Honouring the Spirit: Emilio Portal

It was raining and the cityscape was black and wet and studded with points of light: traffic light, street light, windows.  Down below the dull concrete  gradually receded to nothing in the night.  Only the faint shapes of the white carpet cleaning vans remained visible. Under the yellow security lights of the balcony we were dry and warm. By the time the artist took his place centre stage, there were about 30 people, mostly young and damp, and crowded into an imperfect semi-circle in the narrow confines of the balcony.

The balcony belongs to Xchanges and is not the first place one would think of in regards to an art gallery.  It is long and narrow and painted yellow, with faux stone accents.  People often show up at opening nights frustrated and sweaty because it’s difficult to find.  It doesn’t have any street front; on the Government Street side, it’s behind what used to be a furniture store and on the Douglas Street side it’s behind the DQ, but you have to take the driveway beside the DQ’s driveway to find your way in.

The one thing the balcony does have is a truly incredible view of the city.  On a sunny day, the sky is huge and blue and the whole of downtown Victoria is there to see.  The Blue Bridge and the Bay centre roof, the Clock Tower, the 7up sign and the hotels over on the Songhees. Some people even claim to see the Empress.  Closer in you can see the industrial activity up on Bay Street, the gravel trucks and the bleached out machine shapes.  Down below is a concrete courtyard full of cars and busy people coming and going, delivering and cleaning and working.  It’s cheerful.

There are a few trees visible, a line of hardwoods living in holes in the sidewalk along Government Street and right now the leaves are in the early stages of turning red.  They might be poplars but they’re not the trees that once lived where the city now rules.  Mostly it’s all brick and concrete with a few empty wild looking lots.  No sign of what used to be before this land became, first, Fort Victoria and then eventually just Victoria, and a victim of dominance. 

It is for what used to be (and what is still there) that Emilio Portal made a cajon to play on the balcony last night.  A cajon performance to honour the spirit of the forest.  Historians believe that the cajon first came into existence in Peru in the 1800’s, made by Spanish owned slaves forbidden to possess musical instruments.  The cajon is a box-like instrument and was easily fashioned from discarded shipping crates or ubiquitous household items, like dresser drawers, and could be easily disguised as just more of the same. It is a profoundly poetic act, to play the instrument of the dominated, the enslaved, in honour of a forest, once thick and tall, and ending only at the ocean, now destroyed utterly. 

A few months ago, when Emilio’s performance was still in the planning stages, I was invited to visit him in his studio at UVic.  The studios are small but private.  He had a table in there and a window, two chairs and a wall full of shelving units.  We talked about television and the way that TV has made entertainment something to be watched rather than something to be organized  and acted.  He showed me a photo of an old Indian man in traditional clothes that he’d saturated in beeswax.  On the top of the shelves, circling half of the studio, there was a line of flattened pizza boxes, grease side out.  It was a slight shock to realize that they were pizza boxes; at first I thought he’d  made the grease circles, or that they were a part of his beeswax work. 

On one shelf he had stacks of dirty 2x4’s, some of which he’d planed down to reveal beautiful wood.  He showed me one piece, he said it was mahogany, that had been used briefly for pallets and then discarded roadside for firewood.  It is this reclamation of beauty and also usefulness that seems so essential to Emilio’s work and his thinking.  It is not about recycling as in collecting the bright and colourful detritus of the consumer world and imbuing it with artfulness.  It is not about reusing earth destroying plastics and polyurethanes; it is about remembering the natural gifts, the wood, the water, the earth and our abilities to use those gifts, our natural talents.  It is about reaching out and bringing back to life the ideas, the gentleness, and the spirituality that precede the consumer world as we know it, the dominating world as we know it.  It is a show of respect for making and keeping and being. 

Last night, the drumming began quietly, and unannounced.  People stood on the balcony together talking and laughing, in the dark but out of the rain, eating some of the meal prepared by Emilio’s soon-to-be bride, when suddenly he very simply straddled his cajon and began to play.  Everyone gathered around, watching and listening and waiting for revelation.  And the drumming, although gentle, did take us to a place beyond the city. The yellow security lights became firelight, the darkness breathed of Douglas fir and silence.  The drumming turned into a heart beat.  A steady strong heart beating, there.  When it stopped we were left with silence, the silence of cars passing in the wet night.  No one spoke, no one moved.  We were quiet together, for a few brief moments, together.