Allegorical riddles of political practice.
Based in Liverpool, Portuguese artist Joana de Oliveira Guerreiro delves into matters of art history, gendered authority and political power with a great dose of allegorical irony. After her formative years spent studying political sciences and a military experience with NATO in Belgium, Joana’s attention converted to the figurative arts, where she found a less restrictive place for expressing her opinionated vision of current affairs. Animation and painting are her principal mediums of choice, occasionally accompanied by photographs and poems. Following personal concerns for the environmental crisis of recent times, Joana privileges working with waste material, found around the docks where her studio is located. Instead of succumbing to the many restrictions arising from such sustainable decisions, like dealing with dried or mismatched paint, Joana’s creative process is able to bend what is on hand to inform and serve her desired outcome. Easily recognisable personalities populating her visual universe are Oliver Cromwell, Queen Elizabeth II and Donald Trump, depicted in a raw lens as they unravel political riddles. This toungue-in-cheek humour is further emphasised in her animated work, a place where the military and religious figures that manifest in her canvases reveal themselves as intertwined stills, belonging to a bigger narrative. Joana’s re- contextualising and re-styling of art history classics in light of modern concerns skilfully borrows Basquiat’s symbolic language equations, Gauguin’s bold atmospheres and Picasso’s experimental relentlessness. This is driven by a conscious desire for turning social commentary into metaphoric representations.
Your curiosity for painting was something that you mentioned wasn’t nurtured during your childhood. Growing up, was there anywhere you felt particularly free to emancipate artistic experiments?
When it comes to my upbringing, I can’t say that anyone stopped me from nurturing my interest in art, but I was pushed to do something else. My family didn’t see a stable future in art so they advised me to follow a different path. Growing up, I had too much going on, I was in school, swimming, doing gymnastics, playing piano… and trying to be a kid. I used to keep a disposable camera with me so I could take pictures frequently and I also read about art quite a lot.
Having studied a BA in Political Science and International Relations and a MRes in Military Strategy, how important was this initial education in informing the bureaucratic criticism present in your practice?
I’ve always been political in the Aristotelian sense, meaning, I believe we, people have the power of speech and moral reasoning so our actions will impact others and the planet in a certain way. Having studied politics obviously influenced me, because I have dedicated so many years studying that subject matter. I used to resent the fact that I didn’t go to art school and instead I went and did something else, but recently I became comfortable with the idea that I studied a wide variety of subjects and that can only inform my work as an artist. The more I know, the more viewpoints I have. Practicing art is a necessity for me, so no matter what I do, I guess I will inevitably find a way of communicating my view of the world through art.
Prior to dedicating your full time to art, you pursued careers within the Portugese Navy as well as the Belgium headquarters of NATO. Has the disciplined nature of these positions prompted you to now take a more spontaneous approach to your creative working routine?
Being an artist is the antithesis of working in military environments, therefore I am enjoying being spontaneous and designing a non-working routine in a creative and proactive way.
At the age of 27 you transitioned away from politics to embark upon the study of a Foundation Diploma in Art and Design. How crucial was this course in refining your form, style and technique having received no previous training?
When I left NATO, I moved from Belgium to the UK and I needed to do something that eased me into a daily art practice. The foundation degree in art was just right. It gave me the chance to experiment with a lot of different mediums and the discipline to work every day. The style and technique started to develop as a consequence of working constantly and above all it taught me that almost all subjects are interesting, although I don’t necessarily want to work with all of them. So I guess it refined me as an artist and it provided me with the basis to carry on on my own.
You have captured many personal moments through your analogue photography featuring animals, friends and vacations. Is this mode of expressive documentation employed as a journal and in what way does it inform the observational quality of your craft?
Photography was the first medium that I worked consistently with. What I like about it is that I can capture fragments of life that everyone can see but not all can notice. I also like documenting contrasts that represent the ironies that are part of everyday life. Taking pictures is also good to remind me of certain ideas that I will eventually use in painting or sculpture. Sometimes I will do photography as a form of expression, whilst other times I will do it to remember particular thoughts I had to paint or illustrate.
By removing imagery from your paintings to animations, your characters appear puppet- like, stiff and glitchy in their speech and movement across the static backdrop. Could you describe how this medium addresses the absurdities and ironies of current affairs through a satirical narrative?
The animations appear to connect the individual narratives of each painting in one single story. If I compare this process with music, it’s almost like each painting is a song and the animation becomes an album. On one hand, the animations can speak and move so that takes away the ambiguity of looking at a painting and being able to make multiple interpretations. On the other hand, it adds another dimension to the body of work. Suddenly, the painted figures gain life and talk to each other. The humour and satire become more obvious when there’s movement and sound.
How would you compare the use of reclaimed materials in your artwork to the idiom ‘one woman’s trash is another woman’s treasure’? Do you think the practice of recycling modifies the objects intended functional, psychological or social value?
Handling reclaimed materials simply started by convenience. I live and work in the docks, so there are a lot more rescued materials at a short walking distance than art supplies. Aside from that ease, I am quite concerned about the environment, so I choose to recycle stuff rather than buying new. These materials dictate that I deal with what’s available and that limits my options, but if I decide to do a painting about Brexit, I will pass on the same message no matter what materials I’ve got. Having limited options forces me to be more inventive and to manage better what I am able to gather.
In the limited storage of equipment at your studio you uphold a no waste production method of making. Does this impose boundaries on your process?
I try to have very few things around me. Clutter makes me feel uncomfortable. Having only a counted number of things makes it easier for me to move around the studio. Working like this is more of an option rather than an imposed boundary. When I need to go a certain way to achieve a specific result in my work, I just go for it, but there again… having less makes me more inventive and that seems to work for me.
Through layering industrial paint and applying it to textured surfaces, what do you learn about the sensorial conditions of mark-making?
Because I get second hand paint and other materials, I never know what their conditions are. Most of the time, the paint is quite dry and thick. I end up treating all these materials by trial and error. I apply them until I am happy with the textures it generates. The layers create depth and the images become more interesting. I approach the making of a painting in a sculptural way. I just work and work the paint until I am happy with the marks I have made. The same happens when I’m fabricating a sculpture.
Does the capacity for conversation through allegory motivate you more than the aesthetics of the painting itself?
Aesthetics have always moved me, although if there’s nothing else to sustain that beauty, it will fall in an empty space and become meaningless. The allegories are the code that the viewer is challenged to crack when looking at the pictures and each viewer can decipher their own code, make their own interpretation and that on its own represents another layer of interest and beauty in the discovery of a piece of work.
Instantly recognisable figures such as Oliver Cromwell, Queen Elizabeth II and Donald Trump commingle in a body of work bound by your raw style. Does the repetition of these cultural motifs reinforce the arts metaphorical potential?
Metaphors are part of the pictorial language. These figures that I use explore the possibilities of people understanding abstract social concepts through metaphors. From my perspective, the specific character is not as interesting per se. Rather, it is a cognitive tool that people utilize to understand abstract concepts such as morality to give an example. One metaphor can be worth a million words, so it becomes easy for me to summarise a lot of ideas in one image. If art is creative thinking or thinking through images, I consider metaphors an essential tool to apply in painting.
In depicting personages in caricature-like disproportions, disembodied and displaced, you acknowledge the importance of context for authority. How do these scenes, bold in their drollery, allude to the performativity of politics?
I’d say that questioning authority has always been in me. The reason for this is because concepts such as authority and power are artificial, they’re man-made and not all men make good decisions. So those are the subjects that I want to talk about. The bad decisions that impact everyone’s lives and shape the future.
Several of your pieces reinterpret historical works by illustrious artists including Edouard Manet’s ‘Olympia’ and Sir John Everett Millais’ ‘Ophelia’. Were you enticed by the antithetical representations of femininity in both of these?
My reinterpretation of historical paintings is somewhat an ode to those classics, but also a remake that transforms them into contemporary versions of what they can be nowadays. I like to think about how women were represented at the time and why… as I am today. Not only due to the fact that I am a woman too but because I am interested in understanding a bit of everything.
To what extent has your abiding study of art history inspirited a recklessness and subversive artistic frame of reference?
I think that you can only become really good at something if you know it’s past, the basics. Reading about art history has always been a pleasure, but it also gave me the fundamental knowledge about what art is and can be. I don’t know many painting techniques, I’m not a great painter in that sense. I know more of the theory and I hope that makes up for the lack of dexterity.
You wrote poems to append your 2019 exhibitions ‘Joie de Vivre’ and ‘The Trackie Trousered Philanthropist’. In what ways does the written word carry, clarify and complement your visual storytelling?
It’s just another medium that I like to experiment with. It gives me pleasure. Words and images are two ways of expressing ideas, they can hold hands, so sometimes words, particularly poetry, complement images and vice-versa. It’s an exercise of beauty. How to put meaningful words together in the most beautiful way possible. It’s the same as a painting.
‘Cutting your face to spite your nose’ subverts the age-old aphorism to consider the self- destructive customs of governance, notably, Brexit. Could you expound upon the collective significance of the figures of Henry VIII, the naked woman and the tiger in the painting? How do these triadic elements examine the powerplay of British politics?
I guess the formula was something like… Henry VIII represented the establishment, the unquestionable power, and the naked woman the lack of it together with the people and their discontentment. Referring to what has been broken, with her members detached from her body. The illustration of a union that was no longer there. And the image of the tiger is associated with perseverance and strength parallel to what I felt was needed to overcome the unstable moment of the United Kingdom detaching from the European Union.
An advertence to the masculine conception of the Don Juan, ‘The Duke of Marmalade’ flips traditionally gendered perceptions of promiscuity by portraying two women naked in bed, eyeballed by men with binoculars. Could you discuss the cultural provenance of this scene and the subsequent questions it raises on power, seduction and voyeurism?
Debating gender has been very present in the past few years. Ironically, when I worked for the military, I was a gender-advisor. This role was about designing strategies to save women’s and children’s life’s in armed conflicts. I wanted to talk about gender after considering that the concept was part of me for so long, it was current and complex. I took inspiration from the movie “Don Juan”, or “if Don Juan was a Woman” by Roger Vadim. In the early 70s, Vadim was making films about empowering women and telling the audiences that women’s sexual behaviours shouldn’t be seen differently from men, but that hasn’t changed much in 50 years. I used the archetype of the film to talk about how gender is hierarchical and produces inequalities that intersect with other social and economic imbalances. Voyeurism is defined as an interest in observing unsuspecting people and it joins this conversation, because we’re living in a time where everyone’s got access to look at other people’s lives through social media. The idea behind the painting was to raise many doubts. Questions to which I am still looking for answers nowadays. For example, what’s the relationship between more access to information and shaping collective mentalities?
In your ‘Climate changes’ painting, Leonardo DiCaprio bares all, languidly reclining amongst a hoard of equally unclad women. The accompanying text reads ‘I act on global warming … it’s hot in here!’ How does this work pose as a double entendre?
When I saw DiCaprio’s speech at the United Nations and his involvement in flying around the planet on a private jet to see the rainforest destruction, I just thought it was a bit dishonest, but again, if DiCaprio was the only one in the world to personify such incongruence, I wouldn’t have done this painting. This work serves the purpose to point out that it is honourable and it should be on everyone’s agenda to try and make the Earth a better place, just not on a private jet.
With much in the arts having been cancelled last year, do you have any exciting postponed events ahead of you for 2021?
I am going to be teaching workshops about narrative painting for a mental health charity called Open Door on The Wirral, and I will possibly undertake two art residencies, one in Kaunas, Lithuania and the other in Lisbon, Portugal, but it’s still hypothetical.
Most recently, you have been experimenting with dog bones, expanding foam and plaster fragments to create small-scale sculptures. Do you envision these pieces as something autonomous or will they share in the interconnectivity of your critical commentary?
I see everything that I do part of the same big body of work that is my CV. It’s done by me, so I can’t detach it from being an extension of myself. It is unlikely that my concerns and interests will change dramatically, so at the end of the day, some of the work will be different but the reasons that inspired the work will always be an outcome of how I think.
You have exhibited in various galleries across Liverpool, as well as holding residencies in Spain and showing paintings in your home country of Portugal. Are there plans to expand your horizons and look to working with spaces further afield?
I would love that! If it wasn’t for Covid-19 I would have had more exhibitions across the United Kingdom and in Lithuania.
Words by Vanessa Murrell