The José de Guimarães International Centre for the Arts is a structure focused on contemporary art and the relationships it establishes with arts from other eras and different cultures and subjects.
Based on a conception of art as a space of experience and freedom, not subjected to the categorisation of history, form or style, it has special interest in issues which have become important operative concepts in contemporary art and the present-day world, such as: energy vs. form, circular vs. linear conception of time, archaeology of knowledge, nomadism, migration – of forms, motives, ideas, people, goods –, individual and collective memory, hospitality, community, exchange, miscegenation, cultural anthropophagy, and utopia, among others.
At the CIAJG, we combine objects and images from very distant times and places, sometimes without any apparent connection, as if they came to us brought by the wind, as if they were flying seeds. We want to refound the museum as a place of wonder and reflection, as an air stream and mirror, as an infinite horizon. For this reason, we intermingle different languages and methodologies, from archaeology to ethnology, passing through the history of art. We try to blend dimensions that are often irreconcilable, such as the popular, ancestral, artisanal, vernacular, and knowledge that is transmitted orally or by gestures. We propose to cast a gaze from the time and place in which we find ourselves, regarding the wide array of tangible and intangible manifestations and vestiges of our culture. To return to visitors the space between objects, the pauses in which they can breathe. To show the air.
I was born in the city of Guimarães, Portugal, in 1939, a city that, at that time surrounded by walls and fields, was medieval in geography and concepts. I studied there until the fifth year, in high school, where my free time was spent visiting the few local museums. One of them belonged to an association of archaeologists who, along with the excellent library, had a collection of archaeological finds and took care of the preservation of the archaeological station known as “Citânia de Briteiros”.
This contact of mine with the region’s stones and nature turned me into an
amateur archaeologist. Actually, I recall an excavation campaign organised by
the University of Coimbra under the guidance of Prof. of the University of
After finishing the fifth grade and a two-year stay in Braga to complete the
seventh grade, I took off for Lisbon for seven years of the engineering course.
I enrolled at the same time in the Sociedade de Gravadores Portugueses (
Association of Portuguese Engravers), the “Gravura”. That is when my passion
for art began, and when I first entertained the idea of becoming a painter.
This was in 1958 - I learnt the technics of engraving, I took my first steps in
painting, I attended courses in Art History and, at the end of seven years I
already possessed a primary baggage as a painter. Pop Art was the prevailing
In 1967, I set off on a military commission, to the former Portuguese colony of
Angola. This was to be the beginning of an African experience/adventure that
would last seven years. Coming to terms that the new continent, the cultural shock
could not have been greater. However an uneasy start, I became very interested
in discovering this new culture, witch was so different to my one western one,
both in its ways of behaving and its concepts. The artistic expression of the
native populations could be seen as much in tribal art (for example,
sculptures) as in tattoos or mural paintings, with their respective symbols and
signs. These were sometimes more coded, while at other times more narrative,
like those depicting certain domestic, synergetic or war scenes.
Unlike Western Art, the strong magical-religious aspect of the tribal art
transforms artistic objects into utilitarian works of art used in rituals. In
general they are very explicit sculptures, some more mysterious than others,
which, dependindg in their particular ingredients (mirrors, nails, bones), may
be very magical in their content. In the case of tattoos, which are very
characteristic of African peoples, there are human body inscriptions with
clearly magical purposes. There is also the painting of symbols that on the
male body have the power to win wars and on the female body can invoke
However this is not the sum of all artistic expression. On occasion, they
become true processes of communication (ideographic in form), which function as
if they involved the written word itself. I am referring to particular tribes
from the Cabinda region in the north of Angola, like the Ngoyos, who
communicated with each other vie ideographic signs on the lids of domestic
utensils, such as terrines. This is a type of relief work with meanings that
vary according to the image used in each message, as if they were proverbs with
strong moral content that are more effective than the spoken word.
As I already mentioned, my first contact with this new culture was extremely
difficult. I felt alien and incapable of understanding anything. This situation
lasted approximately two years, and was made more troublesome due to a lack of
comparative parameters or links that allowed the transportation of this huge
From 1970 onwards, and with some knowledge of tribal art and a desire to use
painting as a means of communication and understanding via a kind of cultural
osmosis between the two cultures. I began to create an ideographic alphabet
made up of around one hundred and forty graphic characters. I can say that the
most important transformation in my painting occurred after I began to
understand African tribal art. Although it happens more in terms of content
than forms, this transformation does not exclude the latter. This is what I
wrote about this symbology in 1970: “Back art made me understand how to
concentrate meaning and he mythical importance of forms. So in my paintings,
form became a symbol and an agent of powerful intervention". In Africa, I
saw how symbols were used and for what purpose. They are, in fact, the
prerogative of great Ngoyo people of Cabinda, in the North of Angola, who used
them so majestically on a daily basis. I appropriated part of their utility:
more in terms of their rituals than of the meaning themselves.
The forms I gave them were generated and multiplied according to the pace of
circumstances and the need to expand a vocabulary. With symbols; some nouns,
other adjectives, some emancipated, others dependent; some generating others.
Their genesis took two years (1970-1972) which were years of anguish ant
intense contact with the African world.
Only later there was dialogue and, with it, the chance of better understanding
African culture and people. It was precisely in this way, via a mysterious and
coded vocabulary, the only dialogue possible that I, as an European, was able
to establish with that African world; a world boasting a powerfully intuitive
culture and one that expresses itself in ways which carry considerable powers
Between 1970 and 1974 I created a body of work that I consider important to my
artistic career and as the origin and root of all I do today. What I mean is
that I began to create art was no longer the art of a European painter or an
African painter, but rather an art that was miscegenation of two cultures. It
was an art of ambiguity, so to speak; “morphemes”, as Gillo Dorfles called it;
the transition between painting and sculpture; two-faced sculptures which provide
double representation and double meaning.
The “African” alphabet, which others like Camonian, the Rubenesque, the
Mexican, the Chinese followed, was always there in all of my artist work, even
in the things I have done outside this period. It functioned as a kind of model
or framework, in which other symbols and codes develop and progressed.
The passion for different cultures meant that I tried to surround myself with
artist objects whenever possible, weather form pre-Hispanic culture, Chinese
culture or African cultures. I remember that on my first stay in Angola I put
together a small collection of tribal art, which is currently housed in the
Sociedade Martins Sarmento Archaeology Museum in Guimarães. However, it was
form the 1970s onwards that I started slowly but systematically collecting
tribal art again, not only from Angola but from central Africa and from
countries like Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon, Mali, Burkina Faso, Sudan, Congo,
Guinea, Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Togo, Benin, which I continue to do do this
day. Among them, I have things from the Mambilas, Mendes, Kanacas, Tshokwes,
Baules, Yaures, Cabindas, Fangues, Bagas, Punos, Igbos, Markas, Bambaras,
Dogons, Kotas, Noks, Yorubas, Yakas, Dans, Jukubs, etc., which today I create a
dialogue together in my Lisbon and Paris Studios, and in the New Interactional
Art Centre of Guimarães, as if they were temples.
My main aim as a collector is not simply to collect. There is another side that
has to do with recognising and respecting another culture as someone
Portuguese. Portugal sailed the oceans, found new worlds, mixed and created
miscegenation – to some degree, my artistic work has followed the trail od past
navigators, seeking and feeding off the cultures of other regions. It is this
encounter with, and respect for other cultures, that makes me admire them,
making me want to see and appreciate them at close quarters through their art!
I ended up in Angola by chance, just as by chance, years later, I travelled to
Mexico and, for the same reasons, travelled around Asia (China and Japan)
where, in 1989, I started fruitful collaboration which is still standing today,
with new, very diverse future projects in the horizon. And what is curious is
the fact that it was my childhood, spent in Guimarães, with its rural scenery,
its rocks, its mountains, its popular manifestations, a blending of religion
and paganism that dominated my spiritual concerns. Then came Africa, through
native culture, its artistic manifestations, tribal art, the practices and
rituals; Mexico with Maya and Aztec cultures, its literature, Juan Rulfo, death
and eroticism, the inframundo (underworld), and the “Mexican Alphabet” from
archetypes of the archaeological cultures. And, almost simultaneously the
Japanese projects, namely in kushiro, which led me to the study of the Ainu
people, of their traditions, the tattoos, the decorated garments, their animist
beliefs and practices and, once again, the production of signs, symbols and
ideographic forms that would support an extensive project of urban
intervention. And it does not ends here. I could also mention, for instance,
the current development of Setouchi (a project in seven islands of the Seto
Inland Sea, in Japan), which once again has lead me to the sociological study
of each one of the region’s islands in order to produce a series of urban
objects, integrating a vast project oh rehabilitation with the international
participation of architects and artists, presented in July 2010. The more than
400 pieces of public art spread around several regions of Japan are, in their
entirely, the reflection that the anthropological approach is perhaps the best
way to better understand my artist process, which is based on the creation of
ideographic alphabets, originating in very distinct cultures, which is based on
the creation of ideographic alphabets, originating very distinct cultures, which
my travels have afforded me.
In 1961, still a university student, I visited Paris for the first time, I
stayed in a two-star hotel – the Hotel Istria- in Montparnasse. My stays in
Paris became frequent. I recall having seen the great retrospective which
France dedicated to Picasso in 1963 - this was probably one of the great
thrills in my life. Whenever I could, I would spend my holidays in that
fantastic city where I could read, see and admire what was so scarce in
Portugal. IN 1995 I settle into an old 17th century house in the Rue
Quincampoix, which I restored.
Africa, Mexico and Asia(China and Japan) are my “remote cultures” that form the
“structure of kinship” which Lévi-Strauss studied in depth; communitarian areas
where my entire body of work has delved, whether in the discovery of
archetypes, or the tribal consciousness that identifies and distinguishes them.
The more recent works of the Brazil series bring that cycle to a close and meet
up with their African roots. We could summarise them thus: AFRICA | MEXICO |
ASIA | BRAZIL.
The recent travels through Brazil have led me to the Yoruba people, African
slaves that are the soul drive behind the foundation of Brazil. Once again, the
symbols of the African series (1972-74) are used in the recent works of the
Brazil series, intersecting and merging with the Mexican “papeles picados” and
the Chinese folk art, creating the weft that supports the structure of the painting
or forming the architecture of the “Favelas” installations; piled up boxes
where clowns and supermen peep through ideographic windows, amid vibrant neon
hearts that generate the energy for a sort of latent global war.
Now that I have read Lévi-Strauss in depth, I am more convinced that everything
started on the day when, in my youth, I was an amateur archaeologist and in the
excavation sites I was appointed the task of carrying out reconstruction
drawings of “terra sigillata” objects, of which we only possessed a few
José de Guimarães
Manifesto aos Pintores Inconformistas
José de Guimarães