Lisbon is a small town spread over seven hills in which all the contemporary art galleries used to be only ten minutes from each other. Now, there are venues all over the city. Lumiar Cité, a space run by the Independent Art Study Program Maumaus, is located in Lumiar, a growing district near the airport where large, empty avenues traverse green hills a long way from the tourist centre. In its five-year existence, the gallery has staged works by Gabriel Abrantes, Pedro Barateiro, Harun Farocki, Florian Hecker and Allan Sekula, amongst others. In April, Mozambique-born artist Ângela Ferreira and German curator Jürgen Bock – who are both based in Lisbon – revisited Ferreira’s 2013 Lumbubashi Biennial project, here renamed Indépendence Cha Cha (2014). It comprised a see-through pine wood structure inspired by Lubumbashi modernist façades that incorporated two videos, one of a musical performance scripted by Ferreira about the terrible labour conditions of miners during the Belgian Congo era; the other, of a local band performing the song Indépendence Cha Cha. Parallels between Congolese histories of hard labour and the struggles of Portugal’s own ex-colonies were implicit.
So, how is the local art scene coping with the country’s economic crisis? Government funding for the arts has always been scarce, and has mostly been spent on major events such as national representation at the Venice Biennale. The visual arts in Portugal have always relied on private funding, mainly from the Gulbenkian Foundation, and, more recently, from the Electricity of Portugal (EDP) Foundation, and the bank BES. However, even against a backdrop of dire unemployment, commercial galleries have recently reported a boom in sales. As a result, the rebranded Oporto Gallery Múrias Centeno opened a space in January, strategically located in Poço do Bispo, close to other commercial galleries. It recently showcased the Portuguese and New York-based artist Ana Cardoso’s series of new paintings ‘Flat Files’ (2014). Text and texture, abstraction and human silhouettes are a new direction for Cardoso’s articulation of geometry and realism. In an adjacent street, Baginski Gallery held a solo show by Ana Vidigal, ‘Em primeiro lugar o Fim (Rigorosamente pessoal)’ (Firstly the End [Absolutely Personal]), which included the artist’s melancholic reconstructions of Portuguese mythologies through collages of vintage posters and copies of Artforum magazines from the 1980s.
Along with internationally recognized curators, such as Culturgest’s director Miguel Wandschneider and Museu Berardo’s director Pedro Lapa, local gallerists play an important role in the cultural life of Lisbon. The programme at Cristina Guerra Contemporary Art, for example, has supported major Portuguese artists such as Filipa César and João Onofre, while strong recent exhibitions of international artists include Lawrence Weiner’s fifth show in the gallery, ‘Crisscrossed’. Also of interest was German artist Daniel Gustav Cramer’s recent show at Vera Cortês Art Agency. His series ‘Tales’ (2010–14) comprises a sequence of photographs of landscapes and interiors shot from a mid-distance, that seems to capture, in a tiny fragment of time, the potential of fiction.
The EDP Museum of Electricity, in a beautiful location by the river close to Belém’s cluster of historic monuments, is currently hosting a remarkable exhibition by António Sena. Renowned for his interweaving of language, painting and drawing, ‘Newspaper’ comprises photocopied and over-painted front pages of a local newspaper from the beginning of the 20th century. Portuguese artist Carla Filipe, who comes from a family of railway workers, echoed Sena’s focus on repetition and process in her show ‘da cauda à cabeça’ (from tail to head) at the Museu Berardo. She mapped out Portugal’s relation to labour, memory and landscape by exploring the history of the Portuguese national railway company (CP), through archives, furniture, flags and her own drawings. The show included many decaying objects, as if Filipe was highlighting how Portugal has a habit of discarding its own history.
Since Isabel Carlos took over the Gulbenkian Modern Art Centre in 2009, her energy and vision has filled a gap in the art scene. Carlos is the first woman to be appointed director of a contemporary museum in Lisbon, having previously worked abroad, notably curating the Sydney Biennial in 2004. Until mid-May, the Centre hosted a long-awaited retrospective of the work of João Tabarra (who had a concurrent show at Filomena Soares Gallery); a solo show by the sculptor Rui Chafes; and, in the project space, ‘Stranded’, which included two sculptures and a video by Tunisian artist Nadia Kaabi-Linke about the complex political and cultural intricacies of belonging.
Born in Lisbon in 1946, Ana Jotta is currently the focus of much deserved attention. During her recent solo exhibition, ‘The Conclusion of the Precedent’, at Culturgest, she was awarded the prestigious triennial EDP Foundation Prize that celebrates a unique artistic career. Pedro Casqueiro, who has collaborated with Jotta, had simultaneous shows at Culturgest and Appleton Square. Led by Vera Appleton, the latter is an example of recently opened spaces that provide a salutary alternative to more established galleries. Nearby, the beautifully designed non-profit Leal Rios Foundation, whose mission is to work closely with artists from the collection, opened a solo show by David Maljkovi´c, which closed in late May.
There are a number of relatively new artist-run or independent spaces in Lisbon, such as Kunsthalle Lissabon and Carpe Diem, where the promising duo of Francisco Queimadela and Mariana Caló showed their project Gradations of Time Over a Plane (2010–ongoing) – an earlier iteration was shown at Gasworks, London in 2012 – that explores representations of time.
Until recently, artist-run or non-profit galleries in Lisbon were scarce. Now, in a country which, only three years ago, was in so much debt that Prime Minister Passos Coelho urged its teachers and students to emigrate, the art scene is, ironically, more vibrant than ever. And although Lisbon is still in need of new critical platforms, such as local art magazines, the diversity of contemporary art spaces in the city is definitely something to celebrate.