Inspiring Thursday: Joana Vasconcelos

Joana Vasconcelos was born in 1971 in Paris, but she is currently based in Lisbon, Portugal. Her parents had fled Portugal due to the dictatorship of the infamous Presidente Salazar. She is a Portuguese artist, internationally acclaimed for her sculptures and installations exploring consumer culture, collective identity, and our assumptions on what constitutes art. Her work is disruptive, innovative and eristic. It is impossible not to be astonished by her singular installations or sculptures, be it a five-meter-tall chandelier made from 25,000 tampons or giant snake created out of cotton crochet.

Joana Vasconcelos has had a long and impressive career, that started in the mid 90s. Her work became known internationally  after her participation in the 51st Venice Biennale in 2005, with the piece  A Noiva (The Bride) (2001-05). Also, she was the first woman and the youngest artist to be ever exhibited at the Palace of Versailles, in 2012. The exhibit topped the ranking of the five most visited art exhibitions in Paris, France, in the past 50 years.

Much of Vasconcelos’s work confronts feminist concerns and societal conventions, in part by using “simple” typically female associated crafts and materials, such as crochet and tampons, to make grandiose installations. Vasconcelos takes objects and materials from daily life and sets them into new and intricate assemblages. Interested in ideas of womanhood, nationality, and family, she frequently incorporates crafts like knitting and crochet into her art, as well as common Portuguese household items like ceramic figures. Recent highlights of her career include a solo exhibition at Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, the project Trafaria Praia, for the Pavilion of Portugal at the 55th Venice Biennale; the participation in the group exhibition The World Belongs to You at the Palazzo Grassi/François Pinault Foundation, Venice (2011); and her first retrospective, held at the Museu Coleção Berardo, Lisbon (2010).

She has had solo exhibitions and projects in numerous countries and participated in various group exhibitions, including at the Royal Academy of Arts, London (2018); La Monnaie, Paris (2017); Museo di Roma – Palazzo Braschi, Rome (2016); Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid (2015); and Kulturhuset Stadsteatern, Stockholm. Her exhibition “I’m Your Mirror,” which was featured at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, was the 13th most visited worldwide last year, according to The Art Newspaper.

Since February, Vasconcelos is exhibited at the MassArt Museum in Boston. The exhibition will honor Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman, “an enslaved woman whose court battle for her freedom in 1781 helped make slavery illegal in Massachusetts.” The large-scale installation entitled ‘Valkyrie Mumbet’, is the newest in her Valkyries series, named after Norse female war goddesses, which pays homage to inspiring women.

One of her most fascinating installations is called the “Burka” (2012). A body composed of several layers of fabrics, inspired by a Portuguese regional costume – the seven skirts of Nazaré – is topped by one last layer: the burka, a garment of Islamic tradition designed to cover the feminine silhouette entirely. This body is repeatedly hoisted up and then dropped abruptly on a stage – like the movements of a guillotine or of a person sentenced to hanging.

The nature of Joana Vasconcelos’s creative process is based on the appropriation, decontextualization and subversion of common objects and everyday realities. Her work evidences a criticism of contemporary society: the status of women, class distinction or national identity. The dichotomies of hand-crafted/industrial, private/public, tradition/modernity and popular culture/erudite culture are imbued in all her works, constantly pushing the boundaries of what is considered art.

Joana Vasconcelos is one of the most prominent visual artists in the world. Her exuberant, vibrant and playful sculptures celebrate the creative lives of women. She is truly an inspiration!

Written By WAVE intern: Mariana Cunha


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