Published  24/11/2015

Francisco Vidal: ‘It’s an artist’s role to dream’

Francisco Vidal: ‘It’s an artist’s role to dream’

The artist’s colourful paintings and his relaxed persona belie the inspiration behind his work. But while war and violent revolution lie at the heart of much of his art, so, too, do hope and a heartening optimism


Francisco Vidal, who was born in Portugal in 1978, has been instrumental in championing the visual arts scene in his father’s native country of Angola, where he helped to form an artist collective called e-Studio. The group represented Angola at the Venice Biennale this year, and although Vidal is no longer working with them, he continues to promote art as a driving force for change.

For Vidal, the artist’s studio is akin to a factory, while the artist acts as a machine. His references are many, ranging from hip-hop and graffiti to the Angolan flag and the country’s 13-year struggle for independence from Portuguese rule, which it achieved in 1975, only to be plunged into a bitter civil war until 2002. He paints brightly coloured cotton flowers on to metal machetes, which have been glued together to form a kind of metal canvas, evoking the labour of the cotton workers and their struggle to gain fair working conditions, which culminated in a protest that was violently suppressed by the authorities in 1961.

Vidal’s Workshop Maianga Mutamba opened at Tiwani Contemporary on 13 November. Inside, the single room is a riot of colour. Paintings, screen prints and drawings cover the walls and ceiling, some of which are the product of Vidal’s U.topia Machine, a portable box born out of his experiences as an itinerant artist with three nationalities.

I went to Tiwani Contemporary to talk to Vidal about his influences and experiences as he was putting the finishing touches to this, his first UK solo exhibition.

Emily Spicer: Can you tell me a little about your relationship with Angola?

Francisco Vidal: I got out of the civil war. My mother was really important to that because she didn’t want us to live in a country with war. There are a lot of things that have to be improved in Luanda. It’s the city that I really relate to. I love living in that city, but it’s difficult to be a painter because of a lack of materials, education and places to work, like museums, schools, libraries and galleries. They just do not exist because we have had 13 years of peace, but more than 40 years of war. Those things for me are European, or my European mind says you go to the street and you find them. But when I go [to Luanda] and I learn about my African mind, I know that I have to build those things, or help to build them. My position obliges me to do something and it also gives me pleasure to do it.

ES: Does the Angolan civil war come through in your work, even though your family left before you were born?

FV: Yes it does a lot, because I had to understand the civil war and why I was in Portugal. I had a lot of questions that people didn’t know how to answer because things are not documented yet. There aren’t many films or books. There are people studying the poets and the writers, but in art and cinema there are not many documentaries about it. So all this is about what happened. Drawing is about me studying these moments in time.

Like my machete paintings. There is a machete in the flag of Angola, like the hammer and sickle in the Russian flag. I started to use the machete as a canvas, because it’s difficult to get canvas there. At the same time, I started to study the machete and what people are doing with it. It’s a tool of work, it’s on the flag and it’s related to communist thinking, but the country is not leftwing.

ES: So you’ve made your own flag with these machetes?

FV: Yes, but also I’m thinking about fabrics. African fabrics are really present in Luanda and they are made out of cotton and when we have the cotton flowers we are thinking about slavery, too. I think a lot about work and how we work today. That’s the way I work with words and the image of words. So when there’s a painting of a man, woman, child, a bird, or flower, there is always something with the morality of the symbol and the image of the symbol. In Luanda, the culture is oral. People tell stories to the youngsters so we know what happened and I think that’s happening in the images also.

ES: What do you think is the future for Angola?

FV: I think we are going to have an industrial revolution, because in Angola we are very dependent on the oil industry, which is really bad because the country is really rich in other things. It is really rich in human workers. I think we should fight for the rights we don’t have. There are things that are wrong, like old people in power for 40 years. We inherited that from colonial times, and I think a lot of people in my generation are trying to change that now. I’m a product of independence. Like a lot of people born in the 70s, I am thinking about some kind of change and that’s good!

ES: Do you think of yourself as a political artist, a revolutionary artist or both?

FV: I’m a political artist, but I’m a revolutionary, too, of course! I think if you are political, you have to be revolutionary. There is this guy in Luanda, he’s a rapper, and he’s into hip-hop. I am, too. He’s an activist and a pacifist. He spent 31 days on hunger strike fighting for a new regime in Angola, so he’s a revolutionary. And he’s fighting for freedom of speech and freedom of expression. People in Lisbon ask me where I position myself, and I say I am with him. I am fighting for freedom of expression. If I was not with him, I would not be a painter. So that’s my political position.

ES: Did his hunger strike have an impact? Did it change anything?

FV: It did, it did. It’s for the best; I think it’s for the future. The president is 73 years old: he’s really important for the country, but he’s old and we need new ideas. My father is OK with the situation that there is there, but he’s old, too. He says at home that I should be quiet and not talk too much because that’s the way our culture is. But I don’t think that’s culture. I think that’s fear

ES: In Luanda, you formed a collective called e-Studio in a space that was an old ammunition shed.

FV: A lot of things like that are happening there. It is like the beginning of everything because we have peace. A group of us got together and shared ideas, which is really interesting. It’s like what happened in Europe with the surrealists or the cubists. Things are happening. Structures are coming together. That collective was really good. I’m not working with them any more, but at that time it really made sense and we went to the Venice Biennale this year.

We haven’t had an art school since the 1950s and that was my main interest in working with other artists, to teach the younger generations and to communicate. Because I’m not in Luanda as much as I was, it’s easier for me to work as an independent artist in the diaspora.

ES: Can you explain what the U.topia machine is?

FV: It’s a box; it’s a cube, like a crate to transport art. It’s 60 x 60cm. It travels but it is also a tool of the studio, the atelier, where you work. It’s a cube that you can put art inside, and the tools to make art. The team in my studio in Lisbon have put together 200 boxes to make a wall, so when we go back to Luanda we can send those 200 boxes and make a wall of a museum. It’s the idea of mobility, the idea of building something.

ES: We’re back to the idea of building things from scratch?

FV: Yes, that’s it. Exactly. You have the tools and you have the attitude that you have to have in Africa. You can build whatever you want. It contains the word U.topia, so it is a dream. In some years, it will not be a dream. We will have a museum in Luanda, not an old one as we have now, which doesn’t work. We’ll have a good art school and everything that we want.

ES: Aesthetically, where do your influences come from?

FV: I saw a lot of television in the 80s, but also street communication like graffiti, hip-hop, MTV. My English is MTV English. I listened to a lot of Bob Marley and the Fugees, so there’s a lot of music and DJ-ing in the late 70s. There’s a lot of sampling, so there’s a lot of layers, a lot of ideas and rhythms and tones and colours. I think the culture of the 80s is a real influence and the painters of the 80s, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Julian Schnabel, a lot of different artists. Also, Andy Warhol and his silkscreen techniques and the idea of repetition. I’m really into Walter Benjamin texts and the history of 20th-century Europe and the Industrial Revolution, which for me is very important.

ES: Do you see that as the future for Angola?

FV: There is need for a revolution, an industrial revolution.

ES: But the Industrial Revolution – in Britain at least – saw a massive upheaval in people’s lives. A mostly rural population moved to the cities and things got messy. Many workers lived in terrible conditions and we started polluting the world. There were good things about it, but it started a huge and not altogether positive shift.

FV: I thought all Africa would be like that. Of course, we have a lot of problems with nature and industry, but tourism is an industry also. It’s really difficult to go to Luanda and Angola because people go there to work and you need a work visa. It would be much easier to go there as a tourist. We might not like tourists in our cities, but they also preserve the city. They bring something to the city or to the country. I am not a fan of safaris, but I would like to know the wildlife better. I would like the wildlife to exist there. But it doesn’t exist because of war. And war is an industry also.

ES: Are you talking about a new kind revolution, a modern revolution?

FV: Yes, we have the internet and whole other means of communication and ways to exchange information, so it’s like an industrial idea, a mature idea, with words like tourism, which are from the 20th century. Now we are in the 21st century, there are different ideas.

ES: So you’d like to see a communication revolution? A revolution in information, rather than an industrial revolution in the historical sense?

FV: Yes, but I like the words, I like the image. Not the old fogs and these old grey things. I think it’s green, the industrial revolution, it’s really green. Of course, it’s an exchange. It’s about exchanging ideas and information. It’s easier to get information. You have Wi-Fi, even in the jungle now. If you don’t know how to get to a place, you ask someone for information and they give you the information and you feel safe. You want to go there, you go. It’s that way. And all these guys who are leaving Syria, they would not have to have a passport or whatever. They wouldn’t be escaping war. That’s the industrial revolution that I’m thinking about.

ES: It seems like you’re thinking about a Marxist utopia, a borderless world?

FV: I’m thinking about William Morris. Because it’s green, the industrial revolution, it’s really green. He made all these really beautiful patterns. He’s a socialist. He was really important. He put arts and crafts together – he understood the machine. He made something beautiful from the machine. So I’m thinking of that kind of green industrial revolution and the Bauhaus movement in Germany or art nouveau in France.

ES: So they’re revolutions that produce beautiful things?

FV: It’s simple codes, simple ideas and when you put them together they become complex. You have your image of industry and we are talking, we both have points of view on the table and we make something better, so I get better out of conversation. That’s the thing. I’m really lucky that I’m a painter, that I can do this. I can always hope for the best. That’s easy for me. And then people ask me what I think about the hunger strikes and the dictatorship, or democracy in Africa or Angola or wherever, and I can say, “Well, I’m in favour of freedom of speech and freedom of expression and freedom to walk on the street and freedom to go from one country to another.” I’m lucky to be like that. I’m not a politician or an economist, so I can keep that naive thinking.

ES: Do you think that’s partly the role of an artist, keeping idealism alive, keeping a dream alive? You don’t have to have the pragmatic considerations of a politician.

FV: You have to be pragmatic to use colour because if you use it in the wrong way it’s not going to be good. You have to be pragmatic in a lot of different things. But also, everybody dreams and you can as an artist, you can have a lot of time for yourself. So you can dream a lot. It’s an artist’s role to dream.

• Francisco Vidal: Workshop Maianga Mutamba is open at Tiwani Contemporary in London until 19 December 2015.

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