/ 18 June 2010

Colourful, but grey


In life, as in art, it is hard to beat those brilliantly lit shafts of emotion that shine through the fog of daily stuff and nonsense.

In Maputo, Mozambique, I watched President Armando Guebuza walk a red carpet and open a private health clinic aimed at the country’s middle class. He took a tour of the facility, including a cosmetic surgery clinic with views over palm trees and the deep blue Indian Ocean.

A female member of staff gave Guebuza a smile and walked him around the clinic, speaking in apparently confident Portuguese. He surprised her at the end by reaching out and shaking her hand before departing.

It was then, as soon as he left the room, that I saw the young woman gasp with pleasure and relief. Another member of staff beamed and gave her a big hug. The woman had probably rehearsed all night for her meeting with the president and was evidently moved and overwhelmed by this profound event in her life. She was almost tearful. Witnessing the authenticity of the emotion, I found myself moved, too.

A day later I stood outside an official white building beside the Hotel Avenida. On the steps stood a newly married couple in suit and white dress, surrounded by relatives, young and old, including children bearing white cushions. On either side were columns of men and women singing with joy.

The bride and groom, looking nervous and unsmiling, stepped down into a waiting car bedecked with ribbons. Moments later another couple appeared, this time far more confident and at ease. Again family members gathered around and sang in melodies of breath-catching beauty.

An elderly lady in a colourful traditional costume and headwrap took centre stage at the bottom of the steps and danced a jig in time to the songs. A woman clung to a tiny baby. Another, wearing a pink dress, looked on from under a tall hairdo constructed with painstaking care.

Just beyond the gate slow traffic, fruit sellers and street hawkers carried on oblivious on Avenida Julius Nyerere. But I stood and stared and felt involved in the ritual and wondered whether the newlyweds would later remember the white-faced stranger witnessing this defining moment of their lives.

I travelled around Maputo with the perfect in-car soundtrack: the sultry jazz of South African singer Sibongile Khumalo. It seemed to fit the easy pace perfectly, the tangerine sunlight and the glimpses of decaying colonial grandeur as I made my way to Costa do Sol for a seafood platter with green wine.

There were Art Deco palaces that might have once blazed light but now stood grim and grimy. In the ruined shell of a once-elegant building a tree had taken root and flourished. There was a sense of an old city slowly disappearing under layers of sediment. By the waters of Maputo, TS Eliot could have sat down and wept another Waste Land.

The majestic railway station, designed by Gustav Eiffel exactly a century ago, stands tall and defiant with its domed roof, clock face, ornate balconies and arched entrance. In front of it at sunset there were long queues of people waiting for a bus.

Beyond the entrance were two vintage locomotives and some decrepit trains that looked as though they were going nowhere. I climbed aboard and saw rows of filthy seats and a huge hole in the floor. But stepping down past tired-eyed station dwellers, I found a bistro with tiled walls, a giant paper lampshade and an ambience thick with ghosts.

People told me Maputo was haunting, ambiguous and not like anywhere in Africa. “It’s a colourful place, but the buildings are grey,” said one.

It was true that even its indefinability was hard to define. But I felt I gained a little insight at the national art museum, a parade of nightmarish grotesques worthy of Goya or the Chapman brothers.

Alberto Chissano’s giant sculpture, Sem titulo, depicts a series of warped heads interconnected by bones. Another sculpture shows a bald creature, mouth agape in a laugh or cry, arms wrapped around the neck of a passive victim. Several paintings are crammed with bodies, some brown, some a hellish red, one with eyes that dart about in mutual suspicion. If they had voices, they would scream.

This was art that felt impossible to divorce from the struggle against centuries of Portuguese colonial rule and the furious civil war that followed until the early Nineties. It was an insight into the national self.

I came away thinking of Maputo as an ageing actress from Hollywood’s golden age, staring at herself in a dressing-room mirror, the face careworn and pockmarked, but made beautiful by the radiance of an inner light undimmed. —