all images by Luís Filipe Branco
As I write this post I am thinking of all my friends in the global art community – in Portugal, in Brazil, in the Netherlands, in Hungary, in South Africa, in Palestine, in Denmark, in the U.K., in Canada, in Italy, in Germany, in France, in India, South Korea, in Australia, EVERYWHERE and in the US…
Two Chairs, at Herdade da Marmeleira, 53 x 80 cm, 2015
Photographer Luís Branco and I made the above image in 2015 on the grounds of the OBRAS Foundation (Herdade da Marmeleira). I am sitting on a chair on the stone platform that is the ruin of an old house – looking out over the rolling hills towards the nearby mountain of Evoramonte. This beautiful place in the Alentejo region of Portugal has been a very special and productive place for me over the last five years.
I had planned (until just a few weeks ago) on flying to Portugal this past week to help install the large exhibit of Luís Branco and my work The Mirror Between Us / O Espelho Entre Nós in the beautiful Igreja de São Vicente in Évora and to attend the opening/inauguration that was scheduled for this coming Saturday April 4th. We have been designing and producing this exhibit for more than a year now. For the safety of all, curators Ludger van der Eerden and Carolien van der Laan of the OBRAS Foundation and Margarida Branco with the Municipality of Évora postponed the exhibit several weeks ago. Now, Portugal is shut down and the whole world is coping with the Corona virus pandemic. All the work for the exhibit is produced and in storage in Portugal. We hope to reschedule the exhibit for sometime in 2021 – oxalá / inshallah/ god willing. I hope for everyone’s health and well being now and in the future. I am writing this from the relative safety and seclusion (with my partner Jamie) of my home and studio in Boulder, Colorado.
A thought that compels me at this time is that the title for the exhibit we have planned, The Mirror Between Us, and the ideas embodied in the works themselves reflect our interconnectedness and our vulnerability as individuals and as a global community. During the current pandemic, the ability to travel and collaborate with other artists, and to exhibit in far-away places (or exhibit anywhere close by for that matter) seems like such a privilege and a treasure.
I realize for myself, personally, that the works in this exhibit (as we have planned it) document a generative and illuminating period of my life. I have had the opportunity and the freedom to travel to Portugal multiple times and to make artwork in a supportive and enriching environment at OBRAS. I have made great friendships in Portugal with artists from across the globe. I have had the privilege to work with photographer Luís Branco and develop a remarkably fruitful collaboration. We have had tremendous encouragement and support from Carolien van der Laan and Ludger van der Eerden of the OBRAS Foundation. Luís and I have exhibited our work widely with wonderful responses in both Portugal and the US. I am alternately very sad not to complete this exhibition at this time and I am also extremely grateful for all the opportunities that have been given me.
For the rest of this post I will be showing several of the images that were selected for inclusion in The Mirror Between Us and at the same time recounting my experiences of working in Portugal over the last five years at OBRAS with my collaborator and friend Luís Branco. Truth be told writing is cathartic for me as well as part of my “artistic practice.”
Woman Standing, Still, 120 x 80 cm, 2015
Woman Standing, Still was shot on the grounds by the castle that is located on top of the mountain of Evoramonte. This image was shot during my first trip to the OBRAS Foundaton in 2015. I had come to Portugal, inspired by the work of the remarkable conceptual artist Helena Almeida (1934-2018) who has used her body as the subject in her performative black and white photographs since the late 1960’s. I had asked Carolien van der Laan and Ludger van der Eerden (founders of the OBRAS Foundation and art residency) to introduce me to a photographer I could work with while in Portugal. They introduced me to photographer Luís Branco. We began a collaboration that has continued over the last five years and my six visits to Portugal and one to the Netherlands and many many photo-shoots and the making of 1000’s and 1000’s of images.
This black and white image, Woman Standing ,Still, is one of the first of what I call the “masterpieces” (though I prefer to use the Portuguese term “obra-prima” which is a feminine noun and reaches beyond the gendered art historical inference of “masterpiece” and my friend Antonio Pliz says this is proper usage). Luís was very aware that I was inspired by the work of Helena Almeida. Almeida, who passed away in 2018 at age 82, is tremendously respected in the Portuguese art world (and hopefully in the entire art world). Luís understood that I was not interested in traditional portraiture but in a kind of “still” performance of feminine subjectivity similar to Almeida’s. Woman Standing, Still is one of hundreds of images that Luís and I shot that day in 2015 at Evoramonte. In this “moment” Luís told me to stop and cover my face with my hair. Later when I saw Luis’ beautiful conversion of this image to black and white I knew we were on to something. In this image I become a more universal or archetypal “subject.” It is me but it is also many women – a matriarch with her feet planted firmly on the earth with the broad Alentejo sky surrounding her.
We shot hundreds and thousands of images in 2015 – in the large studio at OBRAS (Herdade da Marmeleira) and in the surrounding landscape, on top of the castle and on the grounds of Evoramonte. Luís Branco and I initiated a fluid and intuitive working style during this period.
Woman in the Canyon of the Bells, 120 x 80 cm, 2016
In the fall of 2016 I returned to OBRAS to work again with Luís Branco. I wanted to work specifically in a place called the Pego do Sino (rough translation – Canyon of the Bells). I had visited this site in 2015 with my dear friend Cydney Payton (who was also at OBRAS on my first visit in 2015) and my newly found OBRAS friends Noortje and Akiko. It is a beautiful rock canyon that is hidden and hard to access – but simply magical. There are tales of shamans and priests occupying this canyon, as well as a fierce goddess or deusa residing at the bottom of the canyon. Luís and I performed multiple photo-shoots in this location trying to get the right light and composition. The rocks drop off sharply into the deep canyon below and it is a little precarious. On our last photo-shoot in the canyon Rui Fernandes came and assisted us and we got this shot. I used the gauzy black cloth like a shroud and I did imagine a kind of death and a rebirth in this canyon as Luis shot 100’s and 100’s of images. For me this process is quite contemplative or meditative. When Luís converted this image to black and white I knew we had another “obra-prima” and that this process in the landscape was something special. We were offered the opportunity of a large exhibit of our collaborative works in a beautiful palace in Estremoz in early 2017. We worked with Carolien and Ludger and the Municipality of Estremoz to produce that exhibit titled Meeting Her Again/ Reencontrando-a. It opened in late January of 2017. Rui Fernandes of GMT shot and produced a 6 minute video for us that describes that wonderful exhibit. Here is the link to YouTube:
Meeting Her Again/ Reencontrando-a, 6 minute video by Rui Fernandes
In late September of 2017 I returned to OBRAS to work with Luís again. Our plan was to focus on the element of water during this intensive period. Our previous work had been more focused on the element of earth. I had been re-reading Gaston Bachelard’s (one of my favorite phenomenologists) Water and Dreams. Before arriving in Portugal I had had a dream or a vision (I can’t remember which?) of an oval shaped mirror. In my vision I had been standing in a river with this mirror facing out towards the river. During my first few days at OBRAS I wandered into the tiny antique store in the small village of Evoramonte (the center of my Portuguese universe) and found this simple beautiful mirror that I had “seen” in my vision. Needless to say I bought the mirror.
River in the Mirror, 80 x 120 cm, 2017
Luís and I drove to the northern part of the Alentejo to the small village of Portagem near the more famous hilltop village of Marvão – searching for water. Our mutual friend António Tavares had instructed us on where to go and where to look (for water). The Sever River winds through Portagem. I swathed myself in white gauzy fabric and “wore” the mirror in the river. Again hundreds of images – The River in the Mirror is pretty much my “vision/dream.”
Face Up in the Sever River, 80 x 120 cm, 2017
This image Face Up in the Sever River has both stillness and movement. The rock mirrors my head, the gauzy white cloth covers my face like a veil and swirls around the rock. I love the “upside down” viewpoint of the camera. The water was shallow in the river at that time. I lay down in the river, Luís stood directly over me and shot (100’s) of images while I faced the sky. This image brings to my mind different Pre-Raphaelite paintings of Ophelia, especially the famous one by Odilon Redon. Many of these images in the water, remind me of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings of “woman” in nature. However, I think Luís and I turn this paradigm of the male artist and his female subject around. Our process is entirely non- hierarchical, collaborative and reciprocal in all aspects.
Canyon Encarnado, 120 x 80 cm, 2017
That same period in the fall of 2017 we returned to the Pego do Sino (near Herdade da Marmeleira), this time to the bottom of the canyon. This is a place where few humans ever go, a place for turtles and water birds and I do believe there is a deusa or goddess of the canyon who resides there. We waded up the deep canyon through pools and more shallow areas. I had a large swath of red fabric. I drug this red fabric through the water wearing it like a cape, again hundreds and hundreds of images…. But this one, Canyon Encarnado where I am pulling the wet red fabric towards me has an intensity about it. It is as if the deusa or goddess of the canyon has entered my body. In Portuguese “encarnado” has several meanings – encarnado refers to something ‘made flesh,’ it implies the embodiment in the form of a person – of an idea, or of a religious ideal, or a divine spirit. Encarnado also refers to the color red. It can also refer to a spirit possessing someone.
Dying Waters at Santa Susana, 80 x 120 cm, 2017
We also ventured to the southern Alentejo to the small village of Santa Susana in 2017. There is, under normal conditions, a very large reservoir close to the village of Santa Susana. In the fall of 2017 there was a severe drought in much of southern Portugal. The reservoir was almost completely empty, the earth that was normally covered by water was cracked and like a dry sponge, the small amount of brackish water was full of dead and dying fish. Here again we took hundreds of images, the apocalyptic scenery was remarkably photogenic and the fragility of the situation unnerving. In Dying Waters at Santa Susana I walk across the dry landscape towards the receding water (if you look closely you can see the dead fish).
I returned last April of 2019 to OBRAS Portugal to work again with Luís Branco. I had never been to Portugal in the spring; my previous trips had all been in the fall or winter. The fields were a verdant green. I brought with me some different fabrics – a long swath of translucent red fabric and a large amount of voile fabric that is roughly the color of my flesh, also a nude or flesh colored dress.
Woman Rising, 80 x 53 cm, 2019
We began shooting on the path that leads from the top of Evoramonte and the castle down to Herdade da Marmeleira. I had walked down this path in 2015 with Ludger, Cydney, Rachel and Akiko. I had taken a photo of this arched stone oak tree and had it in my “mind” ever since. Luís and I started shooting in the early morning light, with the flash and without the flash – 100s of images. This image above is titled Woman Rising. It reminds me of Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Theresa.
Shepherd’s Umbrella, 80 x 53 cm, 2019
No one else seems to like this image as much as I do. It is strange and almost funny but also intense and sad? I find it especially poignant now. In this image, Shepherd’s Umbrella, the sumptuous green environment near the Pego do Sino is the background for my body, the translucent red fabric and the big black umbrella – my “coverings”. It was stormy and rainy and I had purchased this umbrella in Estremoz – which was literally a traditional Alentejo shepherd’s umbrella beautifully crafted of wood and black canvas. I think there is a feeling of total vulnerability in this image – neither the sheer red fabric nor the large umbrella can protect me.
Primavera I, 53 x 80 cm, 2019
Primavera II, 53 x 80 cm, 2019
Primavera III, 53 x 80 cm, 2019
I love this series of images Primavera I, II, III even though the flesh colored fabric against the emerald green fields is kind of creepy and weird, or maybe because of that. We shot these in the fields surrounding Herdade da Marmeleira. It is as if a strange woman / being is emerging or being born from the folds of pinkish nudish fabric in the springtime fields with the stormy sky above.
Seat at Evoramonte , 80 x 120 cm, 2019
When Carolien van der Laan saw this image above for the first time, Seat at Evoramonte, she said that it looks like one of Alberto Giacometti’s drawings of his mother (I love Giacometti’s drawings, it is the sense of space). This image is one of 100’s of images we took during our last photo-shoot in Portugal in April 2019. It was a misty and atmospheric morning on the top of the mountain at Evoramonte. This is a special place and I think Seat at Evoramonte is another “obra-prima.”
I am so thankful for the opportunities to make and exhibit this work and all the support offered by the OBRAS Foundation and the Municipality of Evora to reschedule this exhibition hopefully for the spring of 2021. Again – oxalá/ inshallah/ god willing.
ALSO!! Cydney Payton’s beautiful essay about Luís Branco and my work titled Mirror Image is posted on my recent blog post of March 21st and you can also download the pdf here: Essay by Payton about Wiggins Branco_Mirror Image