Issue 211
Winter 2019/2020


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Nov 17, 2019

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Fernanda Zei, visual philosopher

IF YOU'RE AN ARTIST, you can do little better than show your work at Summerhall. The rooms may still have a hint of the lab (until the 1990s, the building was the Dick Veterinary College) but the atmosphere of Summerhall, more than any other Edinburgh gallery or museum, is stimulating and vital.

Some of this quality is due to the efforts of the artist and art impresario, Richard Demarco who, in his wing at Summerhall, regularly holds exhibitions, organised by 'a small, but strong team', as author/journalist Roddy Martine put it recently.

Apart from Terry Ann Newman, co-director, Dr Charles Stephens, editor of Demarco's memoirs, who also helps arrange his archives, there's the exhibitions curator, Fernanda Zei. Born in Sao Paulo, Brazil in 1987, Fernanda's birthday (May 13) occurs on the anniversary of the 1888 Golden Law when Brazil freed all its slaves. Perhaps this coincidence instilled, from an early age, a desire to take art to the disadvantaged, particularly children. To realise this aim she knew she would have to acquire a variety of creative skills.

Fernanda's childhood was far from easy. Her mother, an architect, was a single parent of four and from the age of 13, Fernanda knew she had to go it alone. When she was 15, she began work with the Brazilian designer, Joao Carlos Correia da Rocha, while studying at college in the evenings. For three years she managed da Rocha's shop, 'Cor de Pano', that sold designer furniture and metal sculpture. Fernanda organised her boss's chaotic finances, paid off his debts and designed metal sculptures, which she sold, saving enough money to pay for her fare to the UK.

Aged 18, she arrived in London in 2005, found a job in the Tate Gallery's café and in her spare time, took lessons in English. Four years later she moved to Edinburgh, toying with the idea of studying dance, but was disappointed that the course offered was based on commercial, musical theatre and not artistically-oriented.

"For me," says Fernanda, "dance is a personal, artistic, experience of creating movement in space through sound (or silence)."

With her experience of design in Brazil, she decided to study art and, after completing an Access course at Edinburgh University's Office of Lifelong Learning in Arts & Social Sciences, she enrolled at Edinburgh College of Art to study sculpture.

In 2015, six months after she began her studies in art, Fernanda visited Summerhall where the Polish assemblage and Happenings artist, Tadeusz Kantor's centenary was being celebrated. When she met Richard Demarco there, she learned that in the garden outside her flat, a conversion of Edinburgh's Poorhouse, was where, thirty years previously, Kantor had performed. It was a coincidence also that her home was where the German sculptor, performance, installation and graphic artist, Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) created his last masterpiece in Scotland when he he gave the Poorhouse gates the title of 'A New Beginning is in the Offing.'

After her visit to Summerhall, Fernanda offered to help Richard with his archives, a large collection of papers, photographs, programmes and letters on his participation in the arts in Scotland, particularly the Edinburgh International Festival, the UK and Europe, from as far back as the 1960s.

Starting with sorting papers and photographs, Fernanda progressed to curating shows, compiling catalogues, designing posters and dealing with social media for the Demarco Foundation.

"Working at Summerhall with Richard has helped me see how art and creativity can bring people together in a humane way," she says.

The first show Fernanda curated was in summer 2016, when the Demarco Arts Foundation commemorated the 30th anniversary of Beuys's death and celebrated the artist's presence in Scotland.

A glance at their recent programme of events, reveals how busy Fernanda has been, organising talks, interviews, events, retrospectives, symposia, discussions and curating shows of Rose Strang and Andrew Marr.

This year, in May, she has helped bring the Foundation's 'Art & Healing' event to Venice and has organised the archives of Bill Beech, Caroline Tisdall and Jimmy Boyle for an exhibition concerned with the 'power of art as a rehabilitation tool in prisons over 45 years' at Hull University's Brynmore Jones library. Fernanda has also curated Richard Demarco's own exhibitions of drawings and water colours, one of which was held at the Maclaurin Gallery, Ayr, this summer.

It's a wonder that Fernanda, now in her final year at ECA, has time for anything else. As an embroiderer of letters, words and aphorisms, I find her work has an instant appeal. In her strongly designed booklets, she displays lettering in signs, street names and other notices, in varying states of legibility.

In all her work she successfully combines word and narrative with design and form and in her booklet, 'Disconnect', she includes sculptural objects created from old, wooden water pipes. "Artists," she says, "are philosophers in practice. While philosophers use a theoretical approach to understanding life, the artist uses creativity and visual language in response to the same questions."

Perhaps Fernanda's most important influence comes from Joseph Beuys's idea of social sculpture, in which he asserted that everyone was an artist.

"This concept," states Fernanda, "is a profound and generous approach to art because it places it at the heart of society where everyone's creativity acts as the moving force in creating personal change."

MARY GLADSTONE


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