Review of Repainting the Walls of Lunda: Information Colonialism and Angolan Art and The Sound of Culture: Diaspora and Black Technopoetics
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2016
254 pp., illus. 37 b/w. Trade, $87; paper, $25 US
ISBN: 978-0-8166-9444-0; ISBN: 978-0-8166-9448-8
Wesleyan Press, Middletown CT, 2015
280 pp. Trade, @85.00; Paper, $27.95; eBook, $21.00
ISBN: 978-0-8195-7576-0; ISBN: 978-0-8195-7577-7; ISBN: 978-0-8195-7578-4
Repainting the Walls of Lunda begins with discussion of the impact of a Portuguese scholar-curator in the declining years of Europe's colonized Africa. José Redinha's 1953 book The Painted Walls of Lunda was illustrated with Redinha's drawings or paintings of Chokwe art, his signature prominent upon them. The book was sponsored by Diamang, the Portuguese diamond mining company, which also issued heavily-retouched and often romanticized photographic documentation of its facilities and "company town" Dundo. Sentimental, manipulated photos included African people working there, alongside white employees but separated from them in status, compensation, residence and social life.
In a moment of postcolonial cultural assertion five decades later, a website with the book's contents digitized, but with Redinha's signature removed from his paintings of Chokwe motifs, went online in an act of reclaiming indigenous cultural heritage to accompany the Trienal de Luanda international art exhibition. Yet any website has its own contradictions in a nation with very limited online access, to say nothing of a less-than-equitable society and opaque governance (cozily tied to Angola's communications infrastructure and industries).
Collier broadens our understanding of contemporary and recent Angolan art with examples of consciously-postcolonial artist Viteix who tried to work with traditional motifs in new combinations and Western art forms (drawings, easel paintings). John Berger lamented in The Success and Failure of Picasso (1965) that Pablo Picasso didn't travel the world to appreciate and encourage African and other nonwestern artists to explore the new freedoms to reclaim imagery and forms that he had exemplified in his best cubist work; Viteix was one artist attentive to those possibilities.
Many of these actions and contradictions in authenticity, ethnicity, photography, public walls and hand vs. digital reproductions in Angola described here have long been roiling through the community mural movement in California and other multicultural cities too. Mention is made of how African artists today use digital imagery, music, and performance in expressive, political works, as Delinda Collier briefs us on six decades of Angolan cultural struggle and self-assertion well and clearly.
Departing Angola and the continent, phenomena in the half-millennium of the diaspora of African people are examined by Louis Chude-Sokei in The Sound of Culture. While properly deploring its brutal content, he appreciates Futurist poet-polemicist F. T.Marinetti's rich, jagged, and evocative texts...some of which celebrated Mussolini's military and the aesthetics of aerial bombardment of village populations in the Ethiopian campaign.
We're taken to P.T. Barnum's exhibition in the 1830s of Joice Heth, a black woman who appeared suitably aged, as "George Washington's nurse". When her authenticity was questioned, Barnum ju-jitsued the interrogator's doubt by placing a news item questioning if Heth was even human, or a clockwork "mechanical Turk" (a phrase whose orientalism the book's author then unpacks). This leads to a comparison with Karel Capek's 1920s concept of the "robot", the tireless working machine he introduced in the play "R.U.R.: Rossum's Universal Robots". Chude-Sokei notices its parallels to robotic work requirements made on black workers, at first slave and then semi-free.
Chude-Sokei avowedly works in the arena Mark Dery coined "Afrofuturism" and brings Donna Haraway's posthuman evocations of the cyborg to the topic antebellum show-biz minstrelsy. Casting a wide net, he dusts off a popular nineteenth century novel The Coming Race by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, examines its racialized assumptions concerning "the other" and those carried by heroes like Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter of Mars, then defines "A Caribbean Pre-Posthumanism" running through both the surrealism of Wilfredo Lam, and the critique by Sylvia Wynter of the Bard's grand old resonant figure of Caliban.
The cruelties of history—colonial conquest and exploitation, enslavement of so many Africans and their dispersal across the Atlantic—are disheartening and unresolved (or uncompensated) to this day. However, the curious cultural landscapes in their wake inspire scholars like Delinda Collier and Louis Chude-Sokei towards admirable work like these two books.