Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 23, 2017
Delinda Collier Repainting the Walls of Lunda: Information Colonialism and Angolan Art Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016. 264 pp.; 37 b/w ills. Paper $25.00 (9780816694488 )
Thumbnail

The topic of remediation has recently come to the forefront of academic study across disciplines ranging from TED talks to symposia merging African art and media studies. It is within this vein that Delinda Collier examines the complexities of remediation in both form and content in Repainting the Walls of Lunda: Information Colonialism and Angolan Art. The text centers its discussion of the varied intricacies of analog and digital media by tracking Chokwe mural and sand (sona) arts and symbolism through numerous iterations dating from the 1950s until the early 2000s. With each example, Collier discusses the external influences of context in Angola and beyond, as well as the theoretical impact of new media upon African art. This journey—which begins with source material from Chokwe artists in Lunda North before moving to José Redinha’s book Paredes pintadas da Lunda (Painted Walls of Lunda; Lisbon: Companhia de Diamantes de Angola, 1953) and arriving at the digital Cultura Lunda Tchokwe and Lunda Tchokwe websites—offers a fascinating look at remediation and meaning, and links artistic production on the African continent with the broader field of cybernetics and media studies.

The stage is set for this dialogue in the book’s introduction which orients the reader with the central visual element: Lunda Chokwe iconography and their subsequent remediation. Such iconography includes the unique arrangement of geometric design elements such as chevrons, triangles, and squares, as well as the figural and nonfigural linear symbols found across media from mural arts, sona (sand art) compositions, and the surface embellishment of masks. Throughout this section, Collier does an excellent job broadly presenting the various iterations of this subject matter, starting with the watercolor reproductions by Redinha that appeared in his book, through their more recent appearance in digital online media. While presenting this material, Collier links these visual reiterations to the shift from territorial colonialism to informational/technological colonialism, while also highlighting the impact of southern African industry upon the visual arts—both classical and contemporary. The book’s theoretical framework is constructed through this discussion, presenting the conundrum of technological innovation engaging with “primitive” Africa. While readers will be best served with a working knowledge of both media and communication theory, Collier concisely describes how various media of communication affect perception, understanding, and value, and aptly applies such notions to the presentation and interpretation of Chokwe art.

Chapter 1 focuses on Redinha’s text set against the notion of remediation, both through media (i.e., murals to print media) and Redinha’s role as a mediator—and outsider—for the visual material. Collier goes to great lengths to unpack the significance of the Diamang mining corporation in the Lunda North province, noting the role of scientific colonialism this corporation enacted in order to promote Portuguese largesse and justify a colonial presence. Collier also presents a concise version of Chokwe history in this same region, providing the reader with sufficient background to grasp the significance of Diamang’s entry onto northeast Angola. This is followed by a discussion of the extent of Diamang’s activities throughout the region, beyond the diamond mines. Collier draws important connections between cultural entities, such as the corporate-sponsored Dundo Museum and its publications, and their role as a source of industrial propaganda, while at the same time extracting information and remediating it in both form and content to suit corporate needs. Throughout this discussion, Collier draws upon the work of various postcolonial theorists in order to create a sound framework for describing the extent, or lack thereof, to which imperial concepts, such as Lusotropicalism, were enacted in Angola. Although this discussion drives most of the chapter, Collier provides balance with a close examination of Chokwe visual arts, which is unpacked through such sources as Marie-Louise Bastin’s Art décoratif Tshokwe (Chokwe Decorative Art; 2 vols., Lisbon: Diamang, 1961). As a result, Collier provides various ways of approaching Redinha’s text, prompting the question of whether classical Chokwe art and iconography dictates the artist or whether there is room for creativity and individual agency—and how this might impact the colonial dialogue.

Chapter 2 addresses global implications of mid-century anthropology and the impact on indigenous knowledge systems, which are locally developed frameworks of information that provide solutions to contemporary problems based on sophisticated interpretations of one’s worldview. While the notion of “analog Africa” is introduced in chapter 1, Collier expands on this topic, addressing and deconstructing the mythologies and engaging with the role of technology in the colonial process. This is done by revisiting Paredes pintadas da Lunda from the perspective of media rather than content, drawing from contemporary perspectives on indigenous knowledge systems and media apparatus by applying the perspectives of scholars ranging from Marshall McLuhan to Ron Eglash. This theoretical apparatus frames Collier’s contextual analysis of Paredes pintadas da Lunda at both the dawn of Angolan independence as well as the height of the Cold War, and it serves as a foundation for comparative analysis of local Chokwe arts and their acts of defying Western expectations. Perhaps the most concrete example of this is Collier’s discussion of Chokwe sona (sand) performance—a temporal expression—and Redinha’s willingness to both (re)interpret and arrest this performance art within print media.

Chapter 3 narrates efforts to remediate the aforementioned painted murals as expressions of Angolan nationalism, post-independence in 1975. Throughout the chapter, Collier analyzes the reiteration of these traditional arts and their role in postcolonial cultural policies. She examines the work of independence-era artists who adapt Chokwe imagery, with specific focus on Vitor Manuel Teixeira, and offers a fine critical reading on the claims of such artists and their stated intent. Collier also spends ample time presenting Teixeira’s oeuvre and formal development alongside the shifting political situation, complete with convincing formal interpretations. She does an equally effective job analyzing Teixeira’s work alongside other media, such as poetry and print, in order to situate the artist’s iconography. This discussion flows nicely with the overarching premise of the book, as one recognizes the impact of post-independence artists on art production in a similar manner to Redinha’s earlier “workshops” through his role as cofounder of a state-run art school. Collier positions this against the anti- and post-colonial context, which she expounds upon in some detail for those who may be unfamiliar with it. This expansive chapter also addresses numerous peripheral topics, such as the notion of the New Man (Homem Novo) and the specific nationalism linked with the Angolanidade literary and philosophical movement in Angola, as well as the role of museums in creating national unity. Such discussions maintain the book’s common thread by broadly positioning Chokwe arts as proof of local ingenuity, while also highlighting specific Chokwe arts as the source material for the application of Angolanidade philosophy. Thus, Collier highlights the tension between individualism and communalism through art and the museum.

The final chapter analyzes the situation in Angola after the 2002 ceasefire and the subsequent triennial of contemporary art in Luanda. This section features an intriguing discussion of the dissemination of Lunda Chokwe culture in digital media, and it interrogates the idea of online media as both open (collective) and closed (corporate/industrial). Collier again establishes the analog-digital Africa discussion, and engages with the final iteration of Chokwe murals in new media. Her examination of two online heritage projects that digitized material from Paredes pintadas da Lunda explores how the manipulation of images impacts notions of ownership and aesthetics while also prompting the question of whether this final act of remediation is any different than Redinha’s initial act. This topic folds nicely into Collier’s evaluation of digital media and the notion of ghostings/disappearances, as well as the “colonial apparatus” of the printed book, which is now digested by digital media. Collier expresses this through an intriguing discussion of new media, where she presents artists who both critically examine technology while simultaneously using it in both local and global contexts.

Despite its complex topical exploration, Repainting the Walls of Lunda is well organized and clearly written. It successfully engages broad theoretical concepts linking art, cybernetics, and media theory, while maintaining its focus on the shifting iterations of Chokwe iconography. Although Collier acknowledges the varied ways of approaching and discussing such material, along with the broader concept of “media ecologies,” she has nonetheless produced a useful resource for studies of postcolonial Africa and the process of modernization.

David Riep
Assistant Professor, Art History, Department of Art and Art History, Colorado State University

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.