Interview and portrait by Judith Carnaby
I first met Bárbara Fonseca, a Portuguese illustrator and gallerist, at the busy opening of an exhibition by Spanish illustrator Joan Cornellà at Berlin’s Bootsbau gallery. Bárbara is co-founder of Bootsbau – a small but vibrant space located beside the historic Richardplatz in Neukölln, just south of the centre of Berlin. With its street-front gallery space and artists’ studios, Bootsbau offers an important exhibition venue for illustration artists such as Cornellà.
I originally came across Bárbara’s own illustration work in a small book on plants, published by the gallery as part of a previous exhibition. I was intrigued by her work, with its cheerful mix of colourful lines and textures, and wanted to learn more about this new gallery space. Two weeks later, with darkness folding in around our ears and a feeling of snowy chill in the air, it felt great to be sitting on bright red chairs in Bootsbau’s warm gallery chatting to its engaging co-founder.
Bárbara is from a small Portuguese town called Caldas da Rainha, near Lisbon where she studied communication design. Following her move to Berlin two years ago, Bárbara worked in an interactive design studio but now she focuses on illustration. She is clearly passionate about her work and has created illustrations for a variety of zines, books, prints and exhibitions, as well as editorial illustration for magazine covers and feature articles.
Judith Carnaby: While not geographically far, coming from Portugal to Germany is quite a large cultural and lingustic shift. Is there a strong tradition of illustration in Portugal, and having moved to Germany, do you still collaborate with or maintain connections to other artists in Portugal?
Bárbara Fonseca: I collaborate with a gallery in Portugal, which also had an exhibition here at Bootsbau, but I didn’t start as an illustrator in Portugal. I started in Berlin and so I am not totally connected to the scene there. In the past there has been some interesting work in Portugal but illustration was never a Portuguese thing. Maria Keil is a cool Portuguese illustrator from the ’50s, she is sort of my hero. She drew for books, did subway stations, made ceramics, and I think her work is coming back in. There is a really interesting generation of Portuguese illustrators working now and I am really looking forward to seeing how they will develop.
Your illustration work is very colourful, full of lines and textures and often includes characters. How has your style developed since you began to focus on illustration?
That is a really difficult question for me because I am not very conscious of a process and feel it’s still developing. I think I have a big palette of styles; I can go for a darker mood, like I did in my last exhibition, or I can go very colourful and bright. When I start working for a commission, I think my style needs to serve the content of the work.
What about your process of working: do you use a combination of hand-drawn work and digital? Do you have a specific process for creating your illustrations?
Yes, when I work on an illustration I research style and content, and then I sketch, but I don’t sketch too much. Usually I am sure of what I want to do before I go to the paper. I sketch everything by hand and all the line work is done by hand. From there I use Photoshop. Only the colour is done digitally because I’m really bad at colouring by hand. I didn’t study art and I have no idea about materials! It would take a long time to go back and learn how to work with watercolours and acrylics so I use the computer. It’s fast and practical.
Are there types of illustration that you most like working on, for example, publications or zines, or for products? What is it that attracts you to these sorts of illustrations and what inspires you in your work?
I like editorial illustration because I am curious and I like to read the articles! I like poster design and magazine covers also but my main motivation to work is when I can learn something from it. The other day I was thinking about what motivates me in life and it always comes down to learning. My last exhibition, In Summer No One Dies, really portrayed the things I like to illustrate. I have a similar personality to my dad, and he wrote the stories that I illustrated in the exhibition. The stories have the sense of humour that I like to have: a balance of the weird and nice things in life. In my illustrations I always like to have this balance between something that looks really nice and perhaps has a light mood but also has a dark twist to it and I will continue to investigate this in the future. For example, I’m currently working on a series of three illustrations about urban myths for Mother Volcano, a studio in Portugal. I have completed the first one on Frozen Disney. Supposedly Walt Disney is frozen beneath Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean attraction waiting for the technology to develop to bring him back to life. And the next one will be ‘Is Paul McCartney dead?’, and one based on Ricky Martin…
Yes, those myths are a fitting way for you to play around with forms of the nice, light and quirky, but also the macabre and the dark…They offer modes of storytelling that have a mischievous sense of humour which is clear in your work.
Yes, that project really suits me. I’m attracted to myths and creepy stories that I can give a quirky twist to. I really like idea of a Walt Disney illustration. I could make him all blue and frozen, inside a Frankenstein-style machine, but then wearing a Mickey Mouse hat.
Part of my personal interest in illustration is figuring out how it fits within the wider arts scene. There has always been a commercial side to illustration that is different to the tradition of fine arts. As well as working as an illustrator you’ve started this new multifunctional space, Bootsbau, with Natalia Blanco. How did this come about and why did you decide to start your own gallery?
I had been working for some time in this space when it was only studios. When I started working with Natalia the idea for a gallery developed. We started talking about artists that we liked and realised that we had a similar taste so we began to think about what people we wanted to have in the space. We started by asking friends and now is has grown! I think Bootsbau works as a kind of display of what we love. That is the most important thing here – that we show what we love. It can be hard because Berlin has a lot of things happening, a lot of spaces, but we want this one to be serious in a different way.
How do you think Bootsbau relates to the illustration community, and how do you see Bootsbau developing?
We have been focusing on illustration because we both like it and think there is a lot to show. In showing work, it attracts people and is a good meeting point. We are always available at the openings to talk to people and discuss their work. The gallery as only a gallery is not so interesting for me, it is more interesting to get people together to talk and to engage with the community. Hopefully we will have more time available in the next year to grow, with workshops and events. A good example of this is the gallery SAVVY Contemporary that used to be next door, it was in a really small space like this one. They work with contemporary arts and multimedia and now have a huge new space where they can do artist residencies. In the next year we will also have other artists working with us, with a focus on visual artists, and we are really excited about this.
Do you feel illustrators are well represented in Berlin? Do you feel there are enough spaces that support illustrators or provide space for criticism and engagement?
No, I don’t think so. There are not a lot of spaces showing illustration. There are shops to sell your work, of course, but I don’t feel that’s enough. One of the most important things that happened for this new wave of illustrators in Portugal was that there were two galleries of illustration in Porto. They helped illustrators grow, show their work and get to know each other. This really helped people get engaged with what was going on in contemporary illustration. I worked with one of these galleries, Ó! Galeria, and Ema Ribeiro, the curator there, is really great. She helps artists, shows their work, gives advice and really encourages people to look at illustration differently. That isn’t happening in Berlin yet. There are lots of people here making and making but they are not engaging in a wider way with the community and I think this lack of critical discourse stops the quality of their work from reaching the next level. Illustrators here are closing in on themselves, they are not sharing their experiences or seeing how other people think. Galleries should have a role in this. I don’t think galleries should have an authoritative role but be more of a learning space.
Berlin is always talked about as a place constantly developing, and this is particularly visible in Neukölln. Do the shifting spaces and changing landscapes of the people and the city influence the way you work? I feel the city influences me first personally and then that shows in my work afterwards. I get to know a lot of people and I get to see and experience a lot of things. Moving to Berlin has kind of opened up my creative self and I think this shows in my work. I am more confident, I work more, and I look at different perspectives.
How do you think the day to day reality of living and working in Berlin relates to the way it is often described—what is potentially an urban myth—as the cultural centre, or creative hub of Europe?
Living in Berlin is easy but making the most of it is really difficult. It depends person to person on how focused you are on your work and what your objectives are. It can be helpful for people like me; to arrive here and get overwhelmed by the shock of it, then grow out of it. It can also stop you from doing anything because you can get lost. There are a lot of people working creatively in Berlin but if you focus on quality in your work you can rise above the mass of things that are going on. I try to be better every time, the main problem here is that people get comfortable and don’t develop their work as much as they can.
This interview will be published in New Zealand arts publication Magasine. Coming out in February 2014!!
Copyright of images used in the above interview belong to Bárbara Fonseca.