Introspection and education: An update on Luanda
by Ruth Sacks
It's not often one gets to see a Warhol next to the work of a young Angolan photographer. Having been based in Cape Town for the last two years, I haven't many Warhols at all for that matter. The chances of being exposed to the work of emerging artists from the rest of Africa are even more remote. It is a privilege to be able to come to Luanda on a regular basis.
On May 11, six galleries, all built within the last two years, opened their doors for a showcase of selected works from the collection of Sindika Dokolo. A huge new hall as well as a performance space and a multimedia room had just been completed. This is the new SOSO CORREIOS|SONANGALP, situated above the post office in Luanda. The public was there in full force to see the new space and circulate around the points of attraction.
Willem Boshoff's Garden of Words rustles gently in the middle of the new room, quietly holding its own opposite the full set of Yinka Shonibare's Diary of a Victorian Dandy. Pride of place has been given to emerging artists Kiluanji Kia Henda, Yonamine and N'Dilo Mutima. Particularly noticeable, although difficult to watch, is a three channel video projection by Yonamine. The young artist presents a frenetic series of movements, including footage of himself getting tattooed with a razor blade as part of a traditional ritual in the rural area of Lunda. His work is flanked by Kentridge and Mounir Fatmi.
Curatorial decisions clearly seek to emphasize the importance of young artists, all of whose work stands strong alongside established names and key historical pieces. Representatives of the government were a noticeable presence on opening night. Simon Njami of Africa Remix fame attempted, unsuccessfully, not to be recognized, prior to taking part in a conference a few days later and I was disappointed to learn that I missed a presentation by David Elliott the week before. An unplugged concert by Paulo Flores, whose following in the city is devoted to say the least, capped the evening. Welcome to Luanda.
Sindika Dokolo's collection sets an important example for the development of culture on this continent. It does this not only by making key works by artists like Marlene Dumas, Chris Offili and Kendell Geers available to the general public in Luanda, but also by its practical application of independent action. Choices regarding the collection suggest an understanding of international forums, yet the underlying motivation is political. Dokolo stresses that this is an African collection of contemporary art, rather than a collection of contemporary African art.
Self-sufficiency and self-confidence in cultural matters are of primary importance. This is made clear in the vinyl wall texts embedded in each of the exhibition spaces. As one of the primary supporters of the Trienal de Luanda, Dokolo demonstrates his belief in independent platforms in Africa. Through a partnership with SOSO|LAX, the producers of the Trienal, mechanisms have been created to support young Angolan artists. Studio residencies are supported and production costs covered alongside all-important exposure. There is also a great deal of emphasis on educational projects, with the visible presence of school groups of all ages in the exhibition spaces during the day. Sustained implementation of cultural energy is the order of the day. And it has been carried out with a professional edge that is enviable. Njami comments that, once inside the spaces, one could be in any major art centre in the world.
The city of Luanda provides an incredibly rich and complex backdrop to each event. Evidence of the trauma of war is still evident, as is massive change and there are construction sites all over the city centre. Art events have to be situated within a context both desperate for input and the same time still reeling from harsh conditions. Exhibitions like this one serve to introduce contemporary art-making practice to a community that has not had the luxury of major shows during 26 years of warfare. Artworks are elitist objects, bought by the wealthy, but the shows themselves are accessible and central. Strong pieces like that of those of Angolan photographer Kiluanji Kia Henda clearly speak of moments in an urban African city on the cusp of change.
As with all similar events, a series of performances and conferences run simultaneously. The night after the opening, Angolan artist Nastio Mosquito presented a dramatic reading of the poetry of Alda Lara, an important figure in the cultural history of Angola. I particularly enjoyed his romantic advances on the billboard-size image of the poetess. Two days after Simon Njami presented his views on representing Africa while travelling the world, Paulo Cunha e Silva, the previous head of Porto 2001 Europa Cultural City, gave an overview of his activities and underlying philosophy there. Cape Town theorist Andrew Lamprecht arrived a week later to give more informal feedback to the Trienal team. He is acting as consultant for the South African representation on Trienal de Luanda. Ed Young and Christian Nerf will be visiting the city as part of an research-based expedition 'No Problem in Africa'. This is the African leg of the international Routes project, conceptualised by Berlin-based curator Harm Lux.
A number of people in South Africa have asked me if the Trienal de Luanda is happening at all. I am sad they could not all be here last week to see the breathtaking, multi-layered show spread across the city. It sets a high standard for the big event planned for later in the year. Fernando Alvim states that, 'The Trienal does not exist as just one point. It is three years' worth of work, building up a cultural movement within the city to legitimize the Trienal.'
See the most recent Contemporary magazine for Sue Williamson's article on Sindika Dokolo collection.
Ruth Sacks is Cape Town based artist currently working as co-ordinator for the South African representation on Trienal de Luanda