Lusotropicalism, discontented

“God made blacks because they had to be...He made it so that the palms of their hands would be like the palms of other men… what men do is done by hands that are the same - hands of people who, if they had any sense, would know that before everything else they are men.”

Luís Bernardo Honwana, 1969

Ethereal yet grounded, mythological but personal, intimate and distanced: Cassi Namoda’s artwork exists in parallels that intoxicate the viewer, drawing them into the rich history of Africa. Hailing from Maputo in Mozambique, Namoda is a painter and performance artist whose work forefronts life in postcolonial Africa, exploring social dynamics through scenes of everyday life. Fusing together archival imagery, personal experiences and folklore, Namoda visualises the collective memories of Mozambique and breathes life into a beautiful and often unseen culture. This mix of real and mythological inspiration blankets her work in dream-like qualities, at once appearing familiar and entirely new to the viewer.

Namoda’s culture-rich childhood growing up between Mozambique, Haiti and the United States is evident throughout her work. Stating to Bomb Magazine earlier this month that her travels made her intimately aware of the African diaspora and the importance of “magical spiritualisms and rituals as part of daily life”, her time in Haiti was particularly influential: “I was only in Haiti a short time but something resonated with my development… certain places have powerful, magical landscapes and Haiti has always been a place of mysticism and rich folklore.”

Central to her work are complex portrayals of Lusotropicalism. A term coined by sociologist Gilberto Freyre in the early twentieth century, it pertains to the ‘unique’ manifestation of Portuguese colonialism in Africa, Mozambique being one of Portugal’s former colonies. This theory of Portugal as the ‘good’ coloniser in comparison to other colonial powers is much contested in modern discourses, and dynamically alive in Namoda’s creations.

The relative obscurity of the Lusotropical history in Europe and America is something Namoda wishes to redress. Speaking to Juxtapoz Magazine last year, she warns of “the danger of the single story. Stories of Nigeria and Ghana are widely told, but we need to be inclusive in terms of our narrative… there is a spirit from each place.” Her aforementioned interview with Bomb magazine mentions her inspiration from Lusophone authors such as Luís Bernardo Honwana: in carving her own postcolonial identity, Namoda looked to the oft-overlooked authors from former Portuguese colonies. By bringing attention to these figures, she wishes to “introduce a global audience to the Lusophone story.”

Her most recent exhibition To Live Long is To See Much - which ran in Johannesburg’s Goodman Gallery November-January 2021 - explores in-depth the complex Lusotropical history of Mozambique. Born amidst the global coronavirus lockdown over summer 2020, this exhibition deftly weaves mythology, everyday experiences and magic realism amidst a viridescent Mozambique landscape. Speaking again with Bomb Magazine, Namoda states she “always thinks about landscapes. We’re looking at so much figurative painting right now, and in that excess, I feel there’s almost a duty to step outside of that.” Her artistic process views the painting as “novellas'', and for this show, she “created specific dramaturgical titles...usually the title is birthed first and then I come up with what it means.”

In creating titles such as The joy of living, outweighs misery and sorrow and We have become strangers (Fight with a javelin and boron). An ode to Goya and weaving visuals around them, Namoda conjoins painting and the written word. This work is as much literature as it is visual arts. Alongside the tableau paintings is an archival video of Eduardo Mondlane, founding father of Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) - a resistance that fought for and achieved national independence from Portugal in 1975 - speaking at the London Africa Centre about Mozambique's specific liberatory struggles. Including Mondlane alongside her work speaks towards Namoda’s complicated emotions regarding Portuguese imperialism; speaking further to Bomb Magazine, she explicates the complex history between women’s experiences, Portuguese colonisation and FRELIMO - some women “didn’t believe in [FRELIMO] because their lives were already good” and sex workers were forced into secrecy. Unmistakable throughout the exhibition is Mozambique’s layered, multicultural history: “When you experience Mozambique’s cities and find an urban European past: that style is juxtaposed with African sensuality”

Alongside exhibitions, 2020 was an incredible year for Namoda. As well as being named one of Elephant Magazine’s Rising Stars of 2020, she collaborated with Vogue Italia for their January 2020 issue. In a statement of ecological awareness, this month’s issue featured no fashion photography, instead contracting eight artists to depict models. The editor of Vogue Italia stipulated how eco-unfriendly fashion photography could be, with “lights switched on for at least ten hours non-stop, partly powered by gasoline generators” and many other costs. Speaking to Shift London, Namoda stated her love for the project: “this issue is a wonderful opportunity to encourage doing things differently in order to lower our impact of how we are living and consuming on this planet.” As well as this, Namoda also spearheaded a project on Mozambique tea called Saudade, releasing her own Ceylon tea sourced from the Gurué tea plantation where black tea was still regularly drunk. Post colonisation, tea was seen as a working-class drink, with coffee seen as a beverage of stature. Wanting to further recognition for Mozambique history, ‘Saudade’ was born in partnership with the Gurué tea plantation. In Juxtapoz Magazine, Namoda defined Saudade as “longing and missing of a place or time that one can’t necessarily put their finger on… meditative, without being happy or sad.” ‘Saudade’ can be expanded across her oeuvre. From Vogue magazine to tea making, to her verisimilitude dreamscape paintings, Namoda has meditatively explored Mozambique’s colonial history in an innovative fashion.

Follow Eliott on his Instagram at @venefi_ca