THE PLASTIC GRAMMAR OF JOSÉ DE GUIMARÃES
José Maria Fernandes Marques, known as José de Guimarães, was born in Guimarães, Portugal, in 1939. Guimarães studied engineering, obtaining his degree from the Academia Militar in Lisbon in 1965. At the same time, he independently studied the art of significant modern and historical painters, cultivating his own aesthetic based on the great works of European artists from Rubens to Picasso, traveling to Paris in the early 1960s to observe the works of the Fauves. (5)
In the late 1960s, Guimarães was deployed as a communications officer in a military commission to Africa. While in Angola, he traveled the country extensively, and embarked on an intense ethnographic study of the region and its local cultures, ranging from local tribal legal proceedings to spiritual practices. At the time, many tribal traditions were curtailed by Portuguese colonial authorities, and the artist joined in with the local art community at polemical protests held in 1968. While in Angola, he also began to focus more and more on pursuing fine art, participating in several exhibitions and winning an award for engraving from the University of Luanda, Angola. (4)
One of his primary projects involved developing a pictorial language inspired by visual coding he saw being used in everyday life and household objects by members of the Ngoyo and Woyo people of the Cabinda region of Angola. This literal “African Alphabet” featured bold, graphic forms that mimicked the European modernist fixation with organic shapes and solid color blocking, but deliberately depicts subject matter relevant to the mystical nature of the religious rituals he observed during his time in Africa, as well as the every-day issues encountered by the people there. (4) In Luanda, he published a Manifesto for Non-conformist Artists, calling for a more holistic approach to the practice of art:
"Abandonem os pincéis e a paleta e utilizem as ferramentas com que se moldam o ferro e o betão.
Aproximem-se da vida e usem as matérias do nosso tempo.
Dai beleza ao aço, ao alumínio, ao betão e ao plástico.
[Abandon the brushes and palette and use the tools with which to shape iron and concrete.
Approach life and use the materials of our time.
From there, beauty comes out of steel, aluminum, concrete and plastic.]"
When revolution ended the colonial era in Angola, he returned to Lisbon and took classes in print-making and photography through the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon. He also set out to make as thorough an anthropological study of his own culture as he had of the tribal traditions of southwest Africa. (2)
In addition to print-making, Guimarães also began to work with large form sculpture, and in the late 1980s he was invited to Japan through the Goethe Institut, and stayed there for several years, creating some of Japan’s first public art installations, including large, graphic sculptures, a bright mural in Tokyo, and kites flown in Himeji. By the time he left, he had created over 400 works in total. (1) After exhibiting extensively throughout Japan, the United States, and Europe, Guimarães was engaged by the Mexican government to produce a similar public sculpture program in Mexico City. Once again, he dove into a deep study of the country’s history, indigenous culture, and artistic traditions in order to create the artworks, and included these cultural and artistic references in the design of a metro station in Mexico City. In 1990 he was awarded the honor of Commander of the Order of Prince Henry by the President of Portugal, and his work became highly visible, adorning teeshirts and posters. (4)
Guimarães’ intense interest in multiculturalism and ethnography has been a primary influence on his aesthetic and created a visual dialogue between European-style modern artwork and non-western regional artwork. This attempt to bridge between culturally informed aesthetics has often been introspective. Witnessing the impact of colonialism on Africa, Guimarães has always pointedly identified himself as a westerner with a westerner’s perspective, and subsequently identified and critiqued the privilege of his station. (3) Though like many European artists he has looked to non-western traditions seeking new perspectives on the metaphysical and adopting their aesthetic motifs, he has also been highly critical of the effects of European colonialism and imperialism throughout the world, and particularly in Africa. In 2004 he worked with a documentary filmmaker while preparing an exhibition of large-format paintings that confront the deeply uncomfortable history of European colonialism. (6)
Today Jose de Guimarães continues to produce art inspired by travel and intercultural dialogues. Since the early 2000s, he has created small shrine boxes that reflect a synthesis of his many travels, inspired by Japanese shrines, the bold colors of Brazil, and Vodun religious practices. Not long afterward, he began to incorporate neon lighting into his sculptural work, not only as a reflection of the technological trajectory of global culture, but more specifically inspired by the distinctive contemporary appearance of large east Asian cities, known for their neon signage. He is also in high demand for ongoing public art projects, and has been selected to create similar metro station designs for Lisbon as he created for Mexico City. Today his art can be found both on city streets and in museums throughout the entire world. He currently splits his time between Lisbon and Paris, France. (5)
Written by Grace Walsh, Research Assistant
Farhad Radfar, ISA, AM
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