New show of Portuguese popular art takes viewers from Heaven to Hell

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Jorge Cerqueira, Marionette. Neptune and Triton from Luise de Camoes "Os Lusiadas"  Photo: Kyla Bailey

Somewhere In between

Within the show, Heaven and Hell physically straddle the world of “in between,” a realm of land and water, literature and politics, cultural icons and children’s toys.  Intentionally or not, the layout is in the shape of a cross.

A corridor of ceramic vessels, depicting the seven vices (on a table with moving video flames encased in rusted iron) and seven virtues (on moving water) is set to balance the worlds of land and sea.  It serves as a crossroads in the middle of the exhibition, not just physically, but also generationally.  Julia Ramalho, the artist of the seven vices and virtues is the son of Rosa Ramalho, and the father of Antonio Ramalho, whose work is in the “land” room. “It is very rare to have three generations of artists exhibited side by side,” said Porto. 

It is also rare to have such rich texturing and attention to detail. 

On the ocean side, a wall of tall marionettes, clothed in brilliant colours, hang in front of a black and white video projection of a stormy sea.  Titron, Jupiter, Neptune, a stunning pink Venus and a Navigator with glowing eyes reference Vasco Da Gama and his sea voyages, which these gods helped and hindered. The rolling sea evokes 15th and 16th century sea routes from Europe down the coast to Africa and the Indian Ocean. 

Across from the puppets are pottery and wood carved roosters, the ubiquitous government sanctioned symbol of Portugal. Beginning in 1933, the dictator, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, sponsored the rooster as an image for Portugal.

Plaque by Misterio brothers

Manuel Esteves Lima, Plaque: The crucifixion of Ze Povinho, the embodiment of the Portuguese people who are pulled in two directions by different factions of the left, while the ministers of the incumbent socialist government burn in Hell, 2009. Photo: Kyla Bailey

Politics, music, children’s toys and political caricature inhabit the land section, across the corridor. Of particular note are three plaques, popping with three-dimensional characters in a traditionally arched-shaped framing with good over evil and the commoner in the middle.

They depict life and politics after the stock market crash of 2008. The Socialists commissioned the first plaque in 2009 to be given to their opponents.  But when the artists, Francisco Gonçalves Lima and Manuel Gonçalves Lima, presented the piece — which depicted past and present prime ministers burning in hell — the Socialists found it too offensive. 

Shelton came to the rescue, purchased the piece and two more followed.  The third piece arrived at the MOA only a few weeks ago.  In it, Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho is depicted playing with a toy submarine (he bought a submarine recently) while the people surrounding him ask why they must pay off the national debt.

Along the wall is a captivating moving image of the streets of Lisbon in front of which large hand-painted wooden marching band musicians walk along a shelf.  The video images, explained Porto, are styled on shots taken from the back of tram movie director Wim Wenders took when filming in Lisbon in 1994. Music notes drift into the Lisbon streets, creating not only a visual delight, but bringing music to silent ears.

Nelson Oliveira, Three Devil figures, Barcelos, 2011. Photo: Kyla Bailey

Nelson Oliveira, Three Devil figures, Barcelos, 2011.  Photo: Kyla Bailey


Hell, like Heaven, isn’t necessarily what you expect.  Some of the ceramic devils are smiling, one carries instruments, another fruit. There is a female devil with her baby. All are a glowing, vibrant red, the rust beneath them making them all the richer. 

Devil dancer costumes hang from the ceiling. Shelton explained that they are placed in what appears a random and slightly chaotic order to mimic the feel of the three-day carnival rampage that happens in the villages and towns throughout Portugal. Devil Dancers ring cowbells, hang over roofs looking into windows and jump into gardens. 

The moving image in Hell is not the expected flames, but a stock market ticker inter-cut with images of a dystopian mural from by Miguel Januario, found in the railroad station in Coimbra. 

Shelton casts a new light on the idea of what is Euro-centric, presenting a different angle of the continent, reflected in this “piling up of history.” Altogether, the exhibition is deeply satisfying multi-layered, experiential and complex. It is an exceptional show.

Shelton has written a  300-page companion book that analyzes the last 100 years of Popular Portuguese art, and he will lead a tour to Portugal in the fall.  The exhibition is on display until  October 12, 2015.

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