Return and abandon

The story can be told in a few lines. In 1984, the Portuguese emigré to Venezuela, Manuel de Oliveira, originally from Vila do Conde, founded, with seven other emigrés, the “Home for Portuguese Emigrants in the World” in Covelas. The construction work, illegal at the time, started in 1984 and consisted of developing a largescale urban project that included the Communities Square, the Monument to the Emigrant, a restaurant, the Madeira pavilion, the entrance gateway, a tea house, two tennis courts, the Santana house, a pavilion dedicated to the Azores, and three towers each with sixteen floors; it was the only project that would not be approved by Santo Tirso council. During the eighteen-year lifespan of this enterprise, a sort of satellite-city or metropolis would be built, and it was to this that Portuguese emigrants were supposed to retire to at the end of their working lives. 

The project, which would fail in 2002 through lack of funding, is a cross between a “home of the emigré” with a theme park or resort, and which, because of the project itself or its styling, reminds one of a emigrant version of Portugal dos Pequeninos, a theme park conceived during the Salazar regime that played a fundamental part in the nationalistic ideology of the regime in transmitting values, taste and aesthetics with an obviously propagandist objective. Besides this set up, the creator of this foundation insisted on the idea of sharing and generosity towards all returned emigrés, as well as to those Portuguese who had not met with the same success as this entrepreneur.

What would lead Nelson Miranda, a photographer with a background in What would lead Nelson Miranda, a photographer with a background in architecture to begin a photographic project of a failed scheme that, despite its magnitude, is now merely a collection of buildings in decline, a collection of ruins accumulating rubbish, animal waste, walls vandalized with graffiti, many with nazi symbols, coming, for sure, from secret meetings of extreme right groups and, outside, statues eroded by time and poor conservation?

What can we see in this architectural wreckage? Ruins and fragments of a possibly utopian project, of the construction of a place of welcome and well-being that would project a mythical image of the emigrant who returns triumphant to his homeland from where he left, anonymous and poor, as a child or adolescent.

This imagined success that the founder tries to unequivocally affirm, will be achieved through the construction of an imposing establishment, whose style is out of place in the local landscape, as a radical confirmation of the new status of the returned emigrant. And these were the reasons behind the photographic work. In this piece of fieldwork from Nelson Miranda two aspects stand out as important considerations. The first is the interest of this photographer, already seen in earlier projects, in shining a spotlight on abandoned buildings, generally hidden from main roads, in places that no longer have easy access – the country of failed buildings that have not been classified but which, for reasons unintended, have a material and symbolic heritage. In this particular case, it is not only the buildings that have failed. The concept of a utopian project for a nostalgic Portugal has also failed, with its symbols, narratives and rhetoric that, in the wistful imagination of the emigré have become stuck in time like the backdrop for an ideal country, unaware of the reality of a nationalist narrative and of the hard times that prompted their emigration.

A second point to highlight in the work of Nelson Miranda is the political reflection seen in the images of the spaces that he captures in his photographs. Spaces that are emptied of and distanced from their original function, taking on instead a marginal use, where all that remains of the lateral supports is covered in graffiti. His images of the nazi symbols condemn the way extremism is being expressed. Throughout Europe, in abandoned buildings, notably industrial sites, neo-nazi groups are marking their territory, occupying these spaces as battlegrounds.

Nelson Miranda’s visual document on the Foundation Home of the Portuguese Emigrant also reveals the line between the brutality of reinforced concrete and iron, inert and without feeling in that lugubrious abandon, and the vitality of the flora and forest and nature illuminated by the photographer’s work.

António Pinto Ribeiro

António Pinto Ribeiro (1956, PT) is a researcher of the Centre for Social Studies of the University of Coimbra. He was artistic director and curator of several Portuguese cultural institutions, namely Culturgest and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. His main research interests are in contemporary art, specifically in Africa and South America. His publications include: his latest books Peut-on Décoloniser les Musées? (2019), África os quatro rios – A representação de África através da literatura de viagens europeia e norteamericana (Africa the four rivers – Africa’s representation through European and North American travel literature) (2017) and the organization of the two volumes O Desejo de Viver em Comum (The Desire to Live in Common) (2018).