The Porto Photography Biennial, a distinguished photography celebration held annually in Portugal, recently staged a thought-provoking exhibition that garnered significant attention. This showcase, dubbed “Vento (A)mar,” was conceptualized by Brazilian artists Dori Nigro and Paulo Pinto and aimed to stimulate conversation about Portugal’s historical involvement in slave trafficking. However, the exhibition, which was situated within the Centro Hospitalar Conde de Ferreira, became the center of controversy due to unexpected acts of censorship, sparking a conversation about the freedom of artistic expression and the handling of a nation’s dark past.The Symbolism Behind the Exhibition
“Vento (A)mar,” which translates to “Wind at Sea” or “Wind to Love,” was a site-specific installation that delved into the symbolic and poetic territory of ancestry and memory. The exhibition’s setting, the Centro Hospitalar Conde de Ferreira, was particularly symbolic as it was one of numerous institutions funded by Joaquim Ferreira dos Santos, Conde de Ferreira. The Conde profited immensely from the slave trade, operating a fleet of slave ships that ferried enslaved individuals from Angola to Brazil.
Nigro and Pinto intended their installation to serve as a meditation on ancestral memory, a bridge connecting their home state of Pernambuco in Brazil with the city of Porto, where they had settled. In creating “Vento (A)mar,” the artists aimed to challenge the continuous erasure of Portugal’s colonial past, marked by racism and slavery, and encourage a deeper examination of this history. The exhibition was a call for healing, a platform for dialogue that sought to address and mend the wounds inflicted by this uncomfortable truth.
Unfortunately, the exhibition’s provocative content met resistance. During the show’s inaugural day, the hospital administration barred access to a room housing mirrors etched with words questioning the legacy of Conde de Ferreira. One of the mirrors asked a poignant question: “How many enslaved people is a psychiatric hospital worth?” This act of censorship took the artists, the curator, and the Biennial’s artistic directors by surprise as they had previously received full cooperation from the hospital during the setup of the exhibition.
The hospital’s administrative board issued a statement claiming that the exhibition’s language had affected their community. They insisted, however, that they remained committed to discussing their history in an “adequate way.” This response elicited mixed reactions, with some viewing the hospital’s act as a form of control and manipulation.
Following the hospital’s move, the Porto Photography Biennial organizers, including the artists and the curator, had to make a swift decision. They could either pull the exhibition, demand the reinstatement of the censored works, or proceed with the modified version. They chose to continue with “Vento (A)mar” in its censored form, believing that this decision would shed more light on the issues raised by the show.
News of the censorship sparked public outrage, with some visitors leaving red carnations, a Portuguese symbol of democratic liberation, alongside the artworks in protest. The Biennial also received emails of support from multiple partners, including the Municipality of Porto, Direçao-Geral das Artes, and the University of Porto. These entities affirmed the Biennial’s right to display the exhibition in its original form.
Despite the disappointment of seeing their work censored, Nigro and Pinto remained committed to their cause. They announced plans to collaborate with the Biennial to facilitate public debates and develop long-term projects that would continue to spotlight the issues raised by their installation. They were firm in their conviction that art has the power to effect change and that their work is a testament to their ancestry and a beacon for future generations.
The incident at the Porto Photography Biennial underscores the power of art in sparking dialogue and challenging societal norms. Artistic expression often serves as a mirror reflecting society’s flaws and stimulating change. In this case, the artists’ bold question, etched on a mirror, forced the hospital, and by extension, Portuguese society, to confront an uncomfortable truth about their history.
The “Vento (A)mar” exhibition at the Porto Photography Biennial offers a fascinating case study of the intersection between art, censorship, and historical reckoning. This event has sparked a crucial conversation about the importance of freedom of expression and the need for society to confront and address its past. As the world continues to grapple with these issues, the role of art in promoting dialogue and introspection becomes even more vital.