Over the last 40 years, José Guimarães has found inspiration in the traditional cultures of countries all over the world. We set out, in the company of the artist, to discover the travel stories behind his work.
When a young artist asks José Guimarães for one piece of advice, he answers without delay: “You have to see and travel a lot to feel things”. That’s what he did when, at the beginning of the 60s he travelled around Europe: “At the time, the thing that interested me was historical painting.” He recalls that in Paris he visited a Pablo Picasso retrospective. “It’s curious that a genius like Picasso should use readymade objects, starting with African culture. But the artifacts he had seen were in antiques shops or the Musée de l’Homme in Paris.” This contrasted with José Guimarães, some of whose most important experiences and influences came about while he was in Africa. His exhibition entitled O Diálogo Mestiço (held in the summer at the Pátio da Galé in Lisbon) included some objects from his collection of African tribal art, as well as his own work. Everything on show expressed the Portuguese artist’s recognition and respect for the various cultures he has drawn inspiration from.
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Out of Africa
In the now distant year of 1967, José Guimarães left for Angola on a military service commission, as a captain and telecommunications engineer. Although he lived in Luanda he travelled the length of the country, “from Cabinda to the Terras do Fim do Mundo.”
“The first contacts I made were with the people of Huíla, in the centre of the country. I remember meeting a witch doctor who told showy stories, and I could only understand them with the help of an interpreter, because he spoke in Quimbundo.” The European artist, at that stage with seven years’ painting experience and working exclusively from western influences, was for the first time confronted with a very different culture. The shock was enormous: “I witnessed the trial of a man who had committed adultery, and the punishment was handed out by the soba, the tribal chief. The situation was resolved by the offended husband receiving a cow and a bottle of rum, while the woman went back home. This doesn’t make sense from the point of view of western morality, but it’s an intelligent way of solving problems. In the same region of Huíla, even in the villages under the influence of the Portuguese administration, the men had two women living in adjoining houses, which was considered normal. Given that the infant mortality rate was so high, they needed to have a lot of children to ensure the survival of the family and the tribe.” The importance of motherhood amongst the natives is illustrated in José Guimarães’ collection of tribal art (started in the 70s), which includes many figures representing maternity.
At that time, in the capital, Luanda, cultural events which were considered polemical in nature by the colonial administration were being staged. The Portuguese artist took part in them, in the company of young Angolan artists like António Ole and António Palolo: “We carried out a number of events that ran contrary to the official dominant culture, in order to refresh people’s outlook”.
During José Guimarães’ travels to the interior of the country he fell in love with the strong magical and religious elements of the tribal art, and he even attended initiation ceremonies. With the help of researchers and anthropologists, the artist set about studying African and Angolan ethnography and that of tribal art in general. But his real inspiration came from the Ngoyo people of Cabinda, a tribe that communicated by means of codes. “In this tribe’s houses you would find pot and pan lids with a series of pictures etched on them: a hand, a lizard, a crab with its claws cut off. Together, these images would make up a proverb. For example, a plain grave could be a message from a wife to her husband saying: you’re leading a dissolute life, and when you die no one’s going to go to your funeral.” These reprimands “are communicated orally in the west, but over there they are transmitted ideographically”, he explains.
From these elements, the artist constructed a wooden alphabet. “In all there are about 130 pieces that function as a pictorial grammar, revealing the miscegenation of two cultures”. It is an ambiguous art, born of the transition from painting to sculpture.
Cabinda was therefore largely responsible for José Guimarães’ process of alphabet-creation, which he adopted in other work, and still uses today. It’s a language that has changed as other landscapes have arisen and new ideas emerged. When he travelled through Japan and Mexico he found new sources of inspiration. After the “African” alphabet, others sources of inspiration have been Camões’ “Os Lusíadas”, the art of Rubens or Chinese writing: “Whenever I am inspired by a new culture, I try to surround myself with cultural and artistic manifestations of the place I have come across.”
Around the rest of the world
In 1974, the year of the revolution which was to lead to the end of the colonial era, José Guimarães returned to Portugal, and soon after that his work was exhibited in places such as Belgium, Paris, the Slovene capital Ljubljana, and São Paulo in Brazil. The artist often travelled with his works of art, and as a result, there are several other places in the world, besides the African continent, that became important in his oeuvre. An example of this was his stay in Japan in 1989, at the invitation of the Goethe Institute of Osaka: “I was there almost a month making paper kites with the help of the kite makers of Kyoto”. José Guimarães’ Japanese experience led to the creation of a famous piece about Dom Sebastião which became part of an exhibition that travelled to several countries.
At the same time he was invited to build some of Japan’s first pieces of public art. The first project took place on the outskirts Tokyo, in Tachikawa, an old American airbase. A whole new city block, with hotels theatres and restaurants, was built there from scratch. The artist’s most enduring impression of his trip to the Land of the Rising Sun was the sense that “Japan is a part of the world that doesn’t belong to this world. The Japanese are a people of refined sensibility. In the parks you can see how they help trees to grow, and real marvels of engineering are constructed in order to maintain a hundred-year-old tree.
On the other hand, José Guimarães’ passage through Japan also left several marks. Examples include the work he created for the Akemi Foundation in Osaka, on a mountain in Tsumari, in the neighbourhoods of several cities, and a neon mural in Kyoto.
The joy of the dead
Mexico was another surprise for José Guimarães. He had just put on a show at the Gulbenkian and another at the palace in Sintra, both involving large-scale works, and he needed a break. The solution he found was a trip around Mexico: “It has an extremely rich culture. Wherever your feet touch the ground you run the risk of treading on ruins”.
That visit led to several return trips. In all José Guimarães spent around four years in Mexico. He created two large murals in a metro station of the capital, and once again was influenced by the traditional local art.
Before experiencing Latin America first hand, he was only really familiar with its literature. He singles out the Columbian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the Mexican writer Juan Rulfo. Essential reading? “Pedro Páramo, for all those who want to understand Mexico in depth.”
“When I started rambling across the country, visiting the ruins and pyramids, I tried to understand who the Mayas and Aztecs were, which meant another journey.” In this case it was one of an investigative nature: “I wanted to find out the reasons for the bloodthirsty side of the Mayas and why they disappeared.” In the course of his research, he carried out some work that led to another alphabet. And from that, different codes and new work processes emerged. The pieces that José Guimarães created for the “México” series marked the beginning of his need to use more organic materials, which would recreate the tragic side of Mexican society and its concept of death, in which “calaveras” (skulls) are widely used. The artist reminds us that “in order to understand the Mexican mentality it is absolutely necessary to spend the Day of the Dead in a cemetery. They fill the graves with flowers, food and tequila, which is a way of expressing some joy.”
José Guimarães’ work has been inspired by other traditional civilizations, like that of the Chinese, as can be seen in his “Hong Kong” series. In Macau he participated in landscape architect Francisco Manuel Caldeira Cabral’s Jardim das Artes urban planning project. For the artist, it was necessary to “build an artistic bridge which had a nexus with Chinese culture”. The connecting thread was the poetry of the Taoist poet Li Bai. In the process, he found a very sensory alphabet. “If we look at a Chinese character, an abstract shape to us, we can see what it means: a house, rain or wind. I got hold of the characters, took them apart and constructed shapes which, from a graphic point of view, look like Chinese writing”. The artist created 12 metre-high stainless steel sculptures with neon lights for the garden landscape.
José Guimarães’ work of the last years has been influenced by the time he spent in Brazil. Taking his inspiration from the foundations of Brazilian culture, he created a series of installations composed of wooden boxes and relics which have candomblé (voodoo) motifs.
In spite of still seeing himself as a westerner, the Portuguese artist recognises that there is a lot of miscegenation in his oeuvre. It is hardly surprising then, that his “dialogues” in alphabet form can be found all over the world. Sheltered beneath a roof or under the open sky, they are like colourful journeys.
By Maria João Veloso
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