Joana Vasconcelos, the Portuguese artist with major international projection.Arlindo Camacho (Atelier)
Throughout a quarter of a century of career, Joana Vasconcelos (Paris, 51 years old) has perfected the art of spectacularity. Also that of discretion. Weeks after this meeting in Madrid, he would unveil his most ambitious work to date, The Wedding Cake, a 12-meter pavilion in the shape of a three-story cake with more than 15,000 ceramic tiles erected in the Foundation’s gardens. Rothschild in England. She would also repeat the collaboration with Dior, deploying an immense textile sculpture in the form of a tentacle dome for the F/W 2023/2024 show. But at that moment, she prefers not to talk about projects that have not yet seen the light of day. Her express stop at the Club Matador in Madrid was for a simpler one: the artist’s notebook Liquid love, which accompanies this year’s edition of the emblematic magazine Matador and which includes the works related to the aquatic to which the Portuguese woman feels more emotionally attached. Perhaps that is why this conversation takes place on more intimate than professional grounds.
From his house he contemplates the mouth of the Tagus and his workshop is in the port and he likes to draw in his bedroom, looking at the ocean through the window. Why is water so important to you? Living by the water is like living by the mountain: they are particular environments that have an impact on who you are. I cannot live isolated from it and, at the same time, I feel privileged because I am aware that many people do not have access to it. Much of my work is based on bringing the domestic and luxury closer together, and this has a direct connection with water, which has become one of the great luxuries.
‘A Jóia do Tejo’, a structure created by Joana Vasconcelos around the Belém tower, in Lisbon, inaugurated in 2008.
Why are you drawn to luxury as a subject? My path lies between the banality of the domestic and the impact of the luxurious. I am very interested in building a bridge, changing the identity between one and the other, because it helps me to value certain ideas.
Do you descend from Portuguese royalty? My great-great-grandmother was from Braganza and sailed to Brazil with the Portuguese court after the Napoleonic invasion. She there she was duchess of the queen. She then became pregnant by the king. I had a great-great-grandmother, the king’s bastard daughter, quite a story. When they returned to Portugal, her daughter married a Vasconcelos, a noble family. My grandfather kept the duke’s ring, but then he went republican. As a child, he would take me to a palace in Sintra where all the coats of arms are and he would tell me: ‘This is our family.’
The ambitious work presented this year by Vasconcelos in Waddesdon Gardens (Buckinghamshire County): ‘The Wedding Cake’, a three-story cake pavilion made up of 15,000 ceramic tiles.
And you were born in Paris because your parents had to leave during the Salazar dictatorship. Yes, they were revolutionaries, from the Maoist left. They were against the colonial war and went into exile in Paris to avoid participating in it. My father was a photojournalist and my mother, an interior designer.
How did you receive at home that you wanted to be an artist? She didn’t take them by surprise. My grandmother Alice was a painter, and my grandfather Álvaro told me that it took many generations to have an artist in the family. He also had an uncle who was in jail for being a Republican who loved to embroider. My family was special. Upon returning from Africa, my grandfather bought two apartments facing the sea in Lisbon, one opposite the other. My aunt lived with them. She married very late and studied very late too, but she was one of the first Portuguese women to graduate in French literature at the Sorbonne and did a doctorate in philosophy. When I first came to Lisbon, I had just finished studying at the French school, which was super posh. My grandparents thought that was fatal. So I entered alternative schools. They put me to give private Portuguese classes with my aunt. Everyone thought that she was teaching me language, but in reality she was teaching me philosophy.
There is a fascinating detail in his biography: at the age of 8 he enrolled in karate classes. And even today I’m still a karate fighter! (He takes out his cell phone and shows a photo posing with a black belt on a tatami). This photo is from last week. I was a professional until I was 28 years old.
How does a girl from such an intellectual background decide to give herself up to karate? (Laughter) In my family, cultural and political discussion was daily. My uncle was a commentator at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris. His generation, the one from the 1970s in Portugal, was building the country after the dictatorship. In my house there were always big debates, which is why school seemed such an uninteresting place to me. And my father was friends with many young artists. I was lucky to grow up surrounded by singers, fashionistas, painters… But, at the same time, I was a girl in an upper-middle-class neighborhood where there wasn’t much to do. One of the few activities near my house was karate. All my boy friends were going, so I said, “Me too.” It was about as far as I could walk on my own.
What has the discipline of karate instilled in your art? My family was so original, so left-wing, that my father did not wear a tie because he said that he did not represent him, there was no TV or Coca-Cola because they were symbols of American imperialism… There was a wonderful component of arbitrariness. And then karate appeared, with all its structure and the rigidity of the teacher. It was pure discipline. I competed, I also did kobudo (martial art where traditional wooden or metal weapons are used). Those years helped me develop a very particular knowledge of the body. Later, when I studied art, the intellectual development was great. And, later, I understood that I had to put all three together: the body, the mind and the spirit.
Until its international success, art in Portugal seemed like a man’s thing. Why has it cost so much to be taken seriously in your own land? And it’s still a thing for men, but it’s interesting to rethink this tradition, because its most interesting and influential precursors are actually women: Vieira da Silva, Paula Rego, Helena Almeida… For me, in Portugal, acceptance has come from people. I’m that artist you recognize in the supermarket. The other day I was in a hurry with my daughter in a shopping center and they approached me to say: “Sorry, I just wanted to thank you.” And I: “Why?” “For your work.” “Thanks to you, you give me joy!” So I don’t care about criticism, because that is priceless. When people come up to you to say something like that, from the heart, you run out of words.
Part of its success is due to its immediacy, to the fact that it is easy for many people to understand. Do you consider outdated the idea that art should only be understood by a few? Many of my colleagues say that they only need recognition from their peers, from the artistic medium. I say that this recognition is very important, but the work of art exists in a much longer way in time. It is all humans who decide that such an artist is worthy of attention. I am very lucky. Not everyone has the privilege of having 500,000 people come to see his exhibition.
‘Fontanelles’ series by Joana Vasconcelos, from 1999.‘Gateway’, a pool with hand-painted tiles permanently installed in 2019 in the Jupiter Arland sculpture park, Edinburgh (Scotland).Design by Joana Vasconcelos for Dior, one of those collected in her ‘Liquid love’ notebook, which accompanies this year’s Matador magazine.Joana Vasconcelos
I think Madonna visited his workshop. Did she buy him something? She didn’t buy anything, but she came to see me.
And how did you get to your workshop? Because Valentino, the designer, came to Lisbon and organized a party to which Madonna was invited. When he showed up, I was able to chat with her. She told me: ‘You and I do the same thing, we talk about the domestic.’ She had perfectly understood what I do and we had a super interesting conversation about the conceptual in our work.
He uses everyday elements to reflect on the female condition and its role, such as his famous chandelier made with tampons that he named La novia or the Marilyn shoe made with pots. Are many gender stereotypes still to be broken? Undoubtedly, there are many barriers to break down. And it seems important to me to expose it in a clear way: behind a beautiful image you can send a message that contributes to thinking about those stereotypes. We have arguments to think about this every day, when we see the news about Iran and the veil, for example. My burqa crashing to the ground piece is very graphic and colourful, but it is also meant to be shocking and thought-provoking.
When she was invited a decade ago to be the first woman to exhibit at the Palace of Versailles, she was censored precisely for that work of the burqa and her tampon lamp. To what does she attribute it? Because one is a burqa and the other is made of tampons. And you can’t show things like that in Versailles, it’s not correct. That was the justification they gave me. Tell me where does that situate the world in which we live?
Duchamp, one of his biggest influences, will always be remembered, above all else, for his toilet. In his case, what specific work would he like to be remembered for? Asking an artist that is like asking him to choose between his children. In the same way that many of my works are made to be completed by the viewer with their participation, the memory of my works also belongs to them.
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