Jürgen Bock: Ângela, you were born in 1958 in the capital of Mozambique, when the country was still a Portuguese colony and Maputo was called Lourenço Marques. You studied economics and art in South Africa, when the struggle against Apartheid was at its peak. Since the 1990s you have mainly lived and worked in Portugal, a country which, when you moved there, was still slowly waking up from its amnesia regarding its colonial past. What kind of geography and history lessons did you internalise with regards to the past and present and how has this driven and how does it still drive your art practice?
Ângela Ferreira: It’s appropriate to say that, with hindsight, while growing up as a thinking person in the specific geography and history you mention and choosing to make art, it’s not surprising that my first important task was to define what art meant for me. It was not easy. I was compelled by weird and disturbing events around me to define that it [art] should be, first of all, a tool for thinking… and thus thinking about the world around me. In my early teens, and as a naïve product of a colonial upbringing, I watched, albeit from afar, the turbulent and confusing end of colonialism, a sequence of events that did not make much sense to me. Simultaneously, I found myself in Portugal—aged 15—at the time of the Carnation Revolution (1974) and experienced a rapid politicisation simply by osmosis. Then shortly after that I joined the rest of my family in South Africa, where I finished school and went to university. That is where I laid down my intellectual roots. The end of Apartheid, which I also observed, initially from a distance and later more intimately, was rather complex and became a heavy part of my personal baggage. So, while trying to grow up and become an adult, there was much to think about. When I finished art school in Cape Town, I innocently imagined that most artists of my generation thought the same (I was taught from the western modernist art-equals-life tradition—with the usual peripheral geographic delay!) That meant that for me art was to be a tool to unravel the uniqueness of my birthplace and the incredible and difficult histories that had rapidly unfolded around it. The wish to make art that was intellectually cutting-edge and yet politically engaged was born from these circumstances and was present in the very first works I made when I left art school. This underlying guideline has sustained itself over the years and has proven to be very fertile ground for my art practice.
JB: Thinking about your art practice, I remember Zygmunt Bauman’s distinction between Modernity and Modernism, the origin of the former dating back to the seventeenth century, while the latter is related to an understanding of art that is still predominant today; an art for art’s sake concept launched in the nineteenth century. The former unfolded intertwined with colonialism and its crimes, such as slavery and all other kinds of misery, from which the African continent has not recovered yet. The latter invented notions of ‘authenticity’, ‘originality’ or ‘purity’ projected by the West onto African people in considering them savages, as not civilised. Reading between the lines of your ‘articulations’ I see references to both, appearing in rather subtle ways, while not offering any prescriptive views. Your artwork materialises itself as abstract or semi-abstract sculptures, not always but often. They might be read as abstract per se, but at closer inspection also reveal themselves as ‘quotations of abstractness’, as a quotation of a discourse invented by the West, the projected ‘(non)utility’ and declared ‘philosophical profoundness’ of which is questioned in your work from an African perspective. I remember your first larger installation Sites and Services from 1992, for instance. Could your art practice be understood as a decoding and a recoding of phenomena of past and present?
ÂF: It’s important to note that, broadly speaking, thinking of the social conditions in the countries and places where I grew up and studied, choosing to make art was synonymous with opting for freedom. In as much as a young person is able to comprehend the complexity of the world around them, art is an area in which one can find a way to express opposition to existing political regimes while avoiding the claws of repression. Choosing to make art allowed me an environment for democratic thought and principles. To position myself as a contemporary artist in that place and at that time was to engage in a position against conservative society and government. It was a subtle political choice. A detail that is no longer true in today’s world, but was true to me then.
To be honest, I have only recently become aware that the distinction between Modernity (the broader philosophical discourse that refers to social relations associated with the rise of capitalism) and Modernism (the twentieth-century art and architecture movements) is very important at the moment. It seems to be more pertinent for me to understand it, since so much of my reference material is primarily drawn from Modernism in the visual arts, cinema and architecture, which had been invented as a potential tool for the construction of a new, better way of life, but was also adapted and appropriated for the colonial powers’ last stints of ‘civilising’ Africa. For me it is relevant that this movement in art and architecture witnessed the end of colonialism and the beginning of the new African nations. My curiosity with the visual language of Modernism has been sustained by the inherent contradiction in its original offering of hope and empowerment, and its capability to be appropriated for the worst political projects (colonial rule). Of course I am exclusively using the African example of modernist manifestations here. Modernism as a movement had a strong international agenda, which it fulfilled very successfully, so there may be similar events in other parts of the world, but I am less concerned with these.
When we met at the conference Modernities in the Making in Dakar last year, I was able to give this a little more thought. I understood that the ethos of Modernity, the origins of which go back much further in time, has permeated our way of life deeply, and yet is no less implicated with the history of Africa and the relationships between the colonial nations and late-twentieth-century western capitalist powers. Modernity was the framework for slavery, colonialism and present post-colonial relationships. The artefacts of Modernism that I use are of course part of Modernity. In architecture it is represented by some of the most exuberant leftovers of colonial investment in infrastructures and buildings. So, understanding how Modernism is broadly implicated in the larger project of western culture has helped me unravel my own art practice, as you say. On the other hand, it’s evident that being a white, colonial, educated African I had no choice but to adhere to broader discourses of Modernity. On the other hand, my transition from colonial to post-colonial times made me inherently and rightfully distant enough from the nations in power to be able to be critical and cynical of their discourses, and even enabled me to banalise or hybridise them. I felt no need to respect purity of discourse. However, having said all that, I would be lying if I agreed that I had a sense of the broader perspective of my practice over the years… I had a sense of Modernism and its role. I had a gut feeling of love/hate with it that made me curious enough to explore these contradictions. But I did not have the much broader philosophical perspective of Modernity to start with. Each project is chosen much more on a one-off basis and each one seems to be taking the temperature of little indicators that ‘are in the air’. Your reading of the sequential unfolding of a practice is more to do with accumulation of statements. So my first installation Sites and Services does exactly that. In that work I used the formal artistic language of minimalism to communicate with an intellectual public of the western world. But its use denigrates the minimal art programme that demanded that sculptures would be clean of content and context. I did this by referencing dirty Apartheid politics and urban policies in a subtle way.
The idea of subtlety is something that I am interested in. With political practices, the subtle highlighting of problems or issues can be confused with lack of political intentionality. However, prescriptive work is undemocratic rather than politically committed. But subtlety need not lack intention: it can be a very clear approach to political intent. It is based on a belief that art is a means to explore democratic thought: open and in dialogue, revealing unexpected layers of content and readings.
- Ângela Ferreira, vista de la instalación Sites and Services,, 1992. 12 fotografías a las sales de plata, 6 esculturas de cemento, madera, dibujo, aluminio y PVC. Cortesía de la artista.
JB: Some quite unexpected layers of contents and readings were triggered by one of your most important works, Maison Tropicale from 2007. For the first time you stepped out of the territory where you were born or had lived in, and entered the colonial, post- and neo-, sphere through exploring the history of the designer Jean Prouvé’s Tropical Houses in France and the French colonies in an installation, combining sculpture and semi-documentary photography. I heard from French visitors to the Portuguese Pavilion at the Venice Biennial, for which the installation was produced, that they were shocked at how they had missed the problematic issues of shared heritages in their enthusiastic celebrations of Jean Prouvé as a ‘thoroughbred’ of Modernism in Paris and New York, and having ‘saved’ Prouvé’s three elegant pre-fabricated houses from countries in dire straits (Niger and Congo). Your research took place in Paris, Niamey and Brazzaville, while the installation was produced in Lisbon and London to be presented in Venice. Today your Maison Tropicale is part of the collection of the Museion in Bolzano, while one of Prouvé’s houses, which was ‘discovered’ and dismantled for shipping out of Brazzaville, has been restored and is presented as a long-term loan from a collector on the fifth floor of the Centre Pompidou in Paris. How did you manage the difficult task of calibrating, levelling a critique without prescribing what the viewer is to think? Is there potentially a relationship between the apparently orthodox artistic practice of drawing you use (in what you call ‘thinking drawings’) and assumed intuitive decisions when it comes to exploring certain topics through sculpture and photography? You often emphasise that you are ultimately a sculptor.
ÂF: Yes, and I think the word ‘apparently orthodox’ is a very appropriate description of my methodology. I start off investigating, usually around something or someone who has held my curiosity and promises the possibility of various readings or meanings about a given society. Then I draw, think, write, look, interpret and then draw again. You are also right that my most comfortable mode of working is drawing towards a sculpture, or an installation with a three-dimensional component, with video or photographs. Through this sequential process of working I am able to combine rational thought (what I think you are calling levelling a critique) and much more intuitive thinking. For me the uniqueness of an artwork is that it reveals the brain of the artist as a complex and multi-layered mechanism in making connections. Lateral thinking (drawing) enables one to make breakthroughs that would be unattainable through rational thought. Art is able to capture all the different forms of thinking, even aesthetic thinking (or beauty as we call it), so slowly working through a multi-layered visual process one can reveal the complexity of the different modes of thinking and come to a visual manifestation of an open-ended critique. I think that the amazing thing here rests on the fact that the artist is discovering an understanding as they go along, and the work is in the end the testimony of this discovery. And it’s very exciting! The more concise the discovery, the better the work… As an artist I am fully aware that this unique and delicate point is not arrived at with every project. With any given artwork there is an enormous number of unpredictable factors at play. Perhaps with Maison Tropicale I was helped by the incredible story of the three pre-fabricated houses and by Jean Prouvé’s exemplary design objects. The story was already charged with meaning, with the toing and froing from France to Africa to New York, particularly the last return of the houses to Europe, which exemplified ultimate European selfishness. The ‘taking back’ of the houses, the ‘restoration’ process, which was meant to make them sellable, and finally their incredible sale at Christie’s, revealed an unexpected neo-colonial present that is usually hidden from cultural exchanges. But the story is much more than about blame, as all parties are involved and implicated here. It is poignant in a much larger range of events reflecting on the Europe-Africa relationship. It is also about the art market and the blindness and the greed therein. And all this is framed by the most extraordinary and unquestionable quality of design and taste.