Born in 1971, Joana Vasconcelos is a Portuguese visual artist with a career spanning over 30 years and a huge variety of media. Recognised for her monumental sculptures and immersive installations, she decontextualises everyday objects and updates the arts and crafts concept for the 21st century, establishing a dialogue between the private sphere and public space, popular heritage and high culture. With humor and irony, she questions the status of women, consumer society and collective identity.
International acclaim arrived in 2005 with A Noiva at the first Venice Biennale curated by women, where she has returned seven times to date, in 2013 at the helm of Trafaria Praia as Pavilhão de Portugal, the first floating exhibition at the event. The youngest artist and first woman to exhibit at the Palace of Versailles; in 2012 her exhibition was the most visited in France in 50 years, with a record 1.6 million visitors. In 2018 she became the first Portuguese artist to have an individual exhibition at the Guggenheim in Bilbao, the fourth best that year for The Art Newspaper and the third most visited in the history of the museum. In 2023 she has been granted the honour to exhibit at the Uffizi Galleries and Pitti Palace, in Florence, alongside classical masters such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo or Caravaggio.
Around the world, her artworks have also graced exhibitions at Grassi Palace, Thyssen-Bornemisza, Royal Academy of Arts, Manchester Art Gallery, Kunsthal Rotterdam, São Paulo's CCBB, Istanbul Modern, Garage Centre for Contemporary Culture in Moscow, La Monnaie Paris, Palais de Tokyo and Hermitage; besides integrating collections Ömer Koç, Tia Collection, Berardo and those of the foundations Rothschild, Calouste Gulbenkian, François Pinault and Louis Vuitton.
The recipient of more than 30 awards, in 2009 she received the rank of Commander of the Order of Infante D. Henrique by the Presidency of the Portuguese Republic and in 2022 she became an Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Ministry of Culture. From Lisbon to the world, since 2006 she manages the Atelier Joana Vasconcelos with about 50 employees and, in 2012, she created the Joana Vasconcelos Foundation to grant scholarships, support social causes and promote art for all.
My grandfather used to say that “it takes many generations in a family to produce an artist”. I was very fortunate to be born in a family with great passion for the arts who supported me from day one. And I am also aware of the fact that every society produces its own artists, people who are free from the programming applied to other professionals and who have the ability to reflect their times. That has happened to me, it wasn’t my own decision but I became an artist when other people within the community recognized me as such. And I do my best to be worthy of this calling every day.
I believe we should not overrationalize art so much, we should enjoy it more. It’s important that we try to understand the world around us and that an artwork can be intellectually stimulating, of course. But I don’t believe in telling people what they should see and I am always amazed by what they project onto my artworks, which is always connected with their own life experience. I love to create thought provoking pieces but what interests me the most is that people can create their own connection with a piece and enjoy themselves. I aim for the “wow moment” and nothing makes me happier than seeing someone leave one of my exhibitions with a smile of on their face.
I don’t do large scale for monumental sake. The scale of my works derives from my choice of materials to convey a message and the shoes Marilyn, for instance, are a good example of that. I picked a medium sized pan (for everyday use in Portugal, number 18, where we cook rice for a family of four) and used it to create a symbol of glamour, elevating the status of housewives. I work with ambiguity a great deal and, quite often, will start from a small, ordinary object, using it to create a new, larger form through decontextualization and repetition. The scale by itself does not have a magical quality, the main goal is to offer different perspectives on reality.
It has happened to me quite often to be the first woman to achieve certain milestones in the artworld, such as Versailles, and I was always left wondering why it had not happened to the talented female artists before me. It’s not a coincidence that stone and metal continue to be regarded as “noble materials”… The artworld remains very male oriented and, therefore, while there will be women artists that 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.
I am fully aware of the fact that I wouldn’t be doing the kind of work that I do if I weren’t a woman and if I weren’t Portuguese. I was born in France (my parents were exiled in France during dictatorship) but I grew up in Portugal and I was always mesmerized by the wealth of Portuguese culture and the connection between arts and crafts so present in my work. The tiles, creamics, textiles, embroidery, jewelry, gilded woodwork, the abundance of colour and the use of light are all declinations of the know-how of the country that made me a true artist of the Baroque.
👉 Joana used to be head of security at the Lux nightclub, in Lisbon. 'The Bride' being installed there led to the invitation to take part in the first Venice Biennale curated by women in 2005. For a long time she was known as the 'tampon artist', offered to her in the middle of the street with a pledge for an autograph.
👉 Joana practices karate ever since she was eight years old, earned a black belt and even thought about becoming a teacher (had it not been for a knee injury). She describes herself as a samurai woman.
👉 Our artist comes to a creative family: her father is a photographer, her mother studied decoration, her aunt was a poet and Joana even organized an exhibition for her grandmother, an established painter in old age.
👉 Joana considered studying Architecture, and throroughly enjoys the dialogue between the artwork and a particular space. She ended up studying Drawing and Jewelery but went on to establish her name in Sculpture.
👉 Joana is about to finish a training program in shamanic practices. She practices meditation on a daily basis and yoga three times a week in her Lisbon studio, where she co-created the Corpo Infinito wellness department.
👉 Joana Vasconcelos in numbers. With her first exhibition in 1993, she completed 30 years of career; counting 912 exhibitions, 164 of which solo. Having given to the world 1,759 artworks, she featured in 202 catalogs and received 34 awards and distinctions. She broke visitor records at CCB, Serralves and Palácio da Ajuda in Portugal. Her solo show in Versailles was the most viewed in France in 50 years with 1.6 million visitors and "I'm Your Mirror" at the Guggenheim in Bilbao remains the third most visited in the history of the museum.