Caught between salvation, damnation, land, and sea at the Museum of Anthropology

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Photo courtesy of Anthony Book.
Photo courtesy of Anthony Book.
Photo courtesy of Anthony Book.

Dr. Anthony Shelton wants to change Canada’s sense of Europe. “We talk about things being Eurocentric,” Shelton said, “but it’s deceptive to treat Europe as the same. Each part has its own history, and intellectual and folkloric traditions.”

Shelton is the curator of the upcoming North American premiere of Heaven, Hell & Somewhere In Between: Portuguese Popular Art at UBC’s Museum of Anthropology. The exhibit offers a rare and theatrical mix of huge projections, urban graffiti, mural paintings, and rural folk art that includes ceramics, puppets, figurines, and carved metallic and wood carnival masques.

With regard to the masques, Shelton said, “When I talk about masquerade — people don’t think that Portugal has masquerade. It’s associated with the primitive, and Europe is seen as a colonizing power and quite modern. Well, no society is primitive, I say. It’s mixed in with regional identities and they are as complicated as everywhere else.”

As Director of the MOA, Shelton develops critical discourses around museology to break free of “the same thing over and over again,” and enable different genres of exhibits. In 2005, after Vancouver’s Portuguese community approached him about an exhibit on folk art, he began to pursue the topic and found that galleries did not collect it, nor did it fall easily into art history, archaeology, or ethnography. “The problem with folk art,” said Shelton, “is that when people see these polychromatic, bright creations, they develop certain prejudices.”

Shelton spent 2010 in Portugal conducting research among a generation of folk artists — roughly 50 families of craftspeople, illustrators, and painters — whose individualistic work engages with community, nation, and religion, and erupts with passionate emotion. Most of the artists are in their 70s and 80s and have never been widely acknowledged, so Shelton decided to embark on this major project to bring them international profile. “I wanted to pay homage to the artists I met directly and spoke with,” he said.

Both MOA’s curatorial and design departments worked closely together “in a long puzzling haul” to create something rough-hewn, and closer to an art installation than an exhibit. They wanted to bring “academic coherence,” as Shelton said, to the multi-dimensional, dramatic, playful, and often subversive art.

The group searched unsuccessfully for backdrops able to knit together a fantasia of colours until someone suggested the colour of Portuguese earth, which is brownish-red. As luck would have it, the planning room was hung with photos of Portugal’s cod fishing fleet docked in Halifax harbour in the 1980s, and the ships’ hulls were rusting.

“We got excited as a group,” said Shelton, “tested it out, and it worked.” They placed 20 sheets of iron outside to rust, and then used them to form the dividing walls between the exhibit’s three sections (Heaven, Hell, and In-Between), along with plinths and stanchions supporting the art. The exhibit as a whole has been softened with swathes of undyed natural linen.

“It’s haunted,” Shelton said about the exhibit. “For hell, we asked what is hell? We didn’t want to be corny and have flames, so we have carnival masques and masquerades, costumes, raining down in inverse.” Portugal was hit fiercely by recession, along with Spain and Greece, and in the villages where Shelton stayed, people still struggle to eat by growing vegetables and raising chickens.

“We’re working on a huge projection of the Portuguese stock exchange in 2009, when all the share prices fell. It will be a whole wall, with masked devils floating out in front of it,” explained Shelton. “We didn’t want to avoid that. We wanted to bring that sense of history. It tells the story of the impoverishment of the people.”

With 300 pieces on display, plus works from artists who have been never shown in public, Heaven, Hell & Somewhere In-Between: Portuguese Popular Art is the largest exhibit of its kind in North America. It also includes an opportunity to meet the artists during a cultural tour of Portugal.

Shelton’s book, which accompanies the exhibit, will be available in July. It includes 80 photographs of art, medieval frescoes, roadside icons, and graffiti, along with images of carnival performers and artisans at work in their studios.

The Museum of Anthropology’s Heaven, Hell & Somewhere in Between: Portuguese Popular Art opens May 12 with a party and preview from 7–9 pm, and runs until October 12. For more information, visit moa.ubc.ca.