For João Henrique Cunha Rego, azulejos are as important a part of Brazilian modernist architecture as the buildings of Oscar Niemeyer. In fact, he finds it hard to consider each element of the designs separately. “The way they thought about spaces was like they were putting in practice modernism,” he explains from his studio in Brasília, “and the azulejos are incorporated into the architecture. It’s not about art, it’s part of the building. The buildings don’t make sense without the azulejos.”
These painted tiles are Portuguese in origin, brought to Brazil during colonial times where their popularity exploded in the latter half of the 18th century thanks to an influx of wealth from diamond and gold mining. Traditionally blue and white they often featured religious scenes or landscapes, and were usually made in Portugal and imported to the country.
In the 20th century, they came into their own. For João, their modernist incarnation has become iconic because it “speaks of a specific moment in our culture.” That moment was the reign of Juscelino Kubitschek and his infamous promise to make fifty years progress in five. With the materials they had to hand, Brazilians set about creating their own distinct version of the internationally-trending Modernism. “We had a lack of technology and tools, ways of doing something,” muses João, “so we had to push ourselves harder to reinvent it. In the 60s, the Italians had very sophisticated equipment for making furniture in plastic, and we didn’t have that technology so we used wood, and we had to work harder to make it polished. we have to make it better and work harder so we can make ourselves stand out.”
This same principle was applied to the azulejos, and their ornate continental designs were updated to reflect this aesthetic, most famously by Athos Bulcão. Geometric shapes were introduced, and formulated to produce awe-inspiring pieces when tessellated over large areas.
Today, João’s azulejaria carries on this work, producing designs in this same vein, but with his own added touch. As an art student at the University of Brasilia, his work was influenced by his personal memories and experience of the city in particular. “I think that’s the contribution of my work: affective memories. My azulejos show my relationship with the city, that affection and that nostalgia.”
Despite now working exclusively in this medium, and meeting the great Athos Bulcão, he never intended to work with tiles. In face, his first commission was a far more serendipitous development. His neighbours began a renovation project of the building they share in Brasilia, with the intention of removing the mid-century aesthetic. João’s reaction was quite emotional: “You preserve what it is, you don’t update it! They wanted to do something horrible!” he exclaims. He laughs somewhat at the memory now, but it’s clearly something he still feels passionate about. “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, we just have to restore it.” Instead, he created a feature wall in the celebrated style. Immediately, it began to garner a lot of attention, and when a rash of selfies in front of the piece began popping up on social media, he decided to create a line of tiles.
Each design reflects a certain memory or aspect of the city, from Niemeyer’s pillars at the Palácio da Alvorada to the iconic computer game character: Pacman. “People really relate to that, they really love it,” he laughs. “Like, I played that game when I was 14!”
Whimsy aside, the artist was recently honoured by the Brazilian government, who commissioned him to create a custom piece for the headquarters of the CPLP, the community of Portuguese-speaking countries. Located in Lisbon, the installation is his first major international piece and reflects the national colours of each member state in traditionally Brazilian shapes.
This language of colour has become key to keeping the art-form contemporary, while still recognisably the rightful progression of Bulcão’s legacy. Small tweaks, such as jettisoning established colour combinations like navy and deep green in favour of pale grey and bright yellow, have a major impact on the final piece. The unusual positioning commands attention, as well as lending a freshness to the works. They’re not only embodiments of Brasilía, but of the artist himself, who signs each completed project and views them firmly as works of art.
“They came from Portugal,” he acknowledged, “but Brazil reinvented them! I don’t want to lose the original identity, but I do want to present something new.”