Joana Vasconcelos: War Games, Spies & Family Secrets

Joana Vasconcelos' parents moved to Paris to avoid Portugal’s Colonial war so Lisbon’s most celebrated artist was born into a Bohemian French home in 1971. There was no television or Coca-Cola because her family considered them symbols of American imperialism. Her father, a photojournalist, was so left-wing he didn’t wear a tie because he felt it didn’t represent him.

Joana’s aunt was one of the first Portuguese women to graduate from the Sorbonne with a doctorate in philosophy, so Joana learned about Aristotle and René Descartes when she wasn’t at school or studying karate. “I also had an uncle, who was jailed for being a Republican, who loved to embroider. My family was odd,” Joana said.

For such a close-knit family, Joana found it even stranger that her grandfather, on her mother’s side, was somewhat of a mystery. Joana’s grandmother praised him. “Like any regular family, you hear how your grandfather was a very just man, very intelligent. He knew a lot about mathematics,” Joana told the podcast A History of the World in Spy Objects.

But Joana’s mother refused to discuss him. What was the family hiding? And why did Joana find her grandfather’s medals hidden under her grandmother’s mattress when she passed away? Joana decided to poke around her family’s dark past - a past that included living under Portugal’s dictatorship until a 1974 revolution brought down António de Oliveira Salazar’s brutal regime and buried many of its secrets with it.

Joana Vasconcelos is a Lisbon-based artist


Joana Vasconcelos: War Games, Spies & Family Secrets

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Joana Vasconcelos' parents moved to Paris to avoid Portugal’s Colonial war so Lisbon’s most celebrated artist was born into a Bohemian French home in 1971. There was no television or Coca-Cola because her family considered them symbols of American imperialism. Her father, a photojournalist, was so left-wing he didn’t wear a tie because he felt it didn’t represent him.

Joana’s aunt was one of the first Portuguese women to graduate from the Sorbonne with a doctorate in philosophy, so Joana learned about Aristotle and René Descartes when she wasn’t at school or studying karate. “I also had an uncle, who was jailed for being a Republican, who loved to embroider. My family was odd,” Joana said.

For such a close-knit family, Joana found it even stranger that her grandfather, on her mother’s side, was somewhat of a mystery. Joana’s grandmother praised him. “Like any regular family, you hear how your grandfather was a very just man, very intelligent. He knew a lot about mathematics,” Joana told the podcast A History of the World in Spy Objects.

But Joana’s mother refused to discuss him. What was the family hiding? And why did Joana find her grandfather’s medals hidden under her grandmother’s mattress when she passed away? Joana decided to poke around her family’s dark past - a past that included living under Portugal’s dictatorship until a 1974 revolution brought down António de Oliveira Salazar’s brutal regime and buried many of its secrets with it.

Joana Vasconcelos is a Lisbon-based artist


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Into the Heart of Darkness

Joana’s parents - revolutionaries from the Maoist left - feigned disinterest and brushed aside Joana’s questions, so the artist turned detective. She thought long and hard about the inconsistencies.

Her grandparents were known for hosting large parties although her grandfather hadn’t even reached the level of General, so it was difficult to understand the grandeur.

And why were her parents so anti-establishment - so much so, they’d left their homeland and moved to Paris? Joana’s father was part of the anti-Colonial movement, supporting independence for Angola, Mozambique, and other Portuguese colonies in Africa, and her parents only returned to Portugal when it was no longer ruled by a dictator.

Joana also studied her grandfather’s medals, still framed and laid against red velvet. “He had the most important medals from the Portuguese government and from the Spanish government, the highest rankings [but] his military ranking didn’t justify those medals.”

Spain was also ruled by a dictator in the 1970s, Francisco Franco, so why would Madrid’s fascist dictator award medals to a Portuguese military officer? The secrets hidden in the medals loomed even larger in Joana’s conscience when she shared her discovery and no one in her family wanted to keep the laurels as a family heirloom.

War Games (2011) covered with rifles and stuffed toys

Family secrets

Joana, a professional karate fighter until the age of 28, applied the lessons she’d learned as a competitor. Karate provided structure and discipline in her life, one that was otherwise filled with artists and revolutionaries.

She asked painful questions and slowly realized that her grandfather worked for two dictators. He was a Portuguese military officer gathering intelligence about the civil war in Spain at a time when an estimated 114,000 civilians disappeared. He was also a spy for Salazar, a totalitarian dictator who oversaw Portugal’s Colonial War in Africa and who once said of his fellow countrymen: “The Portuguese must be treated as children: Too much too often would spoil them.”

The impact of the revelations left Joana awestruck. Her grandfather supplied intelligence that justified violent acts of oppression. “Nobody really wanted to talk about it,” Joana said. “The truth is, I discovered he was a specialist in ballistics and that he was the adviser for both dictators in preparing the military attacks.”

She realized that her grandmother had created a beautiful fairytale world to avoid dealing with her reality. Joana dealt with her emotions differently, however, pouring her pain into her art. She transformed her family’s Black Morris Oxford vehicle into War Games (2011) which portrays her journey from childhood to adulthood and her reflections on the absurdity of war.

It’s an artwork about two lives. Two worlds - the family car stuffed with children’s toys transformed into a war machine. “You cannot hide violence with softness,” Joana said. “It’s better to see it and acknowledge it.”

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