20.11.2014 – 17.01.2015
SMAC Gallery, Cape Town
In Portugal in 1974, a leftist coup d’etat replaced Salazar’s repressive, right-wing, traditionalist and pro-Catholic regime with a socialist democracy. One result was the immediate cessation of the prohibitively costly war waged against the liberation movements in Mozambique and Angola which, at one time, monopolized 40% of the national budget. The wars were hugely unpopular, both at home and abroad, and for years, those eligible for conscription avoided it by emigrating en masse. Nearly one million went to France, another million to the USA, and many hundreds of thousands to the rest of Europe, Venezuela and Brazil.
The next year, 1975, the African colonies were granted full independence, and the Portuguese administration and army were withdrawn, triggering panic and the massive exodus of more than a million Portuguese refugees. In Another Day of Life, the great Polish writer Ryzard Kapuscinski penned unforgettable descriptions of their sudden flight; the empty city of Luanda, the opulent, abandoned mansions, the mountains of crates awaiting shipment, the rusted Cadillacs, the packs of pedigreed dogs gone feral and scavenging in the streets…
‘Ausencia Permanente’ (Endless Absence) deals with the collapse of the Portuguese empire and the plight of the retornados, the Portuguese who departed Africa for the mother country. In 1975 the colonies had existed for over four centuries, and during that time the Portuguese had struck deep roots – the continent had become home to many successive generations. The settlers often married Angolans and Mozambicans and assimilated their customs, just as many Angolans and Mozambicans were effectively Europeanized by the Portuguese education system. The retornados, often failed to identify with the mother country and its culture. Frequently those who had achieved wealth and social prominence in the colonies, found themselves living in desperately straitened circumstances in Portugal having lost their former status.
The installation of ‘Ausencia Permanente’ exists in a dim pocket of otherness, insulated from the rest of the gallery. It is a space apart, another country in the geography of the floor-plan, and, at first, it proves disorientating. Your eyes have to adjust themselves to the far lower levels of light before you can take your bearings and see your surroundings. Unfamiliar customs prevail. Instead of clinging to the wall, Délio Jasse’s installation rests on the floor, so that you glance downward into a series of nine open Perspex boxes. These contain black and white photographic prints lying in shallow baths of water, like placentas floating in amniotic fluid, or negatives submerged in developer in a photographer’s darkroom. The latter becomes a metaphor for history, for the emergence of the unforeseen, of events that run contrary to our every expectation. Délio also draws an implicit comparison between the photographic image slowly coming into being as it is processed, and a memory gradually arising from consciousness.
There are darker overtones. The ground-hugging rectangular boxes suggest flat tombstones, and they are arranged like a series of plots with the regular spaces in between them forming a series of paths we can wander. In this way, Endless Absence becomes a cemetery commemorating the loss of an Imperial destiny.
Each print is an amalgam of successive superimpositions. There are generally three components, and often more. A cityscape – the place of origin, or the place of exile – is floated on top of a found head and shoulders photograph, similar in format to a passport photograph. These are combined with further shots of visa and passport control stamps. The boxes must be placed on the floor rather than the wall as they are meant to be viewed from all angles. As the head and shoulders shot runs from side to side, while the cityscape runs from top to bottom, the image only becomes intelligible when seen from below, or laterally from the left or right, while all the other angles of vision deliberately evoke a world turned upside down, the world of unwilling emigration, deracination, upheaval, trauma and loss.
Every photograph has been re-photographed by the artist, and then subjected to digital manipulation partly to enhance the strong period flavour. The decorous formal portraiture typical of a bygone era are combined with the tawdriest of urban landscapes. Usually the setting is the neglected Luanda of the post-colonial period, replete with obsolete vehicles, derelict International Modern architecture and the ugly excrescences of raised highways, water towers and building sites.
Slight over-exposure endows the head and shoulder portraits with flawlessly smooth complexions. Faces are idealized, candid and open, with perfect chiselled features and huge dreamy, liquid eyes engaged in melancholy reverie as the subjects mull over the countries they have quit.
Délio uses his own special chemical formulae to create both his emulsions and his developer. Thereby he ensures that the various images combine seamlessly, and endows his prints with a faded archival appearance. The blacks and muted greys form irregular curvaceous shapes, and the tones become fainter and fainter as they move toward the edges where they bleed into the surrounding whites. Almost all photographs fill the entire frame, but Délio forsakes such rigid, squared-up, formats in favour of intriguing organic shapes like drifts of algae on the open sea.
Each photograph is sealed off in a transparent plastic sheath so that the prints can instantly be retrieved from their watery beds. Like the Persian carpets of the refugees, they can be rolled-up in seconds, and transported to another destination. ‘Ausencia Permanente’ concentrates on the driftwood of history, and appropriately, it is a travelling show that follows the same route as the Portuguese émigrés it portrays, travelling from continent to continent, from Lusitania to Africa and the Americas.
The photographs are about history remembered, history seen through the distorting lenses of loss, longing, homesickness and exile – and the very composition, in which cityscapes fuse with portraits, identifies the content as a mental event, and projects it into the subjective realm of imagination, reminiscence, fantasy and daydream. The found studio portraits, or passport photographs, are the work of unknown photographers portraying unknown persons, and the urban landscape is similarly transformed into a visual construct. In reality, these two elements have nothing to do with each other. It is Délio who forges the link, and to paraphrase his words, uses manipulation and superimposition to create a new image that did not exist before, and which depicts spaces and people that are neither real, nor completely fictitious.
The artist was born in Angola, and later immigrated to Lisbon where he has lived ever since. His trajectory was that of his subjects, and nobody could possibly convey their feelings – the wrench of rupture and dispossession, the hopeless yearning for the irretrievable, for vanished societies and drastically changed places – with greater insight or poignancy. Unlike the art of many South Africans, Délio’s work expresses no bitterness vis-a-vis the colonial experience. His art is without anger. There is no accusatory animus, no finger-pointing. On the contrary, he depicts colonial whites affectionately, and his work is gentle, tender and charged with empathy. Such a high degree of feeling is rare in the Conceptual mode which normally inclines to dryness, and the pungent sense of nostalgia, heartache and compassion implicit in Délio’s every image, together with his technical wizardry, is what makes ‘Ausencia Permanente’ so fresh, moving and infinitely poetic.