With more lives than a cat, this Porca Preta is now back to its former glory
Seven days was all it took.
In just seven days, 41 people were injured, 32 permanent houses burned down and more than 27,000 hectares of land were covered in black in Monchique and other areas of the councils of Portimão, Silves and Odemira.
As we drove up the EN124 between Porto de Lagos and the Monchique hills four days after the devastating forest fires were put out, the ‘Safe Village’ programme’s panel still indicated maximum fire alert. Hundreds of storks wander around, lost in the air, in search of their nests; a cyclist stops by the side of the road and muses over the still-smoking landscape; trucks and tractors collect brunt trees, and many fallen posts and cables are repaired by technicians – life must go on.
Amid the blaze that at the time seemed distant, August 5 was an important day for the Porca Preta Gallery in Monchique. It was the day the iconic art gallery would officially reopen under the ownership of Ulrike Mach Santos, with a hyperrealist exhibition by Brazilian painter Sílvio Rocha, curated by Pablo Malter. But under scorching heat and a rain of ashes, Porca Preta was hastily evacuated by GNR police. The relaunch had to wait until August 19, when, despite surrounded by burnt land, the gallery solidified its status as a true Monchique survivor and reopened its doors.
Fast-forward a few days, and just before the reopening, we’re on our way to the gallery. There are green oases here and there, as if the fire simply tiptoed across the hills, but as we reach Monchique and turn right on the roundabout that leads to Alferce, the green dissipates. In the valleys, some houses were left miraculously untouched, as both sides of the road were consumed by the fire, leaving everything pitch black. We take a left turn to Cerco da Rita, with its famous Porca Preta sign, and then right at a small section with a large greenhouse, following the dead end road that leads to the gallery. The path is off the beaten track, narrow and dusty, but the reward awaits us at the end: having survived the 2003, 2016 and now the 2018 fires, Porca Preta Gallery stands as vibrant as ever.
The small group of traditional houses tucked away in the hills is a true symbol of Monchique resilience. Founded in 2000 by the late Rolf Osang, who worked in travel writing and advertising before becoming an enthusiast art promoter, Porca Preta was a launch pad for many artists and a meeting point for the community. People from all over the Algarve, mainly foreigners, would flock to Monchique to attend parties, art openings and fairs, debates and other events taking place at the gallery and its stunning outdoor space, as well as to taste neighbour Antonieta’s hearty and traditional food.
“One thing that stuck in the mind of former clients and artists is the democracy of Porca Preta. You cannot park at the door, so whoever gets there – rich or poor – arrives the same way, by foot, and that brings people together,” said Pablo Malter. A Monchique native, Pablo founded the deLyra art agency, which is now the curator of Porca Preta, earlier this year in April of 2018. He studied at the famous Lisbon performing arts school Chapitô between 2004 and 2007, before returning to the Algarve, where he became Rolf ’s assistant, who at the time was working in the St. António Gallery in Monchique. He assisted Rolf in the opening of Arte Algarve in 2010, which began as a series of art fairs in the region, but then became a full-blown gallery at the Única winery in Lagoa, and later in Ferragudo. After Rolf distanced himself from the Lagoa gallery, he also worked as a curator under the new management, but left due to artistic differences.
“I wanted to show something more contemporary and critical, and to me it’s very important to have diversity in every aspect, from the nationality of the artists to the techniques they use,” he said. He achieved just that by founding his own art agency, but also by accepting the invite from Ulrike Mach Santos to curate the space and host artist residencies, which will mark a new chapter for the gallery.
Like Monchique residents, the gallery has survived a number of setbacks, including its founder’s death earlier this year. Its golden days in the 2000s were spent under Rolf’s leadership, but then he fell ill and began focusing on the more accessible Arte Algarve, selling part of Porca Preta to Ulrike in 2011 and the rest the following year. After spending a number of years tidying up the space, she hosted her first exhibitions in 2014, namely one by her longtime friend Luca Dexheimer, Rolf’s former partner, but then had to focus on her other work, retreating Porca Preta from the art scene.
A friendly and feisty 70-year-old, Ulrike has closely followed the gallery’s emotional journey. She met Rolf and Luca in 1996, while living in Gradil, Mafra. Luca and Rolf were living in the neighbouring village of Picão. People used to tell her there were other Germans living in the area, but she never made an effort to meet them, until she finally bumped into Luca at a bar. “It was love at first sight and we’ve been friends ever since,” she said.
An Arts and French teacher who is also a talented painter, Ulrike has been living between Portugal and her native Germany since 1985. She bought a house close to Porca Preta shortly after its opening, and always saw its potential.
“I believe in community living, which results in artworks that reflect the surrounding landscape, culture and people”Ulrike Mach Santos
This is why she is now hosting artist residencies, exhibitions and live music once a month at Porca Preta, as well as events, something she always did, even during the gallery’s quieter years. Now retired from teaching, she is ready to devote her full attention to the gallery, which led to the creation of the cultural association Porca Preta Pontalinho – Novo e Velho, and to accomplish her dream of uniting old and new in a truly “European space where music, painting and sculpture gather people from all cultures”. Looking at the scorched land around us, I ask her if she is hopeful for the future. She doesn’t even blink: “Yes! Come back in a few months, it will all be green by then.”