REVIEW PORTRAITS FROM ANGOLA Alex Vines
THEWORLDTODAY.ORG DECEMBER 2007
ALEX VINESruns the British-Angola Forum at Chatham House which marks its tenth anniversary next year.
Painting Peace fIVEYEARSAFTERTHEENDOFONEOFTHEMOST protracted conflicts in Africa, Angola has recovered to rank among the most successful subSaharan economies. The country is preparing for legislative elections next year – the first since 1992 – in what is generally a peaceful climate. Recovering from over thirty years of war takes time but reconstruction is well underway. Last year, British artist John Keane visited, commissioned by Christian Aid and the Wolverhampton City Art Gallery, to paint post-conflict Angola. Keane’s work is respected. He was the official British war artist in the 1991 Gulf crisis and has been commission by the National Portrait Gallery to paint the late British government Minister Mo Mowlam and union leader Bill Morris. Keane visited Luanda, and Mavinga, the capital of the remote south-eastern province of Cuanda Cubango – which the Portuguese colonialists called the ‘lands at the end of the world’. This was Keane’s first trip to Africa – but his canvasses, rich in colour, focus on the dignity and resilience of Angolans. There are three paintings from Mavinga, one of a girl carrying a bucket of water back to her village – a snapshot of daily life for millions of girls and women. Clean, accessible water is a major challenge and non-governmental organisations such as Christian Aid have played an important part in helping to provide it. Keane also depicts two brothers, who were forcibly conscripted during the civil war to fight for the government and the UNITA rebels. Unknowingly they fought on opposing sides and only met once the conflict ended. Keane paints the face of the one who fought for the government framed with images of oil rigs and US dollars. His brother, who was with UNITA, is surrounded by antipersonnel mines and football teams. The landmines are understandable – UNITA used them as nuisance
weapons on paths to water sources and cultivated fields, or under shady trees and by bridges – but I am not sure football is uniquely identifiable with the rebels. Having said that, when I visited the then besieged and divided city of Kuito in 1994, occasionally contending forces would play football together along their frontline – before being ordered back to fight by their commanders. As in Mavinga, many brothers, cousins, fathers and sons were divided by war. Keane also offers the image of a woman carrying her baby in one of Luanda’s shanty towns. This could have been a timeless picture, but the single symbol of modernity is the mobile phone tucked into her skirt. The mobile revolution is important in connecting people and bringing them access to more information in Angola as elsewhere across Africa. Texting has become a fine art to keep costs down and the British Council is looking at whether innovative English language training can be done by text – is there mileage in a spelling a day? The post-conflict boom comes at a price. In 1994, there were few cars and I had to walk across the city to meetings. Now I do the same, but because roads are disrupted by construction and a massive increase in traffic. An Angolan official admitted to me recently that this has become the new national emergency as people spend their time in traffic, unless they get up before dawn to get to the office and return home late at night. Keane’s paintings are on show in Wolverhamption City Art Gallery as part of an exhibition on Children in Conflict which is scheduled move to London next year. His work is evidence that Angola is becoming normal, I only wish he had also painted that Luanda traffic – which has put the capital in a league with a Lagos go-slow, the mother of all traffic jams. But that is better by any measure than the mother of all battles.
PAINTINGS BY JOHN KEANE