From 1933 to 1974, Portugal was ruled by the Estado Novo, the authoritarian regime of Prime Minister António de Oliveira Salazar, which censored creative expression and government criticism while promoting its own version of folk art. The 1974 Carnation Revolution overthrew the Estado Novo, and ushered in a period of unrestricted creativity, providing a climate for folk artists to freely criticize the government and its policies. The 2009 world financial crisis, which crippled the Portuguese economy and forced Portugal to accept a European Union bailout package, provided ample fuel for the ensuing anti-establishment popular art.
Visitors to the UBC Museum of Anthropology’s exhibit Heaven, Hell and Somewhere In-Between: Portuguese Popular Art, on display until Oct. 12, can explore the various ways contemporary Portuguese folk artists express their religious, political and cultural beliefs.
“What we’ve tried to do is create a poetic rendition of Portugal with its own traditions, which are quite unique from the rest of Europe, traditions which continue to be alive and use images of the past to understand and make sense out of the present,” says Anthony Shelton, MOA’s director and curator of the exhibit.
Understanding Portuguese perspectives
The roughly 300 works in the exhibit, collected within the last five years, include puppets, figurines, carnival masks, ceramics, paintings and more. The exhibit is thematically divided into three sections: “Heaven,” “Hell” and “Portugal,” as the place between the two. Religion and politics play an important part in all three sections.
Shelton spent over a year travelling around Portugal researching folk art and meeting artists and artisans who agreed to have their work shown at the exhibit. David Gomes, a furniture maker in Braga, Portugal, was one such artisan Shelton met and admired for his wit and imagination.
“After the revolution in 1974, Gomes said, ‘I’m liberated! Now I can make anything I want!’ And he promptly did, crafting ‘The Hat of Salazar,’ ‘The Mask of Salazar,’ ‘The Glasses of Salazar,’ and making up creative stories about them. It was his character, his personality, the things he made in his shop which inspired [the character of the exhibit],” says Shelton.
Heaven, Hell and Humans: the religious Portugal
Portugal is primarily Roman Catholic and many pieces reflect the popular influence of Christianity on everyday life. According to Shelton, the Portuguese popular religion is more cordial than institutional; for instance, saints are portrayed as approachable and friendly, rather than authority figures. Similarly, the Devil, rather than a figure of incarnate evil, is seen more as impish and mischievous.
Greco-Roman mythology also plays an important part in the Portuguese consciousness. A major section of the exhibit includes sculptures, marionettes and wood carvings of characters from Os Lusíadas, the epic poem by Luís Vaz de Camões, which tells the tale of Vasco da Gama’s journey to India and the various schemes of the Gods of Olympus that help or hinder the Portuguese explorers.
“Every schoolchild in Portugal has to read this poem. The part that they always remember is when the storm hits because it’s so dramatic, described as a monster of a wave, the sheets of rain that come down and the cloud that makes everything dark,” says Shelton.
Zé Povinho versus the government
Much of the art is political, and there are several artworks showing politicians and corporate leaders being mocked, parodied and skewered, and burning in Hell.
A recurring figure is Zé Povinho, a personification of the ordinary Portuguese man that appears in several artworks, typically shown being crucified or used as a tool or pawn of the politicians. One piece shows Zé Povinho giving the Moody’s credit rating agency, which had downgraded Portugal’s credit to junk status in 2011, the Manguito (a rude gesture).
“You’ve got Zé Povinho saying, ‘Why do I always have to pay the national debt, when I’m on minimum wage?’ And the president here is saying, ‘Pay up! I only get €10,000 a week!’” Shelton says, translating one of the artworks.
The level of vitriol directed against the government raised eyebrows among some patrons.
“Somebody said the exhibit was politically incorrect. Well, if it’s politically incorrect to criticize the government, then I agree,” says Shelton with a chuckle. “A museum’s job is not to be the voice of the government, it is to be the voice of the people!”
For more information about the exhibit, visit www.moa.ubc.ca