Cambridge, UK

Helena Almeida

Kettle’s Yard

One of the early works that best encapsulates the production of the Lisbon-based artist Helena Almeida is Pintura Habitada (Inhabited Painting), 1976. This is a photographic self-portrait in which the artist appears to emerge from a flowery background, wearing handmade white coveralls and a white square canvas around her torso. As the title suggests, Almeida was attempting to unite painting with daily life, and the merging of the medium with her own body offered the path to such a goal. Swimming against the current of a Portuguese art scene marked by the delayed acceptance of the international neo-avant-gardes, Almeida attuned herself to the then timely strategy of dematerialization, abandoning painting in favor of black-and-white photography and adopting performance as her means of expression. This option represented the fusion of the roles of artist and model—or subject and object of the creative act—which defines her practice even today, placing her in the ranks of self-representation that dominated much of postfeminist art.

“Inside Me,” the survey exhibition organized by Lisbon-based curator Filipa Oliveira along with Elizabeth Fisher, curator at Kettle’s Yard, and now on view at the University of Southampton’s John Hansard Gallery, makes clear that Almeida’s earlier pieces presaged the artist’s conceptual and performative stance toward painting and drawing. Thus Untitled, 1969, consists of a canvas separated from its frame and held upright only by one edge, with its reverse painted bright orange. From the early 1970s onward, Almeida has used photography on a regular basis, working in the medium almost exclusively. As this careful selection of works demonstrates, however, her interest in exploring the properties of pictorial tradition has persisted. Take, for example, the series “Desenho Habitado” (Inhabited Drawing), 1977, in which horsehair is used to form a tactile line that overcomes the two-dimensionality of the picture plane; or Pintura Habitada, 1976, a sequence of photographs in which Almeida seems to show herself painting the very blue marks that have been actually applied to a photographic surface, progressively occupying the image, and that the artist later appears to remove with her left hand, once again revealing her body.

Theatricality characterizes several of Almeida’s recent works, all made in her studio, which has become the stage for a sort of photographic choreography. In Seduzir (Seduce), 2002, for instance, Almeida analyzes the blood, sweat, and tears that amorous games entail. In the most iconic of the pieces to which she has given this title, the artist turns her back to the viewer and deftly lifts the hem of a black dress while her bare foot, revealed by kicking off a high-heeled shoe onto the floor, displays a red stain. This allusion to sacrifice is found as well in the set of works for which Almeida is best known, presented at the Portuguese pavilion at the 2005 Venice Biennale. In both the video A Experiência do Lugar II (The Experience of Place II), 2004, and the photographic series “Eu Estou Aqui” (I Am Here), 2005, the artist traverses her studio on her knees, in the former interacting with a floor lamp and a stool, in the latter striking various poses with her hands. The allusion to Catholic rituals so ingrained in Portuguese culture expands the horizons of Almeida’s production, rescuing it from her initial analysis of the medium-specificity of painting into a daring view, at once intimate and mundane, of the physical actions and symbolic relations of the contemporary world.

Miguel Amado

Translated from Portuguese by Clifford E. Landers.