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Zé Povinho - Portugal's Everyman

Words:

Edd Norval
March 28, 2018

A crude man, depicted in clothes of near-peasantry, is also the symbol of working-class ethics and ingenuity in Portugal. As the country surges through a process of globalisations and gentrification, it's imperative to remember where it all began. This figure is a symbol of humble beginnings.

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Portugal has always been a poor country, held back developmentally by the Estado Novo regime of Oliveira Salazar. Since its collapse in 1974, Portugal has managed to find a rhythm, especially over the last decade - becoming one of Europe's most desirable countries to live in or visit.


Whether you're looking to surf, relax at the beach, explore historic cities or go on a wine-tasting trip, Portugal's diversity is a huge draw for tourists and explorers. Despite this, the country has parts that are considerably poorer and less well-developed than other similar places in Europe. Instead of seeing this a a negative though, it can be embraced.


Being a country of humble means gives the people less to work with - less easy-way-outs. To thrive in a world that is advancing at unprecedented rates requires an equally nimble and forward-thinking population. Portuguese people have a very specific way of making it happen - there is a saying that goes something like if you can't hunt with a dog, hunt with a cat. Don't complain or waste time, just make do with what you have - just make it work.

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Unfortunately, due to the ever homogenising process of urban gentrification and rural development, these kinds of phrases and mentalities will be phased-out by younger generations that do have the information and means at their disposal to deal with any hardships or problems. Although not quite a fading memory yet, it's important to remember Portugal's recent history as a country that hasn't had much, but has always made do.


Bordalo Pinheiro is the preeminent Portuguese polymath. He was an influential artist, sculptor and ceramicist. If you've seen the green glazed cabbage leaf pottery, then you've seen his work. Bordalo, back in 1875, nearly 150 years ago created a character - Zé Povinho, as the embodiment and personification of Portuguese values. He was a crude looking fella that thrived under the sun, working with his hands. He was an image of working-class pride.


His work has endured and influenced every generation of Portuguese artist that has come since, although his Zé Povinho character isn't as popular as it once was. However, it is in this character that the Portuguese can always remember themselves - remember the lessons of those that came before. Zé Povinho was the one who sewed the seeds, laid the roads, assembled the tiled facades that cover the beautiful buildings.

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Zé Povinho is an everyman - a Joe Bloggs. We are all a bit of him and he a bit of all of us. Bordalo drew him throughout his life, for over 30 years. The character was a simple man, kindly. He was also a figure of anti-establishment sentiment. Often portrayed acting out the bras d'honneur, the symbol of 'Up Yours' with a stoic grin on his face. Yes, I'll do it my way, you do it yours.


The character was not without controversy. Many took offence at the depiction of their people as being peasants. That was never the intention though - he was created to empower and embrace that aspect of the past, act as a reminder, but it was also a bit of fun. Besides, we all have similar beginnings.


Portrayed regularly as a happy and helpful guy, he's still an adored symbol, although one on the decline. This just cannot be though. He's an essential part of the cultural tapestry of the country. If not for his work on a farm, then for his willingness to make things work and not to be told what to do - not to be pushed around by the big boys.


So, long live Zé Povinho, the character who won't let the man hold him down.

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