Helmsman of the Centquatre cultural centre and Grand Express Paris artistic project, this Portuguese Parisian shows no signs of easing up.
Born in 1962, in Vila Franca de Xira, on the outskirts of Lisbon, José-Manuel Gonçalves crossed the border into France as an illegal immigrant, aged just five, together with his mother and 17-month-old brother. His father had come a year earlier, also illegally. Since 2010, he’s been director of the prestigious Centquatre cultural centre in Paris (19th arrondissement), which hosts shows, concerts, exhibitions and experiments by artists from all over the world. Boasting both popular and contemporary events, the place is also home to all kinds of artistic practices and incubated start-ups. “Centquatre focusses on creating different relationships between art and culture, on interaction with technological and social innovation. It’s more infinite than undefined”, says José-Manuel, sitting in his office.
Before leading this cultural institution, his career had been quite hectic. Initially, his family settled in the Paris suburbs. To speed up integration, his father didn’t speak Portuguese at home. “My first language is French. I learned Portuguese with friends, playing and listening to Brazilian music. In a way, it was Brazil that made me love Portugal, through music and then through my work. And, before I started reading books, I learned French from photo story magazines”.
He became interested in theatre after a school trip to Théâtre Mogador, where he saw Alfred de Musset’s Lorenzaccio. “I was 13 years old and really impressed to see how someone who spoke 19th-century French could fascinate rowdy schoolkids stuck in a room and involve them in his story.” Now living in Rouen, after his father was transferred while working at a textile company, he joined the Friends of the Popular Theatre Association and started producing shows in one of the city’s poor neighbourhoods. In 1989, he was entrusted with organising the French Revolution bicentenary celebrations in Rouen: “It was an event for about 50,000 people. I took the Paris Opera orchestra and American soprano Jessye Norman. I was 27. It was an important experience for me.”
This was just the beginning. He transformed an 800-seat theatre in Les Ulis, in the southwest of Paris, into a contemporary dance centre, planned events at the French Association for Artistic Action, France’s foreign cultural diplomacy department, before becoming director of La Ferme du Buisson, a famous cultural centre in the city of Noise. After, he returned to Paris.
More recently, his love of the city and culture saw him become cultural director of the Grand Paris Express, an urban project scheduled to last 15 years, involving the construction of a 200-kilometre transport network, twice as fast as the Parisian underground. The goal is to make Paris and 130 adjacent municipalities a “world metropolis”, like London or Shanghai. José-Manuel believes it will be a “cultural revolution”: “The aim is to combine important architectural gestures and a strong artistic bent, bringing together architects and artists to create ‘Greater Paris’s major collection of artworks’. ”.
Despite living in France for over 50 years, José-Manuel only has Portuguese nationality. He promised his late father that he wouldn’t become French until immigrants could vote in the presidential elections. “It’s a personal conviction and not a heroic gesture of youth. I’ve lived in France for decades; I pay my taxes and have family here. To achieve the ultimate republican and democratic dream, individuals must be held accountable,” he argues. “Here’s what I’ve inherited from Portugal: I’m always trying to construct an ideal future, with the nostalgia for something I will never achieve. That’s what saudade means to me. From that perspective, I’m Portuguese”.
by Fernando Eichenberg /// photo Jean-François Spricigo
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