“In the Shade”

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I was kindly invited to provide a keynote address at the 1st Human Rights Autumn Retreat last Thursday (CES/U.Coimbra – many thanks to excellent hosts Cristina and Bruno). Unexpectedly, I found myself recalling long-forgotten memories of youth.

The Retreat took place at the Hotel das Termas in Curia, no other than the location of my very first art exhibition, back in 1982 (or was it 1983?…). It was a group show of paintings by five kids, out of an environment that can no longer be translated, really, predating pretty much everything one takes for granted these days on a cultural and social level: no internet, two TV channels, pre-European Union, a scarcity of networking, imagination scrounging for meaning through the simple experiences and the desire for escapism throughout daily life in a small town.

Art and Design classes in high school provided a gentle glimpse of possibilities, and the occasional bit of History or Physics further pushed the boundaries in our brains – but the truth is, our creative vocabulary was scarce, our technique was lacking. It certainly did not stop us, though: we poured our souls into those small rectangles of oil on canvas, often through the night, and shared tips and encouragement the day after. We emulated krautrock covers, Dali-esque abstractions, surreal portraiture: amateurish psychedelia for the most part, the avant-garde it wasn’t.

Somehow we ended up exhibiting on this hotel annex, now a restaurant, if memory does not betray me in regards to the specific location. I remember the entrance and the scale of the space; all other architectural details are pretty much gone from my memory. The exhibition was called “Na Sombra”, and it received mixed reviews… Those pertaining to my work were particularly harsh, I recall: they probably taught me my first lesson in curatorial skills, as I had decided to bring everything and the kitchen sink into public view. Be selective, H.

I still keep some of the works, although most were damaged by humidity throughout the years. There is nothing particularly noteworthy about them beyond sentimental value. As I shared these vague memories over coffee with the retreat participants, someone asked if I had photos from back then. I don’t. Even photography was prohibitively expensive then: one more perplexing detail in this untranslatable, unforgiving time spiral.

The location itself, still an oasis of calm, this time felt vaguely anachronistic. But then again, I could have been projecting my own weariness, at a time in life when health and age slowly begin converging into one and the same.

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