VMFA Celebrates the Month of Portugal

a view of the Portugal gallery

This June, VMFA joins a long list of cultural venues across the United States in celebrating the Month of Portugal with its special exhibition, Contemporary Art from Portugal.

Organized in collaboration with the Lisbon-based Fundação Luso-Americana (Luso-American Development Foundation), the exhibition features works by six contemporary Portuguese artists. The exhibition is on display in the museum’s Works on Paper Gallery through July 22, 2018, with free admission. On June 5, the Portuguese Ambassador, Domingos Fezas Vital, along with a delegation from the Embassy of Portugal in Washington, D.C., will visit VMFA to view the exhibition and enjoy a reception that will also feature performances by Portuguese musicians.

The Month of Portugal is an initiative that is timed to coincide with the state visit of Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, the President of Portugal, in June 2018. It celebrates the longstanding friendship between Portugal and the United States, while encouraging greater awareness of the history and culture of this 900-year-old country, as well as being a source of pride to the 1.5 million American citizens who identify themselves as being of Portuguese origin.

This cultural celebration and exchange includes art exhibitions such as the one at VMFA, and concerts and festivals across the United States. Contemporary Art from Portugal is the only Month of Portugal event in Virginia.

The exhibition was first suggested by Nancy Rodrigues, a Portuguese American who is Deputy Director of the 2019 Virginia Evolution project and former Virginia Secretary of Administration under Gov. Terry McAuliffe. She contacted VMFA Director Alex Nyerges after the Portuguese Embassy reached out to her to help find a Virginia venue to celebrate the Month of Portugal.

Dr. Michael Taylor, VMFA’s chief curator and deputy director for art and education, traveled to the Portuguese Embassy in Washington to view the art it had on loan from the Fundação Luso-Americana, which owns more than 1,200 works of art by Portuguese artists. He then curated the exhibition at VMFA by selecting works by six artists from Portugal.

“I wanted to show a range and vitality of the work being made by Portuguese artists working today,” Taylor says. “In this exhibition you have painting, photographs and drawings in a variety of media. There’s figurative work, abstract work and conceptual work. … I didn’t want the public to think that contemporary art in Portugal was just one thing.” Many of the artists have never been exhibited at museums in the United States.

Helena Almeida is the exception. The exhibition includes Almeida’s Desenho Habitado (Inhabited Drawing) — a 1977 photographic series in which the artist depicts herself making a linear drawing with an ink pen that gradually materializes into a thread of real horsehair. “She is part of a wave of feminist artists creating performative photographs in the 1970s who used their own bodies to push the limits of art-making through their actions and gestures,” Taylor explains. “I love her famous declaration that ‘my work is my body and my body is my work.’”

Contemporary Art from Portugal also includes a selection of works spanning multiple decades and mediums by Álvaro Lapa, who is considered to be the father of contemporary art in Portugal. Other artists represented include Fernando Calhau, Ruy Leitão, José Luís Neto, and Jorge Queiroz.

“I really enjoyed getting to know the work of these artists,” Taylor says. “We live in a global world now and it is exciting to show new artists to our visitors and expand their knowledge of recent developments in contemporary art.” He says he was surprised to learn how many of the featured artists had studied in London but returned to their native country to live and make their work. “I did not want to feature the art of exiles so focused instead on those artists who live and work in
Portugal,” he says.