Contemporary Art

Joana Vasconcelos: Reshaping Femininity

Natalia Iacobelli 25 March 2024 min Read

Upending convention and pushing boundaries, Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos grapples with themes of gender stereotypes and societal values through buoyant irony. Her large-scale, immersive installations overturn traditional perceptions of women and their roles, inviting us to reflect on consumerism, sexism, and other uncomfortable truths. Deliberately cacophonous, her works provide no resting place for the eye—there is no time to rest, Vasconcelos warns.

Joana Vasconcelos was born in Paris in 1971 to exiled Portuguese parents. After the Carnation Revolution of 1974, she and her family returned to their native Portugal, where Vasconcelos would develop her style in her Lisbon studio.

In 2005, she exhibited at the first Venice Biennale curated by women, where she garnered international attention with her work A Noiva (The Bride). In 2012, Vasconcelos was the first woman and youngest artist to present her work at the Palace of Versailles. In 2018, she became the first Portuguese artist to hold a solo exhibition at the Guggenheim Bilbao.

Joana Vasconcelos: Joana Vasconcelos with her Valkyries for the Dior Autumn/Winter 2023 show. Fashion Network.

Joana Vasconcelos with her Valkyries for the Dior Autumn/Winter 2023 show. Fashion Network.

The art world remains very male-oriented and, therefore, while there will be women artists who don’t earn as much or are given the same opportunities as men are, we need to continue to pursue the feminist fight. But first and foremost, I do believe in equal human rights for all human beings in the world.

Joana Vasconcelos

Interview with DailyArt Magazine

Valkyries

Among the artist’s most seminal works are her colossal Valkyries, inspired by the female warriors from Norse mythology. A kaleidoscopic fusion of crocheted wool and cotton, passementerie, piping, stuffing, sequins, beads, feathers, tassels, and LED lights, these suspended fabric sculptures usher the viewer into a dazzling new ecosystem. Rife with rich materials, Vasconcelos’ looming Valkyries pulse with life, taking on shapes that are visually evocative of human organs.

Joana Vasconcelos: Joana Vasconcelos, Valkyrie Mumbet, site-specific installation for MassArt Art Museum, Boston, MA, USA, 2020-2023. Photograph by Will Howcroft. MassArt Art Museum.

Joana Vasconcelos, Valkyrie Mumbet, site-specific installation for MassArt Art Museum, Boston, MA, USA, 2020-2023. Photograph by Will Howcroft. MassArt Art Museum.

With Valkerie Mumbet, Vasconcelos pays tribute to Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman, who contributed to the abolition of slavery in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts after suing for her rights of freedom in 1781 based on the Massachusetts constitution.

Valkyrie Miss Dior is the site-specific sculpture created for Dior’s 2023 Fall/Winter collection. It commemorates three important figures in French history: Catherine Dior, Édith Piaf, and Juliette Greco. Another, named simply Simone, is an homage to French human rights activist Simone de Beauvoir, who laid the foundation for contemporary feminism.

Portuguese Tradition

Despite working across a range of media and using a wide selection of materials, one aspect of Vasconcelos’ oeuvre remains consistent: the interweaving of elements from her Portuguese heritage. Vasconcelos has repeatedly drawn from Portuguese tradition throughout her career, even collaborating with local artisans to realize many of her works.

Joana Vasconcelos: Joana Vasconcelos, Flaming Heart, site-specific installation for Interaction, Naples, Italy, Santa Caterina a Formiello, 2022. Irenebrination.

Joana Vasconcelos, Flaming Heart, site-specific installation for Interaction, Naples, Italy, Santa Caterina a Formiello, 2022. Irenebrination.

Among her numerous installations in celebration of Portugal are Pop Galo (2016), a rooster—the nation’s traditional symbol—comprised of 15,000 LED lights and glazed tiles, Flaming Heart (2022), a giant dangling fabric heart inspired by the Portuguese heart of Viana, as well as a series of ceramic animals for which the artist used materials from the historic Portuguese Caldas da Rainha factory.

Vasconcelos at the Uffizi

In 2023, Vasconcelos was invited to present three of her works at the Uffizi Gallery as part of an initiative begun by director Eike Schmidt to bring more recognition to female artists. In her exhibition, Between Sky and Heart, Vasconcelos’ intrepid installations enter a powerful dialogue with the hosting gallery space, blending myth, history, and tradition within the walls of one of the world’s most important museums.

Joana Vasconcelos: Joana Vasconcelos, Marilyn, Palazzo Pitti. Florence, Italy. Photograph by Lionel Balteiro. The Florentine.

Joana Vasconcelos, Marilyn, Palazzo Pitti. Florence, Italy. Photograph by Lionel Balteiro. The Florentine.

“I am a contemporary artist, taking part in the creation of this historical time, and I would never have dreamt of exhibiting alongside Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli or Caravaggio,” Vasconcelos told DailyArt Magazine. “This invitation from the Uffizi’s director was a huge honor. Because regardless of whether we talk about living or dead artists, what matters the most is the dialogue generated between the artworks.”

Marilyn is a colossal pair of high heel sandals made of stainless-steel pots and lids. With readymade genius, the work highlights the limitations placed on women through the decontextualization of traditionally female utensils. Ordinary household objects become tools for challenging gender paradigms.

Joana Vasconcelos: Joana Vasconcelos, Royal Valkyrie, site-specific installation for exhibition Between Sky and Heart, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy, 2023. Il Sole 24 Ore.

Joana Vasconcelos, Royal Valkyrie, site-specific installation for exhibition Between Sky and Heart, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy, 2023. Il Sole 24 Ore.

Royal Valkyrie, from the artist’s Valkyrie series, is a sprawling installation that presents ­­­the traditionally feminine craft of sewing with fresh dynamism. Drawing on a long female tradition, this sculpture recalls the hanging fabric works of such artists as Magdalena Abakanowicz and Louise Bourgeois.

The main thing is not the object itself or where it comes from, it’s what you do with it and how you can talk about the world through it. It’s bringing new contexts to things.

Joana Vasconcelos

Interview with DailyArt Magazine

Happy Family is a rare spinoff of the Holy Family, a motif that has been portrayed repeatedly by male artists throughout history. Vasconcelos wraps the three members of the Biblical family with crocheted lacework—another nod to her Portuguese heritage—replacing them with Flora and Bacchus from Roman mythology. The work pushes us to challenge traditional iconography while exploring themes of life, rebirth, and eroticism.

Unraveling Vasconcelos

Thought-provoking and grandiose, Vasconcelos’ large-scale installations feature a blend of Pop art rooted in the Portuguese Baroque. Using various materials and motifs to explore gender, consumer culture, and femininity, her work is deeply intertwined with her country’s tradition. Everyday objects become instruments that prompt the viewer to consider questions related to societal standards and the female condition. These and other themes form the conceptual fabric of Vasconcelos’ oeuvre.

Get your daily dose of art

Click and follow us on Google News to stay updated all the time

Recommended

Contemporary Art

Fabrics of Power and Sensation: An Introduction to Basil Kincaid

Basil Kincaid (b. 1986) is an American contemporary artist. His multimedia work showcases the potential of repurposed materials while reflecting on...

Iolanda Munck 8 April 2024

Contemporary Art

Mire Lee to Create New Artwork for Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall

Tate Modern, one of London’s premier art institutions, has unveiled its latest collaboration in the Hyundai Commission series. Acclaimed...

Carlotta Mazzoli 18 March 2024

Contemporary Art

Exploring Nuances: Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s Captivating Narratives

In the realm of contemporary art, few voices resonate with the depth and intrigue found in the paintings of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. With a masterful...

Carlotta Mazzoli 20 February 2024

Contemporary Art

13 Black Folk Artists from the American South

The thirteen self-taught artists below, from Bill Traylor to Nellie Mae Rowe, Thornton Dial to Mary T. Smith among others, created some of the most...

Adam Oestreich 19 February 2024