Barra das Almas

Luisa Soares de Oliveira

How are we to represent time? How, through an image, can we convey such a fleeting and elusive concept, which we experience in words as duration, movement and change, and yet which seems so intimately bound up with our very being that we are unable to achieve enough distance to properly comprehend it?

As we peruse this series of photographs, “Barra das Almas” by Valter Vinagre, we know instinctively that, despite their recent date, they hark back to a time that is not our own – a pre-modern age, when lives were not yet governed by machines and when the hours and days were regulated by ancient calendars. There are no mature men and women in these pictures – only an elderly couple, and a child, adorned with fruit like a young pagan god reopening the cycle of life, which, we guess, is soon to close.

Everything in these pictures seems to be marking time in Barra das Almas, just as it would be in any other remote abandoned village in a country that has been forced to forget the roots that once sustained it. When Valter Vinagre visited this place, he decided to document the life of a small rural com- munity on the verge of extinction. Now integrated into a Europe of globalized agriculture where smallholdings are no longer competitive, the countryside, as we once knew it, is gradually giving way to tracts of uncultivated wasteland, large-scale farming operations run by faceless managers, and ruined properties about to be sold off to conglomerates that will build spas and resorts designed to provide temporary relief from the stress of city life. In today’s world, in this European continent where we live, Barra das Almas, and hundreds of other villages like it, waits patiently for its end, knowing that when the last couple departs, with them will

go the memories of living off the land, of a (now sterile) lore that was once passed from generation to generation, of a way of being in life, and a way of experiencing space and time.

Ultimately, it is space and time that we are dealing with here in this language particular to photography. Through the unique gaze of Valter Vinagre, it speaks of the forthcoming end of a world without touching or focusing upon the agents responsible for its demise. In these images of the couple that still live in Barra das Almas, there are no references to machines or mass production, or to anything at all related to this new way of farming that uses the land without respect and decency, without work done with the hands – the work of digging, watering, sowing, killing, harvesting…

This is, therefore, another time. We perceive it as a space – a space far from the city in which we live – for there is no other way of conceiving time. How much time does it take to travel the distance that separates us from Barra das Almas? Probably much more than the hundreds of kilometres  marked on the map (a measure we have invented to situate ourselves in a territory but which says nothing about the symbolic world that we find here). This is a world made up of the four elements – earth, air, water, fire… though one of them can only be guessed from the direction of a flag billowing in the wind or the smoke wafting away from a fire. And even these elements are constantly crossed by signs of death: a knife, the decomposing corpse of a dog, the pig-killing bench, meat laid out on a table… Or, in two or three pictures, by the crossed lines formed by rough hands that could equally be those of a man or a woman.

Although modern and contemporary art has al- ways been fascinated by the movement of time, the sense of change that accompanies it is totally absent from the “Barra das Almas” series. Here we are much closer to the iconography of the medieval Book of Hours (which used images of labour or of country scenes to illustrate the prayers to be offered at different hours of the day) than, for example, to Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Stair- case, one of the modernist attempts to imprison time. The time depicted here is cyclical, just as it would have been a thousand years ago. We guess that the seasons follow on one from another, and that each task – from the planting to the pruning of the olive tree – is performed for reasons that have more to do with the slow march of time around the sun than with the dictates of the market value of fruit. We may also guess (leading ultimately to the same thing) that the house we see, the pitcher in the corner and the carefully combed hair are identical to others, centuries-old, that disappeared be- fore they could be recorded by photography.

This is, therefore, a time (with pictures manifested in it) that is awaiting in its slowness the inevitable coup de grâce. Meanwhile, the days, seasons, years follow on from each other, always the same – or almost – right up to the end.

Luisa Soares de Oliveira
July 2013