The Process of Seeing: Vasco Manhiça’s Point of View
By: Erin M. Rice
Vasco Manhiça’s newest body of work is a product of two formative years since his last show in Maputo in 2013. After a brief return to Germany, in 2014 he attended a residency program in Dakar called Àsìkò (run by the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos), which had a profound impact on his approach to art as an instrument of social critique. Informed and inspired by the politically and critically charged practices of the faculty that ran the Asiko program, Manhiça turned his practice in late 2014 away from painting to an extended period of intense reading and exploration of the theorizations of Africanity and postcoloniality as they relate to the art world. Early in 2015, Manhiça moved to Berlin, arguably Europe’s center for contemporary art. He connected with a network of artists, several of whom also come from Mozambique, and found amongst his contemporaries another rich source of influence and inspiration, stronger, he says, than that which he draws from the generations of artists that have come before him. This vibrant artist community, the energy of the city of Berlin and the groundwork laid in 2014 combined to create a space and time of intense productivity, resulting in the series of large-scale paintings that comprise Point of View.
The works in the new series are witness to the personal growth of the artist’s last two years. They demonstrate in their command of color, line, text and space a heightened confidence and articulateness. Moving fluidly between the political and the personal, these works can make specific cultural reference to Maputo or intimate relationships as easily as they broach subjects of universal relevance. ‘Mural do Povo’, for instance, references in the phrase my love I do not love you the Mozambican people’s feelings towards the flawed transit system of Mozambique’s capital city, while ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ alludes to love of a very different nature.
Works such as ‘Global North’ and ‘Cage Break’, on the other hand, are infused with the experiences of an African living in Europe projected through the loud piece of the mass media. In particular, ‘Global North’ addresses those who are subjected to pitiless international migration policy as they seek a coveted visa to a country north of the socio-economic divide. Recent years have posed numerous new challenges to countries that border the Mediterranean including the Arab Spring uprisings, the ensuing unrest in Egypt, Libya, and the spread of ISIS. One of the results has been a drastic increase in migration from Africa to Europe, contributing to the largest global population of displaced persons and refugees ever witnessed. Tens of thousands of migrants seeking a better life in Europe have risked everything crossing the treacherous sea routes from North Africa for the shores of Italy and Greece but often are met with hostility, long internments in processing centers, a lack of jobs and opportunities, or worst of all: death at sea.
Framed by an ominous arch of dark pigment, the words “je suis” appear in ‘Cage Break’, making clear reference to the catchphrase of solidarity that flooded social media after the shootings at the Paris offices of political satirist magazine Charlie Hebdo. Missing is the “Charlie” that completed the phrase, but in this absence is the implicit critique of the phrase’s hypocrisy as Europe condemns the actions of the attackers, while it simultaneously turns a blind eye to the plight of its immigrant populations.
The statement also holds open the possibility and ambiguity of identity; je suis / I am is, in the intentional absence of a noun, a very simple declaration of existence, and the idea of identity as a process. This notion of process is perhaps more appropriate for people like Manhiça, and the countless who have followed the same trajectory before him, who have left their respective African countries for the West (including personal influences such as Fela Kuti), and in that act of leaving have found an affinity with their African identity, while at the same time their life in a foreign land has re-shaped the very notions of those foreign places, of home and of belonging. Upon return, however, stereotypes of the person who left Africa cloud the realities of the struggles he or she faced abroad. This is the predicament of the artist returning home.
For Manhiça, painting is a method of translating his experiences into a language that can be understood by those who have not had the same opportunities as him to see his country from the standpoint of someone who has left. Leaving Mozambique bestows a clarity, like hindsight, that only comes in departure and dis/re-location such that new viewpoints, free from the dominance of media, propaganda, or dogma can be formed and expressed.
Vasco Manhiça’s latest works may be written in the language of expatriation, but what they unfold is a narrative about the journey of returning written for the people back home.