The Portfolio: Mário Macilau

Reality and fantasy overlap in the socially motivated photographs of Mário Macilau, a skilled portraitist who prefers to work on long-term projects. His output includes series focused on street children, e-waste pickers and the elderly. 

Notwithstanding his keen interest in foregrounding Mozambique’s pressing social issues, Macilau’s photographs often rupture the conventions of social realism. His repeated figuring of rural peasants and the urban poor (“the ghosts of society”, he has called them) is matched by a persistent use of performance and play, in particular masquerade and disguise, to expand the meaning of his photography.

This fusing of invention and reverie with an insistent reality has a Mozambican precedent. Commenting on novelist Mia Couto’s short stories in a 1996 essay, scholar Patrick Chabal observed how they “straddle the dividing line between reality and fantasy. Although ostensibly about the lives of ordinary men and women in today’s Mozambique, the stories are at once detailed in their account of the realities of daily life and (for the most part) fantastic at their core.” This is broadly true of Macilau’s photographic series too.

His capacity to bend reality in his portraits owes to his patient method. Trust is fundamental. “Photography can put up a mental and emotional fence between you and your subject,” he said in a 2017 interview with LensCulture. “Holding a camera can install a divide between human hearts, because people often think that photographers are entering their houses and taking photographs of their secrets and privacy without actually getting to know them.” 

So Macilau lingers, at first photographing with his eyes, as he has put it; at the same time acknowledging the sensibilities, gestures and even desires that motivate his subjects.

Nearly half of Mozambique’s population live in poverty. Macilau understands their plight. Born into a poor family negotiating the aftermath of the civil war, Macilau was compelled to leave school and provide for his family. Hustle is central to his early biography. Macilau took up photography as a profession in 2007, at age 23, when he swapped a cellphone for an analogue Nikon FM2. 

His socially motivated practice, which explores both physical states and psychological conditions, is framed by a fundamental question, which Macilau voiced in a 2019 interview. “How do humans sustain themselves and adapt to shifting environments, when their labour, their lives and, by extension, their relationships, are all affected by that environment?” 

This article is take  from The Journey: New Positions in African Photography, edited by Simon Njami and Sean O’Toole (Goethe-Institut/Kerber Verlag)

The books is available from Bridge Books.

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Sean O Toole
Sean O’Toole is writer and editor based in Cape Town. He has published two books, Irma Stern: African in Europe - European in Africa (2020) and The Marquis of Mooikloof and Other Stories (2006), as well as edited three volumes of essays, most recently The Journey: New Positions on African Photography (2020). His essays, cultural journalism and reviews have appeared in numerous publications, including Mail & Guardian and Sunday Times.

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