Sculptures, slides and slavery: a new way of telling Lusophone African stories

Ângela Ferreira’s ‘Wattle and Daub’ - performance by Selma Uamusse at ‘Old School’, Lisbon in February 2016. Vera Marmelo

Johannesburg Art Gallery is hosting Ângela Ferreira’s solo exhibition, “South Facing”. Ferreira’s work is concerned with the ongoing impact of colonialism and post-colonialism particularly in the Global South. Ferreira is both artist and academic. With her dual African Portuguese identity Ferreira’s work is rooted in South Africa, Mozambique and Portugal. The Conversation Africa’s Charles Leonard spoke to her.

You are based in Lisbon. Do you still identify as an African artist?

Mine is a complicated personal story, but not unusual in southern Africa. I was born in Mozambique, studied in Cape Town and hold both Portuguese and South African passports. I am a Luso-South African. My critical roots are very solidly grounded in South Africa, and I presently teach and live in Lisbon.

Yes, I identify as an African artist. My conceptually driven and subtly political practice is not part of the mainstream production in the South African art context of the moment but I would like to believe that I still have something to contribute in this milieu. “South Facing” is a good example of the rich intersections between Mozambique, South Africa and Portugal which I draw from in my work. I intend to pursue my life project of exploring and digging out meaning in this area.

Please tell us about “Wattle and Daub” (2016) which forms part of “South Facing”.

This work evolved as a response to an invitation to devise a new work for performance space called “Old School” in Lisbon. “Old School” is located in an area of the city known as “Poço dos Negros” which means “well of the black people”. Historically it housed the water well which served Lisbon’s black community from the 1700s. At that time most of this community were slaves.

Jorge Ben Jor with his song ‘Zumbi’.

“Wattle and Daub” is based on Jorge Ben Jor’s 1974 song, “Zumbi”. It’s about Brazilian slave escapee communities in their settlement Quilombos, under the leadership of “Zumbi” dos Palmares. Zumbi was a slave escapee himself and led the free slaves from the clutches of the Portuguese slave owners to the mountains where they lived as free communities.

The song’s lyrics describes the scene of a slave auction, ending with hopeful speculation about what will happen when Zumbi arrives. Zumbi has become a symbol of liberation in Brazilian history. The refrain in the song “Angola, Congo, Benguela, Monjolo, Cabinda, Mina, Quiloa, Rebollo” evokes the African origins of the slaves who were up for sale.

The performance of ‘Wattle and Daub’ in Lisbon in 2016.

“Wattle and Daub” consists of a projected image of the building of the old slave market in Lagos, Portugal. In the image the building is undergoing renovation and is partially covered up by scaffolding. There is a wattle and daub structure which makes up a freestanding fence in front of the slide projection.

My starting point was an image of the building of the old slave market in Lagos, Algarve – that’s in the south of Portugal. That is the slide that is projected on the wall. I chose to work with an image where the building is partially covered by scaffolding.

In my sculpture I am constructing a new scaffold in front of the slide projection, using a construction technique which would have been common among the slave escapee communities - wattle and daub. The 14 drawings on the wall tell the story of the song, the Lagos slave market building, the sale of slaves both in Portugal and in Brazil, and life in the Quilombos.

The song about Zumbi is then performed through the sculpture as a homage to these escapee slave communities, their leader Zumbi, the Quilombos and Jorge Ben Jor’s celebratory song. The video of the performance is an integral part of the work.

Rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix’s song “Stone Free” is also referenced in “South Facing” – tell us more.

“South Facing” includes a work called “Study for Hendrix/Cullinan Shaft and Underground Cinema (After R Smithson)” (2012), which is part of a larger body work called precisely the same as Jimi Hendrix’s song “Stone Free”. This project which was first shown in London at Marlborough Contemporary – it marked the beginning of my investigations into the history of mining.

Ângela Ferreira, Hendrix Cullinan Shaft, (2012), Installation view South Facing, Johannesburg Art Gallery, 2017.

“Stone Free” links two holes, two spaces, two locations. The Cullinan Diamond Mine, source of one of the largest diamonds ever unearthed, acts as the first reference point for the show. Loaded with symbolic value, mines in South Africa have always appeared as powerful images of the political and economic structures that they sustained.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience performing ‘Stone Free’.

The second reference point, the Chislehurst Caves in London, are a warren of mines and tunnels that became a site of counter-culture in the 1960s. The caves were an underground music venue. Hendrix, who performed there, is a key figure for the exhibition, bridging not only musical cultures, but also an African-American identity via an adopted home in London, just yards from the gallery. One of his songs lends the show its title.

Although Hendrix was not an openly political figure, his person and his music have come to represent the very embodiment of revolution and liberation. He dramatically revolutionised rock music and the image of the African-American musician. I am led to believe that he left the USA to live in London in order to liberate himself from the set of musical expectations that were usually imposed on black musicians, and which he could not adhere to.

The meaning of the expression of being “stone” free is ambiguous, as are many of Hendrix’s lyrics, but seemed appropriate to point towards artistically and critically conceiving of liberation from the oppressive history of mining, particularly in Africa.

The exhibition runs until July 30, 2017.

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