In the old quarter of Alfama, in rua do Salvador 83, you come across a small shop / atelier of a truly unique artist: Alberto. And guarding his shop, lying right under the door, is his cat Gordon.
Born in Angola in 1969, Alberto has lived in Lisbon for more than thirty years. He has lived in different neighborhoods, but for about 15 years Alfama has become his home.
When he arrived in this neighborhood and on this street almost nobody wanted to live there, he was part of the less well-kept, more abandoned Lisbon. But Alberto immediately showed his fighting spirit, also involving the other inhabitants of the area to participate, taking care of the cleaning and care of this street themselves. A few years later, the area was re-evaluated. But Alberto would have made yet another great little discovery: an ancient plaque, hidden by electric cables, which would later turn out to be a road sign from antiquity, the oldest in the city.
And it is precisely here that Alberto welcomes us into his world, into his atelier where he creates and sells his works. When we enter, we are immediately struck by the vintage atmosphere that reigns in the store. Everywhere, objects decorated with ancient magazines bring us back to the past: screens, paintings, mirrors, objects of all kinds. But above all suitcases: ancient suitcases of all shapes and sizes, to which Alberto has given new life.
And then I sit down and listen to him while he tells me how it started.
He was very young when his family sent him to Portugal, and the Carmo and Chiado will be his first home. Alberto begins to work in different fields, but his desire was to be able to use manual skills. The artistic spirit has always been part of him, after all in his family from the paternal side of him were artists, musicians, poets. Alberto has always had art in his genes.
His great dream had always been one day to make this passion for manual art his work. And be able to live on his art.
16/17 years ago a serious accident changes everythings, seriously injuring the fingers of one hand. But Alberto does not give up and begins to work at the Feira da Ladra, the famous flea market in Lisbon. And it is there that he finds himself projected into a world of ancient objects, and two things strike his attention: period magazines and old suitcases.
The suitcase: an object that today we link to travel and holidays, but which for Alberto is an important memory of his life. When he was still a child, in the middle of the civil war in his country, he had to move often, escape. And then the suitcase was the guardian of important things, it was the house that you carried with you.
From one place to another, with the life enclosed in a suitcase.
And so the suitcase for Alberto is the memory of this past, a past that he does not necessarily want to tell, not because he wants to forget it, but because he says that he is not one of those artists who feel the need to make public their own personal hell in order to be understood and appreciated.
What Alberto lived in his childhood years was certainly not easy, but it is not what he wants to remember. Alberto considers himself a lucky person and it is always with a smile that he wants to look at life, looking for the beautiful things he has to offer us.
And then this object linked to a memory of the past, the suitcase, is transformed and finds new life through period magazines.
Alberto thus begins to make collages of vintage images and with these he begins to decorate old suitcases and, in the very place that had inspired him, the Ladra fair, he begins to sell them.
Those were different times, at the time there was not too much space for authors, artists. An original idea of him, but which initially clashes with many prejudices, on the idea itself and on who had this idea.
But as we have already understood, Alberto does not give up easily and therefore continues on his path and begins to enjoy some success, at first more among foreigners than among Portuguese.
An episode will make him realize that he is on the right path: one day, an 8/9 year old girl is completely fascinated by one of Alberto’s suitcases and she begins to ask her parents to have it. If her mother responds with indecision, her father decides to please her daughter who reacts with a joy and happiness that Alberto can hardly describe. He remembers that moment perfectly, that little girl’s happiness, how she hugged her briefcase, how she was grateful to her parents. Alberto had understood that if a work of his had been able to make that child so happy, then that was precisely his path.
And remembering it he is still moved. And he confesses to us, that when he has a few moments of despair, even today, it is precisely that little girl that he thinks of.
The turning point came when the then owner of the famous shop A vida Portuguesa, which Alberto already knew, opens her first shop of this famous brand and asks Alberto to be able to sell his suitcases. Alberto also accepts because Catarina immediately shows great confidence in his work, offering to buy his works and then sell them in her shop. And there, the great turning point. Alberto’s suitcases begin to have enormous success and his work becomes more and more known. And Alberto understands that it is precisely this, being an artist, that he is destined.
Alberto’s life has not always been simple, various health problems in recent years have put him to the test, but he is a true warrior and has always come out of it. And it is also for this reason that the main purpose of his art is to give a smile.
Alberto makes it very clear that using sad episodes from his story in his art does not interest him. This doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to send a message. The images he chooses for the creation of his collages are never casual, but aimed at launching a message linked to today’s society, or to represent aspects of current life and of the people around us. But the message is for a few. Many stop at the beauty of the decoration. And for Alberto is fine. Whether you understand the message or just appreciate the beauty of the work, the important thing is for Alberto to give the positive message, observe Alberto’s work and smile, feel happy with his work in his hands.
This is what Alberto wants. He defines himself as an esthete, appreciates beauty and seeks beauty, in all its forms, in everything and every situation in his life. For him it is the most important thing. He says that life is a box full of surprises. He makes me think of Tom Hanks in the famous role of Forrest Gump when he says that life is a box of chocolates and you never know what happens to you.
After all, Alberto’s philosophy of life is precisely this: open the box and be surprised.
Sometimes there are moments of difficulty, also because in order to earn our place in society we end up belonging to a group, a category, and this sometimes also means learning to compromise. But Alberto shows patience for the most complicated situations and continues to emphasize how lucky he feels to be able to live with the job he loves and why in the end he got his place.
Alberto loves the contact with people and you can also see it from the comings and goings of people who pass, even just for a greeting, from his atelier.
Today his house is in Alfama, but he has toured almost all of Lisboa and knows it well. As he tells us, he went from hill to hill, from Chiado, when he arrived, in the most refined and least popular Lisbon, to Alfama, the most popular neighborhood in all of Lisbon. A neighborhood that Alberto remembers as very lively, with many people on the street. And even now that Lisbon is changing, modernizing, becoming more and more cosmopolitan, with many people passing by, Alberto sees the positive aspect of this change which, according to him, is giving new life to the city.
But in this modern and cosmopolitan Lisbon, his atelier remains a place almost out of time. Today Alberto devotes himself mostly to panels, small paintings. And when he can’t concentrate, he goes out, takes a walk, remains silent to contemplate and then comes back and begins to create.
Today we can only buy his works in his atelier but many people, especially Portuguese, ask Alberto to create tailor-made works.
Before leaving, I have one last question for Alberto: why the rose in the chest?
Alberto tells me that about 15 years ago he was fighting against a sickness he didn’t talk to anyone about. His colleagues in the Feira da Ladra had obviously noticed the physical change, but no one dared to ask. One day, a man who did not get along with Alberto at all, the one who had less well received him, approached him and asked Alberto how he was. And he had given him a flower to put on his chest, as a symbol of hope, of life, of trust. And since then Alberto has always carried a flower in his chest, because even today, when the sickness is over, that gesture should not be forgotten.
An unexpected gesture, a hand held out by those who did not expect, a message of hope that Alberto wants to keep remembering. Because, as he says, life surprises you when you least expect it.