FITA Magazine Vol. II / Garden Constellation

Thomas Mendonça
Unavoidable Bridge That Unites What
Is Most Natural To What Is Most Sacred

Interview by Beatriz Rodrigues

Photograph © Thomas Mendonça
Courtesy of the Artist

There is a linear complexity to Thomas Mendonça’s life and practise. As a complex, entangled network, his life (like his practise) navigates between the lines that push and pull him from France to Portugal, from the requirement to belong to the impossibility of doing so, from the emptiness of lockdown to the inescapable power of community. His ceramic sculptures pose an opportunity to question and revisit this tradition so embedded in the Portuguese culture, but they are also a result of the appropriation of maritime life and shapes that map Mendonça’s invisible map. If the successive lockdowns of the past year have posed strict limitations to our/his private and creative space, they also brought the trivial as canvas and the emptiness of it all as the beginning of an important phase of painting. And what is left from it? The magnetic impulse for community-building and the need to connect and give space to others.

Let’s start with your formative years: what or who did encourage you to start exploring your creative side?

I was born and raised in France in the region of Paris, I am the second of four brothers. As a child, I was often complimented for all my creative expressions. Although he did not practice it professionally, my father used to paint, perhaps it was the first incentive. As a kid, my brothers practised judo, I also tried it as an alternative to watching their training every week. That was right before my mother suggested me to attempt artistic/ceramic classes which I appreciated much more.

You were born in France and moved to Portugal at a young age. Does that life-changing moment inform your work in any way? And are there still any lines trying to connect the two places in your practise?

I think that my dual nationality and more specifically the experience of moving to another country at the age of ten influenced my personality in many ways. I don’t know if it is much present in my work, but perhaps the heritage of the ‘need to belong somewhere’. After moving, I was seen as French in Portugal and Portuguese in France. I feel like a Portuguese heart of a body that was born in a foreign territory.

Photograph © Thomas Mendonça
Untitled, 2019
Faience and Plastic
18 x 30 x 15 cm

Your artistic journey has ceramic sculptures as a central point. What brought you to working with that medium (as it is not one of the most obvious choices for artists)? Do you expect to shift some preconceptions towards the medium?

My first experience with ceramics was as a
child, but it was during my academic path that I rediscovered the touch of the hands-on and the very special feeling of seeing the earth shaping my ideas. It was in this context that my ceramic work found its starting point in the forms of nature on a very broad scale. I have always been very attracted to organic manifestations in general, I am interested in natural patterns, and each day I am more and more amazed by the diversity of forms (whether they come from fauna, flora or geology). Over the years, I have sometimes experienced the desire to represent more figura- tive or symbolic forms. I have learned to walk on this unavoidable bridge that unites what is most natural to what is most sacred. In addition to the shapes and patterns present in some fungi, corals, poriferas or seeds, I am interested in the inevitably phallic verticality and majestic beauty present in a palm tree, in a menhir, in a totem, in a pyramid or a representation of “Our Lady”. I have a particular aesthetic fascination for curiosity cabinets - I am certainly very influenced by this fever of collecting objects, things and fragments - but I am also attracted by the clinical politeness of contemporary museums that were most likely born from these cabinets. Living and dead natures, anachronisms, sheltered wonders, light and white walls where there is just enough space for each object to breathe over the next one. This is how my room looks - my best mirror. I learned to admire these dualities and to combine all these references. Natural, artificial, sacred, and profane. I learned it by cultivating the desire to absorb this world through its aesthetic expression, ceramics has simply become a very flexible way of doing it.

Photograph © Thomas Mendonça
Faience, 2020
40 x 13 x 13 cm

Your ceramic sculptures seem to inhabit a new world of their own, do you actively pursue escapism when you create them?

There is a clear intention of alienation associated to my ceramic work. Everything started to take shape more concretely with my first series “Poríferos Preciosos” - an open series under constant construction - which proposes to represent the porifers collected between the ocean of ammonia in Triton, the various underground seas of Ganymede, Enceladus, Titan and Mimas, a possible nitrogen river on Pluto, and the solid lakes of Ceres, Callisto and Europa. They are the concrete attempt to embody the mixture between the porifers that we know here and what I imagine when I think of a gaseous sea at the other end of the solar system. They make the connection between the formal influences I gather in the coral fields and the luxury of being able to fantasize - without fear - about the (almost) unknown.

In your latest solo exhibition ‘Filhas do Tédio’ (Boredom’s Daughters) (Lisbon, 2020), you explored what came out of your experience during the first lockdown in Portugal. During that period, not only did you start exploring painting, but you did it through portraiture and working on everyday materials. How do you interact with the people that you draw and paint, and what is it that you want to represent when you work with them?

With the beginning of this pandemic, everything changed a lot. I stopped - like all of us - being able to perpetuate my work routines. One day I ran out of patience, clay and paper and what followed were long months without sculpting or drawing. I died of emptiness, so I started to paint. I preserved myself, took advantage and painted these portraits on the packages of ice cream, pizzas and cereals provided by the first lockdown. These ‘Boredom’s Daughters’ (2020) portray several inspiring and beautiful people, known or not, usually from photographs. Above all, they represent the various states of mind I have wandered through over the past few months.

Photograph © Thomas Mendonça
Clope Magique & Dolce Vita, 2020
Acrylic paint on pizza box
21 x 24 cm

Photograph © Thomas Mendonça
Portrait of a Portrait of Apathy, 2020
Acrylic paint on cereal box
19 x 27 cm

You have worked with a few established ar t institutions in Portugal. Do you see museums and galleries as a framing device for your practise? Do you think that there is a detachment between their mission and their action/curatorial programming? If so, does it compromise the work of emerging artists?

I think that the most diverse cultural platforms are valid and complementary. I think that they serve different purposes, that the intention varies when I’m showing my work in the reception foyer of a theatre company, in a commercial gallery or a national museum. I think that culture is not always pro culture, that the art system and market often privileges established elites which makes the task more arduous for anyone who was born nephew of nobody.

In what way is your work in conversation with (or responding to) recent history – see the pandemic or the 2020 movements for racial equality? Is there an element of catharsis in that process?

My work has a very present autobiographical basis. It is unavoidable to communicate what I feel without reflecting on my condition as a human being. Considering the condition of others is inevitable to reflect on my own. Culture is what contextualizes us in space and time. Reflecting our portrait at a sociological level, it is a fundamental tool for us to be able to identify our wounds and be more open to walking towards our healing. Constantly, over and over again.

Photograph © Thomas Mendonça
Courtesy of the Artist

The interview to Thomas Mendonça was published on pages 110 to 114 in the Botanical Garden chapter of FITA Magazine Vol. II / Garden Constellation dedicated to the city of Lisbon.

Beatriz Rodrigues is an arts practitioner with a background in communications and museum studies. She develops her curatorial practise between Lisbon and London aiming to work directly with artists and give visibility to underrepresented communities that have been denied of a fundamental space in the arts sector.

Thomas Mendonça (1991, France) is a visual artist graduated at ESAD.Cr. He lives and works in Lisbon. He participated in the exhibitions “Poríferos Preciosos” at the Geological Museum of Lisbon and Museum of Natural History and Science, “Género na Arte: Corpo, sexualidade, identidade, resistência” at the National Museum of Contemporary Art, and “Species Novae” at Galeria FOCO. Among others, he also curated exhibitions at Galeria FOCO. His main interests are spread among sentimental melodramas, post-pop culture and the beauty of iconic singularity in general.

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FITA Magazine

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︎︎︎ Vol. I / Invisible Atlas / Venice
︎︎︎ Vol. II / Garden Constellation / Lisbon
︎︎︎ Vol. III / Star Portraits / London
︎︎︎ Vol. IV / Time Travel / Berlin

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