João Pedro Vale +
Nuno Alexandre Ferreira
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Identity Politics between History and Community
Miguel Amado

Identity politics was born in the post World War II liberal democracies following on from the civil rights movements. Examples among these include the second wave of feminism, gay pride activism and, in the USA, the emancipation of the African American and Native American populations. This line of action aimed at raising awareness about their material living conditions among those who were oppressed, enabling them to articulate such oppression according to their own experiences. Individuals would then understand the position of inferiority attributed to them by the dominant group as a strategy for maintaining power. Consequently, they would go against such a circumstance by affirming their sense of self and of belonging to a community, thus rewriting their history. For example, by debating race and gender in general and segregation based on these variables in particular they would be reacting to the dominant values.

The distinctive reactionary morality of the Conservatism that marked out the USA in the 1980s allowed the stating of identity politics as a critical instrument in the art field. In the context of the emerging of AIDS as a civilisational disease – an attribute arising from its discovery shortly after the revolution in behaviour patterns in the 1960s and 1970s – representations of sexuality, especially homosexuality, were seen as primordial in the reception of identity politics by artists. The debate about the “Other” thus shifted to the sphere of the queer. According to this perspective, gender on the one hand and sexual orientation on the other are the result of a social construction, this point of view denounces the biological determinism that supports the sexual division of labour in general and the differentiation of roles between men and women in particular.

João Pedro Vale’s encounter with identity politics has been mediated by theory, the press and other forms of mass communication such as film and advertising. He understands the masculine/feminine binomial beyond the established normative frameworks through camp, a 1960s style that reconsiders the value of kitsch by taking its ironic potential into account. The commonly accepted contradiction between kitsch and avant-garde, which would save art from the decline in taste provoked by consumerism, becomes undone when an image or an object appeal to one’s gaze because they deny the sophistication that would in principle define them. Banality, artifice and ostentation are qualities that camp valorises not as an essence but as a strategy of deconstruction of that which is no more than typical middle classes tastelessness despite being assessed as erudite.

Vale comments on the worldviews underlying the micro-practices and the major narratives of contemporary society. He analyses the collective consciousness and the systems of individual belief in order to deal with identity politics whether this relates to nationality, class, ethnicity or gender. His works explore the mythologies of popular culture, calling upon traditions, fixed ideas, preconception and behaviour patterns. In order to make them he takes inspiration from images and objects borrowed from the western imagination – from literary texts to proverbs and from tales to historical facts – and uses materials from everyday life with symbolic qualities such as soap, salt, beer bottle tops and cigarette packets. The post-modern techniques he uses, among which are appropriation and language games, are the support for the derision of his attitude, which echoes the aesthetics of camp.

Over recent years Vale has explored the relationship between history and community through the lenses of homoeroticism. He has been interested in this subject since the beginning of his career but its importance has increased in recent projects carried out with Nuno Alexandre Ferreira. The point in common for three of these projects – “Moby Dick” (2009), “English As She Is Spoke” (2010) and “Ptown” (2011) – is the cultural difference characteristic to the migratory processes, each one of them analysing the presence of Portuguese emigrants on the East Coast of the USA, particularly Azoreans in Massachusetts. The projects focus on the tension between marginalisation and valorisation of the specificity of these communities, both on the part of the country, region or city with receives them and by their members. The two artists are interested in the historical logics of inscription and erasing of identitarian traits as a way of integration, as well as in the memorising of Portugal that corresponds to it. The originality of their approach resides in the association between folk elements of this dynamic and mentions to gay lifestyles, thus intertwining a myriad of sociological references.

The root of “Moby Dick” is the homoerotic interpretation of the novel Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, by Herman Melville, published in 1851. Melville tells the adventures of Ishmael on board the whaler Pequod and the odyssey of the capturing of Moby Dick, a fierce common cachalot. Seen through a queer angle, the treatment of the friendship among men presented by Melville is an indication of his understanding of the male couple as a force for progress. The artists relate this perspective to the allusions to Portuguese sailors, particularly whale hunters from the Azores, who are a constant factor in the novel. The project ends up becoming a pornographic homosexual movie, the action of which is based on the boredom usual on a long sea voyage, while its settings and stagings are made up of sculptures and paintings evoking a 1800s fishing boat. These works examine desire as a source of human relationships in the light of an alternative reading of a classic piece of literature that is fundamental in the western imaginary.

Provincetown, also called Ptown, is a place in Massachusetts known as a gay and lesbian summer holiday resort, but also recognised for its “Portugueseness”, an heritage of the 1800s Azorean emigration to the town. The starting point for the project is the local vernacular architecture, especially the dune shacks that characterise the Provincetown shoreline, and their association with the illegal constructions that populate the Portuguese coast, now an architectural landmark of the country. The first version of this project was an installation alluding to these makeshift dwellings that consisted of an half-open circular tent made of wooden posts painted in different colours, ropes and strips of denim. A self-published magazine complemented this work. Reproducing photographs, notes and other ephemera, it simultaneously forms a diary, a report and a novel. These works express the spirit of Provincetown in being both a metaphor for the intersecting of public and private spaces and for humorously crossing over libertinage and the picturesque.

The starting point for “English As She Is Spoke” is an absurd 1800s Portuguese-English conversation guide written by Pedro Carolino, an unknown figure whose zero linguistic knowledge made him unable to translate any text. The artists adopted this logic to create a “comedy of errors” through two components; on the one hand a film featuring John, a young second generation emigrant repatriated to the Azores by the USA and Canada, and his interrogator, both forming sketches alluding to the structure of English educational TV series and to Portuguese music hall theatre; on the other hand, a set of sculptures and drawings evoking prison environments and learning contexts that constitute the setting for the film or refer to the iconography of the Azores. In the film the characters talk in Portuguese and English, with John outlining an overview of his biography; however, the phrases are translated mutually, setting up a false dialogue. This work reveals the existential crisis affecting present times through the phenomena of migration, calling attention to the subject’s sense of displacement as a crucial feature of modern experience.