‘Caras’, meaning ‘faces’ in Portugese, was triggered by the disaster images that surfaced through the reporting of Cyclone Idai: Helicopters flying over areas stricken by the natural disaster; roofs sticking out above the surface of water; people en masse assembled on high ground. Faces in shock, pain and anguish. People left without anything, having lost their loved ones. Nelly Guambe’s ‘Caras’ are works on paper, expressing the solidarity that people adopted in the aftermath of the cyclone and their creation of new social ecosystems.
In Mar de Gente (Ocean of people) miniscule faces are copied and clumped together in an uncomfortable composition.The intricacy of its depiction is alluring.The faces are sad and small, marked with aggressive line work. The series of portraits in mass point to agency within collectivity. Each figure is simultaneously individual and part of a mass. ‘They start existing when I open their eyes. Sometimes they really look at you. They say, “I’ve arrived,”’ says Guambe. And yet, there is a tension between this aliveness and the collectivity enforced by a helicopter’s point of view. Her faces tend to distortion as though individuality takes a back seat to the group.
Created between Maputo (Guambe’s home) and Cape Town’s Breaking Bread where she had completed a residency recently, Guambe describes her process as a means of expressing what she sees around her. And it is in looking and relooking that it becomes clear. Her use of distortion in mass portraits expresses collective agency. Yet Guambe does not state whether she agrees with the loss of individuality, she is merely an observer depicting what she has witnessed through news reporting. Her work capturing feelings of pain, loss and social identity in a time of crisis which is replicated onto paper. Medium plays into this observation. By using charcoal a medium that is fragile and when left unfixed, easily removed, we are reminded once more of the loss of individuality within collective crisis.
The works are left unframed, rather installed with wire. In the same way that the depicted figures are vulnerable in real life due to their circumstances, the portraits are vulnerable in their unprotected and unrefined state with no encasing.
There is an inevitability of fear and trust in navigating and inhabiting space itself after a tragedy such as this. Guambe’s ‘Caras’ acts as a visual and spatial exploration on paper of real life events as witnessed on the news. It delves into the human psyche and expresses the all too human aspects of bodies found in danger, found destitute, found in a space where negotiation and solidarity is critical to finding a peaceful means forward.