"Magic and Grief"

An Interview with Tony de Melo, a Montreal Artist

By Teresa Ascenção

Sol Português

Tony de Melo, a visual artist from Montreal, tells us that he and his family were on that very first flight into Canada. Considering this is the 50th anniversary of Portuguese in our country, it's not only an honour, but also very appropriate, that Tony be the first in a series of upcoming interviews on visual artists to appear in this column over the next few months. These interviews will be featuring the most innovative of Luso-Canadian talent from across our country.

Tony de Melo was born in São Miguel, Azores and immigrated to Canada when he was six years old. He graduated with a Masters in Art Education and certificate in photography from Concordia University.  Currently, he's the art specialist for Weston School, and the photo instructor and advisor in the Comprehensive Arts Program for the School of Fine Arts, Saidye Bronfman Centre in Montreal.

The founding member of Articule, a fifteen-year-old artist-run centre and gallery in Montreal, Tony de Melo has over twenty-five years experience as a professional artist with over eighty group and solo shows across Canada and the U.S., including exhibitions at Concordia University and Dazibao in Montreal, Toronto Photographers Workshop in Toronto, Struts Gallery in New Brunswick, Saidye Bronfman Centre for the Arts in Montreal and  Plattsburgh Art Museum in New York.  His work often explores issues around loss, memory, and the recovery of personal stories.

His current body of work, entitled "Magic and Grief", examines issues of violence and injustice as they are presented in mass media.  He juxtaposes these violent scenes with images from art history. He says that the art world has often been complicit in promoting scenes of violence, aggression, and injustice. To express this, he takes images from popular magazines and newspapers, images from art history and from his own personal twenty-five year old archives, and then rephotographs them in black and white.  Portions of the images are reassembled into photo-collages that range in size from 19" x 24" to 24" x 30".  Some of his images come from news coverage of the conflicts in Kosovo and the Columbine massacre, the artworks of Antoine Watteau's "Gilles", Francisco Zurbaran's "St. Francis", and Robert Campin's "Virgin and Child". The idea is that the collage of images is given new resonance with the viewer.

The following is a brief conversation with Tony de Melo.

Sol Português: - You have over twenty-five years of experience as a photo-based artist.  Can you tell what techniques or concepts run through your work?

Tony de Melo: - My early photographs were primarily street photographs of people, places and things that I connected with. My work evolved from the documentary into the world of staged and manipulated imagery.

Polaroid photography was my mainstay for many years and was very intimate in scale and subject.  Much of it was autobiographical. I created a large body of these images for several years entitled "Domestic Landscape Sequence".  I had four shows of this work, some of which was purchased by the Musée du Québec. I also created a series of masks of personages that have been relevant in my life (my grandfather, historical and literary people etc.) and later photographed myself wearing them. This resulted in three shows that were shown here and in New Brunswick, some of which were later purchased by the Art Bank in Ottawa.

The most poignant work I've produced is in honour of my sister who died of breast cancer and a friend who died of AIDS. This was a large installation of twenty life-size papier-maché human figures that were made with pages from the telephone directory... effectively one could find one's own name as part of this group.  Some of the figures lay on the floor as if asleep, and others stood with their arms raised in the air in a gesture of seeking help (from God...?).  The figures in the center of the room and the wall space had large black and white photographs depicting out of focus angels (from Greek funeral monuments). 

S.P.: - Can you tell us about your current body of work?

T.M.: - I'm exploring composite/collage imagery that juxtaposes commercial/news worthy material with works of art and art history. It's entitled "Magic and Grief". The tile comes from an article published in Time magazine that looked at the assassination of J.F. Kennedy. Loosely, for me, the "Magic" is the influence and sway that some public figures can have over the public, and the "Grief" is the let down through abuse of power and influence.

S.P.: - Has your Portuguese heritage been any influence on the art you produce?

T.M.: - Absolutely!!! Religious imagery has often haunted my work, as does the notion of strong craftsmanship, aptly displayed by both my parents as I was growing up.

S.P.: - Have you exhibited in the Portuguese community before?  Do you think it's important to show within the community?

T.M.: - No, I've never had the opportunity before. Yes its important to identify and help solidify whom you are and where you came from.  I'm very proud of my heritage and grateful to my parents for nurturing it.

Tony de Melo's current show, "Ada's Diary", is touring the local museums and art galleries in the Eastern Townships of Quebec until 2005.  It is an artist's book inspired by the inscription on Ada B. Mahew's tombstone, a little girl who died at the age of 4 in 1867 in Bury, Québec.  It explores memory, nostalgia and time by depicting people from the past through photographs and drawings. It has just finished exhibit at Centre d'Art de Richmond and Musée Beaulne de Coaticook and will next be featured in May 2005 at Bishop's University in Sherbrooke, Québec.

Inquiries regarding the artist's work should be e-mailed to: demelotoons@yahoo.ca.

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