Naming Otherness: Art, Traditions and Wars in Angola and beyond

Convener: Bruno Brant Sotto Mayor (National Museum, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil);

This panel aims at perusing the relationships between nation-state building, wars and traditions in Angola and beyond. By analyzing naming practices, we are interested in unveiling the historicity and iteration of social categories such as ethnic denominations, war enemies, national boundaries and social otherness. Departing from the nkishi art movement, we seek to evidence foremost the wide circulation of concepts across frontiers and social units in Central Africa (Angola, Gabon, Congo-Brazzaville and Congo-Kinshasa) along the last 150 years, in order to challenge the contemporary idea of “national heritage” – still strongly based on the ethnography carried out by colonial museums. By questioning the translation of nkishi art ethnographically, we intend to approach urban and rural artists beyond the formal borrowings as well as the duality modernity/tradition that have constituted the so-called national art traditions nowadays in Central Africa. Appropriated solely for its aesthetics, the nkishi sculptural genre has kept behind formal programs taken by contemporary artists in their strategies of insertion into the global art market – while devoid of any ontological dialogue. In contrast, we want to explore ethnographically how the nkishi art, in its different strands, has been dealing with ecology, war trauma, and otherness, and most importantly, what is the potential of inter(in)vention and political critique that it brings to avant-garde art movements. On the other hand, such a historical approach to art allows us to question the ethnic boundaries which, forged by missionary writings and colonial administrations, would then be dialectically incorporated by anti-colonial nationalist fronts in Angola. Our attempt is to reveal how social instabilities affect conventions and, as a result, the process of naming and invention. Therefore, we assume that the name ascribed to collective subjects precedes and exceeds them in that it has a historicity that is contained in iteration. In this way, we analyze the sameness and differences that have been historically attributed to ethnic and national denominations, in an attempt to delineate pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial forms of naming the difference. Our purpose is to understand the relationship between the production and iteration of naming categories and the assignment of a social place to those designated by such names. In contrasting colonial archives with contemporary nkishi ritual practices, we

emphasize the biography of categories such as “chimbali” (black who became whites as slave traders) and “chindeli”/”puthu” (white men themselves). These terms were created by those peoples who remained beyond colonial domains in Central Africa until the end on the 19th century, while hierarchically and violently inserted in long-distance trade routes. Having Angola as paradigmatic background, we intend to explore how the social category of the white continued
to be historically renamed according to (Portuguese, Belgian, French) colonial specificities and war proxies, whereas the term “chimbali” would remain misunderstood. If one the other hand it reverberates the silence of archives in contrast to how the pre-colonial war trauma has been domesticated by nkishi rituals until today, on other hand it had a paradoxical consequence. By denying the vernacular forms of nomination, colonial written sources perpetrated a drastic iteration that was appropriated by the leaders of nationalist movements; this caused the emergence of excluding national imaginaries that, while based foremost on colonial taxonomies and forged in opposition to the white, would be progressively employed against any idea of ontological difference and self-nomination.