The Art Center & Craftsmen’s Market: Angolan History through Its Art

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“What about this one? I did this one. It represents some of the different traditional day-to-day instruments of Angola, including the ‘cabaça’ and the ‘moringa de barro’ which you also saw in the plastics art area…Do you like it? It is made using that glue technique…”
Pedro,  2018

 

The Art Center & Craftmen’s Market (Art Market) is located in Morro da Cruz. It sits on the right bank of the Estrada Nacional 1, on the Luanda-Lobito corridor. It is a windy road, which overlooks the ocean and the island of Mussulo on the right. This road also connects to the Kissama Safari Park and a collection of beach side resorts in Cabo Ledo. On both sides of the road leading up to the Art Market there are small neighbourhoods, many very poor, decreasing in frequency and size the further one drives away from the capital, Luanda. The Art Market is relatively isolated from any big neighbourhoods. It sits on a fairly large bit of terrain which it shares with the Slavery Museum and a collection of opportunistic small shack restaurants. From the entrance, one can spot the Art Market on the left, the Slavery Museum at the far back and the restaurants on the right.

At the back, almost touching the ocean, the Slavery Museum rises from a steep hill. In the 16th century, the Chapel, which the Museum adjoins, was used as a batism pitstop for enslaved africans about to board ships abroad. photo slavery museum

The location is heavily visited by Angolans and tourists alike. One could assume, visits to the the Museum are valuable lessons on the history of Angola and, that visits to the Art Market are valuable lessons on the culture of Angola. The thruth is each of the venues covers an important part of Angolan History. One covers the history of slave trade in Angola. The other covers part of the Angolan History which is often ignored internationally, including the history of the Ngolas (kings and queens).

 

The Paintings

Pedro is one of the market’s 3oo artists who exhibit and sell their work. He pays 350 kwanzas (roughly 1.37€ or £1.20) daily, for a small allotment in the market’s outdoors area. There he sells paintings authored either by him or a family member. He excitedly talks about the art, switching his gaze from one painting to another. He is walking across and between the rows of painting. Stopping, analysing and offering explanations about the themes and techniques used.

This painting was made by my younger brother, he used a glue technique with coloured ‘sands’. Yes, I taught my brother how to paint and I still teach other young people how to paint at the workshop in Kalemba 2” Pedro makes it clear that art is taught and reproduced amongst families and friends. “My grandfather, Singintima(?), taught me to paint. My aunt is a plastic artist; I started learning how to do wood sculptures but I prefered the paintings, so I went to my grandfather’s workshop to learn.” And who taught his grandfather? “My grandfather learned to paint in Congo. He learned some techniques there and brought them here. But Angolan art is better. We are more innovative. There, in Congo, there are also good artists but we have better art supplies.”

As Pedro discusses the paintings it becomes evident that the majority portray traditional scenes of everyday life in Angola.

Various paintings portray the utensils used by Angolans in the past to keep food fresh. Some of the other paintings are representations of traditional labour scenes including beautiful depictions of the silhouettes of the ‘Zungueiras’. The Zungueiras are the women street vendors who sell food and small items carried on top of their head. There are also portraits of traditional Angolan villages and also present day markets full of people and minibuses.

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“This painting right here depicts a working man, he is a baggage carrier. That other one is of the “zungueiras”. The ones with the nature scenes represent our villages of the past where our grandfathers lived and the tools that they used for food storage”.

The back row of paintings leans against a modern white building. It is the building of the Art Center & Craftsmen’s market. The building holds a meeting room for artists and a vistors’ office. According to Pedro, all of the artists relocated from their old market which was located in the neighbourhood of Belas in Luanda in 2016.

On the sides of the building, there are two entrances that lead to the same hallway. That  hallway has small rooms which serve as storage units for the artists. Pedro eagerly showed off some of his new paintings and some painting utensils and supplies including the coloured sand.

 

The Sculptures

At the front of the white building there is the plastic art section of the market. This area displays an impressive number of wood, stone and iron sculptures.

As he has nothing to sell in this part of the market, Pedro, quickly assumes the role of tourist guide and personal guardian. Simultaneously, encouraging picture taking while shunning those artists who were more eager to pitch a sale. However, he is not in a rush. He greets most vendors by their first name and walks slowly, stopping often to explain the significance of each piece and sculpting technique.

There seems to be a subtle duality between the themes represented in the two different Art Market sections. The paintings focused on the representation of traditional Angolan life. On the other hand, the sculptures are focused on the history of Angola’s territory, kings, queens, villagers and warriors.statues

The artwork, in the plastic art section, represents traditional Angolan symbols. Angolan national symbols include the Embondeiro (known as the Baoba tree), “O pensador” a statue representing a thinking man, and the Palanca negra (an endangered yet beautiful giant antilope that only lives in a region of Angola).

“The Embundeiro and the Pensador are representations of Angolan History. In the past, kings and old men (who are thought of as wisemen) sat down beneath this tree to think and to talk to the people.” Pedro said while pointing at different statues.

It is virtually impossible not to see at least one depiction of Ngola (Queen) Zhinga or Ngola (King) A Kiluanji at any direction one looks at the market.

Ngola A Kiluanji (1515 – 1556) was responsible for the unification of  the territories which roughly correspond to modern day Angola. He also proclaimed Ndongo as an independent kingdom, whereas before Ndongo paid vassalage to the Kingdom of Congo. In fact, the only reason why Angola is not known as Ndongo today, was due to a misunderstanding by the Portuguese in the 15th century. The term ‘Ngola’ was a royal title akin to king in the language of Kimbundo, which is widely spoken in Angola. All queens and kings of Ndongo used the prefix Ngola: Ngola Kiluani, Ngola Mbadi, Ngola Zhinga, etc. However, when the Portuguese arrived to Angola they misunderstood this royal title for the name of the territory and proceeded to refer to Ndongo as both Ngola and Angola until it became commonplace.

Ngola Zhinga (1624-1663), known as Rainha Ginga in portuguese, is undoubtedly the most well known female political leader in Angolan History. A true feminist icon, she gained prominence by being a great military strategist and a phenomenal diplomatic leader. Her most celebrated life accomplishment was the achievement of an equal terms treaty with the Portuguese. This was after the defeat of her brother King Mbandi in a battle against the Portuguese in Ndongo’s capital. This treaty, a product of Ngola Zhinga’s diplomatic confidence and ability guaranteed that Ndongo was not to be considered a vassalage state to subordinate to Portugal. Ngola Zhinga also used her diplomatic abilities to form alliances with both the Portuguese and the Dutch, later using her military strategy to wage battles against them for the benefit and strengthening of Ndongo.

Granted, Pedro did not explain many of the details surrounding the lives of King Ngola A Kiluanji or Ngola Zhinga. He didn’t mention any dates or centuries, the outcomes of the diplomatic agreements, nor the reason behind Ngola Zhinga’s aptitude in political and military affairs. But, he said enough to educate and prompt listeners to research more about Angolan History. After passing a stand with bracelets made out of copper and green malachite, a type of stone which traditionally must be blessed by traditional tribal leaders, we completed the tour of the Art Market. We then returned to the starting point in front of his family’s allotment.

I asked some final questions, mainly concerning the family business.

Pedro proudly states that most of his clients are Angolans who appreciate the art and culture of Angola and not international visitors looking for a souvenir. He says while picking up one of the paintings “What about this one? I did this one, it represents some of the different traditional day-to-day instruments of Angola, including the ‘cabaça’ and the ‘moringa de barro’ which you also saw in the plastic art area… Do you like it? It is made using that glue technique” And, before I could answer “ Oh and it is fully washable”. Which pleseantly reminded me that Pedro, like any of the other 300 artists of the market, is as much of an artist, as he is a historian and a salesman.

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