“Beyond that door, love, affection and freedom are over.” This is how Pinho defined the time he was imprisoned in Portugal. He was six years old when he was admitted to a reformatory for the first time and went through other institutions until he managed to get out, at 14.
Pinho, who lived between 1927 and 1993, was José Joaquim de Almeida, a Portuguese from Vila Nova de Gaia who, decades after his hospitalizations, became an artist and portrayed his memories of the time in oil paintings and charcoal engravings.
Twenty paintings of him ended up in a dossier called “O Destino do Menino da Rua”, in the Historical Archive of the Directorate-General for Reinsertion and Prison Services, DGRSP, of the Penitentiary of Lisbon, a 19th century construction that gathers thousands of documents about prisons of Portugal.
The paintings depict bars, guards, people with bare feet, shaved heads and gaunt bodies wearing blue uniforms. Looking closer, you can see that they are actually not ordinary prisoners, adults, but children, carrying crayons in their uniform pocket.
An unsigned text was filed with the paintings. “Those who lived a childhood within walls are always on the run, always alone in the crowd”, says one passage.
Upon finding the works, Brazilian historian Viviane Borges was magnetized by the intensity of the images and the mystery given the lack of information about the author. It was February 12, 2019, his first day in postdoctoral studies in Portugal.
“The screens seemed to try to tell a story, they indicated a denunciation, an attempt to sensitize or even shock the observer”, says Borges, a professor at the University of the State of Santa Catarina, who in November launched the book “Pinho”, published by the Manicómio label in Portugal and with support from the Foundation for Research and Innovation Support of the State of Santa Catarina, with free distribution to museums and universities.
“Pinho was a sensitive artist who kept within himself several monsters. Painting helped him both to bring beauty to his life and to expunge what tormented him”, says she, an expert in the history of confinement institutions.
Reformatory, says the historian, were the destiny of children who lived on the streets, either because they were abandoned or because they were taken there by social situations. Pinho was not abandoned, but hospitalized due to the conditions of his mother, a single young woman who faced financial difficulties. One of the pictures shows their farewell at the gates.
The boy went through institutions such as Colégio dos Carvalhos and Tutoria de Menores, in Porto, and Reformatório de Santa Clara, in Vila do Conde — there is no information about his records or photos of him at the time. He never met his father, but learned from his mother’s letters that he lived in the United States and chose his surname, Pinho, as his artistic name.
Borges had in hand the signature that said “Pinho” and the dates of the canvases, but not much else. The archivists unsheathed an email from 2014, when the paintings were cataloged at DGRSP, in which a Portuguese woman asked permission for her elderly father, António Fernando, to see the arts of Pinho, with whom she had lived in a reformatory. The visit never took place, but the email was an important clue.
The historian wrote to the author of the message and arranged a visit to the city of Porto. At the meeting, he saw a brief catalog of Pinho’s paintings, which contained the address of a studio. She wrote a letter and got a phone call. It was Pinho’s widow, Henriqueta.
“I remember her telling me he was a born painter. ‘It was an addiction. He had to paint, he had to draw’”, says the researcher, who visited the house where the widow has lived since the 1960s and which had a studio in the old basement, a type of basement.
“The place is as he left it, Dona Henriqueta does not take the brushes, the paints, the straw hat hanging beside the easel and the last unfinished canvas out of order.”
Borges is part of the Marginal Archives collective, which researches and works on the scientific dissemination of collections linked to isolation institutions, seeking to bring to light the experiences of individuals involuntarily confined in prisons, leper colonies, and mental hospitals.
Within this area of research, Pinho’s paintings are considered “difficult memories”, that is, they refer to dark memories, “linked to a story that one prefers, consciously or unconsciously, not to remember”, he says.
By interviewing the artist’s family and friends, however, the author was able to identify a happy man who had no problems commenting on his traumatic childhood.
After reforming school, Pinho got a scholarship to a technical art school, worked with screen printing, became a successful professional, got married and had children. In the 1980s and 1990s, he painted the paintings that were incorporated into Portuguese prison heritage.
During the time he lived in Portugal, Borges got to know Manicómio, a Lisbon gallery dedicated to artists who had worked in prison institutions. “I admire the idea of encouraging unknown artists who had their lives crossed by institutional experience”, says she, who became a friend of the founder of the house, Sandro Resende.
Manicómio was responsible for the graphic art of Pinho’s book and will print the title free of charge in Portugal. In addition to being a gallery, the house is an art studio and a design agency that took off in the middle of a pandemic and should become a radio and a magazine.
The name is a direct provocation to the stigma of madness. “It is where art dignifies creative minds, it is a space where there is no stigma”, defines Resende, the founder of the place.