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Art is thriving in the Azores

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This report focuses on recent developments in the visual arts primarily on San Miguel, the largest of the Acorean islands. That is not to say that developments on the eight other Acorean islands are unimportant, however San Miguel is by far the most populated and therefore has the largest concentration of artists.

It is also the location of the major Acorean art institutions.

I am in the Azores having been invited to exhibit my art at the Caloura Cultural Center. Thus I have had opportunity to speak with numerous artists and a few arts administrators. These conversations have formed the basis of my report.

My first visit to the Azores was in 1997. My primary purpose for travelling there then was to investigate the possibility of an exhibition of Acorean art for the Bermuda National Gallery and in that task I had all kinds of help from all kinds of individuals, both in the Azores as well as Bermuda.

Of particular note however was the Acorean curatorial committee who in the end did the lion's share of putting the exhibition together. The end result was the very successful exhibition, A Window On the Azores, which opened at the BNG in 1999.

Incidentally, while on my way to the Azores in 1997 I stopped off in Lisbon for about a week. I did so because, not then knowing anything about Acorean art, I thought that it might be necessary to augment the exhibition we were seeking with art from mainland Portugal and I wanted to explore that possibility as well.

In the end, it was not necessary to include mainland Portuguese art however while in Lisbon I asked some individuals at a book fair what they knew about Acorean art.

They claimed ignorance in that matter but then said that Acoreans are great writers. That was in itself evidence of cultural health so I probably should not have been surprised at the sophistication of the Acorean visual arts as well.

In the Azores there are a number of serious collectors of contemporary Acorean art and the Caloura Cultural Center (CCC) was established in 2005 for the express purpose of exhibiting the extensive and impressive art collection of Professor Tomaz Borba Viera.

The centre itself is housed in a simple, but modern building that has been inspired by traditional Acorean architecture and is surrounded by acres of beautiful gardens and grounds.

The architect for the building is Roberto Oliveira, while the interior design is by Carlos Mota who is, likewise, an architect but also a well-known painter. The Cultural Center is located in what was once a vineyard.

In the Azores, vineyards were typically surrounded by a protective network of tall, dry walls. These walls have been left intact, the architect having skilfully aligned the CCC building with these ancient walls and in this instance, these enclosed exterior spaces have been made into small sculpture gardens.

As this is the location of my exhibition, I am pleased to report that the simple interiors are ideal for exhibiting art. While still in Bermuda I had some concerns about the lighting but that was a needless worry.

During my current visit to the Azores I have become aware of the concern, on the part of some, at the concentration of culture, primarily in Ponta Delgada, and the need for expanding culture out from the centre into the smaller communities and the other Acorean islands.

The CCC is an example of this shift into the hinterland. Although an easy drive east from Ponta Delgada, the CCC is out in the country, some distance from the city.

It provides an escape into a haven of peacefulness, away from urban stress. It also provides for the cultural needs of its smaller neighbouring communities.

The primary concern regarding cultural diversification however, is its extension and expansion to the other eight islands.

How is this being accomplished? For one thing, the office of the director of culture is located in the city of Angra Do Heroismo, on the island of Terceira.

The government administration of the Azores is unusual, in that there is no central capitol city.

Various aspects of government are located in three different islands. It seems that the legislature is located in Horta, on the island of Faial, while the offices of the civil service are on Terceira. The residence of the President is in Ponta Delgada, on San Miguel.

Acoreans are big into museums of every description, including the historical, sociological, technical, natural history, art and industrial.

You name it, it's there in many different locations and on all the Acorean islands. As an example, take the city of Horta on the island of Faial.

This small city has at least three different museums, including the Museum of Horta. I was there 14 years ago so my memory in respect to that museum has somewhat faded, but I do recall a show of historic photographs.

The other two museums are devoted to sacred art and scrimshaw. While visiting Faial I also attended an exhibition of paintings by Fatima Madruga, a well known painter from the island of Pico.

Obviously the other islands are not devoid of culture and I understand that there are galleries and other cultural institutions on many of the other islands, nevertheless, most major cultural activities takes place on San Miguel, primarily in Ponta Delgada.

I experienced a number of surprises on my first visit to the Azores. The fact is I had essentially no knowledge of Acorean art, but I have to admit my perceptions and expectations about the Azores were coloured by attitudes I had absorbed in Bermuda.

Thinking back now, I suppose that the way we went about getting an Acorean show was somewhat unusual, in that we sought an exhibition without having any idea about what there was to show.

What I discovered however, just about blew me away. What I found in the Azores was a highly-trained and informed art community but more than that, I found a well-developed sense of Acorean art history including a respect for their applied art traditions be it the fibre arts, ceramics, wood, or any of the other Acorean crafts.

I was deeply impressed by what I discovered and I must say, I continue to be impressed by Acorean art. I was not expecting anywhere near that level of sophistication.

For example, their government-sponsored museum, the Carlos Machado Museum, is noted for its extensive collection of Acorean fine and applied art. It first opened its doors in 1876 as a natural-history museum, but in 1912 the museum expanded its emphasis to include the visual arts.

Today this museum is located in three different buildings in Ponta Delgada, thus preserving the best of their cultural heritage for all Acoreans to see.

It should be noted that for some years now the museum's principle building, the former convent and church of St André, has been closed due to needed structural renovations and the bulk of the collection is in storage. The reopening date, I understand, is uncertain.

Of great interest is the plan for the building of a new museum of contemporary art in the vicinity of Ponta Delgada which is the largest of the Acorean cities.

My understanding is that the plans are in place and construction is to begin either this year or, at the latest, next year.

The architect for this new museum is Oscar Niemeyer (Pritzker Prize, 1988). He was also the principal architect for the design of Brazil's new capitol city, Brasilia, back in the 1950s.

At the age of 103 Niemeyer is apparently still active as an architect, although I suppose he has a large team of assistants working with him.

This new contemporary art museum is to be linked with the Serralves Foundation in Porto, mainland Portugal.

I understand that the foundation has agreed to provide one major exhibition annually from their collection.

This is a big step for the Azores, into the international network of museums, but it will provide exposure to examples of art from outside the Azores thus stimulating further artistic development within the Azores.

Perhaps it is a small matter. Nevertheless, it is indicative of the way the Acorean arts have developed over the last decade or so.

When I first visited the Azores 14 years ago, I purchased a number of exhibition catalogues. This was necessary, for I needed to show the BNG's exhibition committee the quality of the work we were seeking to exhibit.

The catalogues were adequate enough for that purpose still, in terms of their design and quality of printing, they were not exceptional. What a world of difference today. When visiting the Azores last year, and then again just now, I have likewise purchased or been given exhibition catalogues, but this time I am impressed by their smart, sophisticated, appearance.

Also, in many instances, today's catalogues are bilingual (Portuguese and English). Obviously Acorean artists are expanding their sphere of influence internationally.

I was also recently informed that the President of the Azores considers culture of such importance he has made it his personal responsibility.

He is, I understand, assisted by a cultural director who takes care of the day-to-day aspects of promoting culture, but I understand this individual is directly answerable to the President on all cultural matters.

One particular initiative by the Acorean government is the promotion of Acorean art and artists outside the Acorean archipelago. Bearing this in mind, the government, through the regional directorate for culture, has signed a protocol of cooperation with the Madeiros e Almeida Foundation in Lisbon to provide regular exhibitions of Acorean art.

This will greatly benefit Acorean artists who, through this initiative, will be promoted outside the Azores.

In that respect we in Bermuda can take some credit for putting Acorean art on the cultural map. Many will remember the BNG exhibition A Window On The Azores was the first comprehensive exhibition of Acorean art outside the Azores itself.

In conversation with Acorean artists I learned that years ago they sensed they were working in considerable isolation. In the last decade or so, much has changed. Not only are they being offered exhibitions outside the Azores, their art is also receiving overseas exposure through international television.

Although I do not speak Portuguese, I often look at RTP, the international Portuguese TV that we get in Bermuda and from time to time there are reports on Acorean art and sometimes, I even recognise the name of the artist and the art.

By the way, RTP International, is giving thought to using English subtitles in their broadcasts. What a help that would be.

The Azores was first colonised during the early 15th century by people primarily from Portugal, but also from France and Flanders.

Early on, in establishing the many settlements throughout the archipelago, the new settlers built churches which, typically, have quite plain exteriors.

By contrast, the interiors are highly decorated with sacred art. Later, during the 17th century, church exteriors became notably more ornate but that was nearly 200 years after the Azores was initially settled.

What is important for the arts in this bit of history, however, is that the church, through its convents and monasteries, provided opportunities for education, including opportunities for artistic expression for those gifted in the arts. The past begets the present, thus contemporary Acorean art is rooted in its art history.

In order to create, artists need opportunities and in the past this was provided by the church. Today the situation is different. Artists now, need to have opportunities to exhibit and hopefully, someone comes along and buys art.

The most effective way that this is accomplished today is through an art dealer but for this is work, dealers need a sophisticated, art loving audience.

Considering the history of the arts in the Azores, I understand that the University of the Azores, which has an enrolment of nearly 5,000, offers advanced degrees in art, art history and museology.

It's no wonder that Acoreans are aware of their history, including their art history.

While much church art was of local origin, some paintings and sculptures were imported not only from Portugal but also Flanders.

Today, in Ponta Delgada as well as in Horta on the island of Faial, and in Velas on the island of Sao Jorge, there are museums of sacred art that showcase some of the best examples of Acorean ecclesiastical art.

I have been able to visit both the museums in Ponta Delgada and Horta and both have impressive collections. I am told that this is also true of the museum in Velas. Note also that some of the best examples of medieval Flemish art, are actually in the Azores.

Much medieval art from Flanders, I have learned, was destroyed during the religious struggles ignited by the Reformation in the 16th century.

We Bermudians often think of the Azores as impoverished, and indeed it has, from time to time, had its economic challenges.

It is, however, a beautiful, productive land, populated by enterprising, hard working people. From early on, the Azores flourished in exports of agricultural products.

The high quality of the ecclesiastical art they imported, therefore, is a testimony to the health of the economy at that time.

Acoreans, over the centuries, have been exposed by an abundance of good art, including sacred art and architecture. It is no wonder, Acoreans are artistically inclined.

A visit to almost any Acorean village, will be evidence enough regarding their artistic inclinations. These small communities are often arranged around a plaza in which there is usually a church or civic building.

Additionally, there will be flowers and trees, and often a bronze sculpture. The overall view is one of beauty and community pride, which will be further reflected in their neat, whitewashed cottages with flower boxes and gardens that spread out from the centre in a natural, organic manner, as indicated by the natural lay of the land.

This artistic inclination is further indicated in even small matters. I recall once buying an item in a little shop in Ponta Delgada.

Whatever it was, I do not now remember, but what I do remember is the artistic manner in which it was wrapped and presented. They gave it the same attention to detail that I witnessed in Japan, or in French pastry shops, and that says a lot about Acorean artistic attitudes.

Consider too all the artistic skills utilised in the many festivals, that are held throughout the year, across the nine Acorean islands.

The streets are often decorated with coloured geometric patterns, all seemingly made with flowers and other kinds of vegetation. Additionally, overhead, there is often, a profusion of multiple decorative arches, that are often lit with electric lights

At Christmas as well, there are the decorative nativity scenes traditionally located under their Christmas trees.

When I was a child, there were Acoreans working on my father's dairy farm in Smith's and I still remember the fascination I had for a ceramic Bethlehem (presépio) that Manuel deCosta had created under a Christmas tree in a neighbouring cottage.

Island climates are notoriously bad for art, but during my first visit to the Azores I learned that in order to conserve their historic art, the government had established a conservation laboratory in Angra do Heroismo on Terceira.

Recently, I also met a conservator from the conservation department of the Carlos Machado Museum in Ponta Delgada. This is yet again, another indicator of the regard Acoreans have for their heritage.

Here is another observation: as I have had opportunity to walk about in Acorean cities, towns and villages, I have noticed numerous, examples of public art. I am thinking of the many bronze sculptures of historic or allegorical figures I have seen gracing many a square, park or building.

Incidentally, I was told that it is possible for Acorean sculptors to have their sculpture bronze cast right in the Azores. Some, I am told, have elected to have their work cast in mainland Portugal instead, where, apparently, it is less expensive and possibly more skilfully cast.

There are also numerous pieces of modern public art, including fountains to be seen in parks and on roundabouts.

A particularly notable example of modern sculpture is a large circular piece in steel, by Rui Chafes, that interacts with its natural park-like setting in the grounds of the presidential palace of Sant'Ana.

Obviously, Acoreans love art and are willing to spend public money on beautifying their communities with it.

Acorean sidewalks are notable for geometric mosaic patterns in black and white and it is my understanding that artists are sometimes commissioned to provide these kerbside designs. Of special note is a design I recently saw for an irregularly shaped, slightly slopping plaza in the city of Ribeira Grande.

I was so struck by it I spent some time photographing it. Only later did I learn that it had been designed by Tomaz Viera, who, some will remember, was on the curatorial committee for the BNG's, A Window On The Azores.

I have now met numerous Acorean artists and noted that many have attended top-flight educational institutions, such as the Slade School in London, the Academy of Art in Florence, Italy, MIT near Boston, as well as Boston University, not to mention the art institutions in Lisbon and Porto.

It is my understanding that this has been made possible through substantial Government and private scholarships.

I have had a long-standing interest in the arts of the Atlantic islands, so it is for me a wonderful privilege to be able visit and exhibit my art in the Azores.

Before I ever left Bermuda in early June however, someone asked me what I hoped to achieve by exhibiting in the Azores.

My response was that I hoped to foster the relationships we developed initially, at the time we were working on the Acorean exhibition back in 1999 and before.

With that in mind I recently had an interesting conversation with someone from RTP. He said that Bermuda has had A Window On The Azores, when are we going to get A Window on Bermuda, in the Azores?

I can now report that there are several projects being considered here in Bermuda, that will foster this relationship between the Azores and Bermuda.

For example, the Masterworks Museum will be hosting an artist-in-residence from the Azores in 2012 and the BNG has plans for another exhibition of Acorean art for 2013.

It is also being proposed that the BNG develop a small, but representative collection of Acorean art and this will be under consideration shortly.

When considering this report, some may think I am being overly positive about the Azores.

All I can say is; I have chosen to stress the positive, for there is much to be positive about. Consider this: the National Geographic Society has written that the Azores are the second best sustainably developed islands on earth.

I understand that organic farming methods are encouraged and such methods for generating electricity as geothermal, wind and wave generators are employed.

Nevertheless, I have heard here and there complaints about the Acorean Government appearing to have a greater interest in sport than culture. Does that sound familiar?

Good government needs to strike a fair balance between all the varying community needs, including culture and sport and from my observations, the Acorean Government comes closer, by far, to that balance, than was ever conceivable by the Bermuda Government.

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Published August 25, 2011 at 10:00 am (Updated August 24, 2011 at 9:15 pm)

Art is thriving in the Azores

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