Manuel Botelho

Miguel Amado. 2008 / for Artforum

Manuel Botelho has stormed the Portuguese art scene with his latest project, “Confidencial/Desclassificado” (Confidential/Declassified), a series of three solo exhibitions that address a prominent subject in Portugal: the 1960s and early-1970s war with the country’s African colonies. Well known as a painter, Botelho has resorted to a new medium, photography, to build a body of work that nevertheless reflects the main characteristics of his practice: examination of historical issues, references to the Western pictorial tradition, and figuration as a stylistic signature. Every exhibition has its own subtitle, each of them indicating the topic that the artist explores: “Inventário” (Inventory), “Ração de combate” (Combat Ration), and “Emboscada” (Ambush). Taking place in a deactivated armoury, “Inventário” best demonstrates Botelho’s approach, as he has created a fictional atmosphere informed by real events. Based on footage from the period, Inventário: mensagens de Natal (Inventory: Christmas Messages), 2007–2008, is a video that brings together typical combatant’s Christmas messages broadcast by Portuguese television and radio. Taken together, the sentimental dispatches present an official, state-sanctioned version of the African battlefield. This piece is complemented by a large group of deadpan-aesthetic photographs, displayed in a chart like grids, that depict the weaponry of both the Portuguese and the African forces—from improvised single-shot firearms to the infamous G3 and AK-47 machine guns. Another set of three pictures, however, can be seen as the exhibition’s centrepiece. Surrounded by military gear and other elements such as a wine demijohn, a spectral figure—the artist himself, playing an old soldier—inhabits each of the images, either at rest or facing the viewer and receiving a golden star from someone’s hand. Alluding to religious iconography, these compositions combine the spirit of a classical altar painting with the formal qualities of sacrificial rituals. Examining a traumatic event through an allegorical narrative, Botelho probes Portuguese collective consciousness with sensitivity without failing to point out the political turmoil of the colonial era.

Miguel Amado
Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Elvas, 2008