Horta De Escola, Galerias Municipal

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Vegetable Garden of the School

What a great summer 2014 working on two projects in Lisbon, Portugal, the first is Horta De Escola, an urban gardening arts education project at Escola Basica Corucheus, funded and coordinated by the Lisbon City Arts Council culture department Galerias Municipals. The second one you will hear about in my next post. I spend my time in the office and mostly in the school every morning with Helena Tavares, who has been educating me on the project and why it is so significant today in Portugal.


1974 marked the revolution in Portugal. The dictatorship fell giving rise to democracy. The Portuguese army and public took power over the government peacefully, and a new hope was born. Pre revolution there was much poverty and a lack of education, with no freedom of expression. People were arrested if they stood up against politics. But the 1980s saw much economic vibrance, and Portugal received money from the EU to develop, that was invested in a range of things including roads and transportation. But the new government was also corrupt and not all of the money was invested in public services, but into problematic financial markets. Since the global economic crisis, Portugal like many European countries in the South including Spain, Italy and Greece have particularly struggled. They are in debt to the European bank and owe many taxes. Unemployment continues, public sector workers continue to be cut and the Portuguese are emigrating in huge numbers daily, looking for employment and better prospects in life.

Another Brick in the Wall

Education in schools is becoming more pressurized and less creative. There is less time and funds allocated to artistic expression. Teachers are under pressure to teach young pupils Mathematics and Portuguese to ensure they can pass exams. There is less time for discovery and for them to express themselves. Helena explains that Chinese and Korean educations models and approaches are being introduced. But this arguably makes people unhappy as they mature. We cannot create an army of children to become a means of production. This is not only a problem for the education curriculum in Portugal I am sure, but an issue in many countries around the world.

Current global demographic and technological changes force us to look at the environment in cities. There is a decreasing connection between people and nature. They are far away from the food they eat and do not see it grow. There is a lack of education about this in Lisbon and around the world. Helena argues that to understand nature and experience it is to understand ourselves and the world around us. Therefore Helena has worked hard to create this wonderful project in the heart of Lisbon.

Horta de Escola

The ‘vegetable garden of the school’ project is at Escola Basica Corucheus , a school on a street called Rua Fernando Pessoa. Pessoa is a national treasure, he was a Portuguese writer, poet, philosopher and literary critic. Pretty cool. Helena visits the school once a week and works with a range of young people aged 6-10 years. The children have the opportunity to learn about growing vegetables and herbs, drawing, taking photos, recording sounds, making a catalogue of herbs and creating new objects such as a bird-house. In 2013 they devised and performed two theatre pieces based on the garden. Such gardens at schools in Lisbon are on the increase, but very few have creative projects attached to them, and not always maintained well. This project ensures that the garden is used as a subject for self-expression. The garden is an outdoor classroom, where the children learn to be more still, look, listen and appreciate what is around them, whilst at other times they can be much more noisy and active. They are given the freedom to draw and be free, without a formula or judgment. Self expression comes can be loud and physical, but here they are encouraged to listen, look and breathe. Helena explains, “art education is about looking and seeing and watching and reflecting. Then, the drawing will come more naturally”.

Human beings have always put things on walls and stones using different instruments, be it colour or carving; drawing is archaic. Its something we can all do and is a human need, art comes after. Art becomes a profession, something that can be studied and be marked, and is viewed by someone other from the maker. But the practice of doing so should be available to us all, particularly young people.

From Portugal to the Punjab

I have never had green fingers so this was quite an experience for me, very personal and self reflective in a way I would not have imagined. I can barely keep an indoor potted plant alive. My father who passed away over 7 years ago was a keen gardener, so I was lucky to grow up enjoying many home grown vegetables and herbs. I was too young to then appreciate the hours he spent alone quietly at the bottom of the gardening sowing seeds, watering, and maintaining his crops for his family to enjoy. My father was generally a man of few words, calm and very wise. I think he took great pleasure and pride in his efforts and it gave him a lot of peace too.

This project also leads me to think about my personal background and heritage. I am a Punjabi Jatt, my roots are in the Punjab in India where we have a history of owning land and farming; it is in my blood. The earth and soil are so important to Punjabi’s for the survival of its people. I think your culture, roots and background continue to make sense and unfold as you move through the journey of life. Whilst studying my MSc, I was randomly put into a group with another Indian girl to come up with an idea for a new NGO for my International Development Organisations module. We ended up proposing an initiative to improve and sustain the quality of life of farming communities in India, focusing on Punjab. As the Indian economy grows, there is less concern with the countryside. Yet 60% of Indians’ lives depend on agriculture. Changes in technology have brought about the misuse of farming chemicals, which are costly and often farmers are misguided on their use. As a result profits and production decrease, families cannot survive from such low income, and farmer suicides increase during desperate times.

As there is less money to be made in Punjab and some communities struggle, some young males may fail to find much work to occupy themselves with and fall into drugs and gangs. Others will leave the country to find better opportunities elsewhere, as I have seen in Lisbon; there are many young Punjabi men here trying to build a new life.

So, a summer at Horta de Escola has really given me much food for thought; Portugal’s history, arts education for young people, urban gardening in global cities, and changes in the economy and agriculture in India affecting ongoing migrations leading to a global Punjabi diaspora, that I am a part of due to my heritage. My next post will be about Portugal’s leading surrealist art movements relating to my second project in Lisbon…

Horta de Escola

Horta de Escola


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