Art in Context Africa, Part V: Marie Darieussecq on Butcheca and Gonçalo Mabunda

The French novelist and writer visits Maputo and encounters the work of two artists who are successfully negotiating the dominant ‘national art’ style

By Marie Darrieussecq

Gonçalo Mabunda, Loves with Loneliness Throne, 2013. Courtesy Jack Bell Gallery, London Butcheca, Fish-aeroplane, 2014. Courtesy the artist

A yearlong survey (in monthly instalments) in which artists, curators and cultural commentators explore the question of what African art (of the contemporary flavour) does or can do within various local contexts across the continent.

Butcheca and Gonçalo Mabunda

Mozambique is the fourth poorest country in the world. But I found Maputo, the capital, to have a melancholy sweetness, like an island in an ocean of poverty. The Portuguese part – ‘Cement Maputo’ – is an ensemble of 1960s and 70s architecture that has become magnificently tropicalised. The decrepit facades crumble beneath lianas and bougainvillea. There’s also a very beautiful Gustave Eiffel-designed station, colonial houses that recall Brazil and white sandy beaches leading into the Indian Ocean… But the capital for the most part remains an immense shantytown. The country is in full ‘Angolisation’: gas and oil have recently been discovered in quantity, and a small, hyperrich group close to the government is monopolising the resources. The seafront is in mutation, with five-star hotels and casinos pushing up out of the earth. No schools or new hospitals.

Independent since 1975, Mozambique was ripped apart by civil war between 1977 and 1992. The country’s best-known sculptor is Alberto Chissano (1935–94): one is greeted at the airport by a group of his large-headed, skinny-bodied creatures, contorted and agglutinated. Chissano hollowed out tree trunks, often of sandalwood, from which to extract his humanoid forms. He has a museum to himself, the Chissano Gallery, and is also a presence in Maputo’s National Museum of Art, where he rubs shoulders with Malangatana Ngwenya (the other major national artist), the landscapist Mucavele, the ceramicist Reinata Sadimba and the young An.sia Manjate, born in 1976, whose canvases incorporate cowries, shells that are emblematic of many African countries. In an effort to honour the suffering of the people and the beauty of Mozambique, the National Museum of Art gives a sober impression. This is neither art brut nor the ‘first’ art heritage of masques and rites, but effectively what I will call, for want of a better expression, national art. The lively colours, expressionistic faces and figuration tending towards the abstract curiously, for me, recalled the National Museum of Bolivia, which also showed recent – political and foundational – art. But there are no visitors here, and the hospitable director is from the president’s family.

One must go to the border of Cement Maputo and Mafalala, a historic shantytown from the war of independence, to find an artists’ quarter. Butcheca lives on the corner of Avenue Karl Marx and Agostinho Neto, near Avenue Mao Tse Tung (one can also find an Avenue Kim Il Sung). He is building an aeroplane in the courtyard of his building. Or an aeroplane-fish-aeroplane. Or an aeroplane-fish-chicken, once he has mounted on it the two feet he showed me a sketch of. The metal structure, suspended in the middle of the courtyard, occupies the whole space. One part of the fuselage is already covered in flattened beer cans. The eyes are painted streetlamp globes. Sliding one’s head inside the cabin, one finds it occupied by little passengers. The wings are stretched canvas painted red.

Butcheca's is an art that can be universalised: one could be anywhere that human beings walk the earth, or are prey to dreams and anxieties. The characters are often relieved of their heads; another seems to be turning into an owl… 

Butcheca, born in 1978, is an autodidact who knows well what he’s doing. He also paints, on large canvases, which he shows me in his basement by the light of an electric bulb. It is hard to find materials and he has to do a lot of ‘cooking’: mixing sawdust, wheat flour and wood glue to prepare his canvases. When he was younger he passed through the Nucleo de Artes, an artist collective for which Malangatana and Chissano also worked in the 1950s. Butcheca’s work, to me, seems to take the best of this national art, which is otherwise ageing badly. His subjects are material ones: Farmers’ Meeting, Public WC, By Bicycle, The Chicken’s Journey… but it’s an art that can be universalised: one could be anywhere that human beings walk the earth, or are prey to dreams and anxieties. The characters are often relieved of their heads; one wears red shoes; another seems to be turning into an owl… Butcheca shows regularly in Mozambique, Angola and Portugal: just thirty-six years old, he’ll soon, I’d wager, be showing all over the lusophone world.

Butcheca next takes me to his friend and neighbour Gonçalo Mabunda. At the entrance to the studio I am met by a striking Christ made of bullets, rockets, Kalashnikov magazines. I’ve come for the thrones constructed from recycled armaments that have made Mabunda’s reputation, but it is his masks that really seduce me. The simple parabolic antenna, with two screws for the eyes, a piece of metal sheeting for the nose, wire spectacles, a trace of rust for the smile… it’s a sort of moon on acid. And that petrol-can base onto which is soldered a sardine tin and two imploring washers: it’s another face, a victim of terrors. And this boiler with two handles and a detonator for a mouth: a theoretician of massacres? And this gas meter, all bearded with cartridges: a philosopher of chaos? A military deserter? I can already see myself trying to convince Air France that the welded rocket launcher and torpedo that I’m carrying in my suitcase are actually art… But Mabunda only sells via his gallerists in Paris (Magnin-A), London (Jack Bell) or Johannesburg (Afronova). At thirty-eight, he looks like a rock star: he has the allure, the insolence and the panache. And he has no issue with showing me the photo of him with Bill Clinton. In the stairwell I come upon a magnificent dog made of scraps of wood – an elegant work in an unexpected material: “Oh, that,” says the artist. “That took me ten minutes.” And he makes a nonchalant gesture with his hands, as if twisting raffia.

There are two well-established modes within the art exported from the continent of Africa: art that recycles tins and bottle tops (the Ghanaian-Nigerian El Anatsui is a past master) and art that recycles arms. In 1995, three years after the ceasefire, the Christian Council of Mozambique encouraged ten local artists to work with turned-in weapons. Similar initiatives took place in Cambodia, in the US and in Congo: thus in Kinshasa the artist Freddy Tsimba often constructs works from bullet casings; in 2005 A Tree of Life was shown at the British Museum by four Mozambican artists: Kester, Hilario Nhatugueja, Fiel dos Santos and Adelino Serafim Mat.. (Kester, by the by, narrowly avoided losing his life after a rocket exploded in his studio.) Butcheca has also tried this type of recycling.

The rivalry is harsh, and I find it hard to say who, out of all these artists, was the first to hit upon the idea of making thrones. But it is Mabunda whose thrones are shown from New York to Tokyo, passing through Düsseldorf, Amsterdam and Vancouver en route. And it’s also his thrones that Dior chose for a fashion shoot in 2010. And his Silla de la Bota (2012) upon which the ex-president of Mozambique has perched his august buttocks. Mabunda showed me these photos, framed, at his studio. But I returned fascinated by his masks: with them he has passed beyond the ‘Arcimboldo’ manner of metal assembly. His art is freed of constraints or messages. Each of these masks looks to me like the new face of Ubu Roi.  

This article was first published in the December 2014 issue.