all photos courtesy of the artist, except where otherwise noted
In a series of drawings published in 2011 (Figs. 1–4), René Tavares expresses his experience of the Tchiloli, a drama endemic to São Tomé and Príncipe which is intertwined with his own artistic development. In this work, paintings and drawings exchange roles in a continued masquerade spread across blank white pages where, like erratic thoughts, gestures interrupt each other, wander and digress into diluted stains of colour.
In one of these images, we can see a figure on the left, possibly the emperor Charlemagne,1 wearing a crown and a red cloak, whose face blends with a dark stain in the background (Fig. 1). In the foreground, slightly to the right, stands the count de Ganelon, the empress's brother, heading somewhere to the right of the observer. Where his face should be, we find a lightly sketched mask, the eyes of which are set on a point invisible to us, beyond the limits of the blank white page, towards which the count makes his way. Despite the dark and dusky impression created by the diluted lines and blotches, the eccentricity of the scene is striking. We can distinguish different elements belonging to distinct time periods: a feathered crown, military insignia and commendations, an obvious disguise of modern sunglasses, and a fake white beard on a dark face with African features. The whole scene is permeated by costumes that recall those worn in the royal courts of Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
What meaning is behind this arrangement of discrepant timelines? In what way does this incongruence represent a “creative selection and cultural struggle,” to use the terms chosen by Michel-Rolph Trouillot (cited in Crichlow and Northover 2009: ix, xiv)? To further explore the latent aspects of the gesture of the Tchiloli, I will take as my starting point two specific works in which this dynamic appears to me to be the most pronounced: Two Lives (2012), and Cards of Tchiloli (2014).
TCHILOLI, THE PERFORMANCE
São Tomé and Príncipe was colonized by the Portuguese from 1470, when they discovered the uninhabited archipelago, up until its independence in 1975. After local sugar cane production—introduced to the islands in 1493—was outcompeted by Brazilian exports in the seventeenth century, the islands subsisted mainly on sugar and cacao production and as a commercial hub for the slave trade. From the outset, labor was ensured by enslaved people of various ethnicities brought from the Gulf of Guinea, Gabon, and Angola. This made communication difficult due to the lack of a common language. The enslaved people were usually kept away from their compatriots as a way of preventing rebellious uprisings. This led to the birth of Creole as the archipelago's lingua franca.
Part translocation of the African metaphorical rite of the dead, part theatrical drama of European heritage inspired by the Carolingian cycle and adapted to the idiosyncrasies of São Tomé and Príncipe, the Tchiloli is a kind of multimedia performance (Kalewska 2005), made up of textual narrative, music, dance, and acting where, as in medieval European theater, all characters, both male and female, are played by male actors.
Tchiloli is considered by some to be a “costume drama,” and wardrobe is an essential element in the creation of its distancing effect, as noted by anthropologist Paulo Valverde (2000: 51) (Figs. 5–6). Generally bringing together a range of different elements—military uniforms, Napoleonic-era costumes, opulent seventeenth- and eighteenth-century court clothes, contemporary trinkets—this creative costuming is ruled, in Valverde's words, by a logic of bricolage … where significant individual creativity is permitted … [leading to the combination of] dark or mirrored glasses of different colors, a badge from Portuguese airline TAP, a statue of the Virgin Mary balanced on the Marquis of Mantua's hat, the use of pistols that are more realistic than the simple plastic replicas often seen during Carnival by the Dukes Aimão and Beltrão, a fan attached to the elaborate hat of a Captain Montalvão (Valverde 2000: 52–53).
The textual part of the drama is mostly based on the religious play by the blind playwright Baltasar Dias, The Tragedy of the Marquis of Mantua, written in 1540, which has roots in the Carolingian theatrical tradition. In brief, the play tells the story of the aspirations to power of the emperor's brother-in-law Ganelon, which are stymied by the existence of the royal heir, the legitimate son of the emperor Charlemagne. Learning of his nephew's love for Sybil, wife of Valdevinos, nephew of the marquis of Mantua, Ganelon finds the ideal opportunity to frame his nephew for murder. He proceeds to convince his nephew that this is the only way to attain his heart's desire. The core of the play takes place after the murder and deals with the marquis's struggle to avenge his nephew and Charlemagne's difficult choice between the fulfilment of his duty as head of state and his feelings towards his son. In the end, the emperor's sense of patriotic duty conquers his paternal instincts and he condemns his own son to death.
The history of the introduction of the play to São Tomé and Príncipe is controversial and adds to the mysterious nature of the performance. While some researchers, including Fernando Reis and Françoise Gründ, trace its introduction back to the sixteenth or possibly seventeenth century, when it may have been brought to the archipelago by master sugar growers from Madeira—a hypothesis which is the most generally accepted position—others, such as Paulo Alves Pereira or António Ambrósio, indicate the São Toméan elite—the so-called forros or “sons of the earth,” descendants of freedmen and Europeans—as the drama's likely importers (Seibert 2009). This elite would have come into contact with the Baltasarian play during their travels, likely in the form incorporated in the Romanceiro (1851) by Almeida Garrett during his studies in Europe.
While the most explicitly political component of the play is carried in its traditional European format, the dramatic adaptation—its symbolic and ritualistic character—has its roots in Africa, bringing together the traditions of the various peoples gathered on the islands. Thus we find in the Tchiloli the influence of the “Djidiu,” a bard-like figure and storyteller belonging to a caste of professional actors from the then kingdom of Mali and the “Mandigas,” dating to the twelfth century (Seibert 2009: 74). The complex game of dance steps and jerky movements that follows the monologue is reminiscent of the motion of the statuettes and puppets used in some African rituals, like the curiously named Togolese thitchili puppets which represent the spirits of ancestors (Guillemin 2012, Zimmer 1996), to guard the frontier between the world of the living and that of the dead2—as, for example in the initiation ceremony melan, practiced by the people of Beti, Cameroon (Thé 1985: 245–48). We also find the danço congo, an exorcism ritual forbidden by the colonizers (Gründ 1996: 170), brought back to life in the character Captain Montauban3; black faces painted white, which is considered to be the color of the “in-accessibles” or spirits4 in West African countries like Gabon; the ritualized offering of libations of palm wine to local saints; and musical instruments such as the bombos, the drums, and especially the bamboo flute or pitus.
Because any manifestation of African culture—such as the danço-congo, the D'Jambi ritual, or African funeral rites—was forbidden among the enslaved, whom the Portuguese forcibly baptised (Mata 1993), the Tchiloli was a way of perpetuating these prohibited practices in the context of colonialism. In this manner, the art form was a kind of political resistance and also served a therapeutic purpose (Seibert 2005: 683). Indeed, as Paulo Alvares Pereira notes, it is easy for the people of São Tomé and Príncipe to “find in the property owned by the marquis of Mantua, a parcel of Charlemagne's empire, a parallel with their own country, exploited and humiliated—whereby the election of the marquis as their champion in the fight for justice, an expression of their legitimate desire to build a nation free of colonial oppression“ (2008: 71).
In this context the Tchiloli gradually became a political gesture that created bonds of resistance and self-affirmation spanning generations. Here, I understand “gesture” as defined by Vilém Flusser: a means of expression that is symbolic in nature (2014: 253–54). Symbolic, I am tempted to add, as Rancière saw it: “not the figurative expression of an abstract thought, but the isolated fragment which bears the potency of the whole” (2011: 98). Part of this gesture of resistance was the hidden preservation of African traditions until the country's independence in 1975, and the gesture has continued to the present day through the creation of new forms of epistemological decolonizsation. Today, with no further need for subterfuge, the Tchiloli can give voice to comments on current political realities and abuses of power. In this way, I argue, this creative expression is no longer working against colonialism but against the growing trend towards homogenization that has accompanied the age of globalization.
THE TCHILOLI IN THE WORK OF RENÉ TAVARES
Within the visual gesture that unites color and light, René Tavares (b. 1983) makes the African framework contemporary, updating the alliance between African and European cultures in a reflection of the artist's own paradigm, which he sees mirrored in the Tchiloli. As the artist points out, in the Tchiloli
is present that European/African coexistence, a hybridization within a set of movements, colors, traits, and dramas. My language stems from that point of contact characteristic of the crossbreeding in the Tchiloli. I have added a piece of myself, that is, a piece of Africa, and a piece of what I see, of what I saw as Western, a certain urban reality we in Africa do not have (Tavares 2008).
A native of São Tomé and Príncipe, Tavares possesses a visceral link to the Tchiloli, an integral part of the daily life of most islanders: in an interview5 he mentions that, as a child, he believed the characters from the play would visit him at night. It is therefore natural that such an experience would leave a mark in his later artistic work, which demonstrates an underlying vein of research into the Tchiloli, purposefully open ended but only ever momentarily interrupted. This investigation has been a latent companion in the course of the artist's travels, be it during his stay in Dakar, Senegal, or even Rennes, France, where he completed his studies, as well as throughout his travels across Europe and Africa. He is currently embarked on a project aiming to update the latest text to serve as a basis for the performance, one published by Fernando Reis in the 1960s, in order to, in his words, “invest it with more strength.” The influence of the Tchiloli in his work does not always appear in the most obvious fashion, but remains inherent to the impulse of his gesture, as a state of mind.
In mapping explicit references to the Tchiloli in Tavares's work, we discern a body of images, some of them fragmented, spanning multiple works. A queen reminiscent of the Tchiloli, for example, can be seen next to the statue of liberty in Behind the Mask Project I (2011), a Pitú player trying to bring Valdevino's life, while in Sukida vs. Tchiloli, part of the triptych Folklore Day (2011) (Fig. 6), Tavares superimposes a marquis and a princess, suggestive of Valdevinos and Sybil—the marquis of Mantua's nephew and his wife—onto the image of a Japanese motorcycle against a yellow striped background that could depict a boxing ring.
In Dança na Sanzala com Sobas de Angola, part of the triptych Old Colony People I (2012) (Fig. 7), the orange and crimson colors of the clothing; the white that cuts into the green of the dark central figure, appearing to melt into a runoff of liquid paint; as well as the sharply contoured figures emerging in the night of Sanguês de Branco from the same triptych (Fig. 8), can be regarded as pictorial translations of African costumes and rhythms into a contemporary language.
Tavares's means of expression cycle through drawing, photography, video, and performance, depending on the message that he seeks to convey. However, common to all of the methods he adopts is an artistic gesture that is dramatic and physical, be it in the intensity of the gestures etched out on paper or canvas, their obvious weight or levity, or the implication of physical movement, as seen in performances like Repúblika, where the artist asks passers-by permission to take their picture holding a sign with the message “I am the Republic,” only actually photographing those who commit to the message, implying in their movements or stances an affirmation of political emancipation.
In my opinion, it is in this performativity of the work's unfinished and indefinite character that we can see the presence of the Tchiloli, which is transversal to Tavares's work. This presence is not limited to visual expression but is also part of the creative process itself, zigzagging intermittently to the rhythm of a hybridization of times, places, and materials that flows indiscriminately across their supposedly watertight boundaries. Tavares's artistic practice can thus be considered a continuous multimedia work in progress, just like the Tchiloli in the sense that it is never fixed into a single form of expression. As Valverde notes, the Tchiloli is “through the performative relevance of its movement—which is incapable of being completely reconstituted by language … an unfinished story, the ending of which, although important, is allusive” (2000: 11). In this way, it never has a definitive ending. Although, textually, the story ends with the execution of Prince Dom Carloto, this conclusion is open to various interpretations from the audience. For some, for example, the prince flees, while for others, the high court simulates his execution—two of many possible interpretations (Valverde 2000: 26). The very incompleteness and indetermination of Tavares's artistic gesture is therefore a transposition of the Tchiloli's incompleteness and indetermination into another language. In this sense, the artist's gesture is a movement that—like the characters in the Tchiloli—must always be performed.
In a different way, some of the artist's other works attempt to explore those interstitial regions escaping classification or any attempt at a coherent narrative that would systematize their elements into an organic whole. 40 Cards of Tchiloli (Figs. 1–4), for example, and Two Lives (2012) (Fig. 9) are, in my opinion, two works where the artistic gesture of the Tchiloli is most evident. In the first of these works, it can be seen in the camouflaged way in which it suggests movements, gestures, and fragments of a narrative, while in the second, it is present the flagrant absence of that same line of separation where the metamorphosis of disguise occurs, presenting us with two images that question the notion of essence, which is situated neither in the actor nor character they play, but in their interchangeability In the next section, I will analyze these two works, reflecting on the gesture of the Tchiloli as something which must be continually replayed, perpetuating itself through its metamorphosis into different forms of expression.
THRESHOLD TIME-SPACES: 40 CARDS OF TCHILOLI
40 Cards of Tchiloli (Figs. 1–4) was exhibited for the first time at the 6th Biennale of Art and Culture of São Tomé and Príncipe in 2011. It consists of a series of A3-sized drawings, which are dominated by black interspersed with monochromatic spots of blue, green, red, and occasionally purple. Here Tavares illustrates an intertwining of facts, histories, and fiction through the image of a deck of cards, with each king represented by a historical figure. The King of Spades is represented by King David of Israel, the King of Clubs by Alexander the Great, the King of Diamonds by Julius Caesar, while Charlemagne takes on the role of the King of Hearts.
On the lower left side of one of 40 Cards of Tchiloli's painted drawings—or drawn paintings—we can see the small coffin of Valdevinos that carries his mortal remains in the performance, reduced to the size of a shoebox (Fig. 3). In the Tchiloli, after the symbolic staging of the murder of Valdevinos in the forest, all of the action revolves around this little coffin, which, through its visual impact, serves to highlight the separation between the high court of the emperor—where wooden stakes are covered with palm fronds to represent the imperial palace—and the low court of the marquis of Mantua and his family, represented by a hut made of green branches.
As Paulo Alvares Perreira points out,
The same artefact is part of the funeral rituals of various African peoples: the “Kouyou” in Congo and the “Hattié” in the Ivory Coast for example. During their mourning ceremonies, both groups place a small coffin at the centre of a circle, as a substitute for Néné Wi Chi, the small mythological creature that symbolises the connection between the world of the living and that of the dead (2008: 75).
In this way, the central role of the coffin reflects the importance of the symbolic exchange between the world of the living and the world of the dead that is present in many African societies. This symbolic exchange is also evident in the way in which, before performances, the spirits of the dead are summoned—especially the spirits of those who previously played roles in the Tchiloli—through offerings of food or drink, such as wine and local liquors, even cigarettes. These offerings, which are common in African festivities, are spread out on the ground to appease the spirits. Visits are also made to the cemetery where former actors of the Tchiloli group—or “Tragédia” (tragedy)—have been laid to rest (Loude 2007: 336). Many believe that the deceased members of the Tragédia are also present during the performance and that when one of the actors—or figurantes, as they are called—performs particularly well it is because he has been possessed—montado—by the spirit of the person who played the role before (Loude 2007: 336). For Valverde, the fusion of the moralizing textual story with “the presence of the deceased, tempted to participate by the music, the Batucada, the offerings of food … is one of the signs of the subterranean appropriation … of this story by traditional São Toméan cosmology“ (2000: 7, 10). In this cultural tradition, the borders between life and death, internal and external, are porous, and in exceptional circumstances, the body can host ”a plurality of beings—the temporalities of which are vague or distinct … from their individual complexity“ (Valverde 2000: 162).
The significance of the coffin is expressed in this drawing (Fig. 3) through the interplay of light and shadow: the contrast between the black smear underneath it and the whiteness of the paper which, relative to the remaining green-shrouded forms, enhances it and lifts it from the ground, giving the impression that it is floating in the air. The reinterpretation of this scene by Tavares focuses on the complicity between corruption, power, and betrayal in a modern context and the possibility of renewal that it triggers. As Paulo Alvares Pereira notes, “the symbolic charge that the death of a chief represents to the community” relates to the “societal cycle of renovation” (2008: 75) and is thus capable of indirectly touching on modern political issues.
In Portugal, the concept of “creolization” has never been central to the state's discourse on colonialism, unlike the term “miscegenation” (Almeida 2004: 3), for example, which was incorporated into the concept of Lusotropicalism theorized by Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre (1930, 1940).
Freyre asserted that, from the very beginning of their nation's foundation, the Portuguese were genetically inclined to constitute a multiracial society—an ethnic amalgam of Arabs and Jews. This theory was refuted by Salazar, however, after World War II, when the United Nations urged its member states to take action towards the independence of their colonies. It was used to legitimize Portuguese colonialism, along with a terminology change from colónias (“colonies”) to Províncias do Ultramar. This discourse continued after the establishment of democracy in Portugal, reformulated as the concept of a “meeting of cultures” (Almeida and Corkill 2015: 164). However, Portugal's self-representation as a “pluricontinental and pluriracial nation” (Almeida 2004: 7) still allowed its people to project the idea of miscegenation onto the other—as something that happened faraway in the colonies—thereby simultaneously ensuring that the country's continental borders remained closed. In this way,
the supposed process of Portuguese miscegenation worked and continues to work both ideologically and materially according to double standards: others absorb Portuguese traits (and blood), while the Portuguese don't absorb anything from anyone, other than cultural products considered to be harmless or consumable, such as food or music (Almeida 2004: 13).
This colonial model was reproduced in São Tomé and Príncipe after the archipelago's independence: the Angolares—a people living in the south of the island which, according to the most widely accepted version of events, is descended from enslaved Angolans who were shipwrecked on the coast6—are constructed as other, “primitive,” more purely “African,” a perception rooted in their profession as fishermen and the location they inhabit, and against which the Europeanized elite defines itself (Feio 2008). This figure of the “African ghost” (Almeida 2004: 13), inherited from colonialism, is intensified by the fact that São Tomé and Príncipe is an archipelago, isolated by the sea from the African continent.
In this context, the African elements of the Tchiloli, such as the summoning of ancestors, the enchanting and repetitive music, and the dance, dominate in comparison to the text in prose and verse (Seibert 2005: 683), an emphasis which blurs the boundaries between the “civilized” European and the African. Working in an original and poetic manner, this process creates a “third space” (Hall 2015: 15), understood not as an ensemble of pure elements, but as a cultural interweaving of elements that can be reinterpreted, thereby recreating a distinct culture within a context of domination and conflict.
In this way, one can create an analogy between creolization and play: Just as there is no essence to play, there is none to creolization; both are relatable activities that acquire meaning through practice in a social context. Creolization therefore recombines different elements in different ways, creating, with each new combination, a new form of creolization, as what distinguishes them from one another is “the ‘logic’ of their combination” (Hall 2003: 18). As in play, creolization depends on rules—which, with a past rooted in colonization, are often built on tales of violence and exclusion—and chance, whereby the paths through which individuals craft their own narratives are the means of weaving private subjectivities through imagination, not determined by or deducible from the rules.
The overlapping of multiple expressive registers in the various drawings that constitute 40 Cards of Tchiloli evokes different textures, sometimes through the overlaying of tenuous spots of color on denser liquefied stains, sometimes in transitioning the rhythms of gestures between the sobriety of black and white and the vibrant ecstasy of color. In this way, the images evoke the haptic gaze, groping and probing the phenomenological surface of the canvas, which opens itself to the materials' touch in a shared timeframe.
As Laura Marks notes in her reflection on the Deleuzian distinction between optical and haptic images, the haptic gaze tends to move over the surface of its object … not to distinguish form so much as to discern texture … privileges the material presence of the image. Drawing from other forms of sense experience, primarily touch and kinesthetic“ (2000: 162–63). The haptic image is inhabited by an incompleteness that awakens the observer's imagination and his sense of desire, in which image and spectator fuse (Marks 2000: 183).
According to anthropologist Johannes Fabian, it is the primacy of visual perception, the “cultural, ideological bias towards vision as the ‘noblest sense’” (2002: 247)—correlated, in anthropology, with the method of observation—that is the principal cause behind the negation of cotemporality and the widening of the gap between dichotomies, which projects onto the other its conception of linear time. This hegemonic gaze is one that touches only the surface of the object, effectively distancing itself from it. In contrast, the haptic gaze stimulated by Tavares's works agrees to abandon the anticipation of what is seen as well as the set of formulas of classification and dominion destined to avoid the fall into chaos that derive from it, taking pleasure in the discovery of its own deficiencies in the gap between itself and the ever-elusive other.
As Michaeline Crichlow and Patricia Northover (2009) note in their interpretation of Glissant's line of thinking, despite the fact that creole societies subjected to colonization in the past have had their socioeconomic conjuncture conditioned by that experience, it does not define them. Both Crichlow and Northover consider that while it remains important to remember and to take into account the history that connects these societies to slavery and forced migration, it is more productive to focus on how individuals living in this societies recreate, by means of imagination, new realities of space and time drawn from the interrelation of global and local processes.
Within certain limits imposed by its narrative structure and the political situation at the time of each performance, the drama is constantly reinvented: Each of the approximately ten Tchiloli groups—or Tragédias—in existence has its own version (Seibert 2005: 681). The ignorance most inhabitants of São Tomé and Príncipe share of the historical figures that appear in the medieval play allows them to reinvent a reality that is neither truth nor lie, but an alternative. Like a game, this new reality is not tangible, fixed, or predefined, but immaterial and always subject to change, existing only in the moment of its enactment. The actors blend themselves with the characters of the Tchiloli so perfectly that they start to believe themselves to be prime ministers and queens, that the other characters—emperors, princesses, Ganelons, and Sybils—wander the streets during slow hours.
In this way, the metaphor of the game in 40 Cards of Tchiloli can be read as a kind of poetic relationship, since in any game there exists a connection to the other players that does not correspond to any physical object. It relies on the joint attendance of the players, implying a negotiation between those involved, escaping the linearity of time and allowing for the unforeseen. According to Wittgenstein (1994), the world is a product of language, with infinite possible variations. The world that we know through language is like the language we know from the world: One is limited by the other, with no possible points of reference outside of it, no platonic essence or founding language at its origin.
By choosing the metaphor of a game, the artist places the Tchiloli in the field of activities where chance meets with order and rules, each encounter being different. We can consider the rules and order as the material conditions of existence and chance as the unpredictability associated with creativity. In the current context of hegemonic Western epistemologies, founded on dichotomies that are ill suited to dealing with complexity, the reflection on power articulated by 40 Cards of Tchiloli provides a kind of subtle criticism that runs deeper than a reductive division between “good” and “bad,” “truth” and “lie.” Rather, it destabilizes these boundaries and reveals the arbitrariness of power, which is emphasized by the metaphor of the game.
SUBVERTING THE HEGEMONIC GAZE: TWO LIVES
The Two Lives (2012) series (Fig. 9) is composed of nine double portraits distributed in three columns. In these two-thirds portraits, the person is nearly always facing the camera, sometimes slightly turned. The background is neutral—usually white on the left, where the subject is depicted in casual, civilian dress; grey on the right, where the same person is dressed as a character from the Tchiloli. The photographs, despite being posed at two-thirds, resemble studio-made passport photos. The difference—the avoidance of a more intrusive close-up—does not allow a voyeuristic gaze that imprisons the other, preventing the objectification of the person in the photo. In some of the doublets, there is very little that could lead to the identification of the casually dressed person on the left and the one in costume on the right as the same individual. The ambiguity and descriptive style of the portraits in Two Lives reflect a fugacity, an intermediacy, placing two irreconcilable realities side by side, thereby breaking with linear time.
In “traditional São Toméan cosmology,” there is no strictly unitary concept of the individual. For example, people have a name given to them at baptism and another name by which they are known, a so-called house name, or nome da casa. A person's given name is generally not known by other people, as it is considered to be the most vulnerable part of a person, being particularly dangerous when used in spells (Valverde 2000: 152). In certain situations, the body of an individual can also be inhabited by a plurality of beings, as in D'Jambi sessions,7 during which individuals can be possessed (montados) by a person of a different sex, age, or time period. In this way, the body is also a potential repository of collective memories, a “home” that can host various spirits. Similarly, there is no linear and unitary concept of time. The phenomenon of possession dissolves “the distinction between the past and the present, replacing it with a confluence of plural temporalities in which duration no longer has meaning.” (Valverde 2000: 171).
In the context of this cosmology, the roles interpreted by the figurantes are not roles in the Western sense of the term, namely something external to an actor's identity that can be “put on” and “taken off” at will. Tchiloli characters penetrate the figurantes and are passed down from generation to generation as lifelong commitments, which, until very recently, were only handed down to members of the same family. The boundaries between the real and the unreal become blurred, with the hierarchies between members of the Tragédia even being maintained in day-to-day situations.8 During festive periods when the Tchiloli is performed, the masks can only be removed at dusk, after sunset.
In his seminal work Time and the Other (1983), Johannes Fabian noted how, following the abandonment of evolutionism in the twentieth century, its epistemological premises, which rested on the spatialization of time driven by natural history after a long process of secularization and naturalization, persisted. In this way, time disconnected itself from lived experience, becoming a neutral and homogenous variable “allowing the scientist to plot a multitude of uneventful data over neutral time” (Fabian 2002: 13). With the sources of their praxis in this conception, both anthropology and ethnography contributed to the legitimization of the colonial enterprise, which irrevocably placed “not only past cultures, but all living societies … on a temporal slope, a stream of time—some upstream, others downstream” (Fabian 2002: 17). A distinction between the other (primitive, indigenous) and the West is thereby created based on the negation of cotemporality. Thus, one of the strategies of the colonial expansion project consisted in disqualifying non-Western knowledge as a set of traditional, frozen-in-time, backwards habits incapable of contributing anything new, unworthy of making it onto the historical stage. The distance from the other, pragmatically depicted as the African continent, was maintained through a kind of temporal stagnation, designated by Wilk as “colonial time,” which isolated the continent in a futureless temporality while transforming it into a treasure trove from which the “pillage of novelties” (1990: 84) was allowed in sufficient quantities to revitalize European culture. In art and design, music and fashion, the appropriation of African culture and form was accompanied by the stripping of its spiritual substance.
This situation was discussed by Santos (2009), who used the term “abyssal line” to refer to that invisible thread that separates non-Western from Western knowledge, the latter alone benefitting from the privilege of action. To overcome this conception, Santos proposes what he calls “Epistemologies of the South,” that is, the adoption of a Southern point of view. “South” here is not necessarily understood in its geographic sense but as “a metaphor for systemic and arbitrary human suffering brought about by colonialism and global capitalism” (Santos 2009: 94).
Santos further believes that the first step toward a postabyssal mindset is a “radical copresence,” which “implies conceiving of simultaneity as contemporaneity, and is only possible by forsaking the linear conception of time” (2009: 94). Photography is generally associated with the capture of the “truth” of facts, due to its particular relationship to what it depicts: continuation, traces—“indices” as Pierce (1932) called them, or “burns” in the words of Benjamin (1996 : 11). Photography is “signed” by reality. But what is real in this case? It is hard to say. The passportlike portrait, usually an accurate testimony of an individual's identity, is used in this case as a means of deconstruction, questioning the indivisibility and uniqueness of identity, as the same individual is placed simultaneously in the realm of fiction and reality, two different space-times.
On the close complicity between temporality and subjectivity, Mbembe explained the specificity of African time as that of a time of intertwining, which he further designates as emerging time:
This time of African existence is neither a linear time nor a simple sequence in which each moment effaces, annuls, and replaces those that preceded it, to the point where a single age exists within society. This time is not a series but an interlocking of presents, pasts, and futures that retain their depths … The present as experience of a time is precisely that moment when different forms of absence become mixed together: absence of those presences that are no longer so and that one remembers (the past), and absence of those others that are yet to come and are anticipated (the future) (2001: i6).
Contrary to linear time, emerging time is a reversible time in which pasts and futures coexist nonexclusively, a time which contemplates the irruption of the unexpected without necessarily descending into chaos. To Bhabha, the suspension of linear time leads to the emergence of what he refers to as “time lag,” the interstitial moment that separates signified and signifier, creating an undetermined platform that liberates the self from the current of time that precedes it: “returning the subject to the ‘present’ of the symbolic in a new state of ‘control’ and individual (private) ‘re-signifying’ agency” (Bhabha 1994: 180–87). The present is, in this way, translated by the subject not as a cause to the present, but as a potentially innovative “in-between space” that breaks the flow of time.
In Two Lives, the suspension of the linearity of time is caused by the juxtaposition of photos of the Tchiloli actors in their real lives and as characters from the drama, unveiling an emerging hybrid time. The incongruity between signifier (the photographic portrait) and signified (the character in the play the actor) creates an interstice where it is possible for both to coexist in space and time, where the future may reinvent the past.
On the other hand, the frontality of the images presented and their lack of context prevent their insertion into a linear timeframe, inviting the observer to construct the meanings behind them. The spectator ceases to be the passive observer from whom an appraisal of the “finished work” is expected, becoming part of a process activated by means of his own imagination.
The metamorphosis from one state to another, found in both works, functions as a strategy for the creation of a reality where linear time is abolished and that temporal interstice is created where dead presents coexist with living existence. In both, reality and imagination mix, allowing past and future, life and death, to be reversed.
At the same time that the Tchiloli reactivates the memory of the African ancestors of the people of São Tomé and Príncipe, it also invents something completely new and original, bringing together elements with diverse origins through creative processes of creolization and the logic of the bricolage. The artistic gesture of the Tchiloli is extended through Tavares's work, which adds to the stories woven together through past performances of the Tchiloli with the artist's own experience of passageways, of marginal spaces between Africa and Europe, the blot and the line, the local and the global.
Both works I have chosen to analyse—Two Lives and 40 Cards of Tchiloli—testify to the freedom inherent to the artistic act: that of creating the unpredictable by going one step further. They express new subjectivities set on a becoming, creating break lines that escape binary and essentialized categories such as “traditional/contemporary,” “colonizer/colonized,” “European art/African art.” In this context, Tavares's work, be it in drawing, photography or direct interventions in the original text, updates the drama, keeping it alive.
In this way, the artistic gesture of the Tchiloli, as seen in its own performance as well as in Tavares's interpretation of it, is a way of offering a possible alternative to the growing trend of homogenization being brought about by the globalization of Western epistemology. It preserves—by bringing up to date—nondichotomic values and the echoes of many “African voices” (Hall 2015: 16–17). These voices do not necessarily have to be African, but simply voices which until now have been invisible or silenced, which correspond to that which Sousa Santos called “epistemologies of the South” (1995), a phenomenon which also exists in certain communities in the North.
It is a political gesture in that it sheds light on the interstitial regions separating categories, reshuffling them and defying the rational logic capable only of seeing that which has been stripped of its vitality In this sense, it deconstructs the hegemonic Western gaze reminiscent of colonial times—globalized today in the form of neoliberal mercantilism—to build an alternative world view: a view that accepts the coexistence of multiple mutually enriching truths without their convergence into hegemonic oneness. It is the celebration of a fragmented world that does not succumb to the power of an all-consuming and unifying voice. And it is the existence of those many parcelled truths that guarantees humanity's possibility of renewal.
This work was supported by the Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia (FCT), Portugal for the Post-PhD under Grant SFRH/BPD/108392/2015. I also wish to thank my supervisor, Prof. Dr. Rodrigo Cunha and co-supervisor, Prof. Dr. Carlos Garrido for the support they gave me.
Emperor Charlemagne, or Charles the Great (742–814 ad), king of the Lombards and the Franks, crowned as an emperor of the Carolingian dynasty by Pope Leo III in Rome in 800, is also a character in Balthasar Dias's fictional drama, which serves as the textual basis for the Tchiloli. Here, he is the symbolic representation of the power that opposes the marquis of Mantua as he seeks vengeance for the murder of his nephew, Valdevinos, at the hands of the emperor's son, Dom Carloto.
According to Gründ, “on the [African] continent, dolls, fetishes and puppets possess powers and can be guardians equipped with dreadful threats. Often, sorcerers or the men responsible for the mise en scène of death fill them with ‘medicine’—crushed bone, plants, macerated innards, for example. When placed inside a puppet, this can have two functions: working as a spell, but also to induce a revelation or a trance. A man allegedly guilty of an unconfessed crime who touched one of these puppets could become suddenly ill or be struck down. In the Tchiloli, only suspicious characters take on the appearance of puppets, as is the case with Charlemagne and his defence lawyers” (1996: 170).
The character of Montauban has a similar role, clothes, accessories, and dance to Captain Congo in the danço-congo (Gründ 1996: 170–71). The danço-congo is another “performative genre” (Valverde 2000, 53) typical to São Tomé and Príncipe, which is often compared to the Tchiloli, with the latter often being considered to be “more refined,” thanks to its “solemnity” and “politeness” (Valverde 2000: 54).
On this subject, Christian Valbert describes how “the Gabonese tell of their people's shock at the sight of the first whites: they thought Europeans had come from the world of the dead” (1990: 43).
Rene Tavares, interview with author, September 7, 2016.
Some authors—Ferraz (1974), Hagemeijer (2005), Seibert (1998, 2001, 2005), Henriques (2000), and Joana Feio, among others—argue that they are descendants of “slaves of different origins, who escaped from the sugar mills established during the initial phase of colonization, and later, in the nineteenth century, from cacao and coffee plantations” (cf. Feio 2008: 6).
A ritual performed by a healer, which seeks to communicate with the spirits of the dead in order to enlist their help in intervening in people's lives, solving problems and curing illnesses.
On this subject, Tavares told me of a figurante who was a traffic officer in his “real” life and who, even when carrying out his duties, would greet the other members of the Tragédia in accordance with the characters they played, such as prince Dom Carloto and the marquis of Mantua. Interview with author, September 4, 2018.