In a world where still so much is said about the need for more women in power positions and top roles, leading and opening new pathways for generations to come, we met the Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos – a woman mastering many fields.
Like a diamond, Joana has many facets, all equally perfectly cut and polished. Her work takes the viewer through a sparkling journey.
A mesmerising experience amidst all different materials, which in many times, are recyclables in some shape or form, through the skills of the best traditional Portuguese artisans.
This ensures that those techniques as well as the traditions are still being passed on throughout the time while bringing awareness to the many possibilities of making sustainable art merging with those and other techniques and practices.How does she do that? How does she find the time to make so much on such a large scale with the same level of precision and perfection as the world’s best gemcutters?
I asked her that, among many other questions. But, a good point to start with is asking how she feels about her life and career today? Which might give us a good hint to understand how she does in such a natural way, over and over: “I am happy where I am because when I look back, I have many things that I am proud of, I have my atelier, and when I look ahead, there are still many things that I can and will do”. This can and will do attitude is undoubtedly one of Joana’s driving mojos.
Speaking about Joana’s work is immersing oneself in the many stories and traditions of Portugal. One could stay hours, days, even months discovering her artworks while observing the multitude of details in each piece. Every time we look at them, we find new elements that we have missed.
Many of her ideas grow to become massive projects that have to be developed with multiples partners due to their particularities, complications, multimedia, architectural structures, etc.
However, whatever is possible is produced in house. Her atelier is situated at the Doca de Alcantara Norte in Lisbon, facing the beautiful and peaceful river view.
Between both floors, it contains enough space for her 50 staff members to produce many of her creations and/or significant parts of the more complex ones while displaying many amazing pieces to clients and visitors.
Diversity is an important subject for Joana, and her staff come from many backgrounds, religions, and individual skillsets. As she loves to mention, from 18 to 78 years old.
Born in 1971, daughter of Portuguese immigrants that returned from Paris to Portugal after the Revolution in 1974, Joana Vasconcelos is a contemporary visual artist with a career of almost 30 years, known by many for her monumental sculptures/installations renowned worldwide.Like The Bride, a chandelier made of more than 14.000 Tampons, her pieces have brought her great fame, being enormously acclaimed every time and where was exhibited, attributing Joana the codename ‘artist of the tampons’ for many years. Also, it is possibly the one, if not the only, of Joana’s artworks that have being refused by many museums and institutions due to its polemical and feminist connotations.
The refuseniks included the Palace of Versailles, in France, where Joana was the first woman to have an exhibition in 2012, breaking visitors’ records. The most visited exhibition in France in 50 years with 1.6 million visitors.
It was also highly acclaimed in 2005 at its participation in the first-ever Venice Biennale curated by two women, María de Corral and Rosa Martínez. A work that I had the privilege to see in the early 2000s and revisit last year at Museum Calouste Gulbenkian in Portugal, at its 20th-anniversary celebration.
In 2018, Joana had a major retrospective exhibition at Guggenheim Bilbao, becoming the first Portuguese artist to exhibit there. The exhibition was also recognised as one of the most visited exhibitions, reaching fourth place in the Art Newspaper’s annual exhibitions top 10.
She presented the first floating pavilion representing Portugal, named Trafaria Praia, at Venice Biennale in 2013. An iconic Lisbon ferryboat, a ‘cacilheiro’ that has undergone a major transformation.
Inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s ‘assisted readymade’, she transformed the object without removing its functionality. Six months of countless challenges, never knowing if the boat would float when back in the water or how all the artworks would react to the movements in the water.
A majestic work of art, adorned with many influences from some of Joana’s past works and new ones, taking the visitors on a magical 30-minute trip from Giardini to Punta Della Dogana and back to Giardini.In 2020, Joana had her larger exhibition in the UK at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, starting on March 7, 2020 extended to January 9, 2022. It was considered the UK’s most significant exhibition by a Portuguese artist. The beginning of the exhibition coincided with the world’s first pandemic in many decades, and Joana, in collaboration with Johnny Carr, a filmmaker and photographer, created and presented – Dis’Dance, a beautiful piece expressed by a group of dancers, merging music, visual arts, representing and documenting feelings, time, and the society we lived in.
A dazzling performance around the exhibited artworks, such as I’ll be your mirror, Carmen Miranda Shoes, Solitaire, Finisterra, and many others indoors and around the park.
Going back to the time I met Joana at her Atelier in Lisbon on a beautiful blue sky and warm day that, as we spoke, has a magic bright light enhancing any and each colour in our surrounds, that one can only experience in Lisbon at this time of the year.
The right time and season for launching her new project, Reboot Conference, a platform to discuss ‘artistic sustainability beyond green’ as stated in its slogan, with a range of remarkable speakers specialised in several artistic and cultural fields.
With participants such as Ai Weiwei – international renowned contemporary artist and political activist, Graca Fonseca – Minister of Culture in Portugal, Sylvain Levy – Founder of the DSL Collection, Oliver Schickler – Executive Director of Private Bank Julius Baer, Victoire Bidegain di Rosa – General Commissioner of the Portugal-France 2022 Art Season, Cristiano Grisogoni – curator for the Vatican Library, Gilles Lipovetsky, – French philosopher, Jean Serroy – professor and author of several works on 17th-century literature and on cinema, among many others outstandingly guests, in-person and online.
In Joana’s words: “Reboot has several aspects, one of which is the exchange of ideas, to deepen international and group awareness through those exchanges and many other topics in different debates and discussions. It is always important to bring these conversations to the art world.”The entrance area of the atelier was transformed entirely for the conference, as often is on many different occasions and activities. Walls and space were carefully curated with small & medium sizes colourful and powerful artworks, while the set up for the speaker’s area has her bright and colourful Roche Bobois furniture in front of an exquisite panel that reveals a little of how will look some of the walls of her upcoming artwork, a three-tiered Wedding Cake, a 12-metre-high sculptural pavilion clad in ceramic tiles that have been five years in the making. It will be unveiled at Waddesdon Manor by The Rothschild Foundation in Buckinghamshire in the summer of 2022. In another area of the atelier, the space was prepared to welcome the guests with a delightful traditional lunch accompanied by exceptional wines, of course, from Portugal to those presents.
Levy, one of the speakers, “was impressed by the diversities of all the points of view and found many speakers very humble in front of this new world in which we have entered. The Foundation is also an inspiring source in terms of sustainability and climate issues”. Whilst Schickler, also on the panel, told us that “I think it was a great initiative to get together different people from different aspects of the art world to discuss current trends, share experiences and learn from it.”
Among the many guests, Arkanjo Ratibo told us: “I find this kind of event very positive, constructive and important for the artists and the institutions that spread art around the world.”
“In particular, here in Portugal, where arts are very devaluated and most of the time are a luxury that only a certain fraction of the people have access to. These one-day events are always welcome. It’s a shame that doesn’t happen as often.”
Overall, the event has achieved its goals and is already on the calendar to continue yearly at the same place, hopefully with the same weather conditions. It is also being considered to go internationally in the future, taking advantage of and synchronising with many trips and productions of Joana.
“I think this has happened, and it will impact the way people present think. For example, I learned a lot of things from what I heard and immediately started to think about them. I believe that those forums always have an impact on what you do and how you do it,” she told us.
As with everything that Joana does, events like Reboot also help bring awareness to her Foundation, which she has been very passionate about since its creation almost 10 years ago.In her words: “I want to help change the Portuguese artistic fabric. Often people don’t have the money to finish their studies, and The Foundation is here to help young artists to do so. We created scholarships to support young Portuguese artists to finish their studies, whether in music, dance, or fine art. That can be here in Portugal, as in the case of the long-term collaboration with the University of Evora, or it can also be abroad.”
Above all, she wants to make a difference in Portugal, the reason why she reverts the money made abroad back into her projects in the country. Which in the long run as she proudly says, will mean: “from Portugal to the world if you want”.
Joana and her practice have so many facets that one could write several books to talk about it, as already documented in some past projects.
Creations such as the Bordalos series, or in one of her latest projects, Stupid Furniture, to be launched in Milan, Italy by Galleria Mimo this year, has inspired many trends and fashionable initiatives.
Her artisans and the will to promote the colours of Portugal have generated collaborations, including Roche Bobbois and Stella McCartney naming a few.
Like Portugal, Joana has a special relationship with France. She is one of the main supporters also participating in the Portugal-France 2022 Season, organised by Victoire Bidegain di Rosa and Manuela Júdice.
A joint programme with over 200 events until October 2022, including the display of Joanas’ piece Tree of Life at the Saint-Chapelle of the Vincennes Castle.
Since we met, she received the Order of Arts and Letters, awarded by the French Ministry of Culture, honours for those who provided artistic or literary contributions to France and the world since 1957.
Joining the long list of Portugueses awarded such as Amalia Rodrigues, Manoel de Oliveira, Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, Julio Pomar, Antonio Lobo Antunes, Jose Saramago, Joaquim Benite and Tiago Rodrigues, adding to many other awards throughout her almost 30 years of work in the arts.In the days we are now living, amidst the threat of another war, already witnessing the destruction of Ukraine, one must mention pieces such as War Games (2011), a black 1960s Morris Oxford car that depicts contrasting worlds. Decorated with toy rifles and strips of red LEDs outside while the inside is filled with colourful cuddling toys. Referencing times of war, loss of life while the toys represent birth. And Call Center (2014-2016), a giant Beretta pistol made up of 168 old-fashioned rotary-dial telephones, that explore the ideas of strength, power, communication, and their interconnections.
But equally important is to remember that Joana’s works and their meaningful messages take us to a world where we can rethink many of our views within its bright and vibrant colours that celebrate life, equality, diversity, and inclusion.
At the same time, opening our eyes to the infinite ways to reuse many items that we don’t need or will throw away for different reasons.
Rebuilding and transforming those items that were already considered rubbish into beautiful and original pieces like Lilicoptère (2012), made with an old helicopter ornate with gold leaf, recycling Ostridge feathers sourced from a local meat producer, and the work of several skilled artisans.
Each feather was hand dyed, presented for the first time in one of the most luxurious rooms at the Palace of Versailles, as Joana says: “Recycling materials is also recycling knowledge.”
Asked about a piece of advice for young artists, she says: “Never give up. Every time someone tells you to give up, just carry on.”
Featured Image by J A Neto.
Edited by Charlotte Griffin and Atiyyah Ntiamoah-Addo