Breaking the mould

Portuguese muralist, painter, and political artist Rigo 23 will have his installation at the Kochi Muziris Biennale. He talks his art and the social responsibility of an artist

September 26, 2012 11:01 pm | Updated 11:01 pm IST - Kochi

Artistic freedom: Rigo 23 ( Ricardo Gouveia), Portuguese muralist, painter, and political artist residing in San Francisco, California at Kochi for The Kochi-Muziris Biennale on Tuesday.

Artistic freedom: Rigo 23 ( Ricardo Gouveia), Portuguese muralist, painter, and political artist residing in San Francisco, California at Kochi for The Kochi-Muziris Biennale on Tuesday.

Rigo 23 (Ricardo Gouveia), a Portuguese artist and his art defy specific definitions. His being Portuguese assumes significance because of Kochi’s historical connection with Portugal. Rigo jokes, “Nobody, as of yet, asked me if Vasco da Gama was my relative, or if my family traded in spices.”

A muralist and painter, Rigo was born in Portugal made a name for himself in San Francisco. On why he calls himself Rigo 23, he says he has been ‘Rigo 95’, ‘Rigo 97’ etc taking the last two digits of the year as his ‘surname’. It was on one level an indicator of linear progression of time, he says. On another level, a reaction, probably to numbers (of commerce, for instance) that have come to dictate life. However, he stopped at 2003 with 23 because he felt, at the time, that he had reached a point where he didn’t feel the need to change his ‘surname’. Rigo has been associated with the several art biennales around the world, where his works have been displayed. He is in the city as part of the Kochi Muziris Biennale. Excerpts from an interview.

You are referred to as a political artist. Your art too points in the direction. What is your definition of a political artist? It is a huge responsibility, isn’t it?

Actually, my practice has been so broad - maybe even scattered with childish curiosity - that it is impossible to be happy being re-defined as an artist in a single word.

I am not very familiar with India’s current social climate, but in today’s Portugal being called a politician is about as low an insult as you can find. Therefore, being called a political athlete, a political poet ... just about everything and anything sounds bad after the word politician. Such is the legacy of decades of legitimate politics we seem to have inherited there after the quasi-revolutionary period of 1974-76. For the average Portuguese citizen, a politician has become a de facto advertising agent minus the humour, the sexiness, the self-awareness and the product. I guess it’s safe to say I like being called that less and less, and it’s not the fault of the word. But in today’s context I’d rather be called a citizen artist, because as a member of a democracy - a functioning democracy - every citizen inherits that huge responsibility you speak of.

Is your art born out of a sense of social responsibility? Or an acceptance of inequities? Does it change, to oversimplify the matter, when you as an artist choose to make an artistically political statement?

Yes, there is that sense of responsibility, but also sheer empathy. Do you look the other way not to watch the speeding truck run over the beautiful goat crossing the street? Or do you wave your arms and jump up and down in hopes of getting the driver’s attention, and slowing the truck down? Is that dance a calculated political stance, or something we are born with? As artists we strive to articulate different aspects of beauty, and there are few available more compelling, than justice.

What is the role of art – political or just a pretty picture with a huge price tag?

I think there can be as many roles for art as there are artists. Art is a celebration of freedom. The road is the destination. Therefore most artists, I think, resent being told what role they should give to their art. It’s a very personal decision, and even if the environment around an artist tells them this is what your art should do - it is the artist’s right to disagree and persist on their path. As for pretty pictures with huge price tags... we ought to ask Mother Nature how she feels we have done so far. We’re definitely the species that has produced the most pictures, the prettiest and with the biggest price tags - yet, it seems others are always made to pay for our inflated self-esteem. Are there more beautiful pictures of elephants, or beautiful elephants? A picture can fit in your house, but a living elephant needs her own house.

Is this your first trip to India? If so, what is your perception of our art?

This is my second trip to India - my first was in 1997, and it changed my perception on life. I learnt, here, that life and death were much closer to each other than I had been made to believe in the West.

Today is the first day of my second trip to India, so I’m mostly just in awe of being here again. And it’s different here, I’m a different I, in a different time - there is no again – I’m a changed person visiting an ever changing India. Yet, I can already feel the same intensity in my response to being here. India is so vast in both time and humanity, that it baffles a curious mind.

Speaking as someone who loves to watch streets, written words, colours, architecture, I have always found the art here to be top-notch. Now, as for an art ‘scene’ - as in, away from all this vitality on the streets - I really am very ignorant of that, and have just been given a great chance to start that learning. However, having become friends with the few Indian artists and curators I have met - outside of India - I have to say my perception thus far is that yours is a very welcoming art scene.

What does an art biennale mean to the artist and the community from your experience with other art biennales?

I think, it means first and foremost an invitation to get to know one another better and in a conducive environment.

To host a biennale is literally an invitation to engage with each other’s present moment and histories in a freer and more horizontal environment.

Comparing Kochi Muziris with my other experiences in biennales, I’m super grateful this one is very far from Venice - there is no worse feeling than when art appears so at home in the spoiled lap of luxury and vanity. By choosing to host it’s first biennale here, I think Indian artists are saying they want to deal with the real world - as it is now but also attached to a long, continuous and shared history.

Your works at the Kochi Biennale?

I’m still just getting acquainted with Kochi - so it’s too early to know the direction my participation in the biennale might take.

However, later on, while surveying the ‘site’ for his installation at the Cochin Shipyard’s abandoned dockyard in Calvathy, Rigo says, “I will make a mythical creature that transports.”

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