Tamara Alves' large ethereal and haunting figures adorn many a wall around Portugal. She was one of the first prominent female street artists in the country and continues to bring her unique intensity to everything that she creates.
In Lisbon, Alves' adopted home, her dainty-yet-explosive style of art is something of an outlier. Between the influence of Africa's bright and vibrant colours to Portugal's melancholic and subdued inclinations of art - she sits uncomfortably creating something that doesn't easily fit at either end of that spectrum. That's a good thing though, her art shouldn't feel comfortable. The issues she tackles certainly aren't.
At the heart of everything Alves creates is the longing for humans to re-engage with their humanity. Distractions are everywhere, all around us, always. We're not entirely to blame for being sucked in by their siren call, but in doing so, too often we're negating the power that every individual harnesses. Every time we choose to interact with someone through the ever distancing platforms that we engage with daily, we take a step further from our essence of being social creatures. We become numb. Wait, was that my phone or yours? Have you used that new filter yet?
Animals, like apparitions or spirits, are an aspect of Alves' creations that are there and are similarly not. They are just as much a pelt of a fox or the fluttering wings of a bird as they are the embodiment of a certain feeling. They manifest physically in her art as a way to tell us to stop fearing our instincts - the very ones that we've managed to create a chasm between, despite them being inside of all of us.
Our instincts are the foundational core of our being and they have been honed through generations, cultures, wars and births. The lion's head that replaces the woman is the voice that allows her to roar from deep inside, or equally give her the teeth she needs to hold onto that she loves the most. Seeing it in front of you, the animalistic verve that is present in amongst the heavily expressionist watercolour style of her paintings, is a spiritual experience. You become filled with the feelings she felt.
The actions of the characters in her work are equally as important. When you feel heartbroken, you want to express it but are often stifled. Alves paints it in a way that refuses to deny her own weaknesses and sensitivity. It's a character ripping her heart out of her bloody chest and holding it in front of her. Love becomes a physical pain, her weakness has suddenly become her strength. These feelings that we run from, the ones that are capable of destroying us, are equally as capable of taking us to new heights. We struggle to see that though.
In amongst the sea of change is something innate and unmoving - our animalistic sense of right and wrong, of what we should pursue and what we deem unworthy of our energy. Becoming more coherent with these raw experiences mean that through time we can engage with them more productively. The world can become more honest, more peaceful. But it starts with the individual. It comes from within, not outwith.
Literature is a big influence on Alves' work. The Beat Generation of the 1950s and 60s were a particularly profound guiding force in not only the way she interprets her subjects, but the methods in the way she does so. Jack Kerouac, one of the group's most prominent members, wrote his magnum opus On The Road in little over two weeks. A potent combination of coffee and speed allowed him to furiously type out a rhythmic novel to the beats of the jazz music he had been listening to all around New York and San Francisco.
This method, known as 'spontaneous prose', is a kind of stream-of-consciousness that made his writing contain energy in the spaces between words. When you reach any full-stop, you'd be exhausted. Writing like this is very similar to the way that Alves puts her ideas down onto paper. They come to her, from somewhere inexplicable, perhaps a meeting or a particular sentence. From there, they make their way onto paper via ink and watercolour. This method is messy and imperfect - exactly how she wants it to be.
This process, without strict planning or preparation, allows the ideas to take shape on the move. They're a semi-conscious projection of a psychological state. It's both therapy and therapist. Their primal urgency is absorbing and engaging. It's one thing to look at online, another to stand looking at one in real life.
Her artistic life began from a young age and was pursued through art school. At the time the term 'street art' was still on the horizon, but of course graffiti was already rampant. She integrated the styles that she found on the street, something she admired for its immediacy and independent spirit, into her studies and work. Teachers were initially unreceptive to the form that was once considered to be lesser. What she saw that they didn't seem to, was that these tags were more than names - they were explosive demonstrations of organic creativity.
In many ways, the routine of daily life, the expectations and benchmarks of society's gaze, are the antithesis of Alves' art. When we fall into complacency, we are sufficiently satisfied by momentary displays or actions of love and laughter. These often fall short of sating the deeper spiritual requirements of the human. You can't have everything, yet that's exactly what we want. Something's got to give.
To Tamara Alves, that which fell by the wayside was our ability to honestly and fearlessly embrace the animalistic aspects of our being. She told me that one noticeable difference between photographs of humans and animals is that animals are most often caught in motion - roaring, climbing, running, but essentially living according to their needs. With people it's different. We perform expressions as a means to mask what is underneath and this seems to be Alves' most grave concern. How long can we hide what's within us until we forget that it's there completely?
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