accessible. For him, it represents a process of dismantling meaning and extracting its essence in a personal, subjective way.

From this point of view, we can recognise here the ‘modernist’ effort to detach meaning from a certain historical or cultural zone and to view it through a ‘universal’ lens. Humour and cheeky jokes are a key feature of his ‘hybrid’ beings. They show contaminations, and creative experiments which nevertheless take into consideration historical classifications, as the historic material incorporated into his artistic pieces is always thoroughly identified and dated.

José de Guimarães’ artistic approach also reveals its roots in modernism, when thinking about another iconic work which launched a new archival and display vision, and which indirectly shaped the formation of a new museology: André Breton’s ‘Wall’, exhibited today at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. On one wall of his office, Breton continuously brought together objects from Papua New Guinea, the MarquesasIslands, Oceania, the Trobriand Islands with the artistic works of his contemporaries like Miró, Dali or Man Ray. He developed this ‘work in progress’ from 1922-1966.

Modernist approaches of this type, even if they were later contested and brought into question for their ambiguous principles, established the fundamentals for the contemporary approaches of the new museology. What stands out are their efforts to introduce into the old and immutable ‘archive’ of historical museology – the regenerative new.

Boris Groys also talked in his essay On the New4 , about the ‘new’ directly emerging from its relation to the museum archive. He shows how the ‘alive’/ the ‘new’ is perceived as being outside the museum and it represents contemporary art. The archive, or the library, is for him in reciprocal determination with the practice of collecting in museums. The museum seeks the alive, the ‘real’, in order to introduce it into its archive, and co-produces it in order to museify it.

Archives established heavy colonial power-relations, being a source and justification of historic abuses with deep political consequences. José de Guimarães’ work can be also seen from this perspective, as a means to provoke the constitution of new meaning, through opening the archive to associations. As he explains, Guimarães’ approach intends to efface/erase? hierarchies between European and non-European material by creating a display that is horizontal, and by avoiding classification.

These crossed evocations of ideas, methodologies of content production, and formal alphabets also play with the political potential of the idea of ‘creolisation’ and the ‘mestizo’. We can also think of Donna Haraway’s writing and her idea of attraction between species that cannot metabolise each other totally, and which generate the hybrid of an inter-specific nature. In Haraway’s vision, the hybrid is acting positively as it produces multiplicity, interdependency and generates co-evolution. In this sense we can deduce that the political power of hybrids is to destabilise abusive categorisation and hierarchisation. In José de Guimarães’ work, the divergencies between the time-space of the museological and artistic material are united by the subjective knowledge production of contemporary art, which is ‘framing’ (and creating a display structure) to the museological display. In essence, José de Guimarães’ intention is to create through his art ‘boxes that display his collection objects:

‘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.’
José de Guimarães, 2018 interview in this booklet

The interview with José de Guimarães is followed by an interpretative text by Katharina Greven and Nadine Siegert. Their text brings into relation Ulli Beier and José de Guimarães on the background of ‘African modernism’. We learn about the background history, personal motivations, and cultural orientation of these figures and the institutional programs that they formulated for Iwalewahaus and CIAJG.

EXODUS STATIONS #3 project, like the previous projects, has invited two contemporary artists to work on the questions the overall research project EXODUS STATIONS poses. Mariana Calo and Francisco Queimadela, following an invitation from CIAJG, spent time accompanying the setting up of shows, filming the exhibitions, recording parallel events and going through catalogues in order to formulate a personal framing of the visual and textual documents encountered there. .
The selection of images presented here – Luminous Shadow (2018) – is a collection of still frames from a film which intends to mirror the artists’ personal questions in relation to the curatorial statement of CIAJG: ‘engaging contemporary and historic art beyond strictly museological classifications’. Their frames depict art works on display in exhibition cycles that occurred throughout the two years they were filming at CIAJG, as well as pages of catalogues that were edited by CIAJG. Their work, although developing its own conceptual framework, reloads principles that we have identified in José de Guimarães’ approach.