Autonomy in art

24.10.2017

Tina Krüger paints us a picture of different kinds of contemporary African art. 

Where did you get the idea for this documentary? Were you already familiar with the artists or are you an artist yourself?

The idea for the documentary Living Art started during my MA studies in Visual Anthropology at the University Leiden in The Netherlands. I wanted to do my research about a topic that is also of personal interest for me. I found that the contemporary art scene in Maputo would be very interesting and challenging for me. I have been living in Maputo for almost 10 years and the art world was always a big part of my life here. Most of my friends are artists and as an artist myself I have worked in some collaborations over the years. Approaching this already familiar environment from an academic viewpoint would hopefully open a new understanding and generate new insights into the aesthetics and inspirations of Maputo’s contemporary art. I also saw it as an opportunity to explore the connection between art and anthropology, especially in the mode of representation of research results. This is why the result of my research is a documentary that uses both ethnographic and artistic approaches. I have coined it an aesthetic ethnography.

I already knew the artists I worked with on this project. Some are friends of mine; others were acquaintances and became friends throughout the process of the research and filming. I asked them to be part of the film and research because I found that their works represented much of what seem to be the aesthetics tendencies in contemporary art here in Maputo. Also I wanted to focus my work on young emerging talents, and all the artists represented in the film are well known and up coming talents in Maputo.

Autonomy is the theme of this year's Viscult Film Festival. Can you tell how your documentary fits to this theme? Is autonomy visible in the artists' creations?

There is definitely a strong autonomy to the artists work. All of them work on their own terms, with no institutional or other organized support. Most of the artists that appear in Living Art work on topics that are critical of social problems, politics, environmental issues, etc. Their art is self sustained. It is not created commercially, for example in the case of David Aguacheiro. His sculptures made of exhaust pipes and other recycled materials are not artworks that are easily sold, but that is not his purpose. He has a strong message to communicate, and works for that, leaving other factors behind. Shot B’s graffitis have faced a situation where an entire wall was painted white because of politically critical content in his images. Jazz P is an artist who immigrated to Mozambique from the neighboring country Swaziland and her gaining a position and momentum in the local art world to the point of being able to live off her art is a constant struggle. Nevertheless all of them keep going against all odds.

As for the film itself, I think it fits well into the autonomy theme because it too stands on its own two feet between different genres. Is has elements of traditional observational ethnographic film, but at the same time is not what you would call a conventional ethnographic film. Is explores some more artistic storytelling devices, but then again is not purely artistic enough to be considered an experimental art film.

Could you share your favourite memory of working with these artists?

I filmed with the artists over a period of more than a year, so naturally there were many memorable moments. If I had to choose one it would probably be the filming of the street performance with Idio Chichava, because it reminded me of the immediacy and unpredictability of documentary filmmaking. We had set out to Maputo’s downtown with a plan of how to start the performance. In this downtown area, street vendors sell second hand clothes, and some of them hang these clothes in the trees to make them visible to potential customers. Our idea was to hang the garbage suit that Idio would wear during the performance amidst these clothes that are for sale and to observe the passer-byes reactions. We didn’t expect the uproar that this would cause amongst the vendors. It almost looked like we had to abort the performance when in the middle of a heated discussion Idio started his performance. In the blink of an eye the confusion stopped and Idio’s movements caught everybody’s attention. It was a great experience to witness how his art reached out to the population on the streets and managed to calm what could almost be called a conflict down to quiet curiosity.

How does African art differ from European art? What kind of features are typical to it?

I wouldn’t say that there is or isn’t a difference between African and European art. From my point of view I wouldn’t even label it like that. From what I have found during my research, before being of a certain nationality, each artist is an individual, with a particular way of seeing and understanding the world around them, and a unique way of expressing this in their creations. Of course we can sometimes identify certain influences from a cultural background that might be rooted in the artist’s home country or continent, but especially for contemporary arts I don’t think that this is what identifies it. Even just looking at a group as small as the seven artists I worked with, between them they express completely different, sometimes even contrasting aesthetics and topics in their works, all the while supposedly being from the ‘same’ background.

What was the best thing about making this film? Can you tell us the most important thing you learned while making this film?

As I already mentioned it was quite the challenge for me to conduct a research and make a film in a familiar environment, and more importantly with people that are part of my ‘normal’ life. I was afraid that our personal relationships could negatively influence the filmmaking process. It turned out that it was in fact a huge advantage. My being close to the artists personally allowed me to invade their personal space and really get close. I feel that this closeness translates into the film, and I’ve already had feedback from audiences saying that they could also feel the closeness between the camera and the protagonists.

What I also learned was that it is a well working possibility to break conventional research patterns, and incorporate my artistic vision into the ethnographic work. The result is something in between the two disciplines: ethnography of art - artistic ethnography.