Tropical High Tech: Recent activities of the Trienal de Luanda
by Ruth Sacks
There are no commercial galleries in Luanda. There is no option of free booze, gossip and (sometimes) new work like the larger centres in South Africa every second week. When five exhibition spaces held openings on December 12 last year for the Vernissage of the Trienal de Luanda, it was no small achievement. This event presented an alternative attitude from those we are accustomed to in the art scene on the tip of the continent. While we tend towards blasé attitudes and bickering, the Angolans appear to be working till the early hours of the morning to set up an infrastructure where none yet exists.
The first thing that struck me on my arrival in Luanda is the apparent lack of a strict hierarchy in the Trienal team. I was shuttled straight from the airport to the first venue of the Vernissage. After adjusting to the intense humidity, I began to notice that all members of the Trienal organisation could be identified by paint marks on their clothes and skin. This rule applied to all involved, including visiting curators and creative directors. While Fernando Alvim, Albano Cardoso and Tiago Borges are the figureheads of the Trienal, it is best not to box the team into rigid categories. The same applies to the exhibition spaces.
Process was the focus of the displays, rather than traditional showcases of work. Spaces like UNAP (the headquarters of the plastic artists' national union) displayed before and after photos of their reconstruction - when the Trienal is described as being built from ruins, this is not a figure of speech. Also prominently displayed was the strategy of the Trienal. The conceptual and practical core of the whole endeavour was illustrated through small maps and diagrams on gallery walls. A slide show of photographs and flags in the SOSO|GLOBO gallery further emphasizes the exhibition's political philosophy. All of the above are displayed online on the official website for the Trienal. The organisation's framework and plans are introduced through visuals and simple labelling, with a lack of high-handed rhetoric. This is a refreshingly economical package, especially compared with the bulky explanatory folders of many large-scale exhibitions that tend to clog up one's luggage and inbox.
Homage was paid to a variety of heroes. At the SOSO|BAI gallery, a large poster of Carlos Guimarães, a national sport hero in a country that has won eight African basketball championships in a row, introduced the all-important concept of sport. The mass appeal of sport is something the Trienal plays with, as an aesthetic as well as a business model. Michael Jordan is billed to be one of the artists for the main event in March 2006. In other spaces, influential political and philosophical figures like Amilcar Cabral and Agostinho Neto were on the walls. The role of political figures who were also poets and musicians is stressed throughout the project. These posters will all become billboards closer to the time of the Trienal.
A moving outdoor performance by Paulo Flores provided live representation of Angolan musical heritage for the evening. As in any large contemporary exhibition, performance-based work has been carefully considered and included as part of the display. Gallery spaces like SOSO|GLOBO have been designed so that performance pieces are easily accommodated and dance productions directed by Monica Anapaz and Rita Oliveira had already taken place. The gallery upstairs in the Hotel Globo also provided a sample of the Tchokwe drawings. These were traditional drawing techniques made all but extinct during the colonial period in Angola. Photographs of now long-gone Tchokwe images on city walls have been reprinted to create vibrant and engaging objects.
Good quality large-scale prints, as well as the slideshows and display computers all emphasized that this African exhibition sits comfortably in this century. The context of Angola's still recent war was enforced by the focus on history and politics. But contemporary artworks in each space promised that the project is not necessarily top heavy with heritage at the expense of the visual arts.
Overall, the design is slick and minimal without any reference to some kind of presupposed ethnicity. Flyers and billboards with blocks of pure red and orange are attention-grabbing and effective. These aesthetics are carried through to the Trienal offices. Here, visitors were treated to Apple Mac heaven, with pearly white lacquered floors and ceilings and a hive of computers, printers and staff. The latter were all disarmingly accommodating, despite the ongoing pressure. Behind the scenes, directories are being created that locate artists and acting groups. Plans for a centre for a contemporary art are in the making. Evidently, new systems are being put into place that reach further than one big exhibition every three years. The organisation retains independence from government handouts through marketing schemes with major companies as well as intelligent management of the Sindika Dokolo contemporary art collection.
The Trienal de Luanda is not about tourism. It does not even appear to be about art. Of all the activities planned for the exposition, the organisers foresee only 10percent of the displays safely fitting into the category of fine art. This preliminary event served to present the overall project as a large, ongoing conceptual piece that intends to boost cultural pride and future careers. Using its own resources.
The next event takes place on January 30, 2006. It will be the first introspection into the Sindika Dokolo contemporary art collection, including artists like Bily Bidjoca, Kendell Geers, Zweletu Mthethwa, Ingrid Mwangi and Sue Williamson amongst others.