Delinda Collier. Repainting the Walls of Lunda: Information Colonialism and Angolan Art. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016. 240 pp. $87.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8166-9444-0; $25.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8166-9448-8.
Reviewed by Drew Thompson (Bard College)
Published on H-AfrArts (October, 2016)
Commissioned by Olubukola A. Gbadegesin
Revisiting Angola's Historical Pasts: A Visual Study in Remediation
Recent events in Angola have dominated the international news cycle. The excavation of diamonds and oil—one of biggest revenue sources for Angola—introduced rapid infrastructural development and the amassing of global financial capital. As a result of the recent fall of commodity prices, the Angolan government has been unable to provide its populations with basic social services. Popular anxiety and unrest has called into question the forty-year rule of the dominant political party, and has resulted in the government jailing its critics without due process. The art historian Delinda Collier’s much-anticipated and timely book, Repainting the Walls of Lunda: Information Colonialism and Angolan Art reminds its readers of the importance of visual arts production and exhibition in Angola’s global standing and current socioeconomic problems. Collier’s arguments warn against interpreting the Venice Biennale’s awarding of the 2013 Golden Lion Prize to Angola’s exhibition pavilion as representative of Angola’s wealth and dominance. Instead, Collier proposes a theoretical and methodological model for interpreting the contemporary art market’s recognition of Angola and local artistic production as part of a longer and complex history of translation and contestation over artistic representation and historical meaning in the Portuguese-speaking world.
Repainting the Walls of Lunda is a visual, anthropological, and discursive study of the Portuguese text titled Parades Pintadas da Lunda (translated from Portuguese as The Painted Walls of Lunda). From 1939 to 1943, the Portuguese anthropologist José Redinha studied the murals that decorated the living quarters of the Chokwe ethnic group in northeastern Angola. In 1942, almost midway through this study, Redinha began to collaborate with the mining company Diameng. Revenues from Diameng, as well as its use of local populations as laborers, supported Portugal’s efforts to colonize Angola. In order to win the support of local populations and workers for its activities, Diameng built a museum for the Chokwe peoples to study their culture. As part of this initiative, Diameng commissioned Redinha (and not members of the Chokwe community) to repaint the Chokwe community murals on the museum’s walls. Redinha signed these murals as though he were the original author and provided descriptions, which he later reproduced in the format of 1953 published book. Redinha’s text, as Collier illustrates, served as an instructional guide on Chokwe painting and cultural practices for future generations. In fact, exiled activists—such as the famed Angolan writer Luandino Vieira, the poet António Cardoso, and the painter Victor Manuel “Viteix” Teixeira—used ideas of Chokwe culture as promoted by Redinha’s text in order to formulate political and cultural philosophies instrumental to Angola’s independence from Portugal. Shortly after independence, Angola descended into a state of civil war. Political officials and artists used the very spaces and objects studied by Redinha to formulate new ideas of nationality and nationhood. Part of this nationalist project entailed the rewriting of a history of art in Angola. Following the official end of Angola’s civil war in 2002, global enterprises based in Angola embarked on a series of cultural projects that included art collecting and exhibiting. Angola’s access to global capital and technologies resulted in new appropriations and imaginings of Chowke culture and artistic practices. Collier argues that central to understanding the influence of Redinha’s The Painted Walls of Lunda is not the actual book but the different intellectual ideas and artistic practices that developed around the book’s production, circulation, and use.
At the center of Collier’s theoretical and analytical intervention is the concept of “remediation.” The word “media” acts as the root of “remediation,” and offers the foundation from which Collier defines art-historical objects and the practices that result in their production. For example, influenced by cultural theory and subaltern studies, Collier points out that a range of historical actors in Angola’s history as a colony and independent nation came in contact with Redinha’s The Painted Walls of Lunda. For instance, colonial Portuguese officials and anticolonial visual artists held, carried, and/or turned the pages of Redinha’s book, while local populations living in colonial and postcolonial Angola either viewed art works influenced by Redinha’s book or developed historical memories as a result of the text’s cultural influence on oral traditions. The methodological and conceptual benefits of “remediation” are best displayed in Collier’s discussion of sona (chapter 2), a “performance” displayed by drawing in the sand (p. 75). Chokwe communities used the act and knowledge of sona to instruct on initiation rites and as a mode for transmitting historical information. In contrast, Redinha referenced sona as a type of cultural artifact, thereby transforming the practice into a historical archive that not only informed his understanding of Chokwe communities but also how information on the Chokwe culture traveled over time. As Collier demonstrates, colonial and anticolonial officials spoke of sona and reproduced it in the form of visual symbols from which residents of Angola produced information on the nation’s history and peoples. “Remediation” is not only an aesthetic object of study but also entails the historical, political, and material processes that unfolded through and alongside people’s use of Redinha’s book. By placing remediation at the center of processes of colonization and decolonization in Angola, Collier explores how the use of Redinha’s book over time and space informed the recording and transmission of information related to the book’s content and popular meaning.
Collier’s analysis illustrates the breadth and comprehensiveness of her knowledge of Western social and cultural theory, which includes the works of Martin Heidegger, Vilém Flusser, and Alexander Galloway. She positions her book as part of an ambitious and much-welcomed attempt to highlight the new theoretical insight and conceptual alternatives that artistic practices and appropriations of visual art forms on the continent of Africa present. Part of this provocative intellectual shift entails interpreting Redinha’s text and the knowledge-production practices that resulted from its use as integral parts of “histories of photography and anthropology” (p. 5). On the one hand, Redinha’s The Painted Walls of Lunda involved the use of photography to produce a particular set of pictures, including photographs of sculptors at work and the infrastructure that accompanied Diameng’s operations in Angola. On the other hand, the viewing and talking about pictures produced their own sets of oral and written conversations that unfolded in political manifestos, artist workshops, and war zones. Accompanying this transformation from visual to text were also new media platforms, ranging from “telegraphy” to “digital computers,” whereby historical actors produced meanings through their reading of different materials surfaces (p. 6). With such conceptual understandings, Collier in chapter 3 focuses on an independent Angola, and the very ways in which the Angolan artists, such as Viteix, appropriated symbols of Chokwe visual culture and Redinha’s book into his own paintings and writings. She contends that for many visual artists the surface of the paintings, or what Viteix refers to as rebouco (translated from Portuguese to English as “plaster surface”), presented new opportunities to confront both the liberatory and oppressive aspects of visual arts production. Angolan artists in the moment of independence (post-1975) used global debates over the “Western-ness” of painting as an expressive medium, as Collier states, in order “to establish rationalism in the face of extreme violence” (p. 126). Collier contends that the persuasiveness and all-encompassing nature of socialist discourses in the Cold War period should not render insignificant the aesthetic discourses and artistic practices of Angolan artists in this independence moment, especially since many artists disagreed with Marxist-Leninist political thought and the “political realism” such a manifesto promoted. In fact, the appropriation of Chokwe symbols was not exclusive to artists but also extended to the independent-state governing apparatus. The independent Angolan state treated “Chokwe” as a nationality and not an ethnicity and embarked on the building of museums in order to control and align state agendas with the sociopolitical processes that artists undertook through their reproduction of Chokwe symbols. From these state and popular exchanges over artistic production and representation, new histories and practices of painting surfaced within and on painting frames as well as theories over the societal functions of the visual arts in Angola.
Some important methodological shifts (specifically featured in chapter 4) accompany Collier’s theoretical reading of Redinha’s text and its remediation after the end of Angola’s 27-year civil war in 2002. In the book’s last chapter, Collier observes that many of the Angolan artists born after independence have different relationships to Angola’s independence and tend to use digital platforms. Artists’ use of digital platforms has resulted in conceptual pieces that require an interpretative language of “metaphor” and “allegory” and not “self-reflexivity” (pp. 179-180). Simultaneously, a wave of art collection and exhibition ensued in Angola after the entry of global capital in 2002, and involved digital reproductions of The Painted Walls of Lunda. For example, the business enterprise International Trading and Mining Ltd in consultation with the Angolan artist Fernando Alvim, and as part of its promotional initiative to foster appreciation of cultural heritage, produced a website that included reproductions of Redinha’s text. The 2003 digital reproduction involved the cropping and rotating of plates featured in Redinha’s book and the erasure of Redinha’s signature. Collier used interviews that she conducted with Alvim and the prominent Angolan artist António Ole to reconstruct and unpack the less obvious privatization of state-sanctioned art collecting initiatives that happened alongside post-2002 reappropriations of Redinha’s book. In particular, she considers the debates of cultural reappropriation that unfolded around the 2006 Luanda Triennial and the amassing and exhibition of the art collection owned by businessman cum art aficionado Sindika Dokolo, who is the husband of Africa’s first female billionaire, Isabel dos Santos, and son-in-law to Angola’s president, Eduardo dos Santos. Having reconstructed the metaphorical and allegorical art historical discourses that surround conceptual art in contemporary Angola, she then considers how these political motivations translated to digital media. Collier concludes that the erasure of Redinha’s signature and the use of various technologies “liquefied” Redinha’s book of any meaning, and the human and nonhuman components that make up these technologies transformed the book from a “media object of colonial capital” into “an even more ephemeral media operation” (p. 216). This type of remediation of Redinha’s text, initially based on ideas of “a rural Africa” and “indigenous art,” has given rise to perceptions of Angola’s technological and economic prowess. To further emphasize this paradox, Collier ends her book with an adage from a Chowke chief. The phrase equates the “earthen wall” (which can also symbolize the remediation of Redinha’s text) to “death,” according to the chief, “not because [the wall or book] was old but because it was new” (p. 216).
Collier's book is of particular interest to art historians, historians, media scholars, and cultural theorists for its conceptual framing, applied methodological approaches, and interpretative analysis. Collier offers new conceptual and methodological strategies for situating contemporary African art within longer histories of colonization and decolonization, while also illustrating the different manifestations of the material object and cultural discourses that unfold around its use. Collier gives new meaning to the idea of the artists, especially those who practice on the continent of Africa, as “cultural producers and intellectuals,” and how these historical actors confront their colonial pasts in a postcolonial moment. In so doing, Collier’s book introduces a range of analytical subfields for future investigations. These topics include the Cold War’s impact on the production and exhibition of African art; African artists longstanding and ongoing responses to and appropriation of Western art-historical debates within their daily artistic practices; and lastly, the alternatives that the Portuguese-speaking world offers to “the Paris-Berlin-New York nexus of art history in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries” (p. 221).
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Drew Thompson. Review of Collier, Delinda, Repainting the Walls of Lunda: Information Colonialism and Angolan Art.
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