Ana Isabel Ribeiro
Much has been written, and quite well, on David de Almeida’s oeuvre, focusing on particular aspects of his already long career as a painter and engraver. So, it will be now desirable to know him a little further, by looking at this group of previously unseen works, displayed in Casa da Cerca’s Cistern. This will also allow us to go back in time, to find the common thread that runs through this artist’s work, in which, regardless of technique or subject, it is always possible to find a founding value, which takes the form of a coherent body of plastic reasons, based around an ontological core.
A tireless traveller, familiar with many corners of the world, David de Almeida acts as a kind of mediator between visible reality and its transformation into artistic materials. His works reflect geographies, on which he delineates itineraries that describe his wanderings and the increased luggage he brings home. That is why David de Almeida is a historyteller, rather than a storyteller — stories come later, as impressions are added and invented and form, colour, smell, texture are retained, as the viewers gaze sensuously strolls across the pieces. lt is interesting to observe that the mobility of his itinerary as an individual is clearly reflected on his work as an artist (if this dichotomy has any pertinence in this context), built through thematic urges, accompanied by successive developments in the technology of making, which express themselves in varying ways, while never discarding their constants, that is to say, the previously mentioned ontologically-based common thread.
Everything starts to be and happen on a flat surface, a simulacrum of the ground of ali future happenings, where smoothness, relief, every accident and disturbance of space, time and thought are moulded and imprinted by the hand, as it expresses and details the work, giving it body and consistence. Indeed, his work as an engraver relies much on an apparent randomness, while in the end everything, or almost, is actually under control — perhaps his fascination with the world lies precisely in this re-creation of its planes as a starting-point, as the basis for a construction.
Curiously, the pieces shown here lack this treatment of the surface. The background is white, a source of light, nearly as smooth and homogeneous as the colour itself, symbolically evocative af purity, wisdom, divinity, peace or simply the absence of colaur. This white is part of an internal logic of David de Almeida´s work, already described as “the language of whiteness”(l), which appeared for the first time in the 1 970s, when the artist abandoned painting to dedicate himself to engraving; from that moment on, it has become increasingly harder to determine how much does one of these media formally and methodologically contaminate the other.
But the connection between these works and previous pieces does not limit itself to this. It dates from as far back as the pre-1970s, when David de Almeida went beyond the “strategy of the abstract” and returned to man, or, more precisely, “man and all his contradictions and epopees are all around the artist, who touches him, sounds him, reads his doubts and pains, reconstituting the itinerary of his pilgrimage across the loca infecta” (2).
One further premise of this artist’s work can also be found again here: the power of the cut-out me. Smooth transitions from one piece to another are achieved by re¬using cut-out shapes, which generate a cadence of presences and absences, creating proximity and kinship between them. This cadence is heightened by the fact that most of the figures inscribed on the white background are done in black, a colour whose associations — death, pain, loneliness, sadness — are of an opposite nature to the ones on the background. Red, the third colour in these works, expresses danger, blood, love, joy and celebration.
The cut-outs, predominantly circular in shape, evoke the ships’ unruly courses, traced through intuition and the guidance of the stars and the wide sea, which did nothing but set them on their way, since miscalculations and the whims of the wind would make them return to their starting-point, describing an almost perfect circle. Other cut-outs, of textured cloth, in the shape of rough squares and rectangles, are glued to the white background, evoking wind-filled sails, the prime movers of the voyage. Others look like flags, identifying the ship and its occupants, which, for those living in the time of caravels, might mean peace or war.
Black, red and white felt, fine osiers, black, red and white stitches (instead of drawn lines) and two children’s books on Chinese history are the raw materials used by David de Almeida to evoke, in our Cistern, that place for water as an indispensable commodity for everyday life, Fernão Mendes Pinto and his book Peregrinação [Pilgrimage]. The artist intentionally chose this location since it is part of one of the many geographies in Fernão Mendes Pintos life, more precisely Almada, where, after returning to Portugal in 1556, he bought a farm, raised a family and wrote his book, which would only be published in 1614, 31 years after his death in 1583. This very long text “shows men as they really are. It tells us how the terrible paths of life and death kept crossing one another on those unknown seas and lands”(3). It is both a historical and a fictional book, which is “more than just travel literature”; it is “neither the life of a saint nor of a gentleman”; its narrator “tells his story, wrapped in many other amazing stories”, leading us in a “game of confession and concealment”(4).
David de Almeida, too, works exactly in this way, that is to say, by means of a game whose rules are pre-established by the artist, who, resorting to metaphor and semantic readings, creates, on a static white background opposed to the perpetual motion subject for a visual art object, repositioning and updating elements of the human condition and its attendant risks. Once, the following was written about his work:
“David de Almeida’s art is fundamentally a game. Or, if we prefer, it is a presentation of the game rules that have carried aesthetical man from the beginning to the end of History”(5).
In more academic terms, these works are hybrids. They are, and are not, collages; they are, and are not, assemblages. They are collages according to the Cubist logic of exploring the differences between representation and reality, but they are not exactly se in the intentionality that created and supports them. They resemble assemblages in the fact of being solely made of pre-existing materials. Yet, the artist does not consider himself a collector of objects; his main activity goes beyond finding some assertive coherence in the connections, direct or otherwise, that may be established between these sarne objects (6). The hybrid flavour of these works is also clearly felt in the fact that they are constructions, that is to say, a cumulative process which takes place on a surface, but whose constituting elements come from the handicraft of the artist (except for the osiers and the two Chinese brochures), even though its technical procedure is similar to the one of assemblage.
In this exhibition, David de Almeida sails again seas he has not explored in almost two decades, now for the simple pleasure of coming te a different harbour. it was during the 1980s that works depicting the sea or its inhabitants, like, for instance, whales (7), started gaining importance in his artistic production. In 1983, the “Do mar de hoje” exhibition (8) and the collective show “História Trágico-Marítima”, at Sociedade Nacional de Belas Artes, allowed him to divulge a project, which now, after a long interruption, is continued at Casa da Cerca’s cistern.
During the intervening time, what is now confirmed as a common thread in his work has been apparently suspended, but actually only lay at anchor on some inlet of his memory, leaving thought and hands free to follow the courses dictated by other compasses. lf, when David de Almeida “sailed forth in sea-conquest, following the echoes of our tragic age of discoveries”(9), he was just arriving from an exploration of colourful, replicated fruits, an a scale that made them abstract and alienated them from their own corporeality, after carefully sounding these echoes, he again abandoned “white as an evocative, cosmogonic background”(l O). His surfaces became denser and more imperative, sometimes self-sufficient in terms of expression: the questioning of mans history is vertical, right down the four ages of the world.
Now, white comes again to exert its fascination as a light, at once unexpected and expected, where everything else finds its place (it is not by chance that the first two works made for this exhibition are totally white). Accordingly, the works presented here are also suffused with this artist’s fascination with the East, which has enabled him te incorporate, understand and interpret many of its essential moments and aspects. In other words, formal simplicity, lightness, and balance. Chinese thought, indeed, is based on the mobile and unstable balance of complementary polarities(11). Between, for instance, life and death, which, in the specific instance of this group of works, have the sea as their paradigm. From the sea, David de Almeida takes the movement, the sense of change, of being taken somewhere else. From the sea, David de Almeida takes blissful and frightening chance, tempest and calm, that possibility of continuous wandering which potentially contains the wonder and fascination of discovery, but also slaughter, the annihilation of the right to be different, destruction. Utter, pitiless, overwhelming death (12).
All this is contained in the density of the metaphors contained in these works, which, in spite of their sharpness, celebrate a kind of non-aggression pact between the artist, the reality from which they come and the plastic construction that gives them meaning... . returning with the tide..., suspended, waiting for the gaze that will draw them into other, different sensibilities, this group of works is just one port of call in the voyage of this author, who has never lost his bearings while moving between Art and Life.
Ana Isabel Ribeiro
(1) Cf. DUARTE, Luis Fagundes — David de Almeida fecit. Lisboa: Imprensa Nacional-Casa da Moeda, 1986, p. 27.
(2) ldem, p. 26
(3) COELHO, António Borges — Fernão Mendes Pinto peregrino de três oceanos: Atlântico, Indico e Pacifico. In “Mestre Andarilho - painel de azulejos em homenagem à Peregrinaçào de Fernão Mandes Pinto de Rogério Ribeiro”, Fórum Municipal Rorneu Correia. Almada: Casa da Cerca — Centro de Arte Contemporânea, 1998, p. 27.
(4) ldem, p. 25.
(5) Cf. DUARTE, Luiz Fagundes, op. cit, p. 36.
(6) There were previous exhibitions by David de Almeida, like for instance “Assemblages 2001-02” (Biblioteca Municipal de Santa Maria da Feira, 2002) and “David de Almeida” (Lisboa, Galeria Ara, 2002), where both techniques were more clearly defined in their technical, creative and plastic features.
(7) A series of aquatints on whales, shown for the first time in 1986, at Galeria 111 (Lisbon).
(8) See catalogue of the exhibition at Centro Cultural de S. Lourenço, Almancil, in 1983, also shown the next year at Junta de Turismo da Costa do Estoril.
(9) Cf. DUARTE, Luis Fagundes, op. cit., p. 39.
(10) FERNANDES, Maria João — Os signos da pedra—a luz do signo. in “David de Almeida”, Lisboa, FCG, Jan.-Fev. 1986).
(11) In Chinese aesthetics, “The end of all art is not, thus, lo preserve the Yang and reject the Yin, but lo keep the balance between the two, since once cannot be without the other. The term describing the relation between Yang and Yin is Hsiang sheng, which means ‘reciprocal attraction’ or ‘inseparability’. Being and non-being are mutually generative: sound is connected to silence, light to space. Hence the importance of the notion of emptiness as a correlative lo the notion of form” In CARCHIA, Gianni; D’ANGELO, Paolo (dir.) —Dicionário de estética. Lisboa: Ed.70, 2003, p. 66.
(12) In this sense, it is important to elaborate here a little more on the symbolical meaning of the sea:
“It symbolises the dynamics of life. Everything comes from the sea and returns to it: a place of births, changes and rebirths. The sea’s moving waters symbolise a state of transition between informal possibilities and formal realities, the ambivalent condition of uncertainty, doubt, indecision, which may lead lo good or evil. Hence the sea is the image of both life and death.” CHEVALIER, Jean; GHEERBRANT, Alain — Dicionário dos símbolos. Lisboa: Circulo de Leitores, 1997, p. 439.