Among many other things, Antognioni Brunhoso is an artist. He lives inside an old textile factory on the outskirts of St. Esteve in the Vall d’en Bas, Catalonia, with his partner Ernie, his cat Maria, and his dog Lingo.
“He has won the hearts of all the people in town,” his neighbor told me. He spoke about the uniqueness of his home, the color of his skin, how far he had come from, and the goldfish in his paintings. I grew fascinated with this rarity of a character that had already settled in my imagination long before I met him.
On the day of our interview, Antognioni invited me to his home. It’s a space rebuilt entirely with reeds and wooden pallets, a place that seems taken straight from a story or—as he says—a different dimension. Nevertheless, it is as much a part of the town as the traditional masos (farm houses) and the fields and cattle that surround it.
“When I arrived at the factory, there was nothing. It was just an empty space,” he said. “In this type of construction, with reeds and pallets, I already have experience. I love living like this, and when I rent an apartment, I end up doing the same. I can’t stop myself! Without transforming the space, it is as if my life isn’t mine but the space’s instead.”
Antognioni has lived in St. Esteve since 2016, but he was born in Angola. He lived there until he was sixteen, when he moved to his father’s homeland of Lisbon, where he lived for ten years and studied art in school. Like him, three million Angolans migrated to Portugal in search of a new life away from the armed conflict that lasted almost three decades. First, it was the colonial war. Then, immediately after proclaiming independence in 1975, an intense and brutal civil war broke out.
At age twenty-eight, he moved to Amsterdam—“the city of innovation and neon,” as he calls it. “Amsterdam has nothing to offer for a person with a natural spirit like mine,” he said when recalling those years. Despite this, in Amsterdam he started a family and, with persistent work and the advice of numerous painters, musicians, poets, and other professionals, he developed his own artistic style.
So how did he end up in St. Esteve? There came a point in his life, he described, that he believed he could be anywhere. “Here, I found everything. The love they have for me here, I have twice as much for them.”
“I bring colors into their life, as well as kindness and knowledge. I did not come to seek training. I did not come to take people’s jobs away. I talk to everyone with the same intensity, and I don’t have a friend that I love more than another. My art shows the acceptance I feel from the town and give back to them. I think it is because I’m a painter. It seems we painters have a way of being, which seems positive.”
Forty years after leaving Angola, he decided to return to his homeland for the first time and visit his childhood home. There was little left of the Portuguese architecture of the city he once knew. Now the buildings served as an international market.
“I, who draw a lot of fish, felt like a fish out of water,” he confesses. “Nowadays, St. Esteve is home, because I am from where I reside.”
Although he acknowledges there have been a few times he has felt subject to prejudice, he doesn’t worry much about something that, he is convinced, is nothing but the fruit of ignorance.
“Prejudice, it seems to me, only gives rise to error. We are used to being guided by prejudice, and once we realize that things aren’t how we imagined, we grow confused. I believe that the first mission for an artist like me is to erase prejudice, through words and example.”
When he moved to St. Esteve, a friend suggested he paint the walls of the local pool café to introduce his art, his energy, and his presence in town. He did, and then painted the glass of the Estrada, a local bistro, both important hangouts in St. Esteve. He did it his own way, as he always does, filling it with goldfish.
“My friend told me, ‘People will talk, we are certain of this,’” he remembers. “And now, when children see the mural in the café by the public pool, they shout, ‘Mama! Mama! Lots of fish!’”
He says that his art is simple, that it does not have to be explained. “We are painters, not narrators.” He has practiced painting his whole life, but he calls it a disease.
“Some speak of cocaine or heroin. I see colors and pigment, and I have to paint. Here in St. Esteve, they tell me, ‘Hey, Antognioni! Here the cows are black and white, huh! Paint everything, but don’t paint the cows!”
For a lifelong painter like himself, Antognioni says that being an artist is a mental state, in which neutrality and honesty are key.
“Honesty is a requirement for a painter, since our work is an interpretation of life. When you are a good painter, you paint your heart. People want to buy things, but it is not possible to buy a painter’s heart.”
By the end of the interview, I finally dare to ask him about the significance of his goldfish.
“It’s an expression and a confirmation as a painter,” he says, gesturing at the paintings that hang on the walls and accumulate on the floor. “The goldfish aren’t just the goldfish. The shapes sometimes look like faces, or like women, or contours of people, or other situations. Without realizing, the goldfish end up taking other shapes. They do things.”
He also tells me, laughing, that sooner or later all his friends end up with a goldfish in their hands.
Clara Soler Sueiro is a graduate of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona with a degree in social and cultural anthropology. She was part of the team that carried out the SomVallBas cultural sustainability project in the Vall d’en Bas in 2019.