“How many enslaved people is a psychiatric hospital worth?” This question, etched into a mirror and displayed in the panopticon of a psychiatric hospital in Porto, Portugal, prompted the administration to close down a multi-media exhibition on the day of its opening.
Vento (A)mar is one of 16 exhibitions hosted as part of the third edition of the annual Porto Photography Biennial. Dori Nigro and Paulo Pinto developed the site-specific installation with curator Georgia Quintas to “investigate the symbolic-poetic territory of ancestry and memory spaces,” spanning from the artists’ home state of Pernambuco, Brazil, to a Porto hospital that bears the name of a slave trade profiteer.
The Centro Hospitalar Conde de Ferreira, where the work was installed, is one of more than 100 institutions that Joaquim Ferreira dos Santos, Conde de Ferreira, funded with money largely made from trafficking enslaved people from Angola to Brazil on his fleet of slave ships.
“Vento (A)mar,” which translates to both “Wind at Sea” and “Wind to Love,” includes portraits of the Conde de Ferreira and criticisms of the continued erasure of Portugal’s racist colonial history.
“We propose artistic dialogue to heal the wounds,” Dori Nigro told Hyperallergic. “We don’t see cancer and think, okay, the cancer will cure itself.”
The artists enjoyed the full cooperation of hospital staff and leadership in the days before the opening and were not expecting the hospital’s response on May 20.
“We were surprised on the day of the opening, 30 minutes after we opened the doors to the public,” Quintas recounted.
The hospital shut down one room of the exhibition for several days but agreed to reopen with several artworks removed. They also canceled a performance by the artists that alluded to the hospital patron’s enslaving past. After the Biennial issued a press release condemning the censorship, the hospital reinstated a small sugar bowl with the image of the Conde de Ferreira on it.
“It was super symbolic that it was in a panopticon — a site of observation, of manipulation, of control,” said Virgílio Ferreira, the co-artistic director of the 2023 Biennial. “This is a space that has memory. We obviously touched on a trauma that is unresolved.”
Since the exhibition was censored, the Biennial has received emails of support from the Municipality of Porto, Direção-Geral das Artes, the University of Porto, and other partners affirming the Biennial’s right to display the exhibition. Some visitors have also left red carnations, a symbol of liberation in Portugal, on the Conde de Ferreira sugar bowl.
Although disappointed by the hospital’s censorship of their work, the artists are collaborating with the Biennial on a response that includes a public debate and development into future projects.
“We constructed this project thinking of our grandmothers,” Pinto told Hyperallergic. “We hold onto this ancestry, and what came before, and what will come after.”
In a press release shared with Hyperallergic, the Centro Hospitalar Conde de Ferreira defended its decision, stating that the hospital community “felt affected” by the language used in the exhibition. At the same time, the hospital affirmed a commitment to discussing its history “in an adequate way.”
The hospital finished its statement with a quote from a famous Spanish philosopher: “As Ortega y Gasset would say, we are ‘ourselves and our circumstances.’” The hospital declined to provide Hyperallergic with an additional comment for this story.
The co-artistic director of the Porto Photography Biennial, Jayne Dyer, believes that art must result in action.
“These things grow,” Dyer said. “We are trying to dig deep into the very fabric of what we as artists can action into change. If we don’t do it, nothing happens.”
Pinto has another take on why the mirror, etched with the question, “How many enslaved people is a psychiatric hospital worth?” caused such a disturbance at the hospital.
“Why do we not like to look in the mirror? Because we feel ugly,” Pinto said. “The only reason that [Conde de Ferreira] became the benefactor is because he was an enslaver.”