Visual Memories, by Lourdes Féria
Framed in the watery light of the atelier, precise hand movements adjust the whiteness of the screen that starts to acquire forms and colours, to have some visual impact. It is as if it has gained a psychic force, as if it was trying to say something. Memories and experiences populate the pictures in a continuous line that goes back to the mid-1990s. Paintings whose fundamental theme is connected to African subjects, a mix of the past and the present, tinged with homesickness. The cycle has not yet been completed. The two easels, the inks, the spotted cloths, the brushes, the chair drawn by Daciano Costa, the photographs of the grandchildren, are all part of a chaotic space that generates confrontations between its geographic shifts and the triviality of the day-to-day, between fantasy and the reality that the eye sees. Now, she has come back to her starting point to show a selection of her works that symbolise the last decade of her output. This is not a retrospective; it is a precursor of an anthological exhibition accompanying a book launch. It was in the Water Museum that she made her first noteworthy exhibition after her return from Angola, from the point of view of someone who wanted to capture a place and preserve it pictorially. This is it.
From the start, right from the start, Clotilde Fava had the Tagus on the horizon and the shouts of fishmongers in her ears. She was born in Lisbon in 1941, in the difficult times of the Second World War, which worsened the already precarious economic position of the family. The daughter of Palmira da Costa Pinto and the sculptor Armando Mesquito who, from time to time, obtained commissions from the "Estado Novo", she vaguely remembers living in the Avenida João XXI, at the side of a ceramics plant, which has since disappeared. At four years old she lost her mother and, overcoming the struggle, her father married a woman from Odemira in the Alentejo who took complete care of her, completely contradicting the image of the evil stepmother from children’s stories. "I had a very happy childhood", she affirms. Sacavém occupies a special place in the story of her life. The years in which she lived in a 17th century manor house, in Quinta das Penicheiras, were decisive in forming her personality. "I am still going to paint my memories of this time", she guarantees. Memories of the time where, as a girl with braids and organdie bows in her hair she received loving attention from a hen that went everywhere at her side, and adored the sound of the guitar. "She would jump onto my father’s knee and stay there quietly, to listen to him playing fado". She cried inconsolably when her beloved hen, called Fly, could not resist the epidemic that swept through the chicken population. Then, the never-explained loss of her dog Lis, a curious mix of black fur and chestnut brown eyebrows, broke her heart.
"Maybe he was put in a railway carriage, and sat there all the way to Lisbon", consoled her father, who was an excellent storyteller, and who instilled a taste for the arts in her. The young Clotilde, eyes wide with astonishment, believed him. She was six years old and had a fertile imagination. Towards the end of the afternoon, she sat at the window, above a rocky outcrop, to watch the procession of a flock of sheep, gentle, fluffy animals that had become an obsession for her. Until, with the natural naivety of a child, she tried to buy the prettiest sheep from the shepherd, the sheep that had looked at her, sending the others into complete invisibility. "I offered a tostão, a farthing, for it, the only money I had", she says. She still keeps in her memory the gorgeous image of a white horse running free. She kept the magic of childhood, a type of impressionable film, which marked her deeply when it was being recorded. Is that how happiness exists, exactly? With advancing age, we learn that it is something delicate and indefinable, and that it relates to fleeting moments. Throughout her life’s course, she was keeping her moments.
Early on, she discovered the pleasure of drawing and colour. With a ruler, she divided folder pages into four, and drew comic strips in a creative outpouring. At other times, clearly influenced by the Gustavo Doré illustrations that appear in the book of Dante’s "Inferno”, she drew horned devils. "I read badly, and I never got tired of admiring these pictures. Devils, subjects related to the Middle Ages and the Inquisition have always affected me. I have a certain tendency towards the mystic", she confesses. She never had doubts, and always knew what she wanted to be when she grew up. Art was almost an inheritance, a genetic predisposition, her drawing already pointing towards her artistic future. After finishing her secondary schooling at the Filipa de Lencastre School, she registered at the College of Fine Arts where she met, among others, Eduardo Nery, Dorita Castello Branco, Jorge Martins and Manuel Baptista, figures who stand out in the fine arts world. Painting was her first choice, but she ended by opting for the sculpture course that she finished in 1962.
At the college, where her education would reach an international level, she did not gain the affection of the professors, who were mostly loyal to the regime, and disapproved of her contentious side and the nature of her political opinions. In that stale and suffocating environment, only Martins Correia appealed to her as "a spectacular individual, both as a humanist and as a professor". In the fourth year, thanks to a grant from the National Academy of Fine Arts, she moved to Leiria as part of a group of finalists who, during the holidays, had mounted an exhibition in the Tourism office, where she sold one piece for a thousand Reals. It was in an improvised garret in the old headquarters of Portuguese Youth that she transposed, in its natural size, the piece she required to present the thesis that would allow her entry to the fifth year. "They demanded 14, I made that on the button, with the help of my colleagues. Neither Hugo Machado nor I had five thousand Reals to pay Faiunça who worked with António Duarte and other sculptors of the Salazar dictatorship. Our dear tutors, who spent the summer in their houses in S. Pedro de Moel, had given them 13. My piece was so good or so bad that a professor of architecture at the School asked me for it", she recounts.
The financial constraints on the Mesquita family, aggravated by the birth of her brother Raul, subsided. Through a friend, she obtained a job as a designer for IBM in Portugal. She also collaborated in Carlos Tojal’s atelier, before travelling to Luanda in 1965. Already married and with a son a few months old, she followed her husband, the architect Jose Fava, who had been called up at the height of the fighting during the colonial war. There, in a stroke of luck, she quickly reached a certain professional stability. "João Raposo Magalhães, an unusual guy, put me in charge of the design of the ceramic walls and counters of the branches of Bank Pinto & Sotto Mayor which was expanding in Angola. I also designed a panel and a sculpture for the Banco de Crédito Comercial e Industrial, in Lobito, and the Baptistery of the Church of Novo Redondo", she states. In her first year in Africa, she suffered greatly, was bothered by cockroaches, and could not cope with the infernal insects. She was unluckily bitten by a screwworm fly that started eating her alive. "When it pierces the skin, it leaves larvae underneath that feed on the flesh. They can only be removed after the worm grows to four centimetres. Then, the hole is covered with petroleum jelly and it comes to the surface to breathe, where it either leaves on its own or has to be extracted by a doctor. I had three that crawled away on their own, and four more that were lanced".
Little by little, she fell in love with an Africa that overwhelmed the five senses, and later turned this into an artistic motivation. The colours, the greens of everything that was green, the brownish tones in contrast with the translucent clarity of air, the smell of the wet earth, the women’s clothes, the grey leaden skies that heralded astounding thunderstorms, the intense smells, the wide horizons, and the flavours of mozangué and moamba, which are staples in Angolan cooking. In São Paulo market, she bought fresh fish and "ginguba”, a spicy peanut and pepper spread, cut into squares and eaten as an aperitif. She brought her white Mini with its red carpets loaded with things. "I bought this car, which was excellent on bends, in England. I drove from London to Lisbon and then I loaded it onto the ship for Luanda", she remembers. The city looked beautiful, and life was serene. The hotels along the front, the tennis, the fishing fleet owners’ club, the vast liquid extent of the sea, the establishments in the Baixa full of goods arriving in the metropolis, the formal balls where one could meet high administrative employees, senior army officers and members of the liberal professions. In the shops in the Baixa, there was no shortage of cod, Madeira butter, fine oil and even cream cakes. Bit by bit, she reconstitutes this hidden world that has not been forgotten.
She remembers the salesmen who smoked with the lit tips of their cigarettes turned inside their mouths. The famous Kitandeiras who had learned to escape traditional schemes, and who still play today a key role in the commercial fabric throughout Africa. In an almost magical way, Clotilde Fava remains faithful to a representation in which the feminine figure appears as the protector of tradition, of wisdom, without asking about vulnerabilities or the uncertainties of fate. The small local buses overloaded with ordinary people and chickens, the binges or "rabitas" that lasted from Friday until dawn on Sunday and where merengue made hot and sweaty bodies vibrate. Always the people, the toiling women, the scenes and the movements, in the front line. In a careful search for memories that are not erased. Memories, made poetic by time and distance. She does not paint Angola as Malangatana did, she takes on more of the view of a spectator, who is inhaling an ethnic perfume, and absorbing visual energy.
Luanda today is unrecognisable, slums have proliferated, as has what Luandino Vieira called "the asphalt border", alluding to the border that divided two worlds and which Pepetela, in a less condescending definition, called a world of misery without conditions for habitation or hygiene. How many years have passed? Thirty? Time starts to fly. It feels as though it was yesterday. After a decade, she returned with some regrets in the contingent of "returnees" who had to restart with nothing. Her children, her house and the art lessons she taught in a secondary school held her back from dedicating herself entirely to the painting that had become an imperative. Nevertheless, she gave her skill. After her first exhibition in the Quattro gallery, various invitations had appeared. Two days apart, she opened an exhibition in the Museum of Sintra and another one in the Museum of Water. "I had the privilege of knowing Natália Correia and her circle of friends, which allowed me to leave my cocoon", she says.
In 1997, she visited Cape Verde, as a tourist. She succumbed to the ambience and the romanticism she found in the same continent as the land where she had lived through unforgettable days. Her discovery of this piece of Africa inspired half a dozen of her exhibitions. She was seduced by the low, Algarve-style houses with elaborate windows, the hard, dry landscape, the accepting warmth of the population. This is fixed in the complicity of the women with their domestic animals, in the goats that live around the houses and which, in the most barren zones, devour everything, even plastic. These are curious goats, with enormous and rolled horns, reminiscent of the animals that timidly reappeared after peace came to Angola. Goats that, balancing on their back legs, eat the leaves of incredibly curved trees. Towering over the sparse vegetation stands the dragon tree, a unique tree with a top that looks like a rain hat. Impressed by the Island of Fire, she says of the contrast between the black sand and the turquoise transparency of the sea, "Where the lava stopped, leaving an anthracite track, there is an explosion of green". In this extreme, lunar, landscape, twisted forms predominate, with softened details. The surprising fact should be mentioned that some inhabitants of the island have blond hair and blue eyes. Cape Verde was, in former times, a coal depot for the English, which explains such evident crossbreeding. The exoticism of the physiognomy is the outcome of successive intermingling, and the mixture of blacks with Malays, Portuguese and English has resulted in astounding beauties.
The eye of the artist focuses on the women who sell in the markets, who have the drudgery of agriculture or who collect rounded stones on the beaches. They fill earthenware bowls and sell them at the roadside to truck drivers working in civil construction. They are the ones who cultivate the maize that forms the base of "cachupa”. In one of the pictorial narratives of Clotilde Fava, we see women and children by the waterfalls in the interior of the islands. They talk, they swap gossip, and they leave with yellow plastic buckets full of water, carried by unstable donkeys. The bunches of bananas, the red roosters with bristling crests, the fish with human eyes, all these elements spilled onto the canvas emanate a telluric force. Cape Verde, land of a primal memory, of carnal and sweet joys, of musical chords where the violin and trumpet bring a thousand wonders.
The sad, dull, expressions of the women are illuminated by the rhythm of the drummers, of baskets that impel them into a bare-footed dance. The blood heats when hands beat a "tchabeta" and produce an unbelievable sound. In the dance, the rhythm spread through the bodies like a fever, the scalding sensuality of the unfettered movements of the waist and hips as only Africans know how. In Creole songs about the troubles of life, the infidelities of husbands, weariness with their children, everything in the soulful ballads, stir the emotions. Clotilde Fava loves Cape Verde. To eat a piece of fresh tuna lightly passed over live coals and sip grog, aguardente distilled from sugar cane, does not hinder the lucidity nor the ability to delve into the pureness of the sources, in the infinite temptation to become lost in the tumult of the markets, in the indistinct ferment of human and animal lives. This is material that, at source, is the basis for the conducting threads that run through the various phases of her work.
Since the 1990s, the technique of the artist has corresponded to the same impulses, to a context of intimacy with Africa. A place of ecstasies, entanglements, soliloquies, daydreams and a pinch of melancholy that is amplified on the canvas. Her painting illustrates the meeting of two civilisations, two cultures. A mobile language of great freedom and vitality at the level of the shapes and strident colours that she uses. The human figure constitutes the nucleus of her poetic and formal research, evoking the anthropomorphic composition of primitive societies and associating it with animals. Always women with full figures, yellowish cat-like eyes, women who will fight without desisting. A brilliant light enlivens scenes of conviviality or loving dialogue between women and animals, giving them a gentle surrealism. Africa is to the painting of Clotilde Fava what Russia was for Chagall, its chosen painter. The figures that she paints day-by-day are found wandering there. It is the innocence of the primordial that she is trying to find. Every painting is a story, a fiction and, at the same time, a photograph of reality. The rest gives it emotion and mystery. Her paintings seem to capture moments of life just like a photograph, registering visual and human experiences.
Men are normally absent from Clotilde Fava’s painting, but they appear masked in the scenes from the Mindelo Carnival. Faces painted with flour and blurred red lips, like clowns with a pathetic air. She recorded the figure of a man dressed in blue satin with a top hat, another with the mask of Munch’s "Scream”, in black and white, demonstrating the influence and the power of televised images. "Women do not participate - they stand at the window to see the procession pass. The people enjoy themselves while behaving; there is never any disorder. The procession on Tuesday lasts until dawn and, the following day, the streets are impeccably clean. Perhaps unconsciously I substitute men for animals ", she comments. The men appear in a subordinate role and lack soul, the look of them poses problems, questions. Women rooted in the land like robust trees, on whom maternity confers an enormous power. Women who establish bonds with their animals, but who, when necessary, can cut the head off a rooster in a single strike, and then use it for cooking or in witchcraft.
In 1998, during the International Year of the Ocean, she displayed an exhibition at the Mãe de Água in Lisbon about the fantastic underwater kingdom of the deep. In the quiet submarine world, she found an approach to the universe of dreams. In an appeal on the imagination, she recounts a tale from when she lived in Luanda. "On one of our fishing trips I saw a strange fish circling the boat. We stopped the engine. It was a moonfish with its barbs standing up. I stretched out my arm and patted it on the head, and it suddenly disappeared. In the oceans there are both aggressive and friendly fish", she recalls. Exotic fish like manta rays that swim in pairs, male and female together. As well as black and white whales, there were John Dorys with scales of orange, red and yellow, a perfect rainbow. Illusions that wove an image between looking at and seeing. Bizarre optical illusions, because out of the water they were grey, like the other fish. On a more edible note, they made delicious fillets.
When she took a walk in mangroves next to Morro dos Veados, between Luanda and the bar of the Kuanza River, she saw a python leave the water that almost hypnotised her. Meters and meters of snake extended; an image that led to her ocean series. She did not feel afraid - she loves reptiles. In fact, she likes all animals with the exception of spiders that affect her nerves. The idea of painting insects had already come into her mind. Hers is a curious spirit, which believes that nature is more authentic and wild.
She tries to open spaces, signs of hope in a dissolving world. She is one of those people who do not look at the world with a shrug of the shoulders. To exorcise the hatred that fuels wars, to show that clarity overcomes darkness, entering into a phase perfumed by the aroma of flowers. "All the fish and all the flowers have names", said Sofia de Mello Breyner. Anturios, hibiscus, orchids and calla lilies are the names of the flowers that Clotilde Fava painted. She did not paint myosotis or "forget-me-nots", as they are also known, nor sunflowers that are much appreciated. "Flowers multiply, spread their seeds, and sometimes are reborn with one more annual flowering. I was not bothered about the decorative side, not at all. It was the aspect of regeneration that interested me much more". She was uncertain when she took this different path, slipping more into the abstract. "I was used to painting my women, my goats, my fish, and my sea monsters. The flowers were a more arduous challenge, even in terms of actually painting them", she adds.
Flowers that bring to mind the masculine and feminine, and therefore have erotic connotations, recall the eternal fusion of yin and yang that it is the driving force of the creative dynamics of nature. "I spent three years looking at flowers, to study their sexual organs through a lens like a scientist". Flowers, some probably carnivorous, but never evil. They translate, in the opinion of the painter, into an illusion of harmony that our era does not support. Georgia O’Keefe painted more than 200 pictures with flowers; the iris was her emblem. Clotilde Fava preferred to paint more unusual and disturbing flowers. "Unconsciously, we go in search of the things that we see in museums and art books", she concludes.
To repeat: Chagall showed the transcendence of art. He never gave names to his paintings and one of the words that sounds best is nostalgia.