Ah idioms, they’re strange old things. In Iceland if someone “takes you to the bakery” they’re not buying you a sweet treat but giving you a massive telling off. To express the idea that all good things must come to an end, Germans will announce, “Everything has one end, only the sausage has two”. The Swedes win the prize for some of the most peculiar sayings. For example, if someone gets into a good situation without having to work for it, they “slid in on a shrimp sandwich” or if you’re trying to squeeze a loved around a crowded table you might say warmly, “If there’s room in the heart, there’s room for the ass.”
Often amusing, idioms can also tell you quite a lot about culture – which is how illustrator Joana Avillez first got interested in Portuguese turns of phrase. Her latest zine for indie publisher Tan & Loose, called A Sardinha Zinha (The Sardine Zine), collects some of the weird and wonderful Portuguese sayings she’d heard from her family and renders them into adorable illustrations. “I am half Portuguese, but don’t speak the language, so the zine was a way to learn a bit,” Joana tells It’s Nice That. “What is great about idioms, after all, is that they are at once completely absurd but also very direct and clear – they get to the root or core of a culture.”
When she was asked by Tan & Loose if she’d like to work on a zine for the publisher, she knew it would make a great topic. “It was also just an excuse to pester my cousins and close friends in Lisbon, to cajole them into being my unwitting collaborators,” says Joana. “It was really fun: asking them if a Portuguese person would really say such-and-such a thing, and also finding out how many Portuguese proverbs there are about fish.”
From advice that women should be small like sardines to the snootiness of “racing mackerel”, Joana has tried to explain the meaning of these strange sayings through her drawings rather than through words. “At first I thought I would illustrate the proverbs like surrealist drawings – a literal depiction of the phrase – but it became clear that the meaning should be figured out,” says Joana. “The whole charm is in having to decipher the inherent weirdness – the pleasure is in the discrepancy between words and image.”
While Joana doesn’t speak Portuguese, she knows its visual identity through and through, and drew on this visual heritage for the zine. “It reminds me of my dad,” says Joana. “He is the reason I love Portugal so much – the humour, the people, the food, the architecture – he’s alive in all of it.”
About the Author
Laura is a London-based arts journalist that has been working for It’s Nice That on a freelance basis since 2016. She currently covers the news desk on a Friday for news editor Jenny. Send her all your big stories, projects and exhibitions. You can reach Laura directly on firstname.lastname@example.org or via our news channel at email@example.com.