Francesca. Day zero – We meet at the Tropical Garden a few weeks before the #Colleex event to explore the space together and decide where to set up our installation.
In 1940, the Tropical Garden hosted the Colonial Section of the Exposition of the Portuguese World.” Persistance in time […] may be coupled with debris” (Hunt 2016:10). Debris of the Exposition are scattered all over the place – standing pavilions, abandoned structures, busts of anonymous colonial subjects, ceramic tiles with exotic flowers, exotic animals, exotics bodies and scenes. Little is said in the garden’s leaflets about its colonial past.
Helena’s gaze is directed downwards while we walk: she explains that, as for the rest of Lisbon, also this place’s soil is rich in old ceramic pieces, remains of previous architectures or potteries used to create new compounds to cover the ground. She squats down a few times when spotting what appear to be minuscule shining stones, she digs a bit and – to my amazement -she always picks up pieces of glazed pottery of different sizes and colours. We consider the possibility of setting up the installation in the entrance hall of the Lion’s House. It is a chancy prospect – the space is so much imbued in upfront colonial narratives that we struggle at first to envision an intervention that may retain any form of independence and not be swallowed by its immediate surroundings. We decide to take up the challenge and see where the dialogue goes.
Helena. Day one – We set up the installation structure with colonial wood tables with a western modern design that we found abandoned in one of the buildings of the garden. In such structure, we display a set of ceramic sculptures and pregnant bellies plaster casts, artefacts that comprise our previous research explorations, adding various objects and elements that are part of the Tropical Garden environment. They include ceramic fragments found in the soil as well as Portuguese colonial research books about the geography and geology of Africa, borrowed from the Garden´s library collection.
The ceramic sculptures constitute part of my ongoing artistic research, which embodies the concept of matrix as the sculpture-making procedures testify. A previous plaster mould has been the nest of a ceramic fragment found in the soil and from where a new ceramic form grows. A metaphor for the origin and growing of form starts with an unknown ceramic fragment from where I start to mould the sculpture. Ceramic objects are one of the testimonies of the west/east cross-culture references over the centuries, as they embodied many histories of the European colonization.
F. Day one – The installation is set as a dialogue, and we agree to play with it along the three days of the workshop and to encourage participants and casual passersby to intervene freely with the pieces. I am reticent to move some of Helena’s ceramic artefacts, as they seem fragile and the tables appear unstable. So, at first, when I find time to go back to the installation between the various events of the workshop, my dialogue with it consists of minor shifts and shy tentatives of objects reorganization.
I’m less restrained with the pregnant belly casts. They are fieldwork devices (X. Andrade et Al. 2017), testimonies of the intimate touch of an anthropological encounter, bearing layers of dried plaster on gauze stripes and hours spent with pregnant women in the private settings of their homes. I have resolved to do belly casts in my research on childbirth pain to overcome the tight temporality that hospital fieldwork imposed on my engagement with pregnant women. It takes time to probe people to open up about experience or expected pain, and “the time of the clinic” – an obstetrician has once told me when asked for an interview – “is very different from the time of anthropology”. Displaced from their original setting, the casts become versatile objects and bodies’ archives.
H. Day Two – Below and above the drawers we overlap and place other personal research materials. We continue to add elements directly collected from the garden such as diverse types of soils, leaves and seeds. As each of us move to different buildings to participate to the #Colleex events, we keep collecting materials that resound and resemble the matrix concept we have agreed to explore further, strengthening the site-specific aspect of the installation. Later, I return to the installation room and add such elements, placing them in strategic areas of the installation. Soil portions are shown inside the colonial wood table’s drawers, as they have been collected as specific features that stand for land possession, as samples to investigate and nominate the unknown. Francesca has collected botanical samples such as seeds and leaves from tropical tree and plant species. We move and open the Midwifery book and the Geological African soil stratus’s book in specific pages to match the collected elements.
F. Day Two- The longer we engage in our matrix manipulation, the more intricate and intertwined appear the various archives we’re mobilizing. Heléna tells me that on the inaugural ceremony of the construction work of Belém riverside, which was commemorated twice during the dictatorship (1940 and 1960), the Ministry of Ultramarine Lands (Ministério do Ultramar) ordered small quantity of soil from the Portuguese colonies to be dispersed in Belém (Elias 2008). The mobilization of soil was followed by the displacement of colonial subjects and materials -the Tropical Garden was in fact transformed during the 1940’s Exposition by what a local newspaper defined “an ethnographic documentary from three continents: Africa, Asia and Oceania” (Matos 2006:211). Temporary artificial colonial scenographies were populated by a “human zoo” of 138 natives plus an elephant that walked in a secluded area of the garden according to scheduled hours and a caged lion. Two indigenous women gave birth during the six months of the exposition, and the three infants died before its ending (Vargaftig 2016). Colonial soil, objects and bodies (animals or human alike) also filled medical imaginaries and obstetric books of the time, that circulated an old trope asserting how indigenous women – like animals – had easy, painless childbirth (Rich 2016).
H. Day Three – As we dialogue through the objects’ placement, crafts and collected elements, we continue to display and coordinate verbal and visual elements. Paper notes from midwifery books with seeds and ceramics, cartographies of the continents as background of sculptures are among the operations developed. I re-arranged the set and disposed ceramic fragments over the colonial maps. A ceramic fragment has the word “pain” printed although, originally, the full word might have been “painted”. I displayed the printed ceramic fragment over the map showing world countries’ frontiers on the XIX century. Frontiers and pain. At the time, the Western orders to divide and share Africa land and their resources have come to my mind as I was part of such colonial matrix too. Also, the propaganda motto of the Portuguese regime, during the dictatorship, saying that Portugal goes from Minho to Timor, namely the former country and the colonies (Elias 2008), has been a consequence of such European agreement upon Africa. At some point of the day III, I come back and placed sculpture ceramics over the maps. Francesca has also orientated the plaster bellies towards the map.
F. Day Three – One of Helena’s round sculpture, shaped in the plaster mould and generated from a ceramic matrix is resting bottom up on a world map of an old atlas. I put a belly cast beside it, and think of how it has also been moulded around a shape. I have punctured this cast with little holes, that being close permit to see through it – and one can see the definition of matrix from a geology’s dictionary. The MATRIX: Atlas* is an installation that, like the research carried out in fragmented or forgotten archives, calls for active engagement. The pieces that we have put together may at first seem random and unrelated, but they share the logic of the matrix, of something that has a generative character. Moreover, they are debris of a past that has no narrative in the stroll around the Tropical Garden. Our matrix exercise becomes a practice of visibility and a work of deliberate connections.
H. Postscriptum – According to Bishop, the collaboration and interaction within creative practices in the art domain not always led to participatory art, due to the imposition of a false social consensus among the relations settled on such art projects (Bishop 2006). Nevertheless, she acknowledges that some participatory projects have challenged social established perspectives and assumptions as some interventions have cast some light towards alternative forms of participatory practice and convergence of diverse Knowledges (Bishop 2012). While experiencing the artistic turn in academic research, artists have settled a debate on forms of research and knowledge (Cossens, Douglas and Crispin 2009) that artistic practice can offer. There are procedures that do not fit entirely into the conventions of scientific knowledge.
Artistic research encompasses heuristic methods, primal non-verbalised research work, experimental collaboration strategies and embodied forms of knowledge. Nevertheless, they may not be exclusive of the artistic practice. By initially exploring communication through non-primal verbalized research work, namely the ceramic sculpture works and the pregnant bellies plaster casts, me and Francesca have started an experimental format that cuts with the unidirectional procedure of reflecting and presenting work in progress. Previously, both have individually approached their research subject through craft making and bringing visible the tactile human experience (Inglod 2010). As part of the embodied knowledge, such craft investigation has trigger the mutual exchange and reciprocity enquire regarding the matrix subject and the colonial legacy of the garden. Such motivation has led to the co-creation of an interactive installation as a communicational device to open and include the dialogue with peers.