Portuguese artist Cristina Rodrigues’s practice encompasses social concerns, ethnography and gender relations. Using a diverse array of media – including handmade tapestries, drawings, and installations – Rodrigues, who trained as an architect, resuscitates dying traditions and abandoned objects in her attempt to create a distinct yet mixed cultural identity from fragmented pieces of particular histories.
Rodrigues’s retrospective at Centro de Cultura Contemporânea in the Portuguese town of Castelo Branco is a comprehensive survey of her work of the past seven years. Ambika Rajgopal sat down with Rodrigues to talk about her work.
Ambika Rajgopal You use the traditional techniques of weaving and embroidery to address contemporary problems such as war, displacement and the refugee crises. How does the medium address these concerns?
Cristina Rodrigues The power of life’s continuity resides in simple things. If I concentrate on all the problems taking place in the world now, my head would explode. In every nation, there are women who love their families, who are wives, mothers, daughters and sisters; they decorate their homes and bodies with textiles, they sew, braid ribbons, colour fabrics and so on. Using their hands to create new things allows them to focus on that moment, distancing them – even if it’s just for a moment – from the various problems of life. When I was a child, I was raised in a Catholic school that was run by very strict nuns. From the age of seven, it was compulsory to attend sewing and embroidery classes. At first I hated these classes, but as my technical skills developed, I found a new freedom. I was free to design patterns and select the colours of the silks; I could be creative within the structures of this strict regime. This made me believe that any medium can be used to reflect stories about humankind.
AR You repurpose old furniture collected from immigrant families in order to portray migration in a personal way. What do you think happens to the original histories of these objects in the process?
CR I am a migrant. As I have moved around, I have always left behind objects that recount stories from my past. A significant amount of the objects migrants leave behind end up as waste. When someone chooses to migrate, leaving his or her loved ones behind, normally it’s because he or she hopes to find a better and fairer life.
The first home in the new country is often furnished with simple things that are meant to be functional. As life improves, these objects tend to be replaced. I like collecting and decorating these items, which are symbols of someone’s strength and commitment to life. I feel that decorating these objects is symbolic; it’s a very similar process to that of decorating the altars of Catholic saints. It is a celebration of life and hope.
AR The works in your current exhibition respond not only to the space they occupy, but also to the history of the city of Castelo Branco. What role does the city play in the conceptualization of your retrospective?
CR Castelo Branco is one of the most significant emerging cultural centres in Portugal and also home to the noblest of Portuguese embroideries, known as Castelo Branco embroidery. This technique is a very luxurious one that uses linen and natural silk. The collection of tapestries I produced in collaboration with Ferreira de Sá rugs, ‘Gardens of Life’ (2017), is a contemporary interpretation of motifs and narratives that had their origin in the south of Asia and are now part of Portuguese popular culture. The collection comprises five different tapestries: one is a hand-knotted carpet and the other four are produced using hand-tufting.
AR What is the relationship in your work between meaning and aesthetics?
CR Decoration is an action deeply related to craftsmanship and the history of art. My hyper-decorated drawings, tapestries, objects and embroideries are the result of a technical and aesthetic language that I started learning as a child. When I went to architecture school, everything that I had previously learned was ridiculed and I was forced to embrace minimalism. Later, when I moved to Manchester to study contemporary art I found a new creativity and freedom of speech.
My stories are always relevant to me and to the group of people involved in them. I can only hope that other people in the world can identify themselves within these narratives.
AR How does your background in architecture influence your work?
CR Training as an architect made me understand scale and space. When an architect designs a house, they have to consider the different sets of constraints, both physical (geographical and cultural factors) and personal: (the client’s habits and traditions). The ground floor of the Centro de Cultura Contemporânea has five large rectangular rooms, which I used for large installations. The first and second floors of the museum have incredibly high ceilings and a mezzanine connecting the two floors. ‘Gardens of Life’ is installed in this space, and the visitor can walk from piece to piece reading the narratives.
When creating large-scale installations, I use hand-made objects, the ones that have played a part in creating someone’s memories. Like a house, an object can reflect a lot about the person that has used it. This is what interests me and what has inspired my installations such as The Blanket, Gold & Silver (2013), which I created out of adufes – a traditional percussion instrument used in central and southern Portugal. Traditionally, when women play the adufe they share their stories and concerns. It is one of the earliest symbols of emancipation for women based in rural areas.
Cristina Rodrigues’s retrospective at the Centro de Cultura Contemporânea, Castelo Branco, Portugal, runs until 10 December.
Main image: Cristina Rodrigues, Urban Dwellers, 2017, Centro de Cultura Contemporanea, Castelo Branco, Portugal, site-specific, satin ribbons and shoes, installation view. Photograph: Marco Coutinho Longo