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Angolan curator Tila Likunzi navigating decoloniality through photography

By Edward Tsumele

When Angola gained its independence from its former colonial power Portugal in 1975 many hoped that eventually peace was going to prevail in that country, but it did not. Instead of experiencing peace and enjoying the newly attained freedom, the country was plunged into a sustained civil war that destroyed the prospect of the oil rich country becoming an economic powerhouse in the region.

“However when the civil war stopped in 2000, it was during a time when the oil price was high, attracting a lot of foreign direct investment into the country, especially in the oil sector. That investment resulted in an economic boom.  Suddenly there was a lot of money around, to an extent that a joke went around in especially Luanda, the capital city that If one dug hole into the ground, one would find the underground awash with money. There was a lot of investment poured  into infrastructure to meet the needs of the foreign executives working for corporates in the oil sector.

One sector where there was high demand is the real estate sector that saw even rundown two bedroom houses in central Luanda suddenly becoming valuable, worth tens of thousands of dollars. In fact many people that had rundown houses started selling their houses for a lot of money and relocated to cheaper places or travelled the world. There were some tragic events as well, such as families being torn apart as some people sold family houses. It was crazy and the country felt like it was seized by  one big party with lots of money thrown around,” said curator Tila Likunzi, who is on a three month curatorial residency with the Bag Factory Studios in Johannesburg.

Likunzi’s research interest is in linking discourse on visual art to other discourses on the subject of decoloniality, investigating how discourse on visual art, in general, and photography in particular, interfaces with other discourses on decoloniality.

She will present her findings at the end of May by way of  producing a digital  publication, that is expected to give light on how contemporary photography in both South Africa and Angola links with the broad discourses on decoloniality.

Since February when she landed in South Africa, Likunzi was using her Bag factory Studios base in Fordsburg to delve deep into literature on contemporary photography.

“Most of the literature I have come across  on photography so far is written by white people. What I expect to accomplish during this residency is to publish a paper that looks at photography in urban cities in Africa and Angola and how photography discourses link with other discourses from other disciplines about the broad subject of decoloniality. However I hope to produce a publication  that is informed by a black consciousness on the subject. A discourse produced by a black African on the continent,” she told CITYLIFE/ARTS in an interview.

Personally her philosophy is very much predicated in black consciousness, a philosophy she came to embrace over the years after reading extensively on African philosophy, influenced by a number of public intellectuals  who are experts in the subject.

“A critic is an observer of a situation, proposing a course of action. A critical thinker acts. Critique is an action, a solution a fresh look,” she believes.

Likunzi who told me that although she has been embracing the philosophy of black consciousness along other ideas  such as Negritude, Afro Realism, Pan African, Afro Futurism, Contemporary African and Latin American philosophy among others for sometime, it was especially the emergence of what in modern post colonial and post slavery era has become probably the most impactful movement fight back movement against white supremacy and white racism in the world Black Lives Matter in 2020 that triggered her invigorated pursuit of the ideals of Black Consciousness.

A widely read researcher and curator she is comfort consuming literature from the wisdom wells of such luminaries in Black Thought such as  Suzanne Cesaire, Frantz fanon,  Cheik Anta Diop,  Hambate Ba, Joseph Ki Zerbo, Achille Mbembe,  and Walter Mignolo, among others in an elaborately deliberate way to self-educate herself.

“These and other thinkers and the movements and currents they generated continue to influence the production of art in Africa and the Diasporas,” Likunzi argues

Likunzi has had  varied personal and professional trajectories in her life, having lived and been educated in several countries while in high school, that include Namibia where her parents sent her so that she could be in a safe environment away from the civil war, but also to learn English, besides the Portuguese that she was born speaking in Luanda. She finished her high school in Portugal however, after which she came back to Angola in 2003. But she has also lived in Germany for sometime.

“The experience of living in the West has made me to realize that well, these countries are developed, with good roads, electricity and well maintained infrastructure in general. But I realized that yes, I would love to be in a privileged environment like that, but I want it to be where I come from. I do not need to live outside Africa.”

Likunzi’s residency at the Bag factory comes to an end at the end of may, and thereafter her research publication will be presented to the Bag Factory as well as be published by Luganzi, The Living Archive, a digital platform she co-owns with another person in Luanda.

Born in1982, Likunzi lives and works in Luanda working as an Independent curator and researcher since 2017) and co-founder and editor of digital publication platform Luganzi, The Living Archive(2021).

But before that she brazed a corporate trail working for many years as a translator, interpreter, proofreader and copywriter for Oil and the International Monetary Fund IMF in Luanda, before joining the arts. 

In addition to curating Angolan contemporary art both independently and for Jahmek Contemporary Artsince 2019 her  current curatorial residency at Bag Factory Artist Studios, is aimed at developing research on contemporary African photography as a critical record of the processes that have led to the formation and African occupation of today‘s major colonial-modern cities in Africa. 

Although she has been previously a visitor in Johannesburg, it was a long time ago when she was a teenager and therefore she hardly remembers any intellectual engagement with the country or Johannesburg during those tough years of apartheid South Africa.

But now as a well read black consciousness researcher and curator, she feels that she is engaging with especially Johannesburg, afresh and she is quite surprised that some of the legacies of apartheid are still so strong in the country, especially discourses on race.

“I was actually taken aback to realize that the country, especially Johannesburg the race issue is a big issue that artists I have spoken to speak openly about . And so the legacies of apartheid that I have noticed are not visual as such, but are in the every day interaction between races and how they relate to each other.

“Actually when I landed and went straight to where I currently stay, which is Melville, the first day I felt like I was in Frankfurt in Germany, and it took me a while to adjust as I struggled the first week.

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One thought on “Angolan curator Tila Likunzi navigating decoloniality through photography

  1. Dear Edward,

    On reading the article you wrote based on our conversation on Thursday afternoon, April 22, there are some comments I would like to make:

    The Black Lives Matter 2020 movement did trigger my “invigorated pursuit of the ideals of Black Consciousness”, in the sense of my interpretation of Black Consciousness: the bodies of arts, languages, cultures, cultural and geographical links and affinities, social and political movements, intellectual and philosophical currents, spiritual manifestations and religions generated by the flux of Africans and Afrodescendants within and beyond the continent, in their potential to create, sustain and redefine spaces of interaction, conversation, knowledge building and sharing, learning and unlearning, and connectedness within Africa and between Africa and the African Diasporas – as peoples that underwent the shared experience of the transatlantic slave trade and colonization.

    My particular pursuit of Black Consciousness is in the continuous learning about the cultures of black peoples across the world. I accept that it is a current open to multiple interpretations. The fight against racism is a part of Black Consciousness, though I consider the study and investigation of black cultures to be equally important.

    I did live in Portugal and Germany, for a couple of years in each country, but I cannot claim to have lived in the ‘West’. Portugal and Germany, though both part of the European Union, are distinct countries where I had distinct experiences. For the sake of my endeavor to write in a decolonial language, I do not use terms as such the ‘West’ or ‘privileged’. I prefer my own subjectivities, as I am sure you prefer your own.

    I was in Johannesburg, as a teenager, around 1999-2000, participating in a sports tournament organized by, I believe, a council of International Schools in the Southern African region. I was attending International School in Namibia at the time. It was after apartheid.

    On the topic of race:

    It is true, the legacies of apartheid in South Africa are not the legacies of assimilation in Angola. I’ve also noticed that when Africans across the continent meet and compare colonial legacies, another African’s colonial experience always seems worse than our own – this is certainly a topic that could be brought up for discussion within Black Consciousness. Because we did not have such a system as apartheid in Angola, our Angolan experiences on race are different, though nowhere in Africa can the presence and role of racism in the shaping of our (hi)stories be denied. In the process of writing my research, I do endeavor to have a thoughtful approach to this subject.

    And, yes, when I first arrived in Johannesburg, I did feel like I’d just arrived in Frankfurt, Germany. The airport facilities, the cool climate not dissimilar of that region of Germany during summer, the layout of the roads on the route taken to Melville, and white South-Africans, whose physical appearance at times reminds me of white Germans – no need to reiterate the discourse on race; these are my personal observations. Those were first impressions, ways of orienting myself in a new place by referring to previous places that felt similar. Since then, I continue to discover Johannesburg as a city as complex as major cities tend be, and quite a challenge to comprehend in all its complexities. My research views the city through the photography of its urban spaces.

    I would like to end this commentary by quoting Amma Yeboah, for in and through my research and residency at the Bag Factory Artist Studios, “above all I hope we develop an empathic encounter with ourselves and with others with whom we are seeking to create a decolonial language, decolonial manners and yes, of course, a world free of colonialism”.

    Tila Likunzi

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