Artist Residency at Lima de Freitas High School

Between October 2022 and January 2023, Humberto Brito and I were residents of Casa da Avenida, a cultural center in Setúbal, Portugal, at Lima de Freitas High School, in Viso, Setúbal. 

This series was photographed in the Lima de Freitas High, a Portuguese secondary school located in the outskirt of Setúbal, a coastal town 30 miles south of Lisbon. The last standing stronghold of the Communist Party, affectionately dubbed “Moscow” by my mother’s generation, Setúbal is (or was in 2020) a leftist bulwark in the Iberian peninsula, a sunny, decadent fishing town with a struggling industrial belt and a headstrong superiority complex against the capital, beneath which lies a sense of moral victory, that is, of its being a failure, but a beautiful failure. In 1998, it was, as I left it after graduating from high school, a port for the pigheaded and the weak-willed and the false hearted, somewhere to “goldenly stagnate in the sun”, as Pessoa wrote. Upon my return it had become friendlier to strangers and less philistinish, a bit browner and queerer, therefore, nicer that I remembered. Much to my surprise and partly as a result of the housing crisis, it also became (at least, on the surface) a welcoming place for immigrants.
Lima de Freitas high school, named after the visual artist José Lima de Freitas, is located on the very edge of the town, bordering ostracism, on the last asphalted street between Viso (a feisty quarter I dreaded to set my foot in as a kid) and the terrain-vague just before the northern-facing slopes of the sierra. The school’s architectural blandness evokes a psychiatric hospital cafeteria on the last bus stop of a forsaken route. “It’s like these kids are stranded at the end of the world,” told us Maria João Frade, a local gallerist/activist, owner of Casa da Avenida. As part of a public initiative promoted by her gallery with the support of the Direcção-Geral das Artes (a branch of the Portuguese Ministry of Culture), Maria João invited us to be resident artists in Lima de Freitas during a semester. A writer and a photographer, we would document the process of bringing beauty to these kids, carte-blanche. How wrong we were, how absurd. It was they who brought us beauty, and hope.

At first they were many, forced to be in our company after school by understandably territorial teachers, then, fewer and fewer came, until we reached a nucleus, and then they brought some of their friends. It quickly became very clear that the ‘results’ (whatever that means for artist residences) mattered infinitely less than the process itself. The process, we came to accept it, was that of being there to talk things through. We brought them poems, stories, images, objects, examples. We asked them to keep a journal. They were eager to listen, they were eager to be listened. Many of them went to school here although (or because) they are from the farthest opposite municipal edge, where schools also exist. They had been placed here by the system as a safety measure, creating a daily distance between their bodies and their residence. It was also clear after a while that sometimes they lied (more often then not, to themselves), that there were episodes of closeness followed by episodes of defensiveness, that there was vulnerability and tension, a dimming of their eyes, that between sessions something serious had happened that altered our connection. Their lives had happened. Little by little, beneath the small town’s soft surface, there it was again. The town I had known in lives I could have never intersected as a kid. All the latent violence, the cruelty, the deep-seated bitterness and aggression, all the pointless suffering. The predicament of being a teenager is hard enough, let alone that of being immigrant and queer. They were already years ahead of us, however. All the bad shit my generation repressed was luminous and ordinary in these kids.
I saw them again months later, perhaps for the last time, in the summer of 2023, for the exhibit (the ‘result’ of our ‘work’). They seemed quite happy to see themselves represented in the walls of a gallery. But how different they looked after just a few months. Older, nonchalant, and already distant. We had witnessed a bit of the extinction of something youthful and full of hope. These images are a memory of that.

- Humberto Brito

Image: Humberto Brito.