Often incorporating Western themes, symbols, products or techniques into his works, Piula highlights the increasing assimilation of Western culture into African identity and daily life, and the conflicts that arise because of this. These foreign elements are manipulated and reinterpreted so that they exist as a key part of a broader local cultural dialogue, emerging from an African perspective that is unique but by no means inferior.
In 'Materna', the artist comments on the cultural tensions that have arisen due to the introduction of imported evaporated milk, which has begun to replace breast milk. Here, a traditional Kongo nursing figure sits in the centre of the composition, with cans of evaporated milk and burning candles strewn around her in almost ceremonial-like fashion. The artist replaces the figure’s head with that of a white woman, her neck adorned with an Elizabethan style white ruff collar complete with additional mini hanging cans of evaporated milk. A further two traditional figurines cautiously peer out of opened cans at the lower corners of the work.
'Ta Télé' speaks to the development of a highly consumerist culture within the Congo, where people have become increasingly obsessed by Western popular culture. Trigo places the viewer within his Congolese audience, transfixing us by the power of television screens. We are confronted with yet another Kongolese fetish figure, however this time not maternal, but one charged with punitive energy; a dangerous fetish, capable of more harm than good. His feather headdress shooting up into the sky like an antenna, this figure is plugged into a set of speakers and holds a screen, capturing our attention. Trigo uses this image to warn of the dangers of thoughtless consumerism and urges his fellow citizens to question their true values.
Both of these works belong to the artist’s New Fetish series in which he proclaims himself as a modern day Nganga, or healer. His mission is to heal and ward off; to sound the alarm on our modern day problems and obsessions. Trigo Piula says of this series:
“Since my early childhood, in my mother’s home, there has always been a propensity for expression and a tendency to qualify all my unusual actions and gestures with this mysterious word ‘Nkisi Si.’ I would later come to understand that this word was used to describe the Spirit of the Earth. Still today, this word is whispered into my ears, encouraging me and saluting my thoughts, my new works of art, etc.
In Woyo country (what is now known as the northern Angolan province of Cabinda) and within the realm of traditional Woyo practices, the word ‘Nkisi’ is used to refer to a fetish, the word ‘Bau’ is also used. The Woyo would charge various objects, trees or rocks with a supernatural force that was supposed to solve issues, often used to do things like take care of the sick. The belief in these fetishes was so strong that they were used in almost all important situations and milestones.
When the Portuguese arrived in the kingdom of Cabinda, they began to call this practice of charging these objects ‘Facticios’ and it was not something they believed in or took part in. It was out of all this that I first created Materna. I wanted to highlight the existence of what I call ‘new fetishes’. I wanted to be able face off against our modern day problems and, in my own way, create a new force or fetishes that would be able to solve these new sets of problems. My newest fetish is called ‘Chin’wa’and it has to do with the growing presence of the Chinese on the African continent. So, at the end of the day, I consider myself an ‘Nganga Moderne’ or a modern day healer."
Both 'Ta Télé' and 'Materna' have been included in several international exhibitions, such as the 1985 Biennale de L’Art Bantu Contemporain in Libreville, Gabon, as well as Susan Vogel’s internationally renowned touring exhibition Africa Explores: Twentieth Century African Art, among others.
Susan Vogel, Africa Explores 20th Century African Art, The Center for African Art, New York, 1991, p. 14-28, 176
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