The Ambassadors


Left: Artist João Pedro Vale with dealers Filomena Soares and Manuel Santos. Right: Artist Mafalda Santos. (All photos: Miguel Amado)

Last Saturday morning, a group of Lisbon-based artists, dealers, critics, and journalists flew to Luxembourg for the opening of “Portugal Agora” (Portugal Now) at MUDAM, a show co-organized by the museum’s director, Marie-Claude Beaud, and curators Clément Minighetti and Björn Dahlström. Although everybody knew one another, the group seemed divided into cliques, a common condition of the historically atomized Portuguese art world and one that seemed insurmountable, even at the most ambitious exhibition yet of “Portuguese art” outside the country itself.

The exhibition brings together thirty-eight artists, a cohort that, as Minighetti put it, would “reveal the various practices and generations” that make up the country’s cultural life. This sentiment, albeit with a different complexion, was also expressed by Serralves Museum director João Fernandes, who observed that he “would never have dared to make such a diverse selection of artists.” Even if the show is, according to Instituto Camões president Simonetta Luz Afonso, “extremely important” because it was organized by foreign curators, the checklist nevertheless reflects, in large part, the current power relations within the Portuguese art scene, which is dominated by a few curators and critics who emerged in the mid- to late 1990s and who today focus almost exclusively on a handful of artists and dealers. The lack of works by Julião Sarmento—one of the most widely recognized Portuguese artists worldwide—was surprising given the show’s variety of artists, from old master Paula Rego to international rising star Joana Vasconcelos to the San Francisco–based muralist Rigo 23 to young painter Mafalda Santos.

MUDAM’s Director Marie-Claude Beaud and Portuguese minister of finance Fernando Teixeira dos Santos. Right: Curators Björn Dahlström and Clément Minighetti.

Santos’s father, Portuguese minister of finance Fernando Teixeira dos Santos, and former European Commission president Jacques Santer were among the VIPs who patiently listened to the official opening speech, which emphasized the importance of the exhibition as a way of raising the status of the long-standing yet oft-neglected Portuguese community in Luxembourg. The city, one of this year’s European Capitals of Culture, has long been home to a migrant Portuguese population—hence the framework of the exhibition. However, this topic wasn’t much addressed by the works on view, as the majority of Portuguese artists engage primarily with formal questions rather than social issues. Indeed, only Isabel Carvalho dealt with immigration in her projects: She set up two radio panel discussions with young Luxembourg-based artists and musicians of Portuguese descent and also commissioned local hip-hop bands to perform at the opening.

After noting Rigo 23’s STOP sign (written in Portuguese), I followed the VIP committee through the intricate I. M. Pei–designed building and Sancho Silva’s mazelike brick structure girding the lower floors. I noticed that some artists were frustrated by technical difficulties—sculptures had to be fixed and video projections turned on. Apparently, an earlier power failure had thrown a wrench into the installation process. Others were quite pleased, including Margarida Gouveia and Miguel Branco, whose photography and miniature paintings and sculptures of fantastic human and animal figures are smartly juxtaposed. João Pedro Vale, who is exhibiting a large-scale installation that references “Jack and the Beanstalk” in the museum’s grand hall, and Vasconcelos, whose suspended sculpture featuring a popular form of Portuguese jewelry made from red plastic cutlery has been given a large space to itself, were also radiant, not only because their works were magnificently presented but also because they were attracting most of the attention.

Left: Collector João Pinto de Sousa and artist Joana Vasconcelos. Right: Artists Wendy Wong and Sancho Silva.

Initially mistaking him for Vale, a journalist approached João Penalva in order to provoke a comment. Reluctant at first, Penalva said that this was a significant show for the promotion of Portuguese art, although he acknowledged that he wasn’t “sure what Portuguese art is.” How, Penalva wondered, if he has been living in London for more than twenty-five years, does his production relate to Portugal? The question reminded me of another visitor’s comment in regard to the conspicuous absence from the opening of Pedro Cabrita Reis, the title of whose work A propos des lieux d’origine (About the Places of Origin) provides the subtitle for the exhibition. Apparently, Cabrita Reis proclaimed that he “wasn’t a Portuguese artist, just an artist.” On that brisk night, in between the small talk and cigarettes, I was left to wonder how many of the other artists sympathized with, or even understood the implications of, his sentiment.

Left: Dealer Andrea Bagisnki and fashion designer Felipe Oliveira Baptista. Right: Artist Ricardo Jacinto.

Left: Artist Isabel Carvalho. Right: Artist Rigo 23 and Zé dos Bois director Natxo Checa.

Left: Artist João Penalva. Right: Artists José Pedro Croft and João Queiroz.