When the artistic gesture becomes vernacular gesture
The notions of nativeness and domesticity, spontaneity and belonging, necessity and sharing are intrinsic to the vernacular. At a junction in which the future and the speculative occupy central places in contemporary thought, Rita GT focuses on a vernacular present built not only upon ideals of proximity, neighbourliness, urgency and priority, but also on a location that does not fit into a global-ness that is weakened by excessively broad categories: north, south, east, west, centre and periphery. The absence of an aesthetical orthodoxy and the urgencies of the everyday (dis)orient Escola ao Lado [School Next Door]. The Portuguese artist’s itinerant school and exhibition is shown for the first time in London with Learning from Golborne, a lesson that reflects on, and with, the Portuguese migrant community living in that area of the city.
Recent years have been marked by a boom in the discourse about migratory phenomena, the so-called refugee crisis and the emergence of new migration typologies, notably in the arts, in academia and in the media. However, in this exhibition, Rita GT examines what she has learned about migrations from Golborne. In Golborne, a London street near renowned Portobello Road market, live a relatively large community of Portuguese emigrants. The older members of this community had left the country during the so-called (in Portugal) colonial war to avoid being drafted or to escape the dictatorial fascist regime known as Estado Novo (New State).
Migration and escape
The colonial war is an historical episode that left one of the deepest imprints in Portugal’s recent past. The conflict, opposing the Portuguese state and independence movements in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea, began in 1961 and raged across these three different theatres of war until 1974. Because of its impact on the lives of the Portuguese, the colonial war was, in and of itself, the main cause of the so-called Carnation Revolution of 25 April 1974, which brought an end to the authoritarian fascist regime that ruled in Portugal and fed the defence of its sovereignty over overseas territories.
The regime, led by António de Oliveira Salazar, turned Portugal into a place where it was difficult to live. The hyper-conservative society promoted by Salazar and his propaganda machine was watched over by the political police – PIDE–, the media were subject to censorship and young Portuguese forced to leave the country to fight in Africa. At the same time, most of the adult Portuguese population was illiterate or had but the lowest education level, in line with a policy that was part and parcel of the regime’s control apparatus.
The few who had access to school were faced with a crystallised institution fully controlled by the regime. School manuals included, for instance, The Lessons of Salazar – illustrations synthesising the ideological triad God, Fatherland and Family. These remain as unfinished episodes of recent Portuguese history, which are crucially important to think contemporary migratory phenomena, both involving the Portuguese and occurring in Portugal.
The work of gender
The various works that constitute the first lesson of Escola ao Lado are the result of the (un) disciplined methodology that intersects practices and knowledges, and of an apprenticeship ensuing from GT’s stay in Golborne Road. For the most part, this stay was spent sitting at a table at Café Lisboa, learning through conversation and through the stories she heard. These conversations were complemented by other methods of investigation, both plastic and involving historiographic revision and demographic research.
While today Portugal is already (also) a country that receives emigrants, in the 1960s-70s it mostly witnessed the departure of its populations in search of better living conditions. Given the low educational level of the Portuguese, men worked mostly in construction or as unskilled workers, while the women, whose access to school was even more limited, did menial work in private homes or in the hotel industry.
Precisely transversal to Rita GT’s work are gender (discrimination) issues, which emerge in the first lesson of Escola ao Lado. In the series of photo-performances that she carried out in Golborne Road, the artist puts on an overall which reads ‘Mulher a dias [Journey woman]’. ‘Mulher a dias’ is colloquial Portuguese expression referring to a woman in charge of domestic services (tasks that are always and only performed by women) in private homes and is paid by the hour or by the day without the right to any type of labour contract or bond. Made worse by gender, the precariousness of this situation is exposed by the artist and feminist.
The pedagogical drive in contemporary art
The educational installation or predisposition in (contemporary) art is neither new nor original. Numerous artists have already addressed this pedagogical drive resorting to various strategies and approaches, from radical pedagogy to anti-schooling activism. Aside from the fact that, in its association with the concept of originality, the new is an irrelevant characteristic in contemporary art, the school institution still plays a fundamental role in social and cultural structure. In this context, to insist on artistic pedagogy is still relevant in the domain of ethically oriented artistic production.
In Escola ao Lado, each lesson corresponds to a different exhibition-installation prepared according to different processes, based on dialogues and apprenticeships of the artist with the communities in the vicinity of the itinerant school’s location – the vernacular present of peripheral zones. The various valences of the school– performative, expositive, interventional, recreational – are ransomed into an horizontal structure of participation. In this sense, the positions of pupils and teachers may alternate in order to avoid generating fixed hierarchies in the production of knowledge, steering clear of the rigidity of enunciating subjects and the reproduction of themes.
Sou um instrumento (poros sintomáticos) [I am an instrument (symptomatic pores)], a performance by Rita GT with Nigerian singer and composer Keziah Jones, is an example of that. In itself, the title is ambiguous. While on the one hand I am an instrument may point to the instrumentalization of subjects by authoritarian forces (for instance), on the other, it contains in itself a counter-discursive potency, everyone’s ability to be a subversive instrument. In this performance, both GT and Jones dress clothes made of sound speakers from which the artists’ textual and musical compositions are projected live. The tiny perforations on the speakers are reminiscent of pores, whose secretions, although beyond our control, are essential to maintain the balance of the human body. The clothing used in the performance will be part of the exhibition, along with the resulting sound.
This school echoes with many voices. Aside from a programme of informal talks with George Shire and Yvette Greslé, the work Laringite – Vozes Invisíveis [Laryngitis – invisible voices], developed in collaboration with João Gigante, records the voices and stories of Portuguese emigrants residing in Golborne. Many of these voices are imperceptible; like disembodied tongues, these voices find shelter inside ceramic larynxes and tracheas. The larynx and the trachea, among other functions protect the vocal chords and the airway that allow us to have a voice. Therefore, the tables of Escola ao Lado (whose first version was designed in collaboration with Miguel Dias Coutinho) are occupied by voice shelters.
In Portugal, the school is still one of the most problematic institutions in its relationship with, and description of, the country’s colonial past. The same is true of migratory phenomena. Several activists and researchers, such as Joacine Katar Moreira or Mamadou Ba, have drawn attention to the need of an urgent intervention in Portuguese school programmes so that the nature of the colonial past might be recognised in its aspects of violence and slavery. At the same time, migratory flows are approached from a simplistic standpoint, i.e., from geographic coordinates or empirical data that exclude systemic issues such as racism, xenophobia or sexism. It is necessary to rethink the school, to find alternative formats and to localize it at the very same time that it becomes itinerant.
After London, Escola ao lado will travel to Viana do Castelo, GT’s hometown, and to Luanda, where the artist lived from 2012 to 2015, keeping the reflections on migration as a palimpsest, which will be the core of the entire process, each lesson preserving something of the previous lesson. The generated knowledge will be in itinerancy with the school, which will be reconstructed and adapted at each location. The performance-gestures and activism-actions of Rita GT will also engage with many places, so as to learn from them. With Rita GT we know that the artistic gesture is also vernacular.
Ana Cristina Cachola