INTERVIEW: Artist Ângela Ferreira Examines Modern Architecture And Colonialism
What if we were to re-think modernity as a truly world-historical event, as a fragmentary, uneven, and multi-sited episteme irreducibly entangled with, and thus constituted by, the ravages of imperialism and colonization? What would this polyvocal account of modernity, as well as the suturing of the modern to the colonial, entail for hitherto linear, Eurocentric, and nationalist narrations of modernism? In what ways do the logics of modernity and coloniality impact contemporary societies, particularly those located in Africa (Western modernity’s fuel), and what might archives of decolonization and anti-colonial resistance offer to subjects living through 21st-century neoliberal and neocolonial domination? Such questions motivate the research-driven art practice of Ângela Ferreira. Born in Maputo, Mozambique, educated in Cape Town, South Africa, and now currently residing in Lisbon, Portugal, Ferreira works at the intersection of art and architecture, using the precise formal languages of minimalism and architectural Modernism to distill complex transnational histories of colonialism and post-colonialism into evocative sculpture-video installations. Her work courses through the lives and spatial residues of iconic figures such as Jean Prouvé, Angela Davis, Donald Judd, Miriam Makeba, Carlos Cardoso, Ingrid Jonker, and many others, forming a worldly constellation of multiple modernities and counter-modernities. This summer Ferreira has presented solo exhibitions at Hangar in Lisbon, Tensta Konsthall in Stockholm, and the Centre d’art Ygrec-ENSAPC in Aubervilliers, Paris.
Kojo Abudu: Your art practice is deeply influenced by Modern architecture, both formally and thematically, lending it an extra-disciplinary edge. Why does architecture often serve as a point of departure for your research-driven artistic projects?
Ângela Ferreira: Even though a lot of my practice occupies itself with Modern architecture, my choice of architecture doesn’t come from Modernism. It comes from when I started practicing in South Africa as a young girl out of art school in the 80s — a very turbulent time, near the end of apartheid. I was very conscious about the fact that I needed to develop a critical practice that was at once able to be read by contemporary people anywhere in the world and also by local people — a practice that engaged the political debates that were important to me. I wanted, like anybody else, to say something against apartheid. I realized that if I worked with visual references that were somehow popular, in the sense that as many people as possible could understand them, I could produce work using those images as starting points. One of the things that clearly fit the criteria, and which came out of an early project called Sites and Services, 1991–92, was architecture.
Architecture had a lot of wonderful things, like being rooted into the ground. I realized that choosing a building or any kind of built structure immediately gave me a righteousness of place. Architecture rooted the work in the place and had an amazing other quality, which is that, particularly with public buildings, everybody knows them; they belong to everybody in the city. Architects also have to worry about the fact that we are human beings of a particular size and we walk on our feet, so there’s issues of ergonomics and scale that are related to the human body. I first started with architecture because it had all these qualities, which I could work up in a sculptural and conceptual language. There was another important factor, which is that at the time I had many friends that were mostly documentary photographers. Photography was, of course, a way to get a lot of images out of South Africa during apartheid so these were also politically active people. I became very enthralled with the book by David Goldblatt called South Africa: The Structure of Things Then, 1998. The interesting thing about Goldblatt’s structures is that he photographed mostly Africans and buildings pertaining to the Afrikaans people. What interested me was that by taking a photograph of buildings, he could tell me about the people and their politics. It had a huge influence on me because it allowed me to understand that you could read things into buildings.
Many of your artworks self-consciously reside in what Achille Mbembe calls the “timescape” of postcolonialism, whereby traces and fragments from the colonial past as well as entanglements between former African colonies and European metropoles proliferate to trouble any clear distinctions between past, present, and future, and between “Africa” and “Europe.” Can you talk about the ethics and politics behind your persistent interrogation of the colonial past, particularly in a work such as Messy Colonialism, Wild Decolonization, 2015?
In the 90s I first went to Portugal because I was curious about this colonial place that I didn’t know about. I suppose it’s the first time I came into consciousness of the hybridity of my own being. Thereafter, there was a very clear experience that the one of the roots of my practice was to work with, accept and develop this sense of hybridity and whatever problems and privileges it offered me. I have South African and Portuguese passports, I was born in Mozambique, both my parents are Mozambican and I’m now living in Portugal, so I realized that I could triangulate between the three countries.
Colonialism is over but it left an incredible history, an incredible mark, an incredible inheritance. And that’s what I think Mbembe conveys well in his writing. I realized that there was a gap between some of the material that hadn’t been analyzed, which was material that was pertinent to the end of colonialism and to the beginning of the new independent countries. Mozambique wasn’t really interested in thinking any more about colonialism because its people were sick and tired of it and they wanted to get on with the new country. The Portuguese also didn’t want to talk about colonialism because they were embarrassed they had colonized and were pretending they hadn’t. As a result, these transitional years gave way to amnesia. I had a sense that if I dug a little bit more into the materials, I could better understand my own history and the problems of African countries — problems that still exist today. It’s interesting that you brought up Mbembe because the title of Messy Colonialism, Wild Decolonisation, 2015 is borrowed from him. I was once talking to him about different forms of colonialism in Africa and at one point asked him about the Portuguese. He looked at me in horror and said “well, with the Portuguese, it was a lot messier.” If you look at the Portuguese colonial mission, it was indeed messy. The Portuguese were in many ways modeling themselves on the French but when it came to Mozambique — because South Africa was just next door and apartheid suited them — they would incorporate a couple of Anglo-Saxon approaches.
Decolonization was also messy because there was a military coup which was mostly engineered by army officials that no longer wanted to fight in Africa as they thought they were losing the war of independence. Between the 1974 coup and 1975, they offered every single colony independence. There was hardly any preparation — no transition time of any sort took place. Independence negotiations were hurried and didn’t account for the transport of citizens who wanted to return to Portugal. In the end, a lot of the white settlers left in a rush. America had to help with an airlift because Portugal didn’t have enough planes to fly half a million people out of Mozambique. People just built their own crates with wood they could find anywhere. Their belongings were offloaded on the port in Lisbon in a completely anarchic way and were left there for two to three years. There’s this amazing picture taken by a photographer who documented this period in Portugal where he’s photographing these piles of crates left on the port next to what is Portugal’s monument to the “discoveries.” In constructing the work, I went to the archives and found footage of the making of that monument and projected it from inside a pile of boxes.
A work such as Maison Tropicale, 2007, mines the repressed but deeply intertwined relationship between Modernism and colonialism by implicating the known French architect and designer, Jean Prouvé, in France’s colonial project. Prouvé, like many other Modern architects, such as Le Corbusier and Fernand Pouillon, experimented with new architectural forms in former colonies like Algeria and India. Following Stuart Hall, such histories point to colonialism as modernism’s “constitutive outside.”
Autobiographically, I’m born in 1968 and my parents had built a house in Maputo designed by one of the good architects that left Portugal because they were too left-wing. As soon as I became more literate about buildings, I realized it was quite a brilliant Modernist design and that it could have existed in Holland or Germany. I eventually put two and two together and realized that the architects were building in this style in the 1950s because they were Modernists; they were allowed to come to Mozambique and express their joys for what they thought was good architecture; they brought with them a belief that Modernist architecture would allow for a better quality of life. I started looking at these buildings because I became amazed at the fact that an architectural project like Modernism, which is really borne out of breaking new ground, and offered a more 20th-century approach to life and living, got appropriated by the colonial system. Colonial governments used it as a way of creating the modern world — it was a continuation of the civilizing project, hidden through buildings. I later understood that there were a couple of things that played a part in this co-option, not least of which was the fact that Modernism is an international project, and so it was in the origin of the movement that it should travel, and therefore impose. By the time I came to Maison Tropicale, 2007, I was versed in the language of Modernism and its relation to invasion, imposition, and oppression. With Prouvé, he was to design 10,000 living units, which would be transported to Africa by plane. Africans hated the buildings. The settlers also didn’t like them because they weren’t colonial enough.
And were these buildings supposed to house settlers or indigenous people or both?
Settlers. Only three prototypes went to Africa (to Niger and the Congo specifically) but they were mostly to house people who were working in the aluminum industry. That was the original ambition. They were all produced in France and transported as prefab houses. In the end, the house that was installed in Niamey was occupied by a school principal and the two houses that were in Brazzaville were actually occupied by the director of the aluminum factory there. The colonial story of these houses was interesting but nothing new to me. The story only became interesting as a project when I learned about the neocolonial side of it, which was that in 2002, a Parisian gallerist “discovers” the buildings in Africa and manages to go there and remove them and bring them to Europe to restore and sell them. One of them was sold three weeks before my project opened in Venice, for about six and a half million dollars. It was at that point that the project became interesting for me because not only did it tell the story of a colonial enterprise but also the story of blatant neo-colonial practices.
I wonder, for you, what this terrain of the “colonial Modern” entails for our conception of African Modernism(s)? I’m specifically thinking about your show at Hangar CIA in Lisbon, A Spontaneous Tour of Some Monuments of African Architecture.
I’ve spent a long time looking at Modernist buildings and, in many ways, looking at the nasty memories of their colonial meaning. The last few times I’ve been in Maputo, I’ve often gone inside these buildings again. These buildings have been occupied by Mozambicans for nearly 50 years now. I’m talking particularly about the airport in Nampula, which was one of the buildings I treated in this exhibition at Hangar. I came to remind myself that the Nampula airport was built six years before independence; so these buildings have, in many ways, lost their colonial memory. As you walk into them, as one uses them, as people live in them, it seems as if the colonial history is fading, if not almost faded altogether. I think it’s time to start looking at these buildings as African architecture and no longer putting these tags of Modern architecture from colonial times. Of course, you will never take that history away, but they’ve now belonged to the people that are living in them for much longer than they did during colonial times and so they should be seen as African architecture. I started doing finer research on some of the architects that were working during colonialism. I found, for example, with Pancho Guedes, buildings that are very little known by us. There’s this beautiful building of this crèche that Guedes designed that’s built in wattle and daub — cone on cylinder, traditional African architecture. I’ve also been working with Miriam Makeba’s house in Conakry, a house she lived in Dalaba for 15 years. And I discovered that Makeba had put together a house that was, again, a hybrid object. It had a Modernist entrance and a look-out space to the vista; and then it was a rondavel with a cone roof. At the Hangar, I’m mixing references from Modernist details with the wattle and daub method of construction, bamboo pieces, parts of ceilings and so on.
Your work not only speaks to the non-pastness of colonialism but also to the futurity of decolonization, as evidenced by the bygone utopic imaginations you refer to through sculpture, architecture, film, and music. These mid-century archival fragments — whether they are hopeful Congolese songs, like in Independence Cha Cha, 2014, or euphoric post-independence Mozambican films in For Mozambique, 2008 — become tainted with a melancholic quality, a sense of loss, since contemporary viewers know what was to follow this short-lived epoch of possibility — decades of civil war, military dictatorships, and the imposition of neoliberal financial regulations. What do these glimpses of unfulfilled dreams and promises of African emancipation offer to us in the neo-colonial present?
This is precisely my quest and as you can imagine, I haven’t one answer or solution to that question. It is probably the knot of all Africans at the moment, how to see the way forward. My insistence on that history and its complexity, which involves marrying enthusiasm for new utopic political systems with the evident failure of those same systems, has to do with my obsession, over the last ten years, with certain “role models.” It’s about trying to find ways to move forward, always believing that we cannot think of role models today if we do not understand the role models of yesterday and the day before yesterday. The way forward is about a new and inventive way of looking at society, a way of finding solutions to problems that are not necessarily the solutions that exist, but they don’t ignore the solutions that exist either. I’ll give an example of this. I’ll go back to Carlos Cardoso (who Ferreira memorialized in Carlos Cardoso: Straight To The Point, 2011). I always find that he, as a role model, is extraordinary. Here is this guy sitting in Mozambique in the 70s, and he’s first hailed as the supreme journalist of the liberated country. Very shortly after, as the regime closes into a more oppressive Marxist regime, he gets prohibited from doing journalism. Cardoso decides to collaborate with a Swedish friend who half-lives in Mozambique and has a fax machine there. Through contacting people by telephone, they both devise a way to write a newspaper at night and distribute it during the day. Not only does Cardoso bypass censorship, he also starts distributing globally. He doesn’t ignore the workings of globalism but he’s prepared to use fax machines in an inventive way to build on his past work and reach new audiences, making good use of the fact that, at the time, he was probably one of the best informed journalists on issues around the geopolitics of Southern Africa. So this is one example. It doesn’t help us build the whole society, but in many ways, those are the reasons why I go back to these examples and why I think they are valuable for us to think of the society of today.
Interview by Kojo Abudu, a critic, curator, and researcher based between London, Lagos, and New York. He is currently completing an MA in Modern & Contemporary Art: Critical and Curatorial Studies at Columbia University, and holds a BA from Duke University where he studied philosophy, political science and art history. Kojo’s writings and curatorial projects, often informed by de/post-colonial theory, queer theory, and Black studies, focus on spatial, conceptual, photographic and moving-image contemporary art practices from the Global South, particularly Africa and its diaspora. In 2019, Kojo won the Frieze Writer’s Prize.
All images courtesy Ângela Ferreira.