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Paula Rego in Istanbul

Pera Museum is hosting a wide selection of artworks by Portuguese artist Paula Rego. We spoke with the exhibition's curator, Alistair Hicks, about politics, art, history, colonialism, freedoms, and many other things, through Paula Rego's relationship with Portugal

Interview: Ahmet Ergenç

Paula Rego posing for a self-portrait, 2015 ©Lila Nunes

Welcome, I will start with a classical question: How did you end up curating Paula Rego’s work for Pera Museum? What was your personal and professional connection with Rego’s oeuvre?

I visited Paula Rego’s studio back in 1984. At that time she was working from a big block of London studios and she had one of the middle ones, little more than a white cube with no natural light. In her studio there was a great pile of drawings. Life and colour took me over. I wrote about her shortly after and we became friends.

Left: Depression No. 7, 2007, Pastel on paper, 101.5 x 68.5 cm, Courtesy of Ostrich Arts Ltd. & Victoria Miro

Right: Sit, 1994, Pastel on paper on aluminum, 160 x 120 cm, Private Collection

Paula Rego’s works present a fine mixture of personal and collective issues. On the one hand, her works seem so personal, on the other hand, she is a highly engaged artist related with politics, history, and violence. How did you balance these two sides in Rego’s work?

Politics, history and violence are volatile subjects! Rego’s commentary on them is so effective as she was vulnerable and open to life.

Wide Sargasso Sea, 1991, Acrylic on canvas, 75 x 99.5 cm, Courtesy of Ostrich Arts Ltd. & Victoria Miro

Paula Rego acts as a visual storyteller: Her interest in telling the stories of the oppressed or the marginalized is seen in this selection too. In this sense, I found the exhibition title (The Story of Stories) quite apt. How did you decide on this title?

The title was chosen as we wished to show how Rego reintroduced stories into the main stream of art, after male art teachers had tried to belittle stories as gossip. One story is never enough for Rego – a far too linear approach for her, so maybe a better title would have been The Stories of Stories, but somehow the human heart and brain copes better with The Story of Stories.

Paula making the Vivian Girls, 1984

The exhibition covers a long period in the career of Rego, starting from the 1960s. What kind of challenges have you encountered while making representative selection out of her long career?

The most frustrating challenge was borrowing paintings for the show. One work failed to materialise in Istanbul because of the Russian-Ukranian War. Also in the five years that we took to plan the show, Rego became increasingly popular, so the demand on her work increased. Sadly Paula herself died in this period, but her family, especially her son Nick Willing were incredibly supportive of her showing here at the Pera.

Images from the exhibition The Story of Stories, Pera Museum

One clear line in Rego’s work is her preoccupation with the colonial history of Portugal. The exhibition highlights her political involvement in this sense. How do you see her position as an anti-colonialist artist?

Rego hated all bullies, though naturally it was more complicated than that. In talking of making Salazar Vomiting his Country, she admits she started feeling sorry for the Brute. Love and hate mingle. Her hatred for War, and the Imperialism that often causes it, is pretty clear cut though, and she frequently expressed it in the 1960s work when Portugal was still abusing its Colonies. As Portugal lost its colonies she went on to fight various other battles, such as male supremacy and depression, but you could say when she came back to make The Human Cargo tritptych in 2008, she was pointing out that the legacy of Colonialism is far from over. Slavery reappears in many different forms.

Battle of Alcacér-Quibir, 1966, Wool, silk, cotton and various tissues on linen, 250 x 650 cm, Courtesy of Cãmara Municipal de Cascais /Fundação D. Luís I,Casa das Histórias, Paula Rego Collection, Photograph: © Carlos Pombo

How about Rego’s role as a social activist? We know that she desired to make a change through her series about political issues. In her work, aesthetics seem to be in the service of politics or political change.

She was an artist. She had a compulsion to draw. Her subject matter arrived naturally as a human of her time. She very, very rarely spouted politics, but that did not mean she did not feel strongly about it. Her art reflects her personal life, and her reaction to what was happening around her.

Lush, 1994, Pastel on canvas, 120 x 160 cm, Hollywood Fine Art Collection, Courtesy of Ostrich Arts Ltd. & Victoria Miro

Regarding political violence and political history, Turkey has a similar history to Portugal. I know you are interested in Turkish history and the art scene. Did you notice any similarities in this sense between Portugal and Turkey?

I wish I was an artist and did not have to put the obvious into words! Will ‘Yes’ suffice?

I would like to ask you also about your recent book on the Turkish art scene and İstanbul: Urban Mirrors. For this book, you examine the relationship of contemporary Turkish artists with İstanbul. How did you start the project?

Urban Mirrors: reflections from the artists of Istanbul is a follow up to the Turkish edition of Global Art Compass. In attempting to write a global survey I realised how Istanbul is a fascinating barometer of the world. One of the most critical issues the world faces today is our relationship with the environment. The twelve artists in this book all have a deep involvement with Istanbul. Each of them have such individual responses to their surroundings and they combine to act like a jury with their verdict on our foolish ways. And particularly the blatantly obvious failure in looking after the places in which we live.


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