After an initial career in contemporary dance from 1968 to 1976, having joined Pina Bausch's company (1973-74) and created along with Jean Pomares The Moon Dance Company (1976), he attended the Chelsea School of Art (1976-81), in London, funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, and settled in the UK.
He began by painting, but from the 1990s on, he started working with other mediums, namely film, photography, and installation, creating a body of work in which the word and the image are structural.
Penalva is known for making large-scale installations in various media, as well as more intimate works with video and slide projection, sound, drawing, painting and materials he finds. Through these mediums, he addresses narrative modes and the relationships between images, text, language and sound. His narratives are often fractured, presenting juxtaposed elements and allowing the viewer a margin of freedom in their interpretation.
He was chosen for the the DAAD Berlin Artist's Residency in 2003. He represented Portugal at the São Paulo International Biennial in 1996, and at the Biennale di Venezia in 2001. He also participated in the Berlin Biennale in 2001 and the Biennale of Sydney in 2002.
He has presented his work internationally in many countries, and has held numerous exhibitions. Solo exhibitions include, for example, CB, Lisbon, 1998; Camden Arts Centre, London; Contemporary Art Centre, Vilnius; Tramway, Glasgow, 2000; The Power Plant, Toronto, 2003; Serralves, Porto, Ludwig Museum Budapest, 2005; Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, 2006; Mead Gallery, University of Warwick, 2007; Lunds Konsthall, Lund, Sweden, 2010; CAM, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon, 2011; Trondheim Kunstmuseum, Norway, 2014; MUDAM, Musée d'Art Moderne, Luxembourg, 2018; Culturgest, Porto; Lumiar Cité, Lisbon, 2018.
Group exhibitions have also been many and varied. He has exhibited, for example, at Tate Modern, Haus der Kunst, Museu Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, MAAT, or the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul.
His work is represented in several art collections around the world, such as: Arts Council England, Towner Museum of Contemporary Art, Fundação Serralves, Fundação Gulbenkian, Ludwig Museum Budapest, KIASMA Museum of Contemporary Art, Deutsche Bank, Western Bridge - The Bill and Ruth True Collection, among others.
João Penalva is represented by Simon Lee Gallery (London / Hong Kong), Galerie Thomas Schulte (Berlin) and Galeria Filomena Soares (Lisbon).
João Penalva collaborates in the Young Composers program as coordinator of the visual arts branch.