The Cultural Relations of Mozambique and the GDR

The following article is the long version of an article written for the magazine “Melodie & Rhythmus“.

Recently I was asked to contribute to the cultural connections of the GDR with African countries due to my many years of work in African countries. However, my cultural encounters were more individual and personal and not based on international treaties between states. The personal encounter with the cultural diversity in the visited countries is often very lasting and is deeply imprinted in the consciousness by their otherness. It is often the small encounters with artists and their works or their performances that reveal the essence of the people’s soul and provide insight into ways of thinking, history and tradition.

The following encounter with Samora Machel, President of the then People’s Republic of Mozambique, has left its mark on me when he and his compatriots were “confronted” with the culture of the GDR. As an employee of the Mozambican Ministry of Education and Culture I was invited to participate in an event of representatives of both countries. As the following remembrance from my book “Cross and Across Africa” will show, the event evoked unplanned emotions that both sides still carry with them in their memories today.

We met “[…] Samora Machel at the Gil Vicente cinema in Maputo. There we became spectators of a performance of the “State Dance and Singing Ensemble of the GDR”. Many Mozambican spectators took part in the three-hour program. Of course our son accompanied us, he spent a part of the performances sleeping. The program of the group, which had emerged from the former “State Village Ensemble”, consisted of German folk songs and dances. Since the Mozambicans are deeply rooted in the songs and dances of their tribes, there was great interest in German folk art, even among the heads of state. As the event approached its climax, Samora Machel, his wife Graça, the member of the Frelimo Politburo, Marcelino dos Santos and several other dignitaries came in and took to the stage. Since the train came to a short halt because of the narrow access to the stage, Samora, as we called him among us, had to stand next to me. I was sitting on the outermost chair in the corridor. When the Mozambican delegation entered the hall, everyone rose from the seats. So for a moment I stood side by side with the most important Mozambican since the death of the legendary Frelimo leader Eduardo Chivambo Mondlane. We looked at each other at the same time, his gaze wandering through the room without stopping, while I looked at him more closely and tried not to be intrusive. At least he was physically closer to me that day than he would ever have been later.

After the exchange of friendly words and a short speech by Machel, all those standing on stage sang together first a Frelimo song and then “Brothers to the Sun, to Freedom”. Then the program was continued in the presence of the guests.

Surprising things happened.

The program part began with the German folk dances. After the first two, the audience and functionaries applauded the exotic sounds and movements. When the third dance was performed, the whole cinema suddenly seemed to hold its breath and a moment of absolute silence occurred. Then the tension of the Mozambican audience unleashed itself in a deafening laughter, which soon developed into hysterical raving in waves. The audience held their bellies, bent over on their seats, chased roarers for roar into the hall and stared enraptured at the stage with their eyes wide open.

What had happened?

The audience had watched the “normal” dances as interested experts. But then something happened that is not to be found in any of the dances of the country: The German dancers grabbed their partners by the hips and swung them into the air. People had never seen lifting figures in a dance before. Their roar drowned out the music. The actors on the stage looked confusedly into the hall, couldn’t find out where the people’s fun had its origin and continued with their swinging lifting figures, as German folklore prescribed. Since the rest of the dances were performed with lifting figures, the colourful skirts of the dancers blocked the view of their partners and the turns puffed up the female garments, the rest of the performances were cheerful.

As laughter is infectious, we had taken it up and laughed because the Mozambicans laughed. They, in turn, believed that we had just as much fun dancing with lifting figures as they did. The president had also indulged in the general joy.” [1]

Of course, I also had encounters with the visual arts of this country on the African east coast. I owe this to my friend and colleague Celso, who was himself a good draughtsman and successful schoolbook illustrator. At the same time I admired him for the portraits he made of my family members.

“He was a man of art. He also wanted the revolution, but he wanted it faster. Sometimes it was difficult to make him understand that the revolutionary very often takes place in small, inconspicuous, inconspicuous steps. In the middle of our discussion about the manifestations of the revolutionary, he asked me:

“Have you seen the exhibition of the painter Naguib?”

When I said no, he exclaimed enthusiastically: “Then let’s go together, you must have seen these paintings!

We rushed to Baixa.

Naguib was a quarrelsome artist, because his works went beyond the scope of painting practiced in Mozambique. “Grito da Paz”, that is “Cry of Peace”, was the name of the exposition of his works, and the largest part of it was dedicated to peace. An orgy of colours and forms took place in the hall. Pastels and oil paintings were on display, the latter dominating in their large size.

But it was not the colours that fed the public discussion. In Naguib’s paintings naked bodies crowded together, the sexes embraced each other in voluptuous ecstasy. The women’s breasts seemed to want to detach themselves from their bodies. From a blue-green wave trough, women’s arms pushed towards the sky, where oversized yellowish doves embodied peace. One of the women stretched her child towards the peace symbol, the one standing next to her grabbed her thighs in rapture. The wall of bodies was connected by ornamentation. Other pictures showed intertwined couples in brown tones with peace doves. In the excellently designed exhibition catalogue, the famous Mozambican artist Malangatane pointed out that Naguib was a painter who was in search of new forms of expression and who, in order to articulate his thoughts and feelings, used elements of folk art from the provinces of Tete and Cabo Delgado. In fact, in his works “Raízes” (“Roots”), “Pausa musical” (“Music Pause”), “Tatuagens” (“Tattoos”) and “Pranto de Maé Áfrika” (“Wailing of Mother Africa”), the artist, born in 1955, created such a combination of body representation and ornamentation that I painfully felt how little of the gigantic richness of African culture had become accessible to me so far. But with a certain relief I noticed that the extremely accentuated depiction of penis and vagina in these pictures also stimulated debate among Mozambican visitors to the exhibition.

A group of paintings, all titled “Amantes” (“Lovers”), were limited to the mere depiction of various coitus positions, the colours of which reinforced the impression of the orgiastic. Naguib – Revolutionary or mutineer? I could not answer Celso’s question.

The evaluation of the painter Mankeu was easier. Mankeu came to us, showed his paintings, explained them and patiently answered our questions. His works accompanied the revolutionary process of the young state. The autodidact Mankeu spoke:

“In Mozambique one is born an artist. There is no art school in Mozambique. Our art originated in the time of oppression.”

Working as a young person in South African mines, he began to draw, gave more and more to his inner urge and tried different techniques of artistic expression. Since 1965 he devoted himself to painting.

Two years later he had his first exhibition in Lourenço Marques. His depictions were also marked by strong colourfulness. In many of his paintings he used blue and green. He described himself as “Mozambique’s first ambassador to the GDR” and, smiling mischievously, hinted at his exhibitions in the GDR.

“Today there is an artists’ association in Mozambique. The Núcleo de Arte has about 70 members.”

Mankeu’s preferred themes were those that life dictated. There was hunger in Africa, starving and dying children in Mozambique, crying mothers; but also the Mozambican family in their traditional way of life often appeared.

Again and again, the theme of peace was varied.

In the picture “Peace in the World”, bombs and rockets destroyed life and houses; another showed the current vaccination campaign (“Medicina moderna”), another a “family fleeing from the enemy”. Also the still omnipresent “Curandeiro”, the medicine man, was captured in the picture.

“I want to shape life in my pictures, but not copy it. In my pictures there are no repetitions, yes, each figure only appears once.”

The love for the children was obvious. The fifty-one year old had eight children of his own.

The pictures of the last years showed only people, occasionally also fruits, but no landscapes. He answered the corresponding question:

“Human life interests me the most, I want to show it as it is and stimulate its change.

Someone from the circle asked who was his role model. For the painter, the question was incomprehensible.

“If one is influenced by another, it means that he himself has stopped. As soon as an artist lacks ideas, he begins to imitate or copy others.”

This attitude was recognizable in his paintings, his art was unmistakable. From the large pile he drew the “Curandeira”.

“Most people in our country are still illiterate. That’s why I paint what people understand. My paintings don’t have to be explained to the people, I have to paint in a way that my audience understands the content. We don’t need abstract art, we need realistic art. Much is symbolism. Look here, this basket is filled with medicine, you can see that. A Curandeira with medicine. But first the Curandeira influences the spirit in the lying sick woman by hand movements. All people will understand that because they know it. That is the representation of the magic. Look, here drums are beaten, so the spirit comes out of the woman’s body. Nothing must hinder the expulsion of the spirit, that is why the Curandeira has undressed itself. Now she can be recognized by the shell wreath wrapped around her head three times and the necklace made of animal teeth. In the past, Africans had no clothes.”

“Why is the mouth of the reclining open?

Mankeu explained: “The illness made them sad. Sadness closes the mouth. So the open mouth means the sadness has escaped.”

Mankeu himself was the embodiment of his people.” [2]

painter Manqueu Valente Mahumana
Manqueu Valente Mahumana, 2006 in Berlin

I met the painter Mankeu again in 2006 at the “Meeting of the Friends of Mozambique” in Berlin. In a personal conversation we remembered the dialogues we had together in Maputo 20 years ago in connection with his cycle of paintings “Medicina Moderna”. Mankeu informed me about the conditions under which Mozambican artists are currently working. Above all, the material side of their work often limits the possibilities of their creative work and their educational and enlightening goals towards the population.

I am still connected to Naguib by the existence of his catalogue “grito de paz” (Cry for Peace). In an article in the Mozambican daily newspaper “Notícias” of 16.04.1986, it is particularly emphasized that Samora Machel visited the exhibition and had a lively conversation with the artist and the visitors.

Calalogue for "grito de paz" by Naguib
Calalogue for “grito de paz” (cry for peace) by Naguib
Inside of the catalogue for “grito de paz” by Naguib with an article from Notícias (1986) I glued into it

This almost closes the gap to the anecdote mentioned at the beginning.

Like all Mozambicans, our students wanted to pass on their joy of life, expressed in dances and songs, to their teachers from abroad. As a result, in our European awkwardness, we unintentionally aroused cheerfulness with our movements during the dance lessons by our students. The following description is proof of this:

“The enthusiasm of all the students was boundless when it came to cultural activity. They continuously studied programmes consisting of singing, dancing, recitation and improvisation. There were always occasions to perform the programmes. For this purpose the spectators gathered in the church, the first rows of chairs had to be occupied by the teachers. The “stage” was limited to the rear by a huge marble altar table weighing many hundredweight. The performance usually ended with the Makwayela, the dance taken over from the miners. Obviously each of our Mozambican friends mastered it. Since the teachers have to master what the students can do, it was clear to them that the Senhores Professores had to join this dance. That was the moment we GDR teachers feared. Students pulled us from the chairs onto the dance floor. Fortunately I never got to see a mirror image of my dance-like contortions when I walked to Makwayela. Only the awareness of my own awkwardness kept me from laughing out loud several times when Hans was practicing Mozambican folklore. By the way, our bad posture notes never kept the black dancers from asking us to dance with them next time when the huge drums were roaring.

What would we have looked like if one of our Mozambican friends had had the idea to see one of our German folk dances?

A surprise of a different kind was offered to us by a Mozambican colleague who acted as deputy director and taught psychology. He had had several months of training in our republic, spoke some German and was a gifted poet. During a celebration of the faculty he had fetched his guitar. When he appeared, we had already exhausted our range of Mozambican songs under the director’s direction. The man with the guitar announced that he wanted to play a well-known German song. I remember that event so well, because on the next day my stomach hurt from laughing, both I and my GDR colleague. The guitar player struck a few chords and then sang “Sing, mei’ Sachse, sing …” with all his might. None of us had been prepared for this surprise at a distance of eleven and a half thousand kilometres from home.” [3]

Rainer Grajek: Berichte aus dem Morgengrauen. Bücherwerkstatt 2005. pp. 68-69.

[1] Rainer Grajek: Kreuz und quer durch Afrika. Band 1. Unterwegs auf dem schwarzen Kontinent. Novum pro 2014. pp. 404-406.

[2] Rainer Grajek: Berichte aus dem Morgengrauen. Bücherwerkstatt 2005. p. 254-257.

[3] Rainer Grajek: Berichte aus dem Morgengrauen. Bücherwerkstatt 2005. pp. 68-69.

Picture Artwork: Catalogue for “grito de paz” by Naguib

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Last Updated on 2021-04-05