By Nicola Brandt
We cannot preview the future without reflecting on the past, otherwise we are constructing a society without memory. To be able to construct something for the next generation, we need to remember. – António Ole
António Ole is the Curator of the Pavilion of Angola at the 56th International Art Biennale in Venice that runs until 22 November 2015. Ole is one of Angola’s foremost artists and is a painter, filmmaker and photographer. It is his second showing at the Biennale. He is exhibiting with the artists Binelde Hyrcan, Délio Jasse, Francisco Vidal and Nelo Teixeira. In 2013 Angola was the first African Pavilion that won the Golden Lion. Nicola Brandt of Namibia interviewed Ole in Venice during May.
Nicola Brandt: The exhibition’s title is On Ways of Travelling. What were some of the key ideas behind the exhibition?
António Ole: It was very much an exercise on reflecting on violence in my country. Remember that we have a process that follows from the colonial war, although there has been no continuity in this process. We had tremendous conflicts between all the liberation movements, MPLA, UNITA, FNLA that took us a long way. We spent some time confronting each other; in the end I was exhausted. So I prepared this exhibition like an exorcism of violence. Our history is like a boat with two parts. I show this in my work Broken Boat. One part of the boat has reports from the colonial police, and in the other, red bricks [that are not being used to build]. In each part of this boat I have plasma screens. Some people related to the crows as a symbol of bad luck, but in Angola traditionally crows are signs of good luck. It is a piece that I have exhibited in many places, first in Angola, then in Lisbon and Washington DC. It is one of my more powerful pieces I guess. It is now in the US as part of a collection.
NB: Do you see this sculptural installation Broken Boat as reflecting on some of your key interests?
AO: My work is a reflection on our history—some pieces speak of slavery and forced labour. There are also pieces that speak of the new Angola. I spend a lot of time in the archives, in Luanda and in Lisbon. There is another project that I call Hidden Pages, Stolen Bodies. When I was in the Unites States studying film, my Afro-American colleagues did not want to talk about this type of topic, it was kind of taboo. From that point onwards I was interested in going deeper into these ideas, not as an historian or an anthropologist, but as a visual artist. I wanted to contribute so that people become conscious of our past and what happened to them — the suffering — so many things — almost one million people left our country during this process of forced labour and slavery. It was very painful, this history, and as an artist I would like to talk about it.
NB: Do you think it is a crucial role of the artist to work through suffering, or memory and trauma?
AO: Yes, to go further into the future we need to go further into the past. We can’t develop the future without looking into the past. It’s impossible.
NB: What united the group of younger artists that you worked with?
AO: We have a lot in common, particularly the idea of a multi-discipline approach. I was working with the two artists Francisco Vidal and Nelo Teixeira in a project in Luanda over a period of two years. They are younger than I am, so there is a generational dialogue. In the African tradition the older generation does some kind of transmission to the new generation, so my idea was around this passage, a testimony. Binelde Hyrcan presents this beautiful video and installation, and the young artist Délio Jasse uses photography in a very interesting way: the sedimentation, the development of memories. They were already going their own way in this same direction so I found [the collaboration] very interesting. There are other modern artists like Kiluanji Kyahenda and Edson Chagas who have done extremely well, but with these particular artists I have a link.
NB: Beyond this idea of a generational transmission, what general themes, techniques, ideas are you developing? Is it about Angolan identity, history?
AO: There are a lot of artists who go to tradition to pick up information, but sometimes artists do not know how to transfer this knowledge. But this is not only a problem of Angolan artists. Many artists on the continent do this, and I do not think that this is good for us. We are artists from our time, contemporary artists. I also often go to tradition and our legacy to find inspiration, but I do not want to repeat the tradition. Tradition is like a leitmotif, but we have to use this tradition to transform us and to provide reflection around our own time. Our time is a time of complex problems. [The exhibition] is a kind of metaphor for travelling. The notion of travelling towards modern art from the traditional side, towards contemporaneity and common backgrounds. In our country, and in the history of our art, we have seven kingdoms, and even more kingdoms in the past. All of them came from Bantu roots, with common backgrounds,but these kingdoms developed into different directions. Then we also have the story of the Queen Nzinga Mbande of the 7th century who was very famous and grew into a myth. She fought the Portuguese and the Europeans. She was so proud of herself and legends were created around her. All this heritage was important for our development. But as an artist, though I study a lot and read a lot about our traditions, and the meaning of some objects and cults, I don’t have the patience to repeat these traditions.
NB: Do you see something like the Biennale as an opportunity for artists from different countries to begin a dialogue among one another?
AO: I belong to a group of filmmakers from Southern Africa who have regular discussions in many parts of Africa. Under SABC 3; some in South Africa, in Zanzibar, in Zimbabwe. I have been following these discussions for a long time. And it’s been very constructive. It’s important for us to see what each of us are doing in our countries.
NB: How have the Angolans processed the memories of this war? Do Angolans talk about the war?
AO: Yes, in 2008 there was the [20- year memorial] celebration of one of the biggest battles between Angola and South Africa, Cuito Cuanavale of 1987/88, one of the biggest after the Second World War. As you know Angola is in a particular moment at the beginning of our independence. We are paying a bill for receiving the SWAPO Liberation Movement in Namibia, and also the ANC. We were bombarded, and thousands of Angolans died in this process. The South Africans forces could come very comfortably from the Namibian desert side, and travel low to escape the radar of the Angolans and Cubans to bombard some areas where SWAPO, and also later some ANC members, were located. It was a very sad time. At the independence of Namibia, Mr Sam Nujoma did not say thank you to the Angolans for that. This was something that I noticed historically. But what also disturbs me a lot now is why South Africans are expelling other Africans [from their country]. This is terrible. They suffered so much under the system of apartheid, now they probably have their reasons to refuse these people, their brothers from other parts of Africa, but Mozambicans, Zimbabweans and Angolans died in this process.
NB: It was the theatre for Cold War politics, especially for American and British politicians. In a sense keeping apartheid going suited certain ideological agendas.
AO: I was only once in the Soviet Union, when our first President Augustino Neto visited the Soviet Union, asking for weapons. The USA with their big boats and aircraft were waiting (it was the time of Kissinger). The Soviets were occupying American territory that had to do with the control of oil. At that time I was working for Angolan television. It was the day of independence, 11 November 1975, [the start of the Angolan civil war.] We were like in a sandwich. Up north, there were FNLA and the mercenaries, with MPLA and South Africa in the south, and us in the middle. We were listening to the bombarding. For me, emotionally, it was something that I will never forget — a very stressful time when you never knew what would happen. Slowly now, people are beginning to talk about these situations.
NB: It is said that one of the roles of the artist is to preserve, or rather, re-animate memory. Would you agree with this?
AO: Yes, this is extremely important. We cannot preview the future without reflecting on the past, otherwise we are constructing a society without memory. To be able to construct something for the next generation, we need to remember. I think we can excuse, [forgive], but we cannot forget.
NB: But how does one represent memory through art, without trying to give a history lesson?
AO: I think this is a question that most or all artists have already considered. The photographs of Délio Jasse are exactly about memory. He has an artistic practice where he loves to work with memory. He goes to markets where they sell old pictures; he collects old images, old passports, stamps and so on, and then he makes collages. For me this is pretty much the sedimentation, the idea of excavating, going into the past.
NB: I can’t help thinking of your very powerful piece Broken Boat. For me it touches a lot on the themes in this exhibition. It is a metaphor for the inability to always access history and memory, but also the need to try. You have your police records there that are sealed, you cannot read them.
AO: This piece is very important to me. Even if we are from the Kimbundu family, colonialism divided us into ‘ethnic’ divisions; what this work represents for me, is what we are trying to achieve for Angola, the possibility of unity. One thing that all the major liberation movements established was that the struggle was not against the Portuguese, but against a fascist colonialist regime. We have to make that distinction. The relationship between Angola and [Portugal] started with the Kingdom of Kongo, (c. 1390 to 1891) and representation to Lisbon. Slowly the process of distribution of land, and not respecting [the people] created these liberation movements, and made the transition to independence difficult. People came to understand that with the Portuguese, they could never develop a better society. This [understanding] started at many different places in Angola. It’s interesting then also to study what writers began to say about issues like freedom and liberation. At certain moments, some newspapers’ [offices] were burnt down by the Portuguese authorities because their ideas were regarded as subversive.
NB: Did the resistance bring about divisions, or did it link different people together? And do you see some of these spectres still carried through today? Is there retribution or a sense of pointing fingers?
AO: The situation now is that we are trying to solve our own problems. Some of the problems have not been completely solved. It’s a slow process of construction of this unity – we want to arrive at a situation where we can talk without any animosity. But this takes time. Angola is slowly walking towards a democracy. The liberation movements are now represented in Parliament, and they have a platform to discuss things. One also has to think about the ideas of democracy in our own old societies in the past, when democracy [operated] in our pre-colonial societies—not the western idea of democracy. That does not work.
NB: This year’s Biennale seems to be more politically engaged, obviously due to Okwui Enwezor’s selections as the curator. Why was Angola important in Okwui’s larger vision for this Biennale?
AO: Well, as you know Angola made their own decisions in terms of which ideology to follow. I think Angola has forgotten about socialism. In the beginning all these elements were very strong. Ideas around the distribution of land, [for instance] and many things where we [now] have some experience. I have the impression that Okwui’s proposal of the re-reading of Marx’s Das Kapital offers the possibility of reflection and discussion.
NB: So you think that the performance reading of Das Kapital for seven months at the Biennale is not necessarily to say that we should embrace Marxism or socialism but rather to allow us to interrogate the contemporary model that we are living under?
AO: Yes, because I do not think that good things can come from following the direction [that we are in now]. They never think of the people. The banks are like thieves and governments follow politics. They are forgetting the people; they need to give more attention to them. In a certain moment people wake up and they say they do not want this anymore—that is why liberation movements were created. As you know Portugal spent a lot of time in Angola, five centuries. Even if they spent only one century there, it was complete domination. If you plant things in a rural area, and somebody comes to occupy the land, it provokes conflict. The last one hundred years was complete colonisation. The Portuguese came and started relations with African Angolans and created this kind of creole culture that was the beginning of the idea of liberation.
NB: In Okwui’s exhibition the body is inscribed by ethnic and national borders, so he is saying that the body is circumscribed, influenced, by these borders, unless it manages to break free. Your work and this exhibition seems to acknowledge this pre-determination, but at the same time reveals something much more complex, with different influences that merge. Okwui seems to be grounding his ideas a lot in the social and historical specificities of countries and identities, but I feel that there are many more murky territories. When I look at your work you seem to link the different influences to create something completely novel.
AO: These aspects are not viewed directly. They are underlying, at the root, or are in structures that gave rise to ideas for the exhibition. People sometimes ask me, “Do you think your work is political?” Maybe. All art work is political. But the process of evolution of each artist is so different, even if we have things in common. You know, this is a process of putting together many fragments that created new syntheses.
NB: So your answer is that it is much more ambiguous.
AO: Yes. And why ambiguous? During colonial times when I was a kid (and this is my personal experience) we had to use ambiguity to make this discourse pass. I remember when I was nineteen years old I was already represented in modern art exhibitions in Luanda during colonial times. I was in high school at the time and I was already very politically conscious— about the world and what I wanted for my country. At that time I was using the comic format, these little stories, to make a statement. These statements were against the Catholic church and against the Pope. He was prohibiting the contraceptives for women, but at the same time women were having ten children which they do not have the capacity to nourish or feed. So I made a very complex story – with lots of images of the contemporary world and in one of these image the Pope (Paulo VI) takes a pill himself. This was [regarded as subversive] and my art was prohibited.
NB: It has been said that “The place of the artist is by the side of the weak.” Do you agree with that and is this seen in your own work?
AO: This comes very close to my own ideas. My practice talks about the division between my own home city Luanda, with its urbanised area, and the peripheral area. For years, (because I was supposed to become an architect) I was photographing housing in poor neighbourhoods, and thinking and talking about the poor and their lot. They are not under the spotlight, and they are not spoken about in the newspapers. I care about situations like that.
NB: It is clear that as a curator and an artist you are trying to grapple with the shadows of Angolan history in your work? Can you elaborate on this a bit more?
AO: Yes, absolutely, the shadows are still there. We are talking about this dialogue of generations. It is also a way to create a possibility of new structures for the future. There is now a syndrome, very clearly, in the development of our capital city Luanda. Government’s attitude is to erase the past, destroying all the old colonial buildings and imposing a new system. Creating buildings all in glass, and with air-conditioning that consumes a lot of electricity. They are pretty much destroying the idea of the old city. Some of the colonial constructions are important as part of our memory, to remember, and because they have quality. We cannot destroy them. But the attitude is to create a city like Dubai or Abu Dhabi. For me this is very negative, because we need some of these buildings. OK, we are already celebrating forty years of independence, and this process was not a straight line; there were many up and downs. This architecture in Luanda does not consider, for instance, the impact of winds, or that we are living in the tropics. These towers consume a lot of energy. Part of the city does not have electricity, while too much [consumption] is concentrated in this new Luanda, these symbols of power. I disagree completely with this. When you arrive by plane in Luanda, you will see the division between what we call the shanty towns of the urbanized city. For me this is a shock.
[Somehow] we have to solve this problem. Also, the system of development in Luanda started around the Bay of Luanda. For centuries, each time [a new phase] of the city is being constructed they moved people to the periphery. This is happening now. This is why I completely disagree. I don’t do pamphlets with my art, but it’s very clear that my work and my practice is located in and interrogates these issues.
NB: I find it an interesting idea about razing the old city, or aspects of the old city, and creating structures of glass—the light is not absorbed by the glass. Like mirrors where things are bouncing off, it keeps things on the surface and repels instead of integrating or making development organic.
Here in Venice, you are putting the Angola Pavilion into a space like Palazzo Pisani, this Conservatoire, which in some sense is a Venetian symbol of enlightenment, culture, power, very much of Western culture. What happens when you put your works inside this loggia?
AO: It’s a provocation. And the art makes sense in provocative direction, otherwise nothing happens. Every year we are trying to find space in Venice. It’s very complex. I think you had the same problem. But for me it’s an interesting provocation, coming from Luanda, and I think [putting these settings] together, is provocative.
NB: Where to now for you?
AO: Ah, my next step. I am getting old. I am sixty-three years old. In two years I am celebrating fifty years of work. I never went to art school; I just jumped directly into the art world, and now I am dealing with my own memories. I have already made twelve documentaries and I am also determined to restore my films. Can you imagine? My films are part of the history. Now I have to think about how to make sure that they do not disappear. And also, in all of this process, I have collected so many books and information that I now need to organise; to create a small centre of documentation.
NB: So your future is in your past?
AO: Yes, but I have a lot of things [still] to do. I have two assistants, and I hope my daughter (she is doing History at the University of Lisbon — she is her own Patri More), I think she is interested to help me to organise all this. I think new generations can use my information: papers, newspapers from the sixties, catalogues and so on. Otherwise these things can be burnt.
Nicola Brandt is a Namibian-born artist and scholar based in Namibia and the UK.