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interview with fernando alvim
by christian hanussek (2004)
intro by dídac p. lagarriga



Once you told me that it was better to listen to it without voice, but I'm not sure what you wanted to say. Somebody else said: I prefer to write without words... I've found someone's face after I imagined it and to realize that something died when the real image just appeared. Simple acts and facts that we loose when we write -not when we translate it, where anything is what it is but, yes, it seems that it is... You told me that it was better to read it when it was finished, and, for me, this goal was like waiting forever, aiming the single, the reader's utopia which never become (a reader) because the impossibility to read finished writings. When a full stop marks the end, it doesn't mean anything but a pretext, an excuse, a cluster, an excuse -again-, a cluster that you use to forgot, to pick up: stop waiting...

Mister Fernando Alvim, who are you? I knew you through the following interview, the one Christian Hanussek send me to translate [to Spanish] and publish it. If a full stop ending a text is just a full stop / next sentence but developing its spare time, an interview is anything but a malicious conversation -in the right sense of this no-action. The interview is a paradox, among others, uncovering without showing and perhaps noting an idea with a limited developing; the interview sculpts what could be an action blocking its own continuity. The interviewer talks but in the interview anybody is listening to; what we read is just the shadow of what it was but is already gone; with its unmeaning full stops and with its useless ends.

Mister Fernando Alvim, artist -if you don't care-, born in Angola, 1963. I saw his face after read him, I imagined another face but: won't be Alvim always other? I'm not aiming to fit him in the box which reduce everything (the easy box, not the stupid box with its images, its channels, its ads and its so on, but having the same family: easy boxes, nesting ones, dead boxes for dead people, rotted cashboxes, not messing but hiding items inside a box...) Alvim I was saying, is someone with an easy face (easy to find, to understand, to remember, to file...) and he'll survive to explain it. Yes.

Fernando Alvim; Angola's war; networks of collaborators; a constant activity from the Belgium-south Africa-Angola triangle; contemporary art system right now (finances, promotion, opportunism...) To look through the lines is not to read between the lines. The difference is so subtle that it can confuse us. If there's something important in interviews like this, where there's not a limited format, is our capacity to look through the lines and, then, to imagine other lines -a non written ones- where it should be possible to read between, through, from, with and against.

The war topic is evolving the talk; one of the feelings that remained inside me after I did the exercise mentioned above (to look through the lines and then imagine other lines to read) it was the complete acceptation of the rules to enter in a war with its subtle weapons, its negotiations and agreements, with politics and economics running under a real camouflage. Not in vain one of Alvim's projects is called Camouflage. Not in vain when we read what's going on in Luanda, the feeling is like a flavor, a sensation more than a real information. But, I recognize it, I prefer this feeling than nothing. And today, like yesterday, nothing means information.

"We are all post exotics", Fernando Alvim 2004


Brussels, Feb 18th 2004

Christian Hanussek: You moved to Belgium in 1988, but since then you have been going back and forth between Angola and Brussels, organizing several art projects in Angola, South Africa and Belgium. The first one I heard of was your "memórias íntimas marcas" …

Fernando Alvim: In 1992 I did a one-man show in Luanda, and we produced a major catalogue for it. I was back in Luanda in 1991-2, and again in 1994-6, when I was working on "the urgency of ethno psychiatry" project - and then back there in 1996-7 for the "memórias íntimas marcas" project. These were my three major projects, although of course I did other shows as well.

CH: For your memórias íntimas marcas project, you invited artists to create artworks in Cuito Cuanavale, one of Angola's bloodiest battlegrounds, and then organized a number of exhibitions showing these works. Could you just explain how all this evolved, and how the different parts of the project developed?

FA: First of all, in 1996, just like in any other project, I set up a project framework, an office with five people, and I saw politicians - just as I did for the Triennial. I had the original concept for the memórias íntimas marcas project planned for 1992-94, but it wasn't the right time to realise it ? it was simply too early. And then in 1996 I had to spend nearly the whole year convincing the politicians to set up the structures in Luanda? and that was essential because the first part of the project in Luanda had been funded completely by money raised from Angolan companies and institutions and, of course, the government. Then we also got support from the European union. After the year in Luanda, we started work in April 1997 with Carlos Garaicoa, a Cuban artist, Gavin Younge, a South African artist, two curators and art historians from Cuba and myself - and we were joined by an Angolan TV film crew and a team arranging the logistics of it all. Before starting any work directly on the exhibition itself, we went to the south of Angola, to Cuito Cuanavale, and stayed there for twelve days. To start with, we didn't really have any fixed idea of what we wanted to work around ? it was very free. In fact, the Cuban artist started developing his project inside Cuito Cuanavale. He brought along friend of his, a video artist from Cuba, who had been a soldier in Angola when he was eighteen years old. We simply went there and found ourselves facing a reality, facing this space, which provided the impetus for everyone to start developing his own work. Once we were back in Luanda, we arranged a show there and after that, we just continued to elaborate the project, showing it in Cape Town's Castle of Good Hope, which is both a military base and a museum.
While I was living in Johannesburg from May 1997 until the beginning of 1998, the project developed further and took different forms. I started to be involved with the reality of South Africa and made a lot of connections in Johannesburg. While there, because I'd come into contact with artists who'd been involved in the war in Angola, we felt a need to explore other territories of information and other artists' work. This was a development in the project, since I'd started by deliberately choosing to invite Cuban and South African artists who hadn't been involved in the war - asking them to give their personal view on this issue. And they were creating projects and art works linked to this idea of nation guilt, really operating through the idea of a nation. But then in Johannesburg, with fourteen artists involved ? and most of them from South Africa, of course ? it turned out to be quite the contrary. In this case, I was the only Angolan, working with two Cubans and thirteen artists from South Africa. Then we organized our show in Pretoria. Since some artists pulled out after the Johannesburg show and some after the Pretoria exhibition, I started to invite others to join us, particularly those who at least had memories of violence or experiences of violence, mutations and violent changes in war. In this way, we were joined by artists from Burundi, Congo, and even from Cameroon, and these projects were first shown in 1998/99 in the Lisbon city museum and then in 2000 in the MUHKA in Antwerp - and by then, we were almost fifteen artists, including European artists.

CH: So the idea spread and more artists got involved. But let's just go back the start of the project in Cuito Cuanavale and Luanda in 1997. At that time, the war was still going on, wasn't it?

FA: Yes, it was. In reality ? and this is very bizarre ? the war stopped for a few months and then started again. When we went to the south of Angola, the war hadn't really stopped completely, and in a lot of places in Angola, people weren't even aware that it had eased up.
We held our exhibition in Luanda in the Portuguese cultural centre, which we completely changed. We covered all the walls, making a big white box as a setting for our show, and then brought all the things we'd produced in Cuito Cuanavale. Of course, in Luanda we got a very good response from both the general public and the political audience. People were very enthusiastic because everyone expected peace any moment, and we'd included all the countries involved, South Africa, Angola, Cuba and even Portugal, because all these people were involved in the troika trying to bring peace to Angola.
In a way Cuito Cuanavale was also a show - anyway, that's how I think of it. For example, I did all these art films. Every day for twelve days I went out with a little camera on top of a toy-car and I ran it for kilometres inside the savannah all over the place ? producing I don't know how many hours of film footage every day. The car was always moving like some small animal, but very fast, always fast, fast, fast. One other film I did was shot in a ravine. It was about eight meters high, and I dug a long trench about 25 meters long at the base of the ravine. I dug out everything, then I covered it again and I filmed under the ground in the trench with a camera on a bottle of water a kind of two-headed baby doll getting born. This was almost like a fetishist action and it became quite interesting because in this village ? a big village with four parts ? they don't have a chief but a kind of king. And this king - who we call "Rey" ? asked me to leave one of the dolls, one of them with two heads and the other with one head. It was very bizarre ? they started to make a sort of little house, around two meters high and one meter by one meter with a little window, and they asked me to put one of the dolls there inside the little house, to prevent rain, keep poverty at bay and guarantee good health. I didn't suggest it and it wasn't planned in any way, but people understood what we were doing there. The South African artist was filming with a bike, creating some works around birds disappearing from the area, and the Cuban artist was digging, almost excavating holes, questioning the earth. There was a lot of action going on.
At night, we showed what we'd filmed during the day on a little TV, and every night all the people and the children of this village of around 100 inhabitants came to see our work. We had no beds, no nothing, and were sleeping in a dilapidated house without toilets, without anything. We were living in the same conditions as the population there, they started to know us and what we were doing there, and we also recorded some of the people's history.

CH: And what was the reception like in Luanda?

FA: There were two sides to that ? first of all people were quite worried. I did interviews with the Cuban and the South African artists. The South African artist was really afraid of being recognised as an old South African soldier, and he said so in the video. The Cuban artist was very concerned with the Cubans who had been killed in the area - quite a lot, in fact ? and he couldn't understand why they'd gone there, like some of his old school friends. I think the key aspect to the public reaction was that it showed how much all of us in Angola are still deeply connected to that period. It's a place where a major battle took place between South African and Angolan troops, marking the end of the war in a way, because afterwards South Africa withdrew back its forces. Yet people understood how necessary it was ? I asked some military personnel for help to provide us with transport to get there ? military airplanes ? and all the politicians were very supportive. They were all supportive and very enthusiastic about the project. We received major sponsoring and, of course, the newspapers gave it front-page coverage. And when we went to South Africa the Angolan deputy minister of culture came with us to open the show.

CH: What happened later on as more artists came into the project - did they ever go to Cuito Cuanavale?

F:A Some of them did, but only later on, because when the show first came to Cape Town, it was still a big taboo for the newspapers and the South Africans generally. When the show then went to Johannesburg, some people who were in the war came up to me and said: I'm an artist and I was in the war and I would like to participate. The curatorial approach at the Johannesburg exhibition was quite funny because I just opened the doors of the place and said: Come in! It wasn't a curated show ? it was very free and people just occupied the place.

CH: Where was that?

FA: In the same venue as the 2nd Johannesburg biennial ?a big electricity workshop, a huge place of around 6000 square meters. And we used exactly the same boxes they had used for the 2nd biennial. We didn't touch anything.
That's how things started to grow ? and then we went to Pretoria, which was a funny show. It was held in an African window museum ? a huge place, very big, like 30 by 30 meters or even more, but without light. So we created a structure resembling a countryside hospital, with corridors and between them, five rooms simply made of a wooden structure of around 5 x 6 meters, one behind the other. And these rooms were covered with white plastic, thick white plastic. All the walls were plastic. It looked really tense, but very square. And when the show was running we had hundreds of people there and the light created all these shadows of the people inside the boxes.
I think memórias was a turning point in my own work. When I arrived in Belgium, the first thing I did was create a support structure, a production company called Sussuta Boé - just the same as I had back in Luanda in 1988, before the memórias project. I was always fascinated by my own space and my freedom inside of these spaces. And once I had this one here - about 50 square meters, used as my studio ? and every two months I invited artists to do a show. In South Africa, during the memórias íntimas marcas project, I started Coartnews and after that I founded Camouflage in South Africa. And one month later, after I'd left South Africa and came here to Brussels in 1999, I created Camouflage here. I personally consider all of these projects as exorcising my way of working in art in Angola - and then I felt completely free to initiate more mechanisms to sustain the artistic action. I had done that before, but not on the same scale. Memórias really represented the turning point ? after the memórias project I created all the structures I have now.

CH: It's been rather amazing how things have developed, since it's become a whole network of different activities. It seems to me, though, that one of your major aims is to install a structure in Luanda ? an exhibition space, an archive, residencies and all kinds of things - and the Luanda Triennial will be part of this or linked to it. Now you already have a space there, but it's still in a rather early phase. I guess you also see it as giving an input into Angola, and into Luanda's public and cultural spheres.

FA: When I created Camouflage in Brussels, I started it with the very clear idea of creating a satellite in order to experiment with projects by African artists from Africa, and projects by Africans from all over the world. You could say I've trained here before opening a Centre for African Art in Luanda ? and let me tell you, in the end, it's far more difficult to open a contemporary African art centre in Brussels because you don't get any support for it. But for me personally, it proved a very important process. With the network I created during these four years, the collections and the artists' network, I already have something for the centre in Luanda. Memórias was already so important and the people there were so motivated, I was convinced the Luanda centre was going to become a reality. It's great now that it is taking shape during a time of peace in Angola, and that's why it was so crucial to create a foundation, a centre for contemporary art in Luanda, and all the mechanisms that go with it. At present, we already have two separate venues in Luanda, about one kilometre apart ? one private and the other donated by the government. One of them is 1000 square meters and the other 400 square meters. We are going to work with twenty architects from Luanda to create a centre for contemporary art, but we know we need to do that step by step, -and if not, we are not legitimate - and this gradual progress helps make us more competent. That's why I'm very keen to start in small spaces. It's not a question of size; it's a question of intensity.
We first created TACCA, Territórios de Arte e Cultura Contemporânea Africana, and then the government and the minister of culture invited us to conceptualize a Triennial for Luanda. All these things are linked, and we are now using Camouflage as a real satellite of TACCA - even though when we created Camouflage and didn't yet have any venue in Luanda, we still called Camouflage the Satellite of the Centre of Contemporary Art of Africa. Now we are in Angola calling TACCA The Territories of Contemporary Art and Culture of Africa, and not just an Angolan centre ? I remember when I called Camouflage a satellite, people were forever asking: What centre in Africa is it a satellite of?

TACCA - Rua Gomes de Sousa, 83, Luanda - Angola

CH: Obviously Africa is the centre of all your activities, although I'm often struck particularly by the way people involved in African art or dealing with artists from Africa frequently avoid using the continent's name - for a number of reasons. After all, so many different concepts are possible, and, as I think Simon Njami wrote in one of his articles on your work, you can also see it as a phantom ? but of course then you create it's own reality as such. There are others who say we shouldn't use this name at all, arguing the continent is so big and diverse…
So when you talk of a Centre of African Art, what do you mean by the term African?

FA: I think it is actually very easy. In reality people complicate the approach - and that's indicative of how many complexes are connected with the issue. We call the European Union European, and see flags from the EU all over Europe, with programs in Europe on science called European programs for science, and we have the Euro. All that is quite normal. In Africa, I think we need to create…let's call it, a temporary moment of self-esteem. We need that because if, for example, you watch international TV, coverage of Africa is 99% negative. So when I'm involved in very sophisticated art projects with a very high level of awareness, I've decided to call it contemporary Africa.

CH: Are you reviving the spirit of the sixties, a kind of Pan-Africanism?

FA Not at all ? I think it's the real name of this continent today. The good thing in Africa is that things never come back, which I like, because the mutations in Africa are so deep, always creating a certain chaos. For example, in Angola we are presently living in a capitalist system. We went through the Marxist-Leninist system very quickly, and then it was over - and now we don't even think about it anymore. So what does it mean to be an African? We can say, it means being in a state of process. I often say that for me America is solid, Europe is fluid, and Africa is gas ? all the same but just at different temperatures.

CH: The Triennial will also be a political statement, quite directly involving the government and under government auspices. Angola's situation is still rather tense, with many unresolved problems to deal with and, of course, the aftermath of the war still dominating both the entire cultural sphere and everyday life.

FA I think culture can be a very interesting tool for this passage from war to peace. In our talks with the government it's quite clear everybody knows it's not history we need to revisit, but the old images and symptoms we had during wartime. Of course you can't ignore it - and we have been ignoring it since 1961, more than 40 years. In reality, the first war was against the Portuguese, then South Africa and Zaire, and then between us. I'm quite surprised at how quickly we have moved. For example, we have Unita people in the government and we are working with white South Africans who were bombing Angola. And we are friends with the US Americans.
When you remember that we haven't produced any major filmmakers or artists over the last 20 years, it can be interesting to look at the causes for that absence of cultural development ? and eventually we can come to see all these historical moments, or all these wars and the bad things that happened to us, as an integral part of our history, aesthetics, and culture. Of course, any country that has spent 28 years at war has a culture of war, even if you don't want it to - and we intend to integrate all of that, including the way we have became independent from a cultural perspective, and ask why it was necessary to be independent.
Civil society is beginning to become organized. I think this is a very sensitive and fragile moment for Angola, and in the end the best moment for the Triennial to happen because we have to bring all of these issues into deb


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