Artist’s collaborative installations revive at-risk traditions.
Portuguese diaspora artist and architect Cristina Rodrigues uses quirky collection of donated materials and interest in historical monuments to explore contemporary narratives. Art Radar speaks to the artist who has also recently shown at the Colombo Art Biennale in Sri Lanka.
Cristina Rodrigues earned a degree in Architecture (1998) before completing her Masters Degree in medieval and renaissance history from the University of Porto, Portugal (2004). After moving to Manchester, the United Kingdom, Rodrigues lectured at university and was awarded a PhD research grant from Manchester School of Art. Her work has been exhibited worldwide, including installations at Guangdong Museum Of Art, Museu do Design e da Moda (Portugal), Tatton Park Mansion (United Kingdom) and S. Clemente Palace, in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil). Most recently, her work was installed in the Cathedral of Christ the Living Saviour, in Colombo (Sri Lanka) as part of the Colombo Art Biennale.
Rodrigues’ work merges oral traditions with textiles in architecturally rich locales. The artist often explores “the role of women in contemporary society” and the role migration has upon urban and rural communities. Art Radar caught up with the artist to learn more about her processes and how she works with artisans to protect and preserve cultural identities.
Your studies span architecture, medieval and renaissance history and contemporary art. Do you bring these diverse interests together in your artwork? How?
My academic journey provided me with all the necessary tools to produce work from a conceptual stage to its final shape. I sincerely believe that if I was not an architect I wouldn’t be able to do what I do! When I entered school in 1998, degree projects were all rigorously hand-drawn and this provided me with the ideal foundation and methods of research and design that I still use today. Also, being an architect made me particularly sensible to three very important themes that are the basis to my work still today – memory, scale and the relationship of an artwork with its surroundings.
I am involved in all stages when producing a new artwork – from its initial design, to its planning and execution. I also am intensely involved in the selection of exhibition venues, as well as the design and planning of my solo shows. In many cases, the artworks respond directly to the architectural space, so I design my shows like an architectural project – with plans, façades, three-dimensional drawings, etc. A great example of this is my latest creation “The Shroud”, exhibited at Colombo Cathedral for Colombo Art Biennale 2016 (CAB). This particular installation was designed and conceptualised after the selection of the venue, with attempts to establish a profound dialogue with the architectural space through the narrative, design and aesthetic elements such as the hand-prints on the linen cloths.
Also during my training as an architect, photography was an important tool to register the different sites before, during and after any intervention. Photography was part of the process of recording the memory of the place and later it would be useful to me as an artistic tool and a form of expression. In 2009, I started photographing rural settings in the interior of Portugal. That same year, I moved to Manchester. The contrasting realities of this urban centre and the Portuguese rural landscapes I had left behind were very striking. In a new country and surrounded by different people, I felt the need to register something that would link me to my provenance. I felt a certain nostalgia every time I would visit Portugal. Photography was a tool with which to register this stage in my life and also a lens through which I could look at a specific reality.
Another one of my interests, which I have cultivated from a young age, is Medieval and Renaissance history. I was always fascinated by historical monuments, especially cathedrals and monasteries. My first two solo contemporary art exhibitions took place in a cathedral and a monastery respectively: “The Blanket” (Idanha version) a large-scale art installation exhibited at the Cathedral of Idanha-a-Velha and “My Country Through Your Eyes” exhibited at Jeronimos Monastery (UNESCO World Heritage) both held in Portugal in 2013. The works exhibited in these spaces establish a profound dialogue with the architectural space.
Please tell us the impetus behind your logo.
From 2006 to 2008, I lived between the Algarve region in southern Portugal and Seville, in Spain. During this time, I was studying at Universidad de Sevilla. I became absolutely fascinated with Hispano-Moresque tiles. These types of tiles and their different variations can only be found in the South of Portugal and Spain. The patterns and colours in these tiles are extremely rich and eye-catching. I started using these patterns in my drawings.
The Portuguese word for tile is azulejo and it derives from the Arabic word zellige. In 2010, I created my logo inspired by the central motif from the Hispano-Moresque tiles represented in a single colour – Royal Blue. The central motif is an abstract representation of stars.
You were awarded a research grant for the Arts Humanities Research Council in 2011. What research did you pursue for that grant? Did your work change after this project? How?
In 2011, I started my PhD studies at Manchester School of Art. After several years of collecting photographs in rural Portugal, I decided to study these locations in detail. The effects of several years of migration of the younger generations to main urban centres such as Porto and Lisbon and to other countries in Europe left physical marks in the territory. The evidence of human decline could be found in the abandoned buildings, streets and plots of land, to an extent that some of these places looked like ghost villages where it was difficult to see a human soul. This was the face of depression.
I was awarded a research grant by the Arts and Humanities Research Council to develop my ongoing research project about the study and register Portuguese territories with low population density. My research inspired me to create some of my most poignant contemporary art work.
My artistic approach to social inclusion in settings affected by human and environmental desertification presents a new model for transforming oral traditions into something tangible through collaboration between artists and artisans, and by (re)presenting this knowledge (back) in new ways to rural and urban centres. It has been a journey across architecture and art, Portugal and England and also a journey from urban to rural Portugal. It shows that it is possible to retain an authorial voice as an artist, whilst developing a model for participation and social inclusion rooted in issues which are shared by a whole nation. It presents a form of practice-led research that cherishes the art, as well as the people who live and work alongside the artist.
In 2012, I founded and curated the itinerant exhibition entitled “21st Century Rural Museum”. This exhibition grew out of my research. Selected Portuguese and British artists were invited to create artworks about the Portuguese rural world. The exhibition encapsulated their vision in a physical space where narratives were brought to life in a quest to engage the public in the debate about the importance of rural regeneration. The show was structured with a variety of displays – photos, sculptures, installations, drawings, etc. – and made up a narrative that showed tales of rural Portugal to urban audiences.
The research grant by the Arts and Humanities Research Council gave me the possibility to focus exclusively in my artistic practice. For one entire year, I was able to do many field visits to rural areas in Portugal, photograph and interview the local population. This allowed me to raise several questions about how collaborative art-ethnography can be an approach to social inclusion in settings affected by human and environmental desertification. As a result of the intense research process that involved extensive participant observation, I conceptualised and produced several art installations and sculptures such as: the versions of the art installation entitled “The Blanket”; the three versions of the sculptures “Dressed Mooresses”; the sculpture entitled “The Chapel” and the photography installations “The People’s Wall”; “My Country Through Your Eyes” and “Women From My Country”.
Your work combines culture, oral traditions and textiles. Please explain how you use materials to depict oral traditions. What challenges do you have transforming something that is from an oral tradition into something that is tangible?
When I was an architecture student, I was trained to renounce decoration. Minimalism was the main architectural style: everything should be stripped to its essential. This always intrigued me and felt this way of teaching was a kind of style dictatorship. At home I would see my mother and grandmother valuing traditional decorated objects – ceramics, rugs, lace coverlets and other soft furnishings – which would be described at school as decadent, distasteful and sometimes hideous. But the women in my family loved these objects because these were passed on from mother to daughter, from one generation to the other.
I started collecting these objects, especially those that no one wanted. Today everyone around me knows I collect the quirkiest objects. My art studio receives many donations from old factories, people who are in the process of refurbishing their homes, etc. These donations consist mainly of old furniture, old textiles, old stamps and new materials – cotton lace reels, satin ribbon reels, knives, fabrics, shoes, etc. The provenance of the materials and objects is very important to me, so every time something “new” enters the studio, its origin and previous owner is registered in a log book.
I also collect stories. My many field visits, and recorded interviews with locals allowed me to collect their stories that inspire the narratives in my artworks. In my experience, the entire process of creating a work that represents certain oral traditions is very fluid. I always start with participant observation, being immersed in a certain community and directly listening to the people involved. Only after many conversations, I recognise stories and objects that are relevant to them. In many cases I use these objects – displace them – as a form of depicting their stories and the centre of my artistic narrative.
For your public, in situ installations, I’m curious to know how the process works: how much of the work do you do yourself – from the initial concept, to the installation, to the printing/painting/sewing?
My art studio receives many public commissions every year. I always think about the initial concept before I start designing the idea. The first drawings are normally free-hand drawings and sketches but I always produce more rigorous drawings or use professional software after. I think of art installations and sculptures as if they were architectural projects, so I design everything exhaustively in order to make the idea/concept accessible not only to myself but also to others who collaborate with me.
The vast majority of the art installations I have designed are produced in collaboration with different groups of artisans – for example, “The Shroud” produced especially for Colombo Art Biennale. This artwork was produced in partnership with a group of Portuguese linen weavers from Varzea de Calde. The women involved in this project planted, harvested, transformed and produced the linen. The 100 percent hand-crafted linen was produced in traditional looms similar to the ones used to produce the original Shroud of Turin. After production, the linen was all hand-stamped by myself at my art studio in Castelo Branco, Portugal. In total, I stamped 66 metres of hand-crafted linen. The original stamp used in the fabric has the same design as my logo, and it symbolises a star – “among the stars”.
Different projects involve the contributors at different levels of the production process. Another good example is the series of sculptures entitled “Enlightenment”. The two original versions of this sculpture, one in black and one in white, exhibited for the first time at Manchester Cathedral, United Kingdom, from July to September 2014, were all decorated with glass and crystal beads by myself and a group of migrant women from the different communities residing in the city. During several months, I decorated these large-scale iron chandeliers alongside those women.
One of the reoccurring narratives of your work includes the migration of people from rural to urban settings. Please talk about the importance of retaining and protecting a culture’s social identity and how your work seeks to do this.
To me it is important to register oral traditions concerning poetry, folk music, ways of making different crafts, because some of these subjects remain untouched. Writing and reflecting about oral traditions in Portugal made me understand how truly universal local actions are – for example, the way of producing hand-crafted linen with a loom is transversal to many cultures.
I start by registering the ways of making, and then create something entirely new using traditional hand-crafted materials. I don’t think about my work as a way of preserving a ‘culture’s social identity’. It is only a way of looking at a certain reality and registering it. Understanding about a ‘culture’s social identity’ enables me to understand more about myself as part of the whole. I register and then create something new, using actions that are learned locally but are universal in meaning.
In an interview with Rajesh Punj for Sculpture Magazine, you mention that it is crucial for your work to be both relevant locally and globally. Name some aspects or themes of your work that are universal and relevant across time periods and cultures.
I was born in Porto, the second largest city in Portugal. Only when I moved to the south of the country in 2006, did I start visiting rural locations more often. During these visits, I realised that several Portuguese cultural traditions were completely unknown to myself. As a response, I started registering these visits in my photographs and also started recording my conversations with locals.
Later in 2010, I started collecting objects that were significant to these rural communities, such as the adufe, a traditional musical instrument from the central region of Portugal, which originates from a large Persian framed drum. The women who play the adufe rehearse on a weekly basis and perform several times a year in local and national festivities, concerts and processions. I was particularly interested in the rehearsals, when women gather themselves to play the adufe, rehearse new musical themes and share personal histories. When observing the women’s interactions during the rehearsals I realised that a simple object like the adufe had the power of bringing women together to share narratives, poetry and music.
Considering the importance of this instrument, I have created the first version of an installation entitled “The Blanket” in April 2013. “The Blanket” is a symbol of women and motherhood and an homage to the role of women in society. A mother covers her child with a blanket. I created a gigantic blanket made with adufes, a musical instrument locally played by women. Crossing local symbols (the adufe) with transcultural behaviours (a mother covering her child with a blanket) the artwork attempts to be a reverence to all women in contemporary society.
Your birth country Portugal, has a rich history that includes over 500 years of Islamic rule. Can you please tell us more about author Jose Leite Vasconcelos and how his book Opusculos inspired your “Enchanted Mooress” installations?
José Leite de Vasconcelos (1858 – 1941) was a Portuguese ethnographer and archaeologist, founder and the first director of the National Archaeology Museum in Portugal. He was one of the most significant researchers in his field. He was also the first author to write about the legend of the enchanted mooresses – a supernatural being from the fairy tales of Portuguese and Galician folklore.
My first solo show was at the National Archaeology Museum, located at Jeronimos Monastery (UNESCO World Heritage) in 2013. The existing collection of this important museum was consolidated by José Leite Vasconcelos. When designing this show, I titled the exhibition “My Country Through Your Eyes”, after one of my photo installations, I wanted to bring a different side of this incredible man and researcher into his home – the National Archaeology Museum. As many other archaeology museums, the collection is displayed according to its historical period and different themes, typologies and materials. I wanted to introduce an unexpected element with my contemporary art installations and sculptures, which cohabited with these very old stones for the four months of the duration of the exhibition – the element of surprise.
My large-scale iron sculptures entitled “Dressed Mooresses”, in versions I, II and III, were displayed in dark spots along the normal exhibition route. The gigantic white iron vases dressed with the finest cotton lace, braided satin ribbons, silk fringes and acrylic clothing lines, were illuminated by theatrical led lights, creating a ghostly appearance similar to the descriptions of the enchanted mooresses by José Leite Vasconcelos.
I am intrigued to know more about your work “The Fountain of Happiness”, which was installed at the Tatton Park Garden. Please tell us more about this work.
Poet Omar Khayyám said, “Drink wine. This is life eternal. This is all that youth will give you. It is the season for wine, roses and drunken friends. Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life.”
In the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, you will find many poems dedicated to wine and how this elixir changes human consciousness temporarily – alcohol is a disinhibitor. The starting point to conceptualise and design this art installation was this poem. Then, I thought about lavish Baroque festivities and garden fountains and an important garden or patio space marked by the presence of water, stimulating people to gather around it. In response, I created a contemporary fountain of wine, made of iron and empty glass bottles – “The Fountain of Happiness” – symbolising the perennial joy of the wine.
You spent several years collecting furniture from immigrant communities in Manchester, United Kingdom. Please tell us more about this process and how it unfolded into your “Bourgeois” installation. As an immigrant yourself, what did you learn about yourself through this experience?
I was primarily interested in understanding what type of furniture and other objects would be selected by a migrant family to decorate their homes in the host country. I perceive an individual’s culture as something that is always unfinished. When you emigrate, you carry with you the culture from your home country and then assimilate to the culture of the host country. I was curious to understand how this reality could be translated into everyday objects.
I visited the house of some migrant families from different communities across Great Manchester and enquired them about the criteria to select their furniture. When some of these families remodelled their homes, I bought their old furniture and produced different installations with these – “Bourgeois”; “Dining the Heart”; “Vault”; “Marzipan”; “Gaga” – all exhibited at Tatton Park Mansion exhibition in 2015. The people’s objects were displayed in a noble mansion, all of these installations were produced with furniture items previously owned by an Iranian family living in Stockport, in the outskirts of Manchester. The contemporary art installation entitled Bourgeois (2014) comprises four chairs. These were conventional chairs used in the family’s dining room for over 20 years.
Your installation “The Shroud” was included in the 2016 edition of the Colombo Art Biennale in Sri Lanka. Please tell us more about the piece, its historic location and how it was received by local residents and CAB audience.
“The Shroud” is a large-scale contemporary art installation produced in collaboration with a group of Portuguese linen weavers and conceived especially for CAB 2016. It was exhibited at the Cathedral of Christ the Living Saviour, in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
The art installation is composed of several hand-crafted linen clothes with dimensions 4.4 x 1.1 metres, hand stamped by myself, decorated with silk fringes and braided satin ribbons. The artwork is inspired by “The Shroud of Turin”, a well-known religious representation in western society.
The 66 metres of linen used to produce the installation were all hand stamped by myself in different shades of red, using my logo as the main motif – an abstract representation of the stars used recurrently in Islamic architecture. For many religions, death is not perceived as the end of something but rather the passage into another stage – as the life of one’s soul is perceived as eternal. The decorated emptiness of “The Shroud” attempts to illustrate that moment when the soul leaves the body – the passage.
Beyond CAB, do you have any exhibitions where your work will be shown? What are you currently working on in your studio for 2017?
Forthcoming artwork includes two large-scale textile art installations: one for Manchester Cathedral, for which the opening event will take place in the first semester of 2017, and another for CCCCB – Centro de Cultura Contemporânea de Castelo Branco, Portugal. The art work for Manchester Cathedral is a collection of seven altar frontals, for all existing altars at the Cathedral. It is made of linen, 100 percent silk embroidery linen and gold. Each altar frontal will be exhibited during a limited period of time every year. This exquisite collection, embroidered with the finest silk and gold, will be produced with the assistance of a group of eight Portuguese women, who are experts in a traditional type of embroidery I chose to feature my designs, known as ‘the Castelo Branco embroidering technique’.
- Women, textile and technology: “TECHSTYLE Series 1.0: Ariadnes’ Thread” at MILL6 Foundation, Hong Kong – November 2016 – 9 international female artists explore the history of women in textile production through video art exhibition
- Geometric abstraction: Xinjiang artist Aniwar Mamat’s tapestries at Pékin Fine Arts, Hong Kong – October 2016 – Beijing-based painter brings collaborative work with Uyghur craftsmen to Hong Kong
- Photo Gallery: Indian artist Shelly Jyoti’s “Khadi March” at India Habitat Centre, New Delhi – October 2016 – textile-based installation based on Gandhian principles honours traditional artisans
- Malian artist Abdoulaye Konaté: “Symphonie En Couleur” at Blain| Southern, London – in pictures – September 2016 – socio-political and environmental narratives explored through West African artist’s woven and dyed fabrics
- Annoushka Hempel curates Sri Lanka’s untold stories at Brunei Gallery in London – interview – October 2014 – Colombo Art Biennale founder brings Sri Lanka’s best and brightest to London
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