Sérgio’s Whistling: prelude to Desenhar A Resistência
In Mindelo’s artistic scene, the expression “mergulhar na obra de” (“immersing oneself in the work of”) is common; in Manuel Figueira’s case, we must be careful, especially considering the depth of the endeavour. One could detect the anticipation when hearing the melody of Sérgio Figueira’s whistling and Voginha’s strumming – the second time in the same year, in the same place.
Following the opening of his mother Luísa Queirós’ exhibition in July, Sérgio’s whistling was repeated in the CNAD courtyard; a sound transporting us to the Bossa Nova of other times and places. In December, things seemed windier, drier, darker and more nostalgic: the changes inherent in annual cycles, exacerbated by Manuel Figueira’s recent passing.
As I listened to Sérgio, I wondered how special (or crushing) it must have been to be the only child of two such singular personalities; two of the three founders of a ground-breaking institution in post-independent Cape Verde, on which the space – physical and conceptual – we were privileged to occupy stood, while Sérgio’s whistling sealed the beginning of the in-depth dive to come.
Manuel Figueira, Luísa Queirós and Bela Duarte founded Cooperativa Resistência in 1976, arriving in Cape Verde after their studies in Portugal, where they met and recognised each other’s motivations and ideologies. The only Portuguese person in the group, Luísa joined Manuel as a couple, the group as a resistance and Cape Verde as a nation. Throughout time, the guiding principles of surveying and documenting Cape Verdean crafts led to Centro Nacional de Artesanato and, in recent years, to the institution’s current reconversion into CNAD – National Centre for Art, Crafts and Design.
Sérgio’s whistling eventually stopped and, while some of those present were familiar with all the exhibited works, watching them gathered in time and space made our throats tighten and dry.
Búzio na Laginha welcomed us and stood in the doorway of Galeria Luísa Queirós, following the same course of action Luísa had taken when she wrote the manifesto Quem ê q’morré? in 2000. For the first time in over three decades, this full-sized batik was exhibited in Cape Verde. Recently retrieved by CNAD, after having been lost in Portugal since 1989 – where it had been brought in the context of the First Portuguese-Speaking Fair in Arganil – it welcomed those who arrived at the exhibition through the gallery named Luísa Queirós, honouring it and providing a response – delayed, but positive – to the manifesto it had written for the pieces’ return to Cape Verde.
Mocidade portuguesa em parada, from 1968, marks Manuel’s approach to life, where desenhar a resistência was a continuous feature. This serves as an entry point to the exhibition, where even the year of its production is symbolic, temporally coinciding with the Paris Student Revolts and the African Liberation Movements.
This piece shows a man with the author’s physiognomic features visible, with his eyes shut, gagged, shrunken and wearing a Portuguese beret on his head. In deconstructing the form, we are prompted to question whether the human figure is in fact alone, assuming the presence of at least two other people. The motion given by the representation of different planes is an ongoing theme in Manuel Figueira’s work, where he adds layers to the drawing, allowing us to perceive it in different ways and also calling into question our own more direct understanding of the work.
The symbolism of Mocidade portuguesa em parada sets us up to immerse ourselves in the exhibition’s more uncluttered area, where the theme of Capitão Ambrósio stands out straight away, tackled through studies developed to illustrate Gabriel Mariano’s work. Several narratives are laid out along the side wall: the dragon tree theme using mixed drawing, painting and collage techniques; day-to-day family life with the representation of the human figure through caricature; Casa Figueira, depicted with its patriarch José Figueira, on a canvas made up of fragments sewn together like shards of memory. Finally, a work of ceramic fragments, in which we recognise the building where Cooperativa Resistência set up in 1976, the former English Consulate, recently demolished.
At the edge of Galeria Luísa Queirós, there is an intimate area in red where, through snippets of interviews with the author, we can hear about the ideology behind his life – a politicised approach influenced by Abílio Duarte and Baltasar Lopes, also responsible for his decision to study Fine Arts in Lisbon, where he met Luísa. Having arrived from Portugal with Bela Duarte, spurred on by the post-Carnation Revolution atmosphere, they wanted to “do things that were anything but ordinary” and, through Cooperativa Resistência / CNA, they developed a methodology of “passing on knowledge of the plastic arts in general, through their contact with artisans“. As for his individual production, he says it was based on street watching, but using humour and mockery to represent it. Within this intimate setting, we are surrounded by bits of memories and speeches; on one side, photographs of experiences at Cooperativa Resistência / CNA, which, due to their size, invite us to get closer, and, on the opposite side, fragments of writings by Manuel Figueira and Amílcar Cabral, seemingly in dialogue with each other.
Leaving this corner behind – and before moving on to Galeria Bela Duarte – two works dedicated to Cape Verde’s weaving masters: in blue tones, a reinterpretation of the Panu d’Terra design honours Nhô Damásio, a master from the island of Santiago; in green tones, a reticulated composition takes us back to the Calabedotch, dedicated to Nhô Griga, a master from Santo Antão.
Catching my breath before walking through the upper floor gallery, I could sense in my eyes the warm tone prevailing in the exhibition curated by Paula Nascimento and Ângelo Lopes. For me, it was clear that I had experienced a profoundly different space from the one that had previously hosted Luísa Queirós’ exhibition. In my experience, although in the same place, I connected the colour used not only with two very different curators, but also with two very different personalities, explored through their creative universes, where the sea, on the one hand, and resistance, on the other, are materialised through the chosen colour.
Although I have not spoken to Paula Nascimento or Ângelo Lopes about the curatorial details, I see the use of red as being in dialogue with Manuel Figueira’s own work, applying it whenever he “speaks” to us about strong feelings, be they anger, chaos, narcissism or desire.
On entering Galeria Bela Duarte, we are greeted by Manuel Figueira’s voice reciting Vasco Martins’ O Universo da Ilha, continuing the close relationship with the first-person speech given in the preceding gallery. An experience was waiting for us here that would require many more visits before I could grasp new layers of understanding, possibly because it was “the densest part of the exhibition“.
Towards the entrance, the famous work Mi ma Liz na cama ma c’es mama (Eu com a Liz na cama e as suas mamas) (2001) stands out for its humour. Its composition is based on the folding of planes, with the bed represented in plan and the surrounding objects in elevation. Blue and green prevail, apart from the top, with the red typical of many of the author’s works. Manuel is undressed, with his face in profile and caricatured features; Liz is realistic and stares out of the picture at the viewer.
Closely related to this work is Bob Taylor smoked Camelo Mi… um t’usa pincel Leonardo da Vinci (Bob Taylor fuma Camel, eu uso pincel Leonardo da Vinci), also from 2001. In this work, Manuel Figueira is depicted with his brush, obviously debating with American film star Bob Taylor, who is holding a lit Camel cigar. The canvas is mostly coloured in greens and yellows, with red applied to the tip and cigar smoke, as well as other small details, such as the bellies of both men. The bodies’ positions can be read in different ways, with Bob’s tension squeezing Manuel between them, as suggested by the red colouring. Similar to Liz Taylor in her previous work, Bob is realistically portrayed, as if they were both part of a perfect universe, where light illuminates them just like in the 60s films. However, Manuel Figueira, with his caricature-like features, looks away from the canvas.
The proximity between the two works leads us to build a narrative in which Elisabeth Taylor, depicted in the previous canvas, and Manuel Figueira, portrayed in this one, look at each other in complicity, as they stand face-to-face and both look away from the composition.
Going beyond the first dividing panel, we find narratives and dialogues in themes, techniques, dimensions and chromatic patches. On the side, Mindelo’s daily life scenes communicate with each other, always caricaturing the characters, where the representation is made from fun, honouring the way Manuel Figueira has been dubbed: a true chronicler of Mindelo. Architectural details are also captured with great detail and realism, in stark contrast to the way the human figure is often depicted.
Three canvases stand out – O Pacto para Além da morte, Nhô Fula, from 2004, and Ti Ganga – o ovo e – Ti Lobe -, featured in a booklet published by Manuel Figueira in 2003, entitled …de como das histórias do povo se fez arte, in which the author brings together seven works based on Cape Verdean oral tradition and the writings of his uncle Manuel Bonaparte Figueira in 1968. The 2003 O Pacto para além da morte and the 2004 Nhô Fula are two works that, as I see it, represent the peak of the author’s artistic output. In Nhô Fula, the colours are strong, predominantly blue, with details ranging from green to lilac. The cold tones, together with the movement depicted through the overlapping lines and chromatic stains, result in a complex, enigmatic and dense composition. The same degree of complexity can be seen in Pacto para além da morte, where the shades are more varied, mostly grey, brown and fluctuating between greenish, reddish and bluish tones.
There are two different abstract canvases at the end of the gallery, with geometric figures and smoother watercolours, which the curators question whether they are “finished” or “an announcement of things to come“.
We are in 2022. We meet a new face of Manuel Figueira.
A series of six small photographs facing them invites us, once again, to get closer. As if by means of a pinprick, we can glimpse records of Manuel Figueira’s studio; a place that we imagine to be the physical site left by Manuel, after Manuel had left his physical site.
I have revisited the exhibition dozens of times. Due to its proximity, I continue to visit it almost daily. Depending on the time of day, I have experienced shifts in the way I experience each work and each word I read and/or hear. I’ve heard Manuel talk about Luísa and Bela several times in clips from reports, I’ve seen his restless, austere youthful look as he explains the CNA’s principles and the calmness of his mature gaze at times when his skin was overcome by old age.
When it gets dark outside, I recall the dry wind of that late December afternoon, when all of us, our eyes glazed over with tears, listened to Sérgio’s whistle, a prelude to the plunging dive we were about to take. At times, when the evening is rougher, I can also hear the sound of Sérgio’s whistling coming from across the sea in the wind.
The exhibition Desenhar a resistência, curated by Paula Nascimento e Ângelo Lopes, is on show at CNAD in Cape Verde until April 4.