A Word From Ó! Galeria: Celebrating Porto Illustration

Sol Undurraga at Ó! Galeria

We’re delighted to talk to gallerist Ema Ribeiro from the Portuguese gallery Ó! Galeria, located in in Oporto. Launched in 2009 the gallery project is thoughtfully focused on illustration but also features zines, books, drawing, artist led products and more.

Interviewed by Natasha Knight, Ema takes us through the experiences of being a gallerist with a keen eye for creative and engaging illustration collaborations.

Tell us a bit about yourself, Ema

I’m Ema to most people and Sara to family and older friends. I have always lived in the centre of Porto but the city hustle was too much for me so after the pandemic we moved to Aguda, a fishermen’s place where I spent many summers in my childhood. 

I studied ceramics in high school and at the Faculty of Fine Arts (FBAUP), I attended the Sculpture course. I went to ESAP – Escola Artística do Porto, to study photography following my passion. After a few years working in various places, including Serralves Museum, I open my first gallery dedicated to photography. It was a big challenge and 3 years later I had to close, after already started the project of Ó! Galeria in 2009. Now I continue with Ó! and Ó! Cerâmica, a project with my husband and just started doing my own ceramics.

Your Porto based project is exciting! Where did the idea for Ó! Galeria come from, and can you tell us a bit more the project? 

Many friends of mine were illustrators but didn’t have a proper place to exhibit, to show their amazing work so it was just that, a beginning of a new gallery dedicated at first to illustration and small art pieces. After a year we moved to a bigger place and with so many illustrators I decided to continue with just illustration. There was no space for anything else. 

Let’s Dance by Elisa Munsó

What inspires you about the Porto illustration scene and what have you found the most challenging? Does this vary from the wider Portuguese illustration scene? 

The illustrators from Porto were mainly professors and designers so they influenced many young people, and we could see their evolution from the initial style to a unique and strong identity in illustration. The challenge was to recognise the ones that were original, consistent and that wanted to be illustrators and that weren’t just experimenting this artistic area. That is important when we promote their work with the collectors. I believe Porto has more impact in all artistic areas because being a small town everything is connected; everyone knows everyone and that’s precious and fruitful.  

Tell us a bit about a recent collaboration for the work of the gallery, from idea to end result. 

Every December we have a collective exhibition that I curate but last year I wanted to do something different, add a few more tote bags to our products, since it’s very successful in terms of sales and our public loves them. Because it was a very big investment for the gallery, we could do a tote bag of each illustrator we represent, and to be fair to everyone maybe the curator could be someone else, someone who loves illustration, that have relation with it and is well known.

It wasn’t hard to choose, Ana aka Capicua, a musician and a writer, already did a collaboration with us during the pandemic and she worked with some illustrators for a project called Mão Verde (Green Hand). This is a music and book project for kids and others with the purpose of thinking about nature and awareness of what we can do about the state of the planet. So, I’ve asked Ana if she wanted to curate this show and if so to choose a theme and 30 illustrators for the exhibition.  She immediately said yes and chose the theme “An ice cream before the end of the world” and after the illustrators she most liked but some didn’t answer the call, so she had to choose a few more and we set with 31 very talented illustrators.  We asked the illustrators for 2 sketches to choose the one it would work better on the bag and also in riso.

After that we worked with 2 small printing businesses from here, NOT SO FAST press to do the risographs and MESCLA to do the silkscreen on the bags. The process lasted almost 2 months between getting the illustrations and printing them. The result was brilliant and the exhibition a success! 

El Amor #15 by Maria Goméz

What’s your favourite project you’ve worked on, and why? 

It’s difficult to choose one but maybe the “Bóia/Lifebuoy”. During the pandemic I asked the illustrators to help us stay afloat and we could see that we’re not alone even if we’re struggling. It was very heart warming.

How do you diversify your income? We see that you have recently launched a ceramics branch, how did this idea come about? 

We have original illustrations, digital prints, risograph prints, silkscreens, apparel, books, zines and postcards. Now the ceramic gallery it’s a project with Nuno Santos, my husband. I wanted to celebrate the fact that ceramics is returning strongly as a medium and the relation with illustration. Many illustrators started to experiment with ceramic and I wanted to show their work in a proper space. Nuno started to do workshops and we felt the public more and more interested in doing something outside the office, without a screen, it’s therapeutic. 

What support have you needed along the way in your career and how do you support your community in Porto? 

I didn’t have any financial support, it wasn’t until a few years ago that I’ve started to have a steady income. The struggle was real and the illustrators had always support our endeavours, the trust in our work and what we did for each others result as a long-term collaboration. Between the similar projects we always have to respect each others to endure. We have some understandings with a couple of galleries not to show the same authors, and if we show them we have different work, a gap of years between the shows, always thinking what it’s the best for everyone. I try to attend to the exhibitions, I believe it’s important to be there, not just promote the events online. Also as a collector I buy most of the illustrations outside Ó! I believe if we can we should support others businesses and illustrators, ceramists.

As Hortênsias by Bina Tangerina

How do you stay connected with the illustration community? Do you have any advice for illustrators feeling isolated? 

Before the pandemic, each opening was a reason to join the illustrators at a dinner table and create relations, synergies between them. Now people are more cocooning, not socialising so much here. I’m always looking for new illustrators, inviting them to exhibit or to have their work represented here. It’s not easy, because many don’t know what is the importance of a gallery and feel somehow suspicious but we try to show them with our constant work that what we do matters and that its a good thing for them. For those that feel more apart I believe that communicating with other illustrators, showing their work online on social media, creating an website, selling your work online and at illustration fairs, even trading works with others could lead to some opportunities. Be resilient, honest, original and things will happen.

How do you try to organise your time and achieve a healthy work/life balance? 

Now I work most of the days from home because I have 3 super collaborators at the gallery and as a team we do the work in a way that it’s easy going and pleasuring. At the Ó! Cerâmica is Nuno and 2 collaborators and it’s also going well. Both of us like to take some time of and go to the country, to come to work with more inspiration and energy.

Lá de fora III by Catarina Oscarina

What advice would you give to creatives who’d like set up a similar venture in their own area? 

My moto has always been “work hard and be nice to people”; that’s the base to achieve the dream. After 14 years I found myself in a good place, achieved what I’ve wanted until now and enjoy life because I want simpler things. That’s my truth but even if you want more always be honest in what you do, communicate and be resilient.

What can we expect to see from you/ Ó Galeria in the future? 

I hope we continue to show the work of the most wonderful illustrators and ceramists. I’m also looking for a place where we can establish Ó! in Lisbon, to try again and extend our walls to the capital. I believe it will be very difficult because Lisbon is super expensive now but we never know…

Many thanks to Ema and Ó Galeria for sharing their experiences on the Port Illustration scene!

Makes sure to catch up on more of their works via their website or Instagram

9th May 2023

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