Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfil it, or betray it. As for we who have decided to break the back of colonialism, our historic mission is to sanction all revolts, all desperate actions, all those abortive attempts drowned in rivers of blood. — Frantz Fanon
Helena Uambembe’s reference to Fanon’s The wretched of the Earth in her latest body of work points to her taking a stand ‘in the field of history’, refusing to be reduced to a footnote in the oft fantastic history of the 32 battalion. The 32 Battalion was a light infantry battalion of the South African Army formed in 1975 and disbanded in 1993 a year before Helena was born. The battalion was made up mostly of Angolan nationals and was used as a counter-insurgency force during the Border War. Helena never saw the border war but was born into and lived in a community isolated and impacted by the war.
The need to insert her history, and by extension that of the 32 Battalion, into the images that serve as the backdrop for many of the artist’s new works stems perhaps from the absences and erasures that comprise the narrative of the border war. The images are based on photographs given to her by South African Colonel Gert Nel, who fought in the border wars in the 1970s. Helena’s father was recruited by the South African government after fleeing Angola to fight in the same war. The archival images become the psychological breaking point that leads her into a world of the haunting images that culminate in the collection of unique prints that are ‘Commander Nel’s Archive’.
The usual narrative of this unlikely band of brothers in arms does not address the issues that haunts this community. Os Terrives/The Terrible ones are often referred to by former members as remarkable men, and well-oiled killing machines. It is the most highly decorated, and controversial unit of apartheid South Africa’s war against communism with a fantastic kill record. Sometimes referred to as displaced mercenaries from the Angolan Civil war, the Angolan members of the 32 Battalion were forced to in effect take an exit permit which held a ‘never to return’ clause and remain isolated in Pomfret, the hunting ground for security companies and mercenary bands. Uambembe painstakingly addresses this through ‘Commander Nel’s Archive’.
The 32 Battalion has been the subject of Helena Uambembe’s work before, and she has used some of the archival material in ‘Confidential Histories’. This is the first time though that she has so obviously disrupted the material to reveal the histories that are glossed over by the military imagery. She uses manipulation as a subject of inquiry, to carve her own clarifying archives and infuse the voice of the unpresented. Using print technology that is historically and structurally tied to archives, Uambembe transfers materials from one form and shape to another. Uambembe collaborated with printer Roxy Kaczmarek to create experimental and unique prints using the technique of pronto lithography. They incorporated visual elements as diverse as photography, digital designs, fabric collage, stitching, and hand–drawn illustrations. The choice of technique allows for the layering of imagery and meaning a method she has used in her performance work. Unrelieved darkness which is laden with anarchic energy and disorder permeates the layered archival images, causes one to feel more poignantly the fragmented psyche and the injustice of not being able to go back ‘home’.
Helena first used the buffalo’s head in her performance Tchigangi, which has a literal link to the 32 Battalion’s insignia and the battalion’s first home outside of Angola. The buffalo head originally represented death, but its meaning has evolved as the dialogue in her work has unfolded and become more complex over time. Tchigangi‘s personality, like the traits of the 32 Battalion, is layered. Included in the military posturing are the children, who though traumatised, lived through events in which they defied death. A Meninas and In times of innocence pander to the intrusion of innocence in a world within which no innocence can survive and Uambembe’s wilfulness in the face of a history that seems to want to forget her existence.
Combatente de Bufalo and Ganhar uma Bandeira the most striking of the prints feature a repetitive motif of a nebulous buffalo–headed figure as well as notes in Portuguese. The figure is a spiritual presence, a monster, a ghost, a mythical figure like the 32 Battalion. Combatente de Bufalo has other resonances as well, reminding one of Bob Marley’s eponymous song Buffalo Soldier; of one fighting for ideals that are not one’s own. It also points to a battlefield littered by one’s own people.
Uambembe plays with the concept of erasure and haunting histories. She works from the particular to the universal struggling to understand her place in the history of South Africa and Angola. Her focus on erasure and painful memories is evident in the meticulously crafted military scenes, which are layered and feature the ever-present Tchigangi to emphasise the brutality of war and the devastation it leaves in its wake.
This interface of historical images that glorify the war and discounts the personal experiences of the ordinary people, is a wicked commentary that humanises a people that are still feared and shunned. The creative use of the archival form serves as a springboard for developing new perspectives on how unresolved beginnings or incomplete ventures in history and art may serve as new points of departure. Perhaps it is a way of seeing the archive as a living, mediated space rather than a place of remembrance.