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Mozambican artist offers hope

by Chris McIVOR

With 20 years of almost continuous civil war that has resulted in economic collapse, a mass exodus of refugees to neighbouring countries and starvation for many of its people, it does not seem that Mozambique has much to offer in the way of an environment which is conducive to creativity. Yet out of the horror of these last two decades, Mozambican painter and sculptor, Shikani, has managed to translate that experience into the material of art - something more positive than the usual images that are associated with that unfortunate country.

Speaking at a recent display of his work in Harare, the 58-year old artist, who has exhibited widely in London, Washington, Rome, Lisbon and Moscow, as well as in southern Africa, claimed, 'Much of what I do is a reflection of the world around: me, in particular the suffering of the peasants in our country. But I am not a photographer. The role of the artist is to go beyond the particular to portray something that can transcend time, place and circumstance.' Echoing this sentiment, renowned Kenyan sculptor, Joseph Muli, stated at the opening of the Harare exhibition that Shikani's work utilised many of the symbols, motifs and styles of traditional African sculpture and dance. The faces depicted in many of his works have a mask-like quality that expresses not only the present reality of contemporary Mozambique but also the suffering, hopes and fears of many generations of Africans. 'The faces in these sculptures and painting are hundreds of years old.'

Born in a small, rural village in the district of Marrakwene (north of Maputo) in 1934, there was little obvious indication in his early life that Shikani was destined to become the renowned artist he now is. Poverty and hardship for the peasant family he was born into was never very far away from their door. He spent most of his early years until the age of 16 with the other boys from the village, looking after the family's cattle and occasionally attending primary school. But at the age of 12, Shikani had begun to work in clay, sculpting models of animals and people around him. This artistic tendency, he claims, was inherited from his grandfather who had carved masks and religious objects for the surrounding community and had been a traditional healer of some renown.

Shikani recalls that much of what he sculpted in crude materials in those early days has a direct relationship to what he has done in wood and paint. 'I never wanted merely to portray the world around me as it presented itself to my eyes. Objects were simply the starting point for creating something different; a pointer to the world behind the senses.' Shikani relates this perception to the traditional rural background from which he came and the preservation of traditional religious values within the community, which, in his early years, had not been completely eroded by Portuguese colonialism and imported Christianity.

His sculptures, which became more prolific as time went on when he moved into wood, aroused a mixed response in the community where he lived and this, he claims is also the type of reaction his current works arouse among the Mozambican public. While many members of the community seemed able to relate to what he was trying to do and encouraged him to continue, others believed that his sculptures were crude and primitive. 'They were unable to see anything in them in the same way that they were unable to see anything of value in the traditional social, economic and cultural life of our villages.' Shikani believes that this dichotomy continues to exist in African society between those who have been 'brainwashed' in terms of imported culture and those who still retain, however tenuously, some hold on local values and perceptions. 'Part of my aim is to awaken that inclination.'

Within a wider Mozambican society, Shikani's works began to arouse interest and he participated in a number of exhibitions in Maputo and Beira. In his mid-twenties, he became an assistant to a Portuguese sculptor at the Beira Art School where he worked both during and after the liberation struggle for the independence of Mozambique. Shikani acknowledges his debt to the training he received during those years, largely based on Western art techniques and styles, but while he has utilised this knowledge in his subsequent works, his content has remained true to his early formative years in the rural areas. His main subjects are still the peasants of the countryside in the range of their experiences from childhood through to old age and death.

Given the current reality of life in that country today, it is little wonder that many of these images are tortured and painful. Shikani claims that part of his role is to alert an international audience to the reality of millions of people in his own country and other parts of Africa ravaged by famine, war and poverty. But he does not agree that his works are pessimistic or negative. The people and situations he portrays are not without dignity and the last emotion he wishes to evoke in his audience is pity. 'The peasants have suffered for hundreds of years in different parts of the world and yet, despite such hardships, hope and faith have always continued.' It is a vision of his own country and continent that is a welcome contrast to what is usually offered.