Tronos Tombados, Novos Colonos: Toy Boy’s reflection on the enduring mind colonisation in Angola

With an exhibition unveiled on January 12 at Centro de Cultura Contemporânea 13 of Cooperativa de Comunicação e Cultura of Torres Vedras, the Angolan artist Toy Boy, born in 1976 and raised between his neighbourhood/musseque and the whole city of Luanda, looks at the impact and scarring that Angola’s centuries-long colonisation and the troubled post-independence period have left on the country’s varied and unequal society, which still persists today. To grasp all the layers that have been built up and superimposed on what the artist calls self-colonisation or a colonial stance among Africans, “where the oppressor and coloniser is black against black”[1], we must briefly outline the historical, political, economic, social and cultural background that led to this peculiar reality and provided the motto for creating the works on display.

The administrative issues and the frailty of the Portuguese footprint in the African colonies, particularly in Angola, required the involvement of black and mestizo elements (mostly the offspring of Europeans with African women and born in Angola) in the colonial administration, the army and the clergy during the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The establishment of this “civilised” elite in Luanda, where these Africans were brought together with the few white settlers to profit from the slave trade (which came to an end towards the mid-nineteenth century, but was replaced to a certain extent by forced labour), was then shaped more by European habits and conformity to certain principles than by a blatant racism – “The mastering of European cultural codes, rather than skin colour, was a key element for establishing differences between the colonial populations, based on social recognition and customs”[2]. Yet, of course, skin colour was crucial in enslaving part of the population and, subsequently, in systemic and legalised discrimination.

The Portuguese used two strategies throughout the colonisation process to control and dominate the colonised peoples: divide and rule as well as divide and conquer. The first is reflected specifically in the stratification mentioned above, separating a Europeanised Angolan elite, consisting of the so-called “assimilated”, from the native black population (less assimilated by the colonists and more subject to discrimination and poverty), whom they called “indigenous”. Perhaps the pinnacle of this split, following the slavery abolition, started at the end of the nineteenth century, when the “indigenato” policy was instituted, legitimising and ruling this division. The colonised population itself was consequently torn apart, along with the ethnic and cultural disparities that already existed in the country, all of which were deterred and downplayed (or even banned). This was the coloniser’s attempt to find allies among the colonised and encourage them to be prejudiced and hostile to their countrymen.

From the 1950s onwards, this division started to change, masking the instrumentalisation of Angolan culture(s) for Salazar’s political agenda. With the emergence of the first liberation and resistance movements against colonisation and calling for independence, along with Portugal’s hoped-for UN membership and responding to the criticism of its persistence in having colonies, the aforementioned strategy of bringing together to deceive was created. This included concepts such as “luso-tropicalism”, “crioulidade“, “cosmopolitanism” and “cultural hybridisation”, advocating that Portugal did not have colonies, but rather “overseas provinces” where healthy coexistence and miscegenation benefited all parties. Traditional, popular and even tribal cultural and artistic manifestations were reborn during colonisation as a sort of reverse acculturation to conceal the real one.

The liberation movements, which launched the struggle that climaxed in the anti-colonial war and the 1975 Angolan independence with the Alvor Agreement, also instrumentalised to some extent the institutionalised racism that had been brewing and the complex diversities between ethnicities and cultures that coexisted (and some still do) in Angola. This can be seen in the very make-up of the liberation and resistance groups – “(…) Each group has its own language and these will form their ethnopolitical identity,” Paulo Faria explains. “In the pre-independence national political landscape, the FNLA [National Liberation Front of Angola] stood for the bacongos, the MPLA [People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola] for the ambundos and the ovimbundos lacked any voice, which is why UNITA [National Union for the Total Independence of Angola] was founded,” he stresses. “(…) The MPLA originally intended to include the Ambundos, but later it tended to become a ‘broad movement’ and include several groups. We witnessed the rise of three political groups with a strong ethno-racial identity structure. Post-1975 Angola was to become a product of this (…) and one of the major pillars was to peddle the idea of ‘one people, one nation’, breaking with an Angola that had ‘this multi-ethnic and racial patchwork’”[3]. Toy Boy mentions these fallen thrones in his exhibition, which he painted and sculpted. The new settlers are not only the members of the ruling single party at the time of independence (the MPLA), whose longest-serving president – José Eduardo dos Santos – remained in power for even more years than António de Oliveira Salazar, but also the foreign capitalist corporations that exploit Angola’s natural resources and the black market (kandonga) allowed (and often profited from) by the government.

Angola continued to be plagued by violence inherited from the colonial era, with armed conflicts running from 1975 to 2002, inequality and the prevailing institutionalised discrimination (which still occurs in economic, social and educational fields, for example) – “In part, this can be explained by the lingering syndrome in the collective unconscious of people who have been colonised – the feeling of being controlled is passed down from generation to generation. This is what (…) prompts [Elias Isaac] to say: ‘To a certain degree, independence was achieved, but not the decolonisation of minds’.”[4] This phenomenon is intimately tied to the notion of “cultural memory”, comprising the three temporal dimensions, connecting past, present and future, and corresponding to objectified and institutionalised memories, with a long lifespan and symbolic character, carried over and reinstated over generations. For instance, this is the sort of memory that may explain the influence of an African-American artist like Jean-Michel Basquiat on Haitian and Puerto Rican cultural aspects and their African roots, notwithstanding his limited contact with these realities, as well as the cross-references in Toy Boy’s pieces. On the one hand, they draw near to local expressions through warm colours, simplified and stylised (almost abstract) female bodies, ironic kings’ and queens’ faces (with toppling thrones) that recall primitive or tribal African masks, as well as the use of materials scavenged from Angolan territory (rust, waste, discarded objects), seen in rust sculptures and bas-reliefs on wood in this exhibition. Meanwhile, he shuns Luanda stereotypes or tourist postcards and favours a conscious miscegenation with Western art, borrowing from movements such as Pop Art and neo-expressionism, with Basquiat as one of the artists with some works that resemble Toy Boy to a certain level, as well as neo-Dadaist currents when it comes to ready-mades and the choice and assemblage of neglected mundane materials.

In his social and political critique of Angola’s current situation, especially in his city (Luanda), Toy Boy is encouraging the audience to join him in debunking a hybrid culture and cosmopolitanism that have had negative overtones and effects in the past. Instead of apparent chaos, the artist is showing us that this miscegenation can act as a bridge to achieve a fruitful balance between local cultures and the influences they suffer (or gain?) from outside, between a sense of belonging to one’s musseque (neighbourhood) and the city, and between the city and the country as a whole, as well as between Angola and the world outside. This is all possible provided there is room for a political and social will to flourish, along with a progressive “decolonisation of minds”, together with ridding the country of the discrimination that still persists and the striking inequality. As Jimi Hendrix remarked with an utopian undertone, “when the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace”.

Tronos Tombados, Novos Colonos, by Toy Boy, is on view until February 24 at Centro de Cultura Contemporânea 13 (CCC).


[1] Exhibition room text.
[2] Marzano, Andrea. (2020). “Angola: apontamentos para uma História Social da Cultura”. Africana Studia, nº 34. Porto: Published by the Centre for African Studies of the University of Porto.
[3] Gorjão Henriques, Joana. (2015). Angola – ‘Houve independência mas não descolonização das mentes. Público, in partnership with Fundação Francisco Manuel dos Santos.
[4] Idem.

Inês Joaquim (Torres Vedras, 1990) lives in her hometown and has been transiting between Torres Vedras and Lisbon. After a brief incursion into design at FBAUL, she graduated in Art History (FCSH - UNL) and finished the master's degree in Management and Cultural Studies (ISCTE-IUL) with the dissertation “«Inter-arts» organizations: innovation or reinvention? The case of Cooperativa de Comunicação e Cultura”. It was in this cultural association that she began her professional career, which includes working in organizations of various artistic areas, from the visual arts (at CCC) to cinema (at Leopardo Filmes), passing through performing arts such as music, animation cinema and theater (at Bang Venue and In Impetus - Acting School). In these cultural spaces, she acted in several areas, including the assistance for curatorship, cultural production and management, support for communication and the management of cultural projects’ applications for financial support.

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