INTERVIEW* with Carla Cabanas, by Lúcia Marques, on Cabanas’s exhibition Saudades e lagrimas são o unico lenitivo para a grande auzencia
Lúcia Marques (LM): This project came about with the chance of doing a residency in S. Tomé. What ideas did you take there with you?
Carla Cabanas (CC): I wanted to keep dealing with the issues of Time and Memory and working on representations of a given space. I had thought of digging up old images of the islands and confront this idea of a place with its reality. Therefore, I was excited about the opportunity to go there myself and let the experience influence my relationship with the images and thus with my intervention over them.
I wanted to experiment with color photography, since I had never done it before, and I started looking for old negatives and slides. I’d thought about a more recent time frame (the 80s), where these formats were fairly common. However, I couldn’t seem to find any material to work with, either in libraries and archives or the private sources I knew of. Then I started looking for older images and, after many setbacks, I found this set of postcards. I thought they were really interesting because they combined two symbolic expressions: image and writing. Postcards were created to serve communication, connect people in distant places, but they also manage to historically portray a particular time and place, even though this portrait is deeply manipulated, as are most postcards… And so I went to S. Tomé, carrying all these ideas and 20 kilos of photos.
LM: What changed in your plans throughout the residency?
CC: I began by visiting some of the places pictured in the postcards, especially the farms and towns. I carried small copies of the photos with me to try to identify the places and show them to people.
And even though I had picked and printed the photos myself, I was feeling uncomfortable with working on them, because they referred to a colonial past, with all that this entails. I was faced with a dilemma: what should I do with these images? I was a bit confused for a while, because my work has nothing to do with a particular time frame, or the circumstances surrounding the images, and I wasn’t interested on working on that there.
It also happened that every time I showed the postcards to the islanders, they became sad, not for being reminded of those colonial times but because they somehow realized that their heritage is slowly disappearing and they have no means of preserving or restoring it. But my discomfort lingered.
On the other hand, I was deeply impressed with the island’s beauty and the overwhelming forces of nature: if people are not careful(in a relatively short time) the woods will take over the built places and vanish forever. It’s as if the island is reclaiming its natural space by slowly taking over everything. This can happen all over the world, but here this strikes us as more evident because it happens so much quicker.
Besides, an image and a sentence kept on hovering in my mind, very present: “longing and tears are the only relief for the great absence” (“saudades e lágrimas são o único lenitivo para a grande ausência”). This sentence was handwritten on a postcard I had picked, but above the image. Someone had picked a postcard with a waterfall and wrote this over the image. The sentence was following me because it relates very strongly to what I do in my work. And because at some point I was missing home myself…
In short, what happened was that throughout most of the residency I was researching and reflecting, and focused more on rendering the videos than on working on the photos.
LM: Were you “longing” (“sentir saudades”)…?
CC: (laughter) Yes… But I used this sentence for the title because this awareness of what is missing, and absence, has been a strong and constant key in my later work.
LM: Namely in the “Álbum Cabanas” series… You have already worked on images from your own personal background, alongside others from postcards bought in the flea market (“Álbum desconhecido”). In this new series you are debuting images that have once again an emotional value, this time connected to your experience of a place (and how they relate to the past of a place where you were doing a residency). You started by those that now display natural motifs (which are more directly connected to your previous work) or by those which have received postcard fragments?
CC: I first started working with text over photography because it was that kind of intervention that interested me the most at the time. But just as I finished the first one I realized that I was missing Nature. It wasn’t a logical thing or anything like that, it was something I felt, as if I wasn’t being honest with myself… And it didn’t make sense to use just one thing if I felt I needed both. I had thought the work would be more coherent if I only used one language, but I couldn’t forsake the other one. The next day, still in S. Tomé, I started doing the other way around. I create very intuitively and I am only able to rationalize it when project develops further on.
LM: In that development you felt the need to include the two videos that are being screened… From the multi-element static image we move to the static shot, where the human figure is no longer the protagonist (or so it seems…). What is the role of the videos in the overall project?
CC: While the postcards sum up the passage of time (showing both the process and the outcome of the vanishing image), the video pieces hint at a real-time deterioration… unperceived but nevertheless present. Even if one cannot see it, time does to places what I do to pictures. I felt it was important to contrast these two vanishing velocities.
[*] After visiting the artist’s studio, the conversation-interview continued via email, which resulted in this final edit.