Lisbon’s art scene announces itself the second you step foot in the city, shouting — if not from the rooftops — then from the winding, rising, super-steep streets. Murals, by local artists like Vhils and Bordalo II, pepper the walls, while the tile-clad facades of old buildings — some crumbling, others simply magnificent — could easily merit an article in their own right.
I can understand, then, why you might be reluctant to visit an actual brick-and-mortar art gallery. And yet, for a glimpse at the new wave of Portuguese art, exceptions should be made for Ó! Galería, an illustration-oriented exhibition space in the Mouraria district.
Ó! Galería’s name, in all its exclamatory, round-mouthed glory, serves as a prelude to the slack-jawed sense of surprise you get as you walk in, shuffling off that sloping street and into a high-ceilinged gallery where every wall in the foyer is covered in original illustrations and art prints, discreet prices displayed in their corners. On one, a row of red-swimwear sporting ladies take center stage; another foregrounds a green-fingered gardener in a leafy greenhouse. In the two rooms at the back, zines and rotating, single-artist exhibitions are the focus.
It’s those exhibitions which set Ó! Galería apart, explains Sabina Louro, a.k.a. Bina Tangerina, who has worked and displayed her illustrations at Ó! Galería for roughly a year. “There are other illustration galleries in Lisbon, but not like Ó!. There are illustration pop up stores, but they don’t have regular exhibitions. That’s one of the great things of Ó!, that each month there are new openings and exhibitions.”
Lisbon’s flourishing mural scene may have spearheaded the Portuguese capital’s rise to artistic notoriety — “Lisbon is rapidly growing in international eyes as the next capital of art”, Kasia Sobczak-Wróblewska, of Contemporary Art Tours Lisbon, tells me — but everyone I spoke with recognised the potential of the city’s illustration talents. Louro noted that “illustration in Lisbon is growing and in Portugal as well”, while Maria João Galante — who commissioned Fernanda Lamelas to illustrate the Corinthia Hotel cocktail bar menus — said “illustration is not mainstream yet but I believe it will grow since we can find a lot of spots in Lisbon showing illustrations from younger artists.”
“Suddenly, not only being a painter or a designer is a valid job. Nowadays, doing illustration is a popular thing,” Louro adds. Places like Ó! have surely contributed to the legitimacy of illustration as an artform in Lisbon over the last few years.
Given that, you might be surprised to realize that Lisbon wasn’t the gallery’s original home. Owner and curator Ema Ribeiro opened the first Ó! Galería in Porto — where it remains to this day — back in 2009. “Porto is my home town, where I was born, raised and have always lived. That’s the main reason that Ó! opened first in Porto rather than Lisbon,” Ribeiro told me over email, adding that “I always wanted to open a second Ó! in Lisbon and when the opportunity arose I didn’t think twice.”
Is illustration an artform we should take seriously, then? Sure. But do the prints and illustrations of Ó! Galeria have an ounce of seriousness in them? For the most part, no.
They’re joyously, riotously fun and, at first glance, seem to share similar aesthetic sensibilities — whimsy, bold strokes, and tropical plants feature in many pieces. In one Susana Carvalhinhos print — one I ended up buying, because, of course — a red haired woman floats along in an open suitcase, all elongated limbs and snatched-in waist. Another, by Bina Tangerina — which I also ended up buying, of course — a red haired woman hugs a man amongst the cacti. (Did I mention I have red hair?) But spend some time poring through the wire baskets full of prints and you’ll begin to distinguish between each artists’ work.
“I’m always looking for new illustrators, mainly on Instagram, Pinterest, or on my travels,” Ribeiro explains. “There’s an unquestionable quality inherent in the work of the ones I choose. Something that I know they will be a hit, will make a difference somehow.”
I ask Ribeiro when she realized Ó! Galería was a success, so evident to me was the star power of this diminutive Lisbon gallery. “I don’t know if it’s a success,” she wrote back with a smiley face emoji. “To me, it’s just a gallery whose doors are still open. Maybe that’s a success.”
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