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close this bookThe Courier N° 126 - March - April 1991 - Dossier: AIDS - The Big Threat / Country Report: Burkina Faso (EC Courier, 1991, 96 p.)
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A Mozambican painter in Brussels: Iņacio Matsinhe

In Europe, African art has long meant works from French-speaking countries in Paris (and Brussels) and works from English-speaking countries in London. But Africa is a huge continent and there is a wealth of culture to reflect its diversity and, in traditional and recent fields alike, it seems to be only at the very beginning of an infinite flourishing of talent. Its traditional music and plastic art are a constant source of wonder, inspiration. and even influence for European artists -Afro-European music is already with us- but, in spite of being-a time-honoured form of artistic expression on the continent itself, African painting has not broken through so far.

Yet African painting, like the black cinema in the early days, wants to exist and be recognised on the international scene thanks both to real fans and to the artists themselves. The exhibition of Senegalese painting at the Tervuren Museum in Belgium, described elsewhere, is but one example.

One of Africa,s talented painters as yet unknown in Belgium is Io Matsinhe, from Mozambique, whom The Courier met in Brussels recently. Matsinhe’s paintings are working their way north, from one country to another, after terrific success in Portugal. ‘He tends to use bright colours like the flowers and birds of his native land. But sometime’s he goes for sombre blacks and violets spread over blues and browns-which is no less significant’, said the Diaro de Noticias in June 1973, reporting on an exhibition at the Lisbon academy. And ‘he fixes time through figures for whom existence is the passing of every moment and the immoraltality of the spirit is linked to the permanency of the group...’, said the Expresso Lisboa.

Painting, Matsinhe believes, is neither -pastime nor chance vocation. He began painting in childhood, on the walls of the huts in his native town of Maputo (formerly LourenMarques), and and at l6 was able to go to the Art School. From where does Matsinhe get his inspiration? From Africa, from Africans in all the joys and torments of their daily lives. ‘The people of Mozambique are my greatest source of inspiration. I want my painting to be a manifesto of the people, with total respect for what I have inherited from my people’, he says.

So he paints Van Gogh style, guided only by sensation and the feelings aroused in him by his human and cultural environment, and his works fall into two main periods- before and after the independence of Mozambique in 1975.

The pre-1975 paintings bear witness to a difficult time for the people-the fight for decolonisation, when they knew the sufferings of war, but accepted them as being in a just cause. The intermingled figures of this period have the steady gaze of legitimate anguish focused on the injustice of submission and freedom denied... with birds, those symbols of liberty, ever-present nonetheless.

But the pre-independence authorities did not like pre-independence Matsinhe and put him in solitary confinement and gave him the ‘punishment’ of a posting to the war front, followed by enforced exile to Portugal, the only country he could enter without papers (as Mozambique was at that stage considered to be one of its provinces). There he continued his work as an artist and messenger of freedom and peace, with help, in particular, from the Gulbenkian Foundation, which also gave him the opportunity of travelling to Egypt and Italy- where he studied ceramics.

Matsinhe’s later period is of course post-independence. Happy to see his country free at last, the artist, like all Africans, quite rightly expected independence to mean freedom and progress, but the euphoria was short-lived. Independence and the attendant freedom and economic progress were soon taken away and Matsinhe, a man of action, wanted to do other than paint. Action, however, has no meaning if it cannot help change the course of events and everything was frozen according to the Truth (with a capital T) of the colonials and of all those who after independence erected dogma into salvation for all. Matsinhe could only do one of two things. He could keep quiet or he could paint. And he chose to paint-to paint to express that there is no point in one form of oppression replacing another, even if it is in the name of the people, and that libertarian artists like himself have always been the spokesmen of the poor. That is the thread running through all Matsinhe’s work.

He had no better luck with Mozambique’s new authorities either and he left his country once again, with death in his heart, but more determined than ever to paint figures who would serve as a constant reminder that, for the people of Mozambique and the whole of Africa, the fight for progress and freedom is a long one.

In his basement studio in a building not far from the European Community headquarters in Brussels, Io Matsinhe is still anxious to put onto canvas the real and the dreamt-of picture of Mozambique and of Africa and a vision of the interaction of cultures. ‘Africa has been a source of abundant cultural stimulus to Europe, and in many ways. This is why it has increasingly to accept, respect and restore the dignity of its peoples’, he says.