Mónica de Miranda is an Angolan-Portuguese visual artist, researcher and filmmaker; her practice is rooted in investigating social issues related to affective geographies and the convergence of politics, gender, memory and space.
For Autograph's project Amplify – Stranger in the Village: Afro European Matters, de Miranda created a new work, The Island, exploring a long trajectory of black presences in Portugal, intertwining narratives that draw on African liberation movements, migratory experiences and identity formations through a black feminist lens.
Autograph’s senior curator Renée Mussai spoke in-depth with the artist about this new series, exploring the ecologies of care, Afrodiasporic presences, and possible futures.
Renée Mussai (RM): Firstly, thank you so much Mónica, for collaborating with us and for creating such a multilayered, evocative, and rich body of work visualising Afrodiasporic presences and responding to the commission theme of ‘ecologies of care’. To begin with, could you perhaps share how The Island (A Ilha) connects to previous bodies of work?
Mónica de Miranda (MdM): Developing the notion of ‘ecologies of care’ in this new series expands upon my previous works that deal with landscapes and the idea of regeneration, in the sense of establishing a relationship between the human body and nature whereby histories are understood through relations of care and regeneration. For example, in the series Panorama (2017) I explored the colonial architectural landscapes of Angola and how they have been reclaimed by the lush natural terrain. My work is rooted in this notion of recuperation of and care towards lost histories and memories that are still materially present through bodies and landscapes.
RM: These memories and histories have been amplified during the past two years, with the pandemic forcing – or inviting – us to pause, to breathe, to reflect. When we first discussed ideas for this commission, we spoke about freedom, and the desire to escape this stage of confinement during which your own memories began to fuse with your mother’s recollections. How have these overlapping sentiments and experiences led you to the creation of a ‘fiction of another island’, imagining different conditions of existence?
MdM: All these experiences have had an important impact on the vision for the project. The work was developed through a time that called for a rethinking of our ways of living, our ways of taking care of our environment and of ourselves. I started writing the script/the story of The Island during the first Covid-19 lockdown, while also trying to break free from the current situation through my own imagination, and from the ghosts of memory that were coming to me all the time: the many unlived memories, from my grandmother and my mother, who lived through the colonial war in Angola between 1961 - 1974. This period brought to the forefront all these memories and my sense of freedom being challenged. And I tried to transmute this experience to a different place, while overlooking the River Tagus outside my house in Lisbon, Portugal. The Island is the result of being in a situation where I had to face myself, and I had to understand, as many other people did during lockdown, my position in the world. So, this story has multiple references formulated through my own memories, experiences, and imagination.
RM: Water has been a constant theme in your work: figures transiting/crossing water, or semi-submerged in or surrounded by water. I am thinking of Tide (2021), for instance – the photograph of the twins seated in the river – and also recent writing on gendered oceanic intimacy and tidalectic world-viewing (a play on ‘dialectics’, coined by the historian and poet Kamau Brathwaite), encouraging a more meaningful dialogue with the past, an embracing of the rhythms and fluxes of water, towards a transcorporeal engagement with the more-than-human world.
MdM: Yes, the element of water is fundamental to me because of its metaphorical and physical force: water flows, it changes, adapts to borders and crossings; it penetrates everything. Understanding this flow and using the flow of the water to think through all these experiences, ideas started to emerge. The ocean has been a recurring theme in my work and process of self-discovery. Through water, especially the moving waters of rivers flowing into the ocean, we understand the connection between the local and the global forces at play in the making of our realities. In terms of history, while conceptualising the project, I was researching historical black presences in Portugal and read about an Afro-diasporic community on the riverside of Sado, in the Alentejo region where - sometime between the late fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth century - many Africans were sent to work in the salt pans and where they later settled. This forgotten community was pejoratively called ‘Pretos do Sado’ (Blacks of Sado), and their settlement was known as ‘Ilha dos Negros’, meaning ‘Island of Blacks’. Hence the idea of the island as a utopian place where we could escape to, a space that holds recurring symbolisms of rebirth and renewal, where new futures can be projected.
"My work is rooted in this notion of recuperation of and care towards lost histories and memories that are still materially present through bodies and landscapes."
RM: Yet, rather than a geographically or culturally specific place, it is a speculative place ‘of re/creation, of rest and refuge’, where the topography of the landscape is spatially and temporally ambiguous, both fictive and real. I wonder if The Island represents a kind of Afro-utopia for you: a realm free from heteronormative Eurocentric sociopolitical narratives and capitalist/neoliberal conscriptions?
MdM: The topos of the island appears in my work as a metaphor to question limited notions of reality and truth that encompass only the visions of white Western middle-class men, and also as a place in which to imagine alternative paths. Islands are points of intersection of various cultures, of transit, and they have appeared in the collective imagination since antiquity as sites of projection, of rebirth, connected to the cosmogony of origin and the ideal image of the cosmos. We can see this in Gilles Deleuze’s (2002)¹ conceptualisation of the island and the surrounding water as a material condition for new beginnings, a sort of nucleus for the second birth after a catastrophe. Yet the island is also an ambiguous space, an in-between space where we may unravel the diasporic experience of constant migration, and where our imagination runs free of hegemonic narratives, to build new paths to the future. Simultaneously, this metaphorical island is rooted in the presence of these real historical communities who made their home there. It is from this place of intersection between these different space–time scales – between past, present and future – that The Island emerges as a place of refuge and of regenerative imagination.
RM: Considering that Portugal is home to one of the largest, and oldest, Afro-diasporic communities in Europe, I am curious about your experience of living and working in the Portuguese-speaking African diaspora, and with a hyphenated Angolan-Portuguese identity.
MdM: For me, the search for identity is a search for home, for belonging. It is a journey that is always part of the diasporic experience – a journey I navigate through my art practice, by venturing into family histories, origins, myths and places that are connected through my experience as a woman from the Angolan diaspora living and working in Lisbon and Luanda. The diasporic experience is shaped by a multi-positioning of postcolonial identities, so I see the idea of home always in relation to time, to space, to memory and their various dimensions. […] In my work, notions of home and family are places of continuous arrival and departure, places of intersection and places of rest, but also of struggle and uncertainty. They relate to an emotional state of refuge, of comfort. I try to build a living archive of home, of belonging, drawing connections to my own biography and the collective experience of displacement. My mission is to reconstruct a sense of belonging through mapping, retracing migratory paths, performing urban archaeologies in places where, at one point or another, I felt at home – to build my own geography of affections.
"The Island is the result of being in a situation where I had to face myself, and I had to understand, as many other people did during lockdown, my position in the world."
RM: How do these ‘geographies of affections’ signify in relation to The Island?
MdM: With The Island, I wanted to create a relationship between identity, memory, body and landscape. Through geographies of affections, I attempt to measure, analyse and represent my cultural references and my personal experiences of diaspora and migration, through a sort of mapping of transitory and migratory paths that have led to how I am situated in the present. I try to design a geography of embodied crossings that include my own journey, but also those of others in the extended transnational diasporic community that were created by forced and voluntary migrations during colonial and postcolonial times. […] In letting the place speak through the narrative of the work – both in the film and the photography – (hi)stories of displacement, extraction and rebirth are brought to the surface.
RM: I wonder if through this notion of rebirth – through birthing these ‘affective geographies’ – we may locate the figure of the mother, and the writing and visualising of diasporic matrilineal her/histories in your work? While The Island manifests as an intrinsically feminine space to me, there is an ambiguity, too – a fluidity, perhaps – in these perceived femininities. Neither gender nor nature appear static or binary in your work.
MdM: The figure of the mother and the notion of self-discovery between the polarities of femininity and masculinity has always been an important part to my work. […] In my cinematic and photographic work, I explore unconscious desires and the various dualities clashing within the self: fiction and fabulation are significant for the development of notions of subjectivity beyond binary oppositions, whereby figures do not occupy a fixed position, but shifting, fluid and multiple identifications may take shape. […] For me, it is important to see in the relationships between body, gender and nature an understanding of the human body and nature as part of the same whole that we must connect to in order to understand our place within this cycle. As much as I am a mother, I am also a daughter of post-independence, a granddaughter of colonisation and a woman living in the diaspora, so in this process of post-memory, what was carried and passed on from my mother’s lineage has defined by position in [this] time and space, my locality and my identity. Being of the second generation and inheriting memories from another country I was not born in, but that I am connected with through my maternal lineage, I feel certain memories so deeply that they almost become my own. And it is in this deep mode of emotional connection between the past and the present where I have been creating most of my work, from the female position.
RM: That is very beautiful and profound, Mónica: this sense of recuperating, birthing and embodying matrilineal memories, which you imbue with multiplicity and potentiality, activating our capacities for regeneration to carve paths into the future – paths rooted in fertile, indigenous notions of ecofeminism. Would you speak about the influence of [Indian ecofeminist and activist] Vandana Shiva on your work?
MdM: The ecofeminist work of Vandana Shiva² is a deep inspiration for me. I subscribe to her ideas that the land has been transformed into something phallic and masculine. Ancestrally, the land is conceived as a more feminine, motherly place, where living beings and the earth coexist in a relationship of mutual care and understanding. This understanding has been replaced by a masculine way of dealing with the land, through extraction and control. The Island draws on this issue, and it reclaims the place for the feminine to belong to the land. […] Mother Earth, seen through ecofeminism, is alive and has rights: its soil, land, water and biodiversity are not ‘human inventions’ but rather the material realities that bring forth life, and should not be subjected to exploitation. They are commons, not private property or raw material for exploitation; they hold the infrastructure of life itself. Nature does not work in linear, one-directional extractive flows, but in a circular regenerative flow where each part both gives and receives.
RM: These regenerative impulses become even more urgent as healing and remedial care ecologies when we consider how intimately connected are the systemic gender-based violence against women and human-engineered violations of the earth. Intertwined notions of extraction and excavation are visualised and vocalised as recurring leitmotifs both in the film and in the photographs, linking colonial excavations of the past with African presences in Europe: erosion, erasure and extraction in relation to history, the land and resources. To me, this is poignantly expressed in the monumental quarries and the lone female figure of Whistle for the Wind, 2021.
MdM: These notions of extraction and excavation are derived from three different dimensions: an understanding of colonial histories that were silenced, the ongoing erosion caused by the exploitation of the land, and an understanding of gendered forms of subjugation. All of these forms of exploitation and erasure are deeply interwoven, which is why I subscribe to ecofeminism, acknowledging that we may only be able to understand and abolish them in connection to one another, through care and regeneration.
To me, the quarries appear as wounds on the land, symbolising this perpetual cycle of violence to which human bodies and nature have been subjected throughout colonial times and still in today’s hyper-globalised extractive capitalism. They crystalise the entanglement between lost histories of black people in Portugal, the reduction of nature to capital (which in the collective imagination is accompanied by an understanding of nature as inert matter and not any more as a nurturing mother) and the gendered experience of violence. Through the visual narrative of The Island, I aim to draw a parallel between the commodification and exploitation of the land, colonialism in Portugal and how the violence exerted on women’s bodies mirrors the violence inflicted on nature. I propose a new approach that recognises pain but which is rooted in a process of transformation and renewal. Part of healing the colonial trauma of the past involves finding the inner force and the resilience that our ancestors demonstrated through their fights for freedom.
"For me, the search for identity is a search for home, for belonging. It is a journey that is always part of the diasporic experience."
RM: Your characters in The Island appear at once spiritual and revolutionary, imbued and equipped with a potent, grounding, agency; a 'response-ability'. Yet they seemingly oscillate between existential states of mourning, yearning, resting and fighting.
MdM: Yes, the series’ characters are both spiritual and engaged within a sense of revolution, both individual and collective. They represent different archetypes and modes of individuation. In developing these characters, I try to encompass the multidimensional search for the self, constituted through memories from the colonial past, through independence and liberation movements post-independence, and at the same time liberation within the conditions of our own minds.
RM: … powerfully expressed in the soliloquy ‘I will be free because I fight’.
MdM: ‘I’m free because I fight’ is an action, an ongoing quest. It is not a passive state, a kind of freedom that we simply ‘have’, but a sense of freedom that is difficult to attain.
RM: A freedom that we must not only fight to attain but learn to practice, and one that requires the necessary shedding before renewal can begin. This sense of remedial reorientation within an existence of continual becoming, an existence that is deeply cyclical, is repeatedly evoked in Mirror Me, 2021, where the main character faces a reflection of herself in the mirror, considering different facets of her identity, and in the film proclaims ‘I shed what I no longer am’.
MdM: Mirror Me depicts the idea of looking at ourselves through the eyes of the other, or referring to an outside perspective in the process of individuation. It calls for an understanding of one’s identity through a process of reflection. The mirror creates a reflection through which we understand ourselves. It plays a key formative function through which we place ourselves in the world, starting with the Lacanian mirror stage that marks a decisive point in the mental development of the child, illustrating the conflictual nature of self-formation in between the ego and the unconscious, and their real, imaginary and symbolic dimensions. The mirror separates us from ourselves, in order to reach a form of recognition of wholeness within the fragmentary nature of the self.
"Through the visual narrative of The Island, I aim to draw a parallel between the commodification and exploitation of the land, colonialism in Portugal and how the violence exerted on women’s bodies mirrors the violence inflicted on nature."
RM: This sense of reflection is mirrored in the peripatetic twinned freedom fighters. What do they symbolise for you? They appear to be the most literal visual articulations of liberation among the cast of The Island...
MdM: The twins represent an evocation of duality [of time and space] – always interconnected but somehow separated throughout human history – but at the same time disturbing the dichotomies that define us, understanding individuation as a continuous process of recreation, as unification of these contradictory forces at play in the creation of collective and personal histories. The image Double Force, 2021 for instance, looks at the dualities that define place, space, time, identity and otherness, emphasising the double force that emanates from understanding these interconnected dualities and living with them in balance, channelling an inner force to stand up to the challenges of life and gain a sense of freedom.
RM: They manifest as mythical, time-travelling, anti-colonial figures – whereas the other characters are, as you have stated previously, archetypes: mothers, daughters, fighters, excavators, soldiers – birthed by, in your words, ‘questions raised by both the masculinisation and feminisation of the so-called motherland and ideas of deep time’.
MdM: At the centre of this work is a non-linear narrative, based on an understanding of cycles of time in nature, whereby the actions – the stories – are not sequential but cyclical. All the characters in the film immerse themselves in cyclical time and embody different archetypes from our collective conscious and unconscious, connected to myths and different realities. […] For this reason, they appear as time-travelling mythical figures, and they take shape through the narrative, enacting this process of individuation, rather than being predefined. They reside in the safe space of fiction, while also calling upon historical facts throughout this fictional narrative, similar to how we embody collective memories and enact them through our performative formation of the self.
RM: Can you tell us about Isabél Zuaa, the series’ charismatic protagonist?
MdM: Isabél Zuaa is the lead character [of the film]: an acclaimed actress, multidisciplinary artist and performer. She is Portuguese with multiple geographical backgrounds – her mother is Angolan and her father Guinean – a woman of many dimensions: she is a mother, a fundamental creator, representing a multiplicity of roles from feminine to masculine, from a horse rider to a lover. She holds many stories, times and locations within her, and the complexity of belonging to different locations. She understands the relationship of memory, the ‘now’ and the time to come. Zuaa has been a key inspiration in the making of the film: she is not only performing, but also living through the stories that she is telling and enacting.
RM: Singularly powerful, soothing and generous in her stoic appearance and quiet determination, her presence radiates with this erudite beauty and profundity, especially in the equestrian Dressage and Ground Work, and the large-scale The Lunch on the Beach (After Manet), all 2021.
MdM: Yes. These works mediate the essential connection to the land – the ascension connection to nature – as we are moving away from ourselves. Connecting this female figure with the representation of horses reflects both the masculine and feminine, two polarities in balance in her embodiment. This is the groundwork we must perform: to try and reposition these polarities in balance, in order to understand our nature. Dressage is about the need to dress up, to put on layers, to build a persona, an outer mask, to walk through the door and face the outer worlds, and a contra position between inner and outer worlds in which we present ourselves. […] In The Lunch on the Beach (After Manet) the idea of land is appropriated, presenting notions of beaches as places where the tides come and go, as spaces between solid land and the liquid states of the world: the many rivers and waters that surround us. Here these two elements communicate, with water being an element across which all the fluxes of trade and slavery have occurred, but also the fluxes of organic matter and how each of these components can lead to the other. Looking at this point of contact, the imagery sets up a conversation between a woman and a man, each representing the duality of the self. This duality is expanded in the adolescent twinned figures overlooking their encounter, no longer innocent and themselves caught between different stages of development, the transition of childhood to adulthood, and internal conversations about the relationship to their own state of freedom, life, death and the eternal cycle of nature.
"I feel certain memories so deeply that they almost become my own. And it is in this deep mode of emotional connection between the past and the present where I have been creating most of my work."
RM: Circling back to the beginning, how does water connect to the idea of time?
MdM: Water creates the connection between deep time and human historical time. When we pay attention to water, we see all the ways in which the system of extraction I have been referring to through Vandana Shiva’s ecofeminism is damaging life on this planet. Above the water, on the surface, we find the histories of colonialist violence but also the victims of the recent refugee crisis. And below, we find the effects of deep-sea mining and pollution of the oceanic ecosystems. The idea of the commons and of the ‘hydrocommons’ brings all these troubling issues to a shared ground from which we may understand and resolve oppressions on multiple levels through an acknowledgement of agentive activeness. Water brings with it a sort of ‘proto-ethics’ – holding and birthing life – and yet our current capitalist patriarchal system is unable to recognise this labour of holding, both for women and for the planetary ecosystems, hence thinking through water enables envisioning possible – and more just – futures.
RM: Thank you, Mónica.
¹ Deleuze, Gilles. 2002. L'île déserte - textes et entretiens 1953-1974. Paris : Les Éditions de Minuit
² Shiva, Vandana; Mies, Maria (eds.). 1993. Ecofeminism. London: Zed
Ecologies of Care – Birthing Afrodiasporic Ecofeminist Futures is an edited excerpt from a longer in-conversation in progress.
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