A Sul. O Sombreiro
A pause for reflection in a time of crisis and a timely proposal for the future

Essay by Tila Likunzi
How do we distance ourselves from the
past when we carry the stigma of being the descendants of both the victims and perpetrators?

The artworks are a metaphor for the universal-
ity of violence and oppression. They embody
the guilt of the perpetrators of heinous acts. They are the traumas of the victims, incarnate. Traumas that, passed on from generation to generation, are relived to this day in expansion-
ist policies, prejudices, racism, requests for rep-
arations, civil wars, conflicts and north-south inequalities. Our inability to overcome the traumas of the past numbs and distances us from one another, turning us into beings pivot-
ing around ourselves, disconnected from an identical reality that we all share: the age-old urge for one system, society, group or individual to dominate the other.

Driven to seek solutions, the artist proposes catharsis through dialogue with the intrinsic duality of each artwork – creation and destruc-
tion, love and hate, peace and conflict. However, she chooses to answer these dichotomies by rescuing our sense of our body, which registers our experiences and reminds us of “who we are”. The present and absent body are the strongest subthemes of A Sul. O Sombreiro and are tied into cultural identity. Its absence in the art pieces is aroused by our presence in the present. We, the viewers, are invited to fill that absence with our individual skirmishes with these subjects. As an intimation to the broader, more complex topic of race, the use of braided artificial hair reflects African hairstyles, draw-
ing from her initial impressions and later discovery of the costs, rituals and procedures
of plaiting hair as a craft and form of self and cultural expression. ‘Momentos de Aqui/On This Moment’ (ink on paper) is a cue to the act of combing as an act of love and beautification, appealing to the valuation of traditional hair-
styles over the artificiality of the (baroque) wig. It causes us to reexamine the roots of our present conception of body, hair and skin as part of culture, counterculture, systemic or self-victimization, and the perception and acceptance of these physical attributes on the part of both the former colonizers and colo-
nized. The use of hair is besides linked to the first time the artist was confronted with images of the Holocaust. The images of piles of hair were burned into the artist’s mind. The hair, a part of the human body, made the absence of the millions of victims even more visible.

It sums up the key theme of the exhibition: cultural identity and the analysis of its con-
struction for both the victims and the perpe-
trators of violence and oppression. Avoiding the dialectics with which these subjects are usually treated, A Sul. O Sombreiro continuously ques-
tions “why we are” – the shared conditioning that has shaped the global post-colonial psyche. The composition of the various elements of the exhibition proposes that we take the steps towards a future where we have moved beyond the atrocities of the past, as assumed by the opening night performance of rock, jazz and soul singer Irina Vasconcelos (‘le fou du roi’).
By engaging in dialogue with the silent, sus-
pended figures, the present confronts the past in an attempt of reconciliation or reconstruc-
tion. This suggests the need for a collective effort open to individual propositions. It is “thinking what is to come”.

In a city starved of cultural resources, the Memorial to António Agostinho Neto, Angola’s first president, is an inevitable site of field trips. Thousands of children visit it every month. Hundreds have been encouraged to tour the exhibition, to hear unfamiliar terms like “slave trade”, “diaspora” and “colonial power”. They have been amazed at the length of the ‘imperial mantle’ while puzzling over the intricate Sona drawing, a piece of intellectual heritage. They have been, in turns, frightened and entertained by sounds of bird calls, rain and thunder. The boldest have danced to the meditative tone of the video installation. They have contemplated the serial installations and have been asked to consider transgenerational trauma. They have been encouraged to talk to their grandparents about the past.

For many of these children, it is their first contact with contemporary art in a formal sense. Moreover, it is often their awakening to some aspects of the history of their country and dimensions of their cultural heritage. Though intended for adult viewership, the exhibition is equally aimed at the young. Its educational pro-
gram, a novelty in a society unused to openness to creative exploration, undertook a series of workshops introducing the artworks through didactical and philosophical exercises meant
to stimulate thinking in young minds. It also provided an outlet for latent creativity and intellectuality, and room to play. More impor-
tantly, it reached out to children of all back-
grounds and races, from private international schools to orphanages. If there are to be propos-
als for a brighter future, who better to receive this message than the young? As put by a young exhibition guide, “we haven’t had time to discover our own history”.

At a time that Africa struggles to distill a philos-
ophy and culture that is truly its own, in light of its various histories and in an increasingly glob-
alized modern world, it becomes increasingly urgent to seek alternatives to ‘what is’ and ‘what was’. This process of self-knowledge is no longer the “search for the African soul immor-
talized in masks” discarded by Isaa Samb at
the 1966 Senghor Festival. It is their legacy in continuous metamorphosis.

As Angola faces the pressures of an economic, financial and political crisis, A Sul. O Sombreiro offers a much-needed pause for reflection, an opportunity to rethink the past and analyze its impact on the present as part of the process to heal the wounds of colonial rule and 27 years
of civil war. In the artist’s view, such a process must be nourished by the elements of Angola’s pre-colonial past that continue today, bringing to a present that identifies with it and projec-
ting it to a future that will value it. In that sense, the exhibition represents a foothold in the creation of the kind of cultural understanding where diversity exists within unity. It converges the need to imagine a future in which our differences coexist.

Anyone watching the strident, chaotic flow
of Luanda, which many view as representative
of the entire country, one would not think that silence is one of its deepest undercurrents.
And yet, silence pervades the very fabric of society, cowering a diversity of testimonies, erasing (hi)stories, secreting a multiplicity of truths from Angola’s colonial past, the libera-
tion movements, the struggle for independence and the civil war. In an environment 14 years
at peace, silence still wears political armor and inhibits the individual reevaluation of the pro-
ject of a nation far from achieving the utopia dreamt by liberation movements 41 years
after independence.

This is perhaps the time to begin talking.

1 Requiem for a Nun, William Faulkner
2 The Pain of Future Generations