Emerging from the shadow of a long civil war, the Angolan art scene has experienced significant growth in recent years, attracting more attention than ever before. Adriana La Lime from Sotheby's Modern and Contemporary African Art Department sat down with leading contemporary artist and one of Angola's most celebrated talents, António Ole, at his studio in Luanda to discuss his practice, the art scene in Angola and works sold in Sotheby's inaugural auction of Modern and Contemporary African Art in May 2017 and the Bowie/Collector sale in 2016.
ANTÓNIO OLE AT HIS STUDIO IN LUANDA, ANGOLA, 2017. © ANTÓNIO OLE.
Adriana La Lime: Could you tell me a bit about your background? How did you arrive where you are today?
António Ole: This all started when I was a child. I was in high school in my hometown of Luanda and various professors gradually began to notice that I had a connection to art. They told me that they saw an artist in me and they began to observe the way I behaved and the way I was drawing. During my high school exhibitions people would say "Oh! An artist is born!" and that was the beginning.
At the start of Angola's independence, I was working for a television station in Luanda, and the role made me realize that I wanted to develop a solid understanding of cinema and film, so I decided to go to the United States. I was admitted to one of the best film schools in the USA, The American Film Institute's Centre for Advanced Film Studies. Studying there was fantastic because I was able to work with professional actors, producers and directors and it was a unique experience for me. Today, I am celebrating 50 years of work and I am preparing for two new exhibitions. The first exhibition will be a retrospective at the Sindika Dokolo Foundation in Luanda, which is housed in a beautiful yellow iron palace that is believed to have been built by Gustave Eiffel. The second exhibition at the Instituto Camões in Luanda, will showcase some of my more recent work. I decided to have a retrospective because I feel anxious to finish this current period of my life and start something new. I want to go back to cinematography and make a video about my hometown. 40 years ago, my films where all about experimentation, and that is something I would like to bring back into my future work.
AL: Can you speak about your work for the Angolan Pavilion in this year's Venice Biennale?
AO: I work with a lot of mediums. I have become known for it. I am a sculptor, I am a painter, I produce installations etc. but unfortunately people do not really know that I actually come from a film making background. The films at this year's Biennale were included in in my retrospective at the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon and then were selected to be shown at the 2017 Venice Biennale. Looking back, I would have liked to include newer work in the pavilion because I see these films as part of the past and I want to look instead to the future. However, viewed all together, these films are a representation of my 50 year career within my 42 year old country, and that is something I was interested in showing. Angola has always been my laboratory, so to speak…
ANTÓNIO OLE, MAGNETIC MEMORY / HISTORICAL RESONANCE. © ANTONIO OLE
AL: You have said you do not like being referred to as a 'Contemporary African Artist'. Can you explain why?
AO: I always get asked why I do not like to be called a 'contemporary African artist' and it is because I feel that we have to legitimize the idea that we are a part of the contemporary world. Also, if you are not exotic enough, you probably will not be considered an artist. At the end of the Johannesburg Art Gallery’s Africa Remix, William Kentridge, Ingrid Mwangi and I had the exact same position which was: call us artists. Period! You hear 'Chinese contemporary artist' and ‘African contemporary artist’, but you never hear ‘North American contemporary artist’ or 'European contemporary artist'. Unfortunately, I also have to accept that if we don’t carry this label, it is difficult for us to be seen as legitimate artists. People have said that I am ashamed of being called an African artist, but I always say: "We are in a global world, why must we always have to bear this label?" The 'Africanity', so to speak, in my work is very clear; I do not have to legitimise it.
ANTÓNIO OLE, NORTH/SOUTH VII. SOLD FOR £8,750 IN BOWIE/COLLECTOR — PART II: MODERN AND CONTEMPORARY ART.
AL: The art world in Luanda has grown in recent years. What are the defining characteristics of the scene here?
AO: When Angola won the Golden Lion at the 2013 Venice Biennale, I said to myself: "This is the moment" However, we still have some growing to do. It is important to remember that in Angola, art forms such as dance, music and literature — our first President was a poet — are recognised for their value. However for some reason, the visual arts never entered into that same sphere of recognition. We do not have enough creative spaces and the solution for this is to circulate young artists around the continent and the world, allowing them to learn by example. They need to learn what is going on and look to places such as South Africa as an example. They have to have the opportunities to make things happen. We have one new art school, but it needs to grow. Artists in Angola tend to get stuck in arts and craft, and they need to realise that art exists to shake our culture up, to motivate and wake us up. We need to do this and we need artists to do this.
AL: Several of your works sold in our auction in May and in the Bowie/Collector auction in 2016. How do they fit into your broader practice?
AO: Memoria was one of my most important works. Within the piece you will see a colonial Portuguese veranda railing and a Russian steering wheel. I loved the idea of intersecting these two periods of Angola’s history and highlighting the relationship between Angola and Russia. It's an interesting one indeed. The smaller work on paper was made during my reflection on slavery and Angola's role in the slave trade. The work is part of a larger study called Hidden Pages: Stolen Bodies. The most important works from this series went to the Gulbenkian Museum in Portugal. Caluanda is a term that I invented which means 'people that live in Luanda'. It is also the name of an exhibition I had here in Luanda some years ago. To be frank, I didn't know what to call this work; it is a deeply symbolic piece. The work is done on pieces of material that used to be signs which read: 'Celebrating António Ole' and hung outside the Instituto Camões in Luanda during my exhibition. The institute then gave them to me and I used them to create this work. Espirito Caluanda, meaning the spirit of people from Luanda, is composed of different iconographies that are linked to my daily life.
“The tension between the different logics of war and peace is epitomised by this masterful conceptualism of António Ole …there is a sub-text that envelopes the soul”
David Bowie, 1995.
ANTÓNIO OLE, UNTITLED (MASK). SOLD FOR £10,000 IN BOWIE/COLLECTOR — PART II: MODERN AND CONTEMPORARY ART.
AL: So you are very inspired by your home town?
AO: I have mixed feelings about my hometown. Sometimes I love it and sometimes I don't. These two feelings co-exist within me.
AL: What future project are you most excited for?
I am working on a project that links several islands around Africa, it is called Insula. The idea of this project came to me during a trip to Dakar, Senegal. I began to think about the importance of the islands that exist around Africa and specifically the islands that have a strong connection to the slave trade. The premise of the project is to explore these islands and understand their beliefs, their religions and why they have an eclectic mix of people. The islands are Cape Verde Island, Gore in Senegal, São Tomé and Principe, my islanders from Luanda, Robin Island, Ilha de Mozambique, Zanzibar, Lamu in Kenya, and Réunion — 9 islands in total. This will be a multimedia project and I am going to write a diary during my stay on each island. I don't want to substitute historians, I want to go there with an artist's eyes and I want to capture, coordinate and document what I see. I have a drawing that depicts my plan for this project. It's a very ambitious project and I'd like it to be shown in Africa and around the world.
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Hannah O'Leary, Head of Modern & Contemporary African Art will be visiting the following locations. Should you wish to have a complimentary and confidential valuation please contact Hannah on email@example.com to book your appointment:
• Lagos, Nigeria 3-6 November 2017
• Paris, France 9-11 November 2017
• New York, USA 13-17 November 2017 (valuations are also possible in Boston, Philadelphia, Washington DC and other East Coast cities)
• New Orleans, USA 18-20 November 2017
• Amsterdam 5-7 December 2017