What I’m going to say about Fidel Évora's philosophy, one of Portugal’s most exciting emerging artists, might make everything fall into place for you, or maybe make no sense at all. Évora and I talked a while ago, after I stopped to watch him work in a shared studio space in Lisbon, about his work and how he understands it. Since then, the artist began trying to better understand his work, himself and, in turn, reflected on how we look at ourselves and the world around us.
Sometimes when I ask somebody to explain their work, the answers seem hollow and vague, almost like those catch-all horoscopes in newspaper columns that everyone can relate to. Like all industries, art is full of those who are disingenuous about what they do and how it relates to their own life. Évora wasn’t content with feeding me such triteness and instead, took some serious time to reflect on his own work and life in light of a discussion we had. This is what I got.
Born in Praia, Cape Verde, the artist grew up in Lisbon’s southside neighbourhood Barreiro, a place once powerfully industrial that has since succumbed to poverty and dereliction. Like so many post-industrial landscapes, people were raised on false dreams and promises. Escapism was found in crime, for some, and for others like Évora, it was art.
Operating at the intersection between street and academic, contemporary ideas with ancient artefacts, Évora’s work has always been deeply reflective, examining his dual identity of African and European. It’s like he hopes to not only tell a story through his work, but to contain within it an internal dialogue between himself and the processes, a more introverted narrative, rather than an outward proclamation.
Receiving a document from Évora recently, within which the artist distilled his ideas as succinctly as possible, referencing biologists and exotic dancers. All of them lead back to the same root though. Disinterested in what we are, the Barreiro native examines exactly who we are - both as a result of social conditioning and biological programming.
Rather than taking his ideological influence from art, he talked about Charles Darwin and Mata Hari and their processes of understanding the individual identity - the negotiation that Sigmund Freud makes between the id and the ego. As his muse, he has taken on Mata Hari and will examine the Dutch exotic dancer as a source of several upcoming interdisciplinary works. In his bid to dissect Hari and her relationship with the world, Évora seeks to understand his own works and their meaning. He described her fragmented identity thusly:
“For Margaretha [Hari’s real name], her ambiguous visual appearance, her profound knowledge of oriental religious iconography, knowledge of exotic dances, command of several languages and Western etiquette, enabled her to “speculate in sensuality” and create a kind of cubist identity, where several heteronyms materialised into a single object of contemplation. Having known, during most of her life, how to manage that performance in order to make the most of it for her own benefit. This ability to recreate herself was perhaps – in my opinion – one of her least understood characteristics.”
Does Évora think that there is one single essence of a person that is divided into parts? Or are these distinct characteristics all a part of a performative reality? This is the age-old question of whether the human is nature or nurture. How much of our environment controls us? How much of it do we control?
Hari’s mastery of her surroundings, as Évora admires as being well ahead of her time, particularly in her interactions with spectators and journalists of her epoch, gave her a leading-edge over contemporaries. Hari was not one person, not a part of an ‘objective reality’, but was able to manipulate her perception as a means of navigating the world. It’s like she looked in a mirror and smashed her reflection, still seeing her own face in the splintered pieces. Each shard is a part of her, but none taken individually could be understood as the full picture.
Reality is something that is definite, by its nature. But, for whom? We rarely, if ever, understand reality in this way. For us, each occurrence is tainted by past events, our memory of something that happened only seconds ago already mixed up with the millions of other things we’ve experienced in our lives prior to that moment.
How we see the world isn’t how others do. It’s our own mental construct. Hari’s world was many things. Évora sees reality this way too. Ultimately, that who we are and what we do is malleable, something we can, if we so desire, create and recreate at will. Évora’s art, like Hari’s performances, are all fragments of his own identity, something that we will also interpret subjectively through our own lens upon viewing. This is living art, cyclical art, art that means nothing and everything at the same time.
The title of this reflective essay is The Map and the Terrain, an idea derived from the premise of ‘the map is not the territory’ - as a map is a representation we often confuse with being the physical place - not simply something that symbolises it. Take London’s tube map, an image that many will rely on to understand the layout of England’s capital, yet this is a map that relies heavily on creative and practical alterations to make London, and the city’s tube system, something that’s possible to comprehend easily.
In looking at Hari, Évora will continue to look at his own work and something even more profound - to the nature of reality itself and how our perceptions help to shape it. Not only in the present but in the future when we recount our history. Thought of in this sense, the world is ours to do with it however we please. Through art, Évora is free.
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