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Positive Fire


new internationalist
issue 192 - February 1989

[image, unknown]
Painting: Malangatana
Positive fire
Malangatana, Mozambique's most famous artist, talks about how the
vivid and troubled life of his country shapes and colours his work.

Like all the young children who grew up with me in the 1940s I saw many things - many things which made my life political from the start. I saw my parents forced to work on the railway without food. I saw my aunts and my uncles being punished by the sipiao, the colonial police. I saw my cousins beaten with the palmatória. All this was preparation for a political life. Of course sometimes you don't care what you see. But I cared and feel it still today.

One of the greatest shocks to me as a child was when the colonial administration closed down my school. I loved that school. It was a Swiss mission school where you could learn all sorts of creative skills like pottery and wood-carving and basketry, as well as reading and writing. But the Portuguese insisted we go to Catholic school instead.

As a young boy I worked on people's farms. Then I went to the capital Lourenço Marques (now Maputo) to find work. There I saw people being beaten on the street because they did not have documentation, or they were out after 9 p.m. at night. I was often arrested myself. All these things shocked me.

But it was here in the capital, in the 1950s, that I began to hear voices of protest against the colonial administration. There were strikes in the docks. Around that time I would have been working as a baby-sitter or waiter or ball-boy in a tennis club. But in my spare time I was always painting. When I heard about the liberation struggles that were taking place in Tanganyika and Kenya I started painting in protest against the colonial situation.

In Mozambique, Frelimo was starting to operate in the north of the country. It was a long way from Maputo, but there was no girl or boy here who had not heard of them. At this point I changed from being a landscape or portrait painter to being more the kind of painter I am now. As Frelimo grew Portuguese people who saw my art said: 'He is abusing our sympathy by being so violent in his painting'. This so-called 'abuse' was my participation in the politics of this country. Then the war came and for the next ten years my painting was dedicated to this struggle.

For a brief period after independence my painting became softer. I was using more blues, yellows, whites. Then the liberation war in Zimbabwe started and Renamo was set up by the Rhodesians. And when that war was over and South Africa took over backing Renamo - and destroying more than the Portuguese ever destroyed - my painting got more violent, more shocking, with reds that were stronger than ever. To see the schools, the hospitals, the farms the railways - all symbols of hope and growth for our country being destroyed. To see pregnant women, children, men being killed - sometimes two or three hundred in one day, in forty minutes - creates in my heart a sadness that does not stop. When I meet people I laugh, I sing, I dance. When I go to the canvas I am another Malangatana.

I am very glad though that my country can use my work internationally to talk not about Malangatana - but about Mozambique and Southern Africa. I remember in Sweden some financiers at one of my exhibitions discussing how Mozambique might get its economy going again. I have also been lucky to work with European children and to show them how I work with children here, how we make beautiful pictures with sticks in the sand. How we use nothing to make something.

Right now I am working on a huge sculpture. This is a new medium for me. And the mood is very different too. I am not just putting together cement and bits of old metal but trying to give a new life to the material. In this sculpture I see new lines, new hope, a new direction in my work. And I think I am rightly guided by what is happening in our country today. The lines are more human now. They are laughing. Instead of chains there are tattoos - symbols of culture. The lines are very thick, very open. Something around me is guiding me to work like this. Something is really changing. We are being influenced by a positive fire. A fire that is burning under our feet, warming us.

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