On a recent sojourn to the gutsy city of Porto, Portugal’s endearing northern metropolis, entertaining my 12 year-old daughter was a top priority, whilst also indulging my designer’s mind. Of course, a healthy dose of culture and heritage were de rigueur. So it was just our luck to find an arts & craft workshop with a difference and it ticked all the boxes.
Gazete Azulejos – derived from the Arabic for ‘small, glazed stones’, is a studio born out of a desire to preserve a fading Portuguese decorative art form. The brainchild of Marisa Ferreira, a cultural producer, and Alba Plaza, a graphic designer, here visitors learn about the history and culture of Portuguese tile-making, view examples and, best of all, paint their own authentic azulejos either freehand or with stencils, to take home from their travels. Next year, the pair will be working with an expert in relief moulds to offer this technique too. For 25 Euros per person, attendees receive knowledge, tuition and their own work of art, all while supporting a vital, self-funded heritage project.
The studio and project came to life in 2016, after Marisa of Leiria, and Alba of Madrid met through the local artistic community. Deeply saddened by the decline of traditional, hand-painted tiles covering the building facades of Porto, they embarked on their main project: Os Azulejos Do Porto (the tiles of Porto), aiming to build a public digital archive in HD of as many of these distinctive tiles as possible. On their website, you can see the various styles: geometric, organic and floral along with the design categories: rotation, concentric and four dots. The ladies’ goal is to spread knowledge about azulejos heritage to preserve it from decline, damage and its consequent disappearance. While doing so, they are researching the history of the tiles, identifying specific factories, dates and whatever they can obtain. In the 19th century, 19 ceramic factories across Porto existed, out of which six were the most important for producing tiles. Now there are none left in Porto and only a few in Aveiro and Lisbon that produce industrial tiles. Few artisans who still create tiles traditionally, either hand-painted or in relief, exist today. Even the stencils are in danger of extinction as the remaining factories print quickly and cheaply.
Sadly the local government has shown little interest in their project or saving the tiles themselves. Besides the Bank of Materials which holds some tiles but scant additional information, Marisa and Alba are the only ones to publicly address the potential loss of Portugal’s age-old craft. In two years, the designers have covered 25% of the azulejos of the city, and onward they march. Fortunately, many travellers show interest as well as a few researchers who have added to the knowledge pool. The two partners are also finally seeing signs of Portuguese natives interested in doing the same in other urban areas of the country.
Along with the workshops to teach visitors about os azulejos do Porto, Marisa and Alba are also selling their hand-painted tiles online. All of the work supports their digital catalogue, and essentially, the art of Porto’s exquisite facade tiles.
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Words: Manisha G Harkins