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Design As Catalyst

Marta Sternberg Gaspar

Portuguese artist-designer, with a social practice, based in Lisbon. Studied fashion design in Lisbon, product design in Milan, and now finishing the MA in London. Worked as a mail carrier, as a night street cleaner, as the assistant of a 86 years old furniture restorer. In an old workshop of an upholsterer, in a construction site, in a street market selling fruit. Has to work in these places to understand what to research as a project. Exhibited in Porto Design Biennale, in Milan Design Week, and will present in this London Design Festival. Exhibited it in an unofficial space - a butchers shop that went bankrupt and was a not used space until they sold it - as galleries/museums/biennales make part of this strange system hard to work with.

'Lying for a good reason / Acts of design in times of crisis' witnesses the untold stories of people’s responses to hardships. Documents/archives/collects the ways people have used ingenuity to survive to racism, poverty, persecutions. The work is formed of 5 films, 5 objects, 1 photo-text book.

Started as a product designer but not interested in the designing of new products but in the impact those things have on people’s everyday life. In the political dimension of objects. And in the democratization of design that should not be seen as expensive/stylish/exclusive. Want people to understand the seriousness of design, an example of its implications on society is the Palm Beach’s elections county ballot, when Al Gore supporters have mistakenly voted for Buchanan because of the ballot’s design. Defend art, design and culture as structural bases of society. I’m for an art that questions, criticizes, moves society. That makes visible what is hidden behind products, systems, services. Artists are dangerous people that give voice to the ones that cannot speak. The research process is based on walking the cities while critically observing the ordinary that is forgotten, invisible, unquestionable. On reading newspapers. And on talking to people from my grandfather to butchers. The work is based on a research that defines its final form. Always work with text, with image, with objects that act as the protagonists of societies, cultures, places.

Holocaust 1933 / A jewish family dressed in black and carried a funeral wreath to a train station. Inside the funeral wreath they hided all their cash. They escaped the nazis without being stolen by pretending to go to a funeral.

Dictatorship 1950 / A political prisioner, with a switchblade, opened a hole in a clothes peg to hide messages. Would pass the clothes peg to other prisioners when hanging clothes on the clothesline.

Angolan Civil War 1975 / A man discovered his name was in a list of people to be killed as he belonged to the opposite party to the one in power at the time. To escape to the airport with his family, without being recognized, he disguised as a woman with the grandmother’s wig and the sister’s dress.

Refugee crisis / A refugee hided the things he needed inside his coat’s lining as smugglers would shout at people to throw their bags into the water if the boat would start sinking during the sea crossing.

Pandemic 2020 / A vendor working on a market, struggling with money when markets closed, sold a fake tureen for the price of a valuable one. Assembled a plate with a colander hiding it when wrapped. His wife also lost the job due to the pandemic. They have three children.

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A collection of 5 chapters, placed on a socio-political context, each one with a story told from people residing in Portugal.

The project retells history through objects. Is giving a voice to the ultold episodes of anonymous people’s responses to hardships. The way people survived to racism, poverty, persecutions. Each story is based on an everyday object - the thing that saved people’s life - that has been manipulated into something else. They are material evidences of people’s ingenuity.

The project is reconstructing these objects. To understand how the objects were presumably done, as the people telling the stories didn’t remember, the work had the collaboration of people that in their work go through the same actions to the ones practiced in the stories. And that then became the tool to tell the story as the narrators wanted anonimity, as was hard for them to go through that sad story again, and as others didn’t know to reconstruct the object as it wasn’t them living the story but a story told by their family.

Acts of design by non-designers. Passing on that design is central in our everyday and is not something stylish. Creativity was fundamental here in saving lifes - people solved problems with limited resources - this area of study, often with stereotypes, needs to be seen as relevant as other fields.

30sec/45min
30sec/3hrs
30sec/7min
30sec/37min
30sec/19min

Filmed with tape. Extractions of 30 sec. Each video refers to a story where we see the collaborating artists building the objects with the same limited resources to the ones people had at the time. We see them practicing today what people had to practice years ago.

In the 5 films the collaborating artists enter the space with their uniforms and when finished to reconstruct the protagonists objects they undress it leaving the set carrying the object.

Portraits of the collaborating artists. On the left them with the uniforms they use at work. On the right them carrying the protagonists objects. The last five photographs document the concealed information of the person of the story and the respective information of the professional representing their story.

Holocaust 1933 / ''My father, German, had to flee from Germany during World War II. He was jewish. It was him with his mother and his father. They fled, leaving Rasttat in Germany and going direction Strasbourg in France. They knew the Germans would take everything from them if they were carrying their money in a visible way. The Nazis stole everything from the people. But they found a way to escape with something. They dressed in black and were carrying a funeral wreath as if they were going to a funeral. They walked to the station. On the train there was a Nazi ready to stop them when he asks ‘‘Where are you going?’’. They answered they were going to their cousin’s funeral. The funeral that never existed. He let them pass. They had the money hidden in the fu- neral wreath. That was the way they left Germany with something. People don’t want to talk about funerals and the wreath is something that make people uncomfortable to talk about. It refers to someone’s death. A funeral is a private thing. And that was what they needed in the circumstance they were in. A social armor. In 1935 my father and my grandmother came to Portugal.''

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Excerpt from conversation with florist / ''We should roll the banknotes. Then pass the linen string on them and fix it around the wreath. Give them a knot. It is more secure for it not to fall.''

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Materials / Reichsmark banknotes, black clothes, pruning shear, linen string, laurel leafs, vine twigs

Dictatorship 1950 / ''Political prisoners, in the time of fascism, had different techniques of communicating. They had these systems to make guards not understand that prisioners were having conversations about fighting against the regime. And there was one thing that was very interesting in that. They used clothes pegs. At the time all made of wood and not plastic like the ones we have now. One of them, he was good, with no other thing but with a switchblade made a cavity in one of the clothes peg’s sides. And made a lid to close it. To hide. Inside that cavity there was another hole to put a paper. A written paper with what they wanted to say. They would hang the clothes for them to dry. There was this common space for the prisioners to hang their clothes. They would hang this clothes peg on the clothesline and then another prisioner would hang his clothes and change clothes pegs. Would take it and in the room open it and read it. It was one of the things they did to write about these informations. The guards were constantly observing their actions, their conversations, their rooms. A friend of mine was in prison for ten years, or twelve, and told me this story. He did it with a small switchblade. The time didn’t count there. They were years encarcerated. Time didn’t count for them. This could have taken one hour or thirthy two hours. They had that time. They wrote on the paper from the cigarettes, the only paper they had, at the time they used Zig Zag rolling paper. It was the brand. Rolling paper is a very maleable paper, that they could fold many times, and that way easier to hide.''

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Excerpt from a conversation with furniture restorer // ''He did it in this part of the clothes peg. In this part that is thicker. This side has more volume to hide the paper and is also less easy to break. Here he had more space to do that hole.''

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Materials / Clothes peg, cigarette paper, switchblade, pencil

Angolan Civil War 1975 / ''My mother's family lived in Huambo. Huambo was an area dominated by the anti-comunist party UNITA - National Union for the Total Independence of Angola. My uncle made part of the communist party MPLA - People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola. After Angola’s inde- pendence from the Portuguese African colonies, with the military coup that overthrew Portugal’s dictatorship, the anti-colonial movements that were fighting for it started to fight themselves. My uncle, from MPLA but living in an area controlled by UNITA, always had to hide who he supported. They sometimes searched peoples houses. He couldn't have anything that proved to make part of MPLA. No one in my family openly supported a party. It was dangerous. He lived with the family, they all lived together in the same house, uncles, cousins, everyone. This happened at a time when there was a tension between the two parties. There were conflicts in the city. And my grandparents felt that because UNITA army members often had to pass through their house to go to the radio building that was behind their place. The army spoke Ubundo and my grandmother could understand what they were saying. She spoke that. She talked to them and realized that things were getting bad. My uncle’s name was in a list of peo- ple that were to be killed. They would put people in line and then kill them. A friend told him his name was on that list. He knew he was going to die if he didn’t leave the country. They decided to runaway. All the family went to a friend's house, slept there, and the next morning, when they left to the airport, my uncle had to dress up as a woman to not be recognized. He used a dress and a wig. He was very tall, but they were a large family and my grandparents had many daughters, so disguising him as a woman was the safest thing to do. They arrived at the airport thinking they were going to flee to Luanda, because it was the capital and it would be safer there, but they fligt to Lisbon. The planes were just flying to Portugal, Lisbon, it was safer there. It was August or September. He must have used his sister’s dress and his mother’s or grandmother’s wig. They used afro wigs. They went to Lisbon in the flight of the returnees.''

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Excerpt from conversation with actor / ''This dress is good. This one has sleeves. It hides the arms muscles. And it is long. Hides the legs. And hides the 45 size of the shoes.''

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Materials / Wig, dress, red lipstick, brown transparent socks, man shoes, boxers, shaver, scarf

Refugee Crisis 2015 / ''Walked with my mother and my father from Iraq to Turkey. The situation there was difficult. I don’t miss that place, Iraq, my parents do. My parents sold everything they had to pay for my place on the boat. An inflatable boat, old, not a safe one. Stayed in Turkey for a month with them. They gave me 2000€. That was the price smugglers were asking for an adult. A dirty system, you see these people making money out of this sad situation, it is not good. They didn’t have enough for them and asked me to go first. They stayed there, in Turkey, trying to make more money. One year later we were the three together in Greece, in Lesbos refugee camp, before we came here to Por- tugal. I remember the day leaving Turkey to do the sea-crossing. I was scared. I don’t know how to swim. I don’t like the sea. It was very dark, a smuggler showed us the way to the coast, we had to walk for long distances. We were tired. And on the woods they rapped the girls, we coudn’t do an- ythig, they had guns. They told us to bring the less as possible. Days before I heard from other people that they would tell you to throw your bags on the water if the boat would start sinking. Or that before the journey they would check your bags to see if they were too heavy. Or with too many things. We were many. The day before leaving my mom unsewed my father’s coat’s lining, inside we hided some things I needed, very few things but the ones I needed. His coat was warmer than mine. Those things were all I had and I coudn’t lose them. My phone and the charger. The smart- phone was the way we could see which borders were closing and which countries were accepting us. Could use the translator, see the map, talk to my parents, family, friends. See their photos. Used it as a flashlight. The coat was impermeable. Dark. Fever pills. And others. Those pills saved me from colds. My documents inside an envelope. A whit- ening facial cream. Didn’t want people in Europe to see me as a refugee. Friends of mine were using it too. We all used it. The smartphone was some- thing important as I didn’t have to pay phone tarifs and could try to find wifi free spots. We put everything inside plastic bags so it woudn’t get dammaged with the water. And hided it inside the coat’s lining. Soap. A comb. Toothpaste. To- thbrush. A pair of socks. And of boxers. A shirt. Can food. Don’t remember what can food. Things like bandages. The brand was Fair and Handsome. The cream. Brought a postcard with me, from my grandmother years ago, but lost it in the camp. The documents were the passport and the high school certificate. The postcard had a red rose. We unsew the coat with a nail scissor. That was what we had. Closed the plastic bag with tape. The water would not damage the things this way.''

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Excerpt from a conversation with seamstress / ''This is the plastic bag with the two cans. It is heavy. The tape won’t secure it as it does with the others. They might have sewed the handle of the plastic bag in one the coat’s parallel seams. That can support it. Otherwise the bag would fall with the weight. And this volume would be falling. Everyone would see that.''

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Materials / Shirt, bandages, canned food, 4 transparent plastic bags, 2 plastic bags, needle and thread, pain relievers pills, boxers, postcard with envelope with high-school certificate and passport, toothpaste, toothbrush, nail scissor, samsung smartphone, charger, impermeable dark blue coat, comb, soap, socks, tape, fair and handsome face whitening cream

Pandemic 2020 / ''The café where my wife was working closed. Coronavirus restrictions were hard. José, the own- er, could not pay her salary. He could not even pay the rent of the café. The place closed. She had no work. We have three children. I sell things in a street market and the markets closed. Closed not for a month but months. It reopened. It reclosed. Supermarkets open. Supermarkets selling clothes and tableware and other things but street markets had to close. You see, injustices, they thought the virus was in the street markets and not in Continente. We saw on the tv that certain places were reopening but not street markets. We did a protest. What was sad was that we had to pay for the occupancy rate but the markets were closed. It was unfair that we had to pay for a space we weren’t allowed using. That space is what make us sell the things that give us money to pay them the taxes. Weeks later we understood we had to ask for the exemption through a document on the internet. It was hard to do that. I don’t have a computer. I don’t know the internet. A friend helped. The markets close automatically, you hear them on the radio saying markets have to close and the next day you don’t go to work, but the taxes don’t stop that automatically. You have to fight for justice. Closed markets. I had to make money on the first day of the reopening of the market. I had this tureen, a very old one, hand-painted. I was selling it for 150€. Portuguese people wouldn’t buy it, we are poor, but tourists are not. At home, assembled a collander and a plate with tape. I wrapped it. Sold it. But it was a wrong thing to do. I am an honest man. I felt bad doing it. But my family will not open the door of an empty fridge. Then I sold the real one. The plastic collanders. The ones for the spaguetti. The things that were in the kitchen. Wrapped it and brought it one morning to the market. In front of him, at the table, wrapped the real one. Wrapped the same way the other one was wrapped at home. The tureen had these dark-green paintings. It didn’t have a lid. After wrapping it, changed the tureens under the table, and wrapped the fake one with plastic bags. Wrapped with the things that had at home. It was well wrapped so he could not understand. Said I was gonna do a good wrapping for him to take it on the plane. He would not suspect. The plate I used was good, was an old one from the old Fábrica de Sacavém, it was ceramic and had a beautiful drawing of blue flowers. Hope he keeps that one.''

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Excerpt from conversation with vendor / ''Instead of just putting the tureen inside a plastic bag we could wrap it with it. To accentuate the form of the ceramic tureen. Maintaining that shape to assume it is the real one.''

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Materials / Spaghetti plastic colander, ceramic bowl, tape, bubble wrap, fabric, 4 plastic bags, plastic rope, scissor, newspaper, 2 packs of salt

Photographs taken during the making of the videos with a film camera.