Can photography be used to exorcise the ghosts of a country? This question plays an important role in the work of Mario Macilau, who took up photography somewhat by chance. Born in 1984, he began photographing the streets of Maputo just after the civil war from 1977-1992.
His subjects were mostly street children. “At first, I thought of the camera as a toy because of the polaroids, it seemed strange. But after the peace accords in 1992, NGOs and foreign missionaries left Mozambique, leaving behind cameras.”
The young man then tried his luck, hoping to turn his hobby into a profession. “Since everyone was looking for work in the midst of the country’s reconstruction, I said to myself ‘why not?’ ” he says. From then on, he set about capturing the marginalised as well as the ghosts of history, and his photographs were published in the press.
The legacy of colonialism
In photographs that will be exhibited until the end of May 2021 (in accordance with government restrictions related to Covid-19) at La Terrasse in Nanterre, near Paris, his models resemble a cast of contemporary ghosts in search of answers about their future.
In this series entitled ‘Circle of Memories’ (2020), Macilau presents still figures who stare at a visitor against a background of slightly blurred landscapes.
These photographs are not ostentatious, but rather display a great sensitivity and serve as a means of criticising a political power incapable of rebuilding the country.
The buildings that are depicted date from 1498 to 1975 — when the Portuguese colonised Mozambique — and are mostly in ruins. The photographer has chosen this scenography ‘to give dignity to the people’ and to the places.
“These buildings are a legacy of colonialism, people live next door and see them every day. My work explores how they affect people’s lives today,” he says.
It is not insignificant that a young African man is using photography to reveal the legacy of colonialism. After being solely employed by Westerners for a long time, this discipline developed on the continent at the time of African independence.
“For most of the 20th century, the camera was used as a tool of oppression,” says writer and curator Ekow Eshun. “In Mozambique, where Portugal exercised brutal domination […], cameras failed to capture the realities of colonial subjugation.”
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Rather than denouncing this subjugation head-on, Macilau examines its origins from a distance, as he has done with other subjects. In the series ‘Growing in Darkness’ (2012-2015) and the ‘Profit Corner Series’ (2015), devoted to Maputo’s teenagers, he opted to photograph these ‘ghosts of society’ in black and white, in abandoned places and public dumps.
These children’s faces are marked by fatigue as well as violence and are set against a backdrop of fumaroles, overflowing plastic bags and leprous walls. These photographs are not ostentatious, but rather display a great sensitivity and serve as a means of criticising a political power incapable of rebuilding the country.
Macilau has also observed the influence of colonialism on spirituality, as illustrated by his series ‘Faith’ (2017-2018). Always in black and white, the photographer captures traditional animist rituals on film, where milk, crushed kaolin and bird feathers create a new aesthetic far removed from the ethnologising Western gaze.
“Colonialism changed local cultures and customs, Mozambicans became ashamed of their traditional culture. This series is about identity and the preservation of a certain culture,” says the photographer.
He also talks about the ‘importation of Christianity into Mozambique’ in the wake of colonialism, and the continuity of this cultural oppression. “Today, it is mainly the evangelical congregations [from the US] that exercise it, but all these churches tell the people that their traditional religion is bad.”
According to Macilau, colonialism never ceases to influence contemporary society, even in the way art is displayed. “In a way, an exhibition is still a product of colonialism… I want my exhibition to fight against a system invented by the colonisers!”
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