Creative Practices and Social Imaginaries: the 8th São Tomé and Príncipe Biennial of Arts and Culture

Creative Practices and Social Imaginaries: the 8th São Tomé and Príncipe Biennial of Arts and Culture

Ana Nolasco


The main aim of this article is to analyze how the São Tomé and Príncipe Biennials of Art and Culture, and in particular, the eighth edition—the Festival N’Gola—have contributed to the creation of new social imaginaries through the innovation of artistic practices in the specific socio-historical context of the island. To this end, I have chosen to analyze projects which were undertaken at the eighth edition of the biennial or which were initiated there before being expanded into a broader context, and which involved artists working directly with communities in São Tomé and Príncipe, with the aim of encouraging social transformation. These projects are 1.) Água Grande (figs. 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5), a tapestry designed by Dutch designer, Nikkie Wester, and made with the participation of about 25 Santomean weavers over a period of three years, 2) O Mundo das Voltas, collaboratively carried out by several Santomean participants during a workshop given by Nigerian artist Emeka Okereke, as part of the trans-African Invisible Borders project (fig. 6), 3) FACA—Fábrica das Artes, Ambiente, Cidadania Ativa, a project based in an old palm oil factory in the Roça of Água Izé ((fig. 7), and 4) the Reino Angolar project by Santomean artist, Kwame Sousa (figs. 8, 9 and 10). The term “roça” refers to a form of rural property, usually of monoculture—cacao and coffee—reaching its height at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries). Through a comparative analysis, I shall address some of the questions that arise from the different notions of “social transformation” articulated in each of these case studies. I will also attempt to decipher some of the dynamics involved in the implementation of social projects in the context of São Tomé and Príncipe, as well as the ways in which creative practices can decolonize social imaginaries.

As noted by Arjun Appadurai, the imagination, through its encounter with modernity, can overcame the barriers that separate it from reality, and which relegate it to the world of fiction or intellectual speculation, to become a foundation for social practice. [1] In the same vein, Charles Taylor argues that the formation of social imaginaries occurs in a subtle and sometimes unconscious way, and is catalyzed, not by theories, but by “images, stories, and legends.” However, the latter can give rise to theories that can, in turn, transform these imaginaries.[2] The formation of social imaginaries is a dialectical process undergoing constant dynamic transformation, “which is schematized in the dense sphere of common practice.”[3] In other words, it is a performative process that shapes the social body through the gestures of daily life. In as much as collective imaginaries are always an ongoing process, continuously woven by everyday gestures, they are at once factual and normative because, by interweaving the expectations of how social relations should be, they establish the “repertoire” of imaginable collective actions in a given historical, social context.[4] Thus, Taylor’s notion of the collective imaginary, that is, the ways in which communities collectively imagine their lives in a specific way, allows us to understand how the “repertoire” of imaginable collective actions itself can be changed independently of pre-existing material conditions, thereby constituting a potential agent of social transformation. The liberated imagination diverges from a specific historico-cultural meeting point, constituting multiple modernities.[5]

Colonization began in São Tomé and Príncipe, which was hitherto unpopulated, in 1493. A minority of white Portuguese settlers colonized the archipelago and brought enslaved Africans from Benin, in the Niger Delta, and, as of the early sixteenth-century, from the Kingdoms of Congo and Ndongo (present-day Angola).[6] Since Santomeans had been abruptly cut off from their identity and communities of origin and brought from the African mainland to São Tomé and Príncipe as forced labor, the references from their social imaginary were replaced by those of the Portuguese colonizer, who forbade any manifestations of African traditions.[7] Therefore, it was important that Santomeans reinvent their own social imaginary in order to position themselves in the contemporary world as part of an innovative and emerging Africa. Creative practices are, in this context, one of the potential means of freeing the imagination and conceiving of possible futures beyond contemporary reality. In this way, they can encourage social change.

A Brief History of the São Tomé and Príncipe Biennial

João Carlos Silva, a leading promoter of all the biennials in São Tomé and Príncipe, has worked since the early 1990s to train young Santomean artists. He founded the Teia D’Arte gallery, which served not only as an exhibition venue but also as an educational space that hosted workshops led by guest artists including Senegal’s Seyni Gadiaga and Debora Miller from California. [8] The gallery played an essential role in shaping the so-called third generation of Santomean artists—such as Geane Castro, Adilson Castro, Eduardo Malé, Kwame Sousa, and René Tavares—some who are now internationally renowned. The gallery sought to address the lack of exhibition spaces in the archipelago and functioned, in João Carlos Silva’s words, as “an antechamber of the biennial,” a platform from which to launch these artists, many whom then went on to receive training abroad (since there are no institutions in São Tomé and Príncipe offering formal education in Fine Arts).[9]

After The Seychelles, São Tomé and Príncipe is the second smallest African country and has the weakest economy on the continent.[10] Cronyism and property relations, which are firmly rooted in the colonial system, are also an integral part of the fabric of practical social relations on the archipelago.[11] This situation has been exacerbated by the widespread corruption that erupted in the country in the 1990s and which sociologist Gerhard Seibert largely attributes to the proliferation of foreign interests in São Tomé and Príncipe and the inability of the judicial system to apply sanctions against fraud.[12] As noted by Christabelle Peters, the corruption of the 1990s coincided with “a utopian sense of communitas that appeared to imbue the spirit of the biennial held in 1995.”[13] The first edition of the biennial was held in 1995 by the CIAC or Centro Internacional de Arte e Cultura (International Centre for Art and Culture). The center emerged in 1994 following a series of projects carried out by João Carlos Silva and Isaura Carvalho in the Roça of São João dos Angolares, through the Roça Mundo Association, which became a Foundation in 2002. The Roça Mundo Association, a partner of the biennial and originally of the CIAC, was established to develop “sustainable projects in roças, in areas inhabitable by the surrounding community, but also as spaces for job creation and citizenship education, in a country where 75% of the population is under 20 years of age.”[14]

The CIAC later gave way to the CACAU or Casa das Artes, Criação, Ambiente e Utopias (House of Art, Creation, Environment and Utopias), a space created to host the fifth edition of the biennial in 2008, and which went on not only to host every subsequent edition but also to develop other cultural projects, exhibitions, and so forth on a regular basis. The name of the space (CACAU) was chosen so that the cacao fruit (cacau in Portuguese) could continue to be “a symbol” for an economy of creative capital, “a cultural CACAU concerned with feeding the spirit.”[15] Thus, the “euphoric communitarianism” that imbued the birth of the biennials in 1995 was intertwined with the objectives of the CPLP, the Community of Portuguese-Speaking Countries, established in 1996 to integrate Lusophone territories economically and culturally based on their shared language, bearing in mind that, as Peters notes, this process implied “all horrible histories, with the exception of the linguistic, being set adrift on an amnesiac sea.”[16] This attempt to strengthen the ties between Portuguese-speaking countries continued up to the seventh biennial, which was dedicated to the theme “Re-design/Synthesis” when most participating artists hailed from Portuguese-speaking countries, both from the African continent, Portugal, and occasionally, Brazil.

In this way, the eighth edition of the biennial Festival N’Gola, curated by designer Renny Ramakers in 2019, represents a turning point. As explained by the curator in her introduction to the event’s catalog, this biennial was based on the conviction in art´s “power [. . .] as a catalyst for social change.” It had the explicit intention of “strengthening the ties between the African mainland and this small African republic” through the selection of works that reinforced a “narrative, that runs counter to an image of Africa as a place of sorrow and suffering.”[17] Except for the seventh biennial which was supported by the Sindika Dokolo Foundation and which ultimately reflected the perpetuation of historical relations of domination between São Tomé and Príncipe and Angola, the São Tomé and Príncipe biennials have had European support.[18] This was true of the sixth edition in 2010, which had the support of the European Community, and this last edition, the eighth, in which—in addition to the partnership with the Roça Mundo Foundation among others—the support of Dutch funders stands out. As I will discuss later in this text, to some extent, a certain perspective of the sponsoring entity is reflected in the N’Gola festival as well.

Creative Collaboration at the Eighth Edition of the São Tomé and Príncipe Biennial

As stated on the cover of the accompanying catalog, the N’Gola festival aims to be a celebration of “the Power and Beauty of African Arts and Culture,” and seeks to leave behind the well-trodden tracks of Lusophone colonialism.[19] Framed by this context, curator Rennie Ramakers’ inauguration speech highlighted the power of art to stimulate social commitment and transformation. In order to analyze which concepts of “social transformation” are at stake and which social imaginaries they foster, I will focus on the four works presented during the eighth biennial which engaged the local community with the intention of emancipating it: Água Grande (figs. 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5), O Mundo das Voltas (fig. 6), FACA– Fábrica das Artes, Ambiente, Cidadania Ativa [Factory of Arts, Environment and Active Citizenship] [20] (fig. 7), and Reino Angolar—a Origem (figs. 8, 9 and 10).

Água Grande (figs. 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5) consists of a tapestry designed by Nikkie Wester, who was commissioned by DROOG.[21]

Fig. 1. Nikkie Wester, Água Grande, (House of Arts, Creation, Environment and Utopias). 2019. Photo courtesy of the author.

The initial challenge given to the designer was to produce a work on the theme of São Tomé and Príncipe’s History. Wester chose to represent São Tomé and Príncipe through its fauna and flora, starting “from the left, with the original forest, then with the plants that came with the plantation, followed by nature and all that the Santomeans have and eat now.”[22]

Fig. 2. Nikkie Wester, Água Grande (Left Portion), detail. (2019) Photo courtesy of the author.

Fig. 3. Nikkie Wester, Água Grande (Left Portion), detail. (2019) Photo courtesy of the author.

Along the lower band of the tapestry, one can read a verse from famous Santomean poet Alda Espírito Santo’s Lá no Água Grande [There in Água Grande], which alludes to the image of the washerwomen and the sound of washing clothes in the river [23]. The sound is associated with that of beating the body, referring to the archipelago’s history of slavery.

Fig. 4. Nikkie Wester, Água Grande (Right Portion), detail. 2019. Photo courtesy of the author.

To carry out the project, around thirty men and women from the community of Neves, on the northern coast of São Tomé island, were hired as weavers.[24] They were given one month of training, in July 2016, and worked on the tapestry part-time (five hours a day) for three years. The tapestry was projected to be ninety square meters, but at the time of the biennial, only about half of it was completed.

Fig. 5. Weavers weaving Água Grande project, Neves, (2019). Photo courtesy of the author.

It seems that the initial intention was to use local banana fiber for the weaving, since, in November 2016, DROOG’s website stated that “the curtain will be made from local, non-toxic dyes and materials found on the Island of São Tomé, such as banana fiber.”[25] However, this was not what happened. Ultimately, the cotton threads that were used in the looms were imported and dyed with indigo (also imported) in collaboration with the local organization Uê Tela. The banana fiber threads used in the tapestry were also made from imported banana fiber. Although the banana tree is abundant in São Tomé and Príncipe, the type of banana cultivated there does not lend itself to this kind of use.[26] Nevertheless, the biennial catalogue highlights that “. . . the banana leaf fibers are dyed in collaboration with local organization Uê Tela with pigments from local plants and minerals.”[27]

Contrary to affirmations made by the designer in an interview and her claims in the biennial catalog that “textiles are a cultural heritage” of São Tomé and Príncipe, the archipelago has no real textile tradition to speak of.[28] Historically, only interlacing techniques using vegetable fibers have been practiced on the islands; these are skills that are generally used for other purposes, such as making carpets or table mats. On DROOG’s website, it states that “Nikkie Wester translated the traditional Gobelin technique into a contemporary weaving method.”[29] It seems safe to assume that what is being referred to here is the tradition of “Gobelin” tapestries, a technique which has been used in France since the seventeenth century (reaching its height during the reign of Louis XIV), but which has no link whatsoever to São Tomé and Príncipe.

O Mundo das Voltas is a collaborative video that resulted from a workshop led by Nigerian artist Emeka Okereke in the week leading up to the start of the N´Gola festival. The project was developed as part of the trans-African initiative, Invisible Borders, which aimed to involve people who were not necessarily experienced in photography. The video is composed of five parts. The first part is dedicated to the theme “santomensidade” [santomecity], the second part deals with the theme of the disabled in São Tomé (fig. 6), the third part addresses fashion in São Tomé, the fourth part focuses on the daily life of one of the participants in the workshop, and the fifth and concluding part consists of a video made by Dodamy in Independence Square, the site of the proclamation of Santomean Independence in 1975. This final part follows the adventures of a homeless man sleeping on a bench in the square who is awoken by two passersby who offer him money and are faced with his reluctance to accept it. Okereke guided the participants, encouraging them to contribute their own assets to the group’s work.[30] Although tasks were assigned in accordance with each participant’s strongest aptitude, all decisions were made together, and everyone participated, in some way, in all stages of the execution of the video. The group had shared authorship of the video and edited the end result.

Fig. 6. The Independent. Photography by Luís Afonso in the framework of Invisible Borders Trans-African Project, São Tomé 2019. Photo courtesy of Luís Afonso.

Reino Angolar—a Origem, by Santomean artist Kwame Sousa, (figs. 8, 9 and 10), is part of the artist’s six-year project, Reino Angolar, which started in 2017 and will culminate in a catalog bringing together both artworks and theoretical writings on the Angolar people. The project has different sub-themes depending on the context of each exhibition. For example, when, in 2018, Kwame Sousa was invited to perform an artistic residency at ELA (Espaço Luanda Arte), in Luanda, Angola with the curatorship of Dominick Tanner, he called the result Reino Angolar—Ponto de Partida (Angolan Kingdom—Point of Departure). He did this since Luanda was the origin of the boats that were wrecked in São Tomé and Príncipe and whose descendants are, according to the most accepted popular version, the Angolar people. At the N’Gola festival, the sub-theme of the project Kingdom Angolar, by Kwame Sousa, was the Origin of the Angolan people. Reino Angolar—a Origem was displayed as part of an exhibition curated by João Carlos Silva in Baiá da Bô (figs. 8, 9 and 10). João Carlos Silva envisioned this space specifically for the exhibition, and it was featured on the biennial circuit but was independent of the event.

The Reino Angolar project involves a relationship with the Angolar community. Accordingly, Kwame de Sousa has been spending periods of three or four months with this community regularly for the past three years and has gradually been accepted by it. The central theme running through the paintings that make up Reino Angolar—a Origem is that of the mask, through which Kwame Sousa “seeks to capture the essence of the [Angolar people’s] spirit, not its actual physical traits; therefore, it uses distortion of real facts to create the imaginary.”[31] The Angolars constitute a distinct group with its own socio-cultural identity. This group is generally closed to the outside world, and its origin is still debatable today. The most popularly accepted version of the story is that the Angolars descended from slaves shipwrecked on the southern coast of the island, a theory proposed for the first time by Lucas Azevedo in the mid-eighteenth century and which has since been developed by several other authors, such as Tenreiro and Macedo.[32] King Amador, who has been associated with the Angolar community through its oral tradition, is a figure identified as one of the first people to lead a rebellion in Africa against the slave trade.[33]

 A FACA–Fábrica das Artes, Ambiente, Cidadania Ativa (also a play on words with the word “faca,” which means “knife” in Portuguese), is a cultural and educational space which maintains a partnership with Roça Mundo but is mainly promoted by João Carlos Silva, the biennial’s director. The space was inaugurated within the scope of the biennial and was part of its circuit, but like the Baiá da Bô, is also independent. Located in the heart of a very poor neighborhood, it aims to develop the community by providing training in sewing and basketry for local women and artisans and by organizing recycling and environmental awareness initiatives for children. In addition to these activities, sculptor Geane Castro provides training in recycling metals at FACA, while craftswomen, such as Ivete Amaro, teach people how to make table mats from wood. Seamstresses also teach women in the community how to make handbags and shirts so that they can have a source of income. The instructors at FACA (craftsmen, seamstresses, and artists) are paid by João Carlos Silva. Currently, they are also collaborating with Portuguese designer Sónia Pessoa who is part of Missão DIMIX. She leads recycling activities with children at FACA using materials like paper and plastic, which they collect on beaches or elsewhere and then knit and make into clothes that they may sell in the future.[34] In addition to this regular training in craftwork, activities at FACA include music lessons and the installation of a library for the local population. FACA embodies one of João Carlos Silva’s long-standing aspirations: to recover the roças and bring the population back into them, away from the urban peripheries, through the implementation of sustainable actions that promote economic and cultural development such as arts, crafts, ecotourism and cultural tourism.[35]

Fig. 7. A Faca–Fábrica das Artes, Ambiente, Cidadania Ativa [Factory of Arts, Environment and Active Citizenship], 2019. Photo courtesy of the author.

What follows is a critical reflection on these case studies, comparing the different notions of social transformation that underlie them. This analysis will be developed in line with two principal axes: 1) the notions of social transformation that inform the projects, and 2) the social imaginaries they foster.

Collaborative Practices and Social Transformation

FACA, O Mundo das Voltas and Água Grande involve collaborative practices—a term which is here understood in its broad sense. They each call for the participation of at least one subgroup from the Santomean population. However, it is not enough for a certain work or initiative to promote collaborative or relational practices in order for it to transform a social imaginary. Firstly, because there may be a discrepancy, unconscious or conveniently unconscious, between the perception of the artist/critic and the work/initiative. Secondly, the concepts of “social imaginary” or “social change” may be biased due to the dominant ideology of developed countries and their elites. Finally, the role of collaborators may ultimately be nothing more than that of mere task executors directed by a given artist.

This was the case in Água Grande, where the relevant theoretical assumptions were not duly implemented. In an interview, the designer stated that the project’s principal aim was to empower and give autonomy of the weavers, claiming that she intended to be a simple facilitator who, ultimately, would no longer be needed.[36] She emphasized that each participant had their own way of weaving and could choose the colors they wanted to work with, meaning that it would be possible to recognize the hand of each weaver in the tapestry.[37] However, in an interview, the project coordinator reported that the designer’s plan had to be followed precisely and that if a color was missing, weavers would have to use an available color, as there was no way of dyeing the threads on site. The coordinator further stated that, although each weaver knew which part of the tapestry they had worked on, it would be impossible for any other person to recognize the difference between their handiwork.[38] Thus, in this case, the relationship is that of wage earners selling their labor for the creation of a good, the surplus-value of which, incorporated in the work of art, is alienated from them. Nonetheless, according to some of the project’s participants—such as Eusébio Dias Fernandes or Gualter, among others that I interviewed—this work constitutes the best opportunity these weavers have to support their families.[39] In this way, this tapestry project is accomplished through a clear division of labor that comes from the industrial revolution: the designer conceives the project and the weavers carry out its execution, during which the designer is not physically present; apart from the training given in July 2016, Wester and the weavers only sporadically coordinated via Skype.[40] The result, the tapestry, enters the circuit of works of art with the designer as sole author.

By contrast, the collaborative relationship established by Emeka Okereke with his workshop participants was consistent with his theoretical premises. The artist served only to guide the actions of his collaborators and was physically present for the duration of the workshops. Inasmuch as the participants were the work’s authors and had to overcome the difficulties experienced in its production, Emeka Okereke acted as a facilitator, triggering a process of collaborative decision-making; this process became the most importanbt element of the project (as opposed to its results).In this way, O Mundo das Voltas is a work of empowerment. Similarly, in FACA, the target audience—the population of Água Izé—is also a participant, taking an active role in the space’s activities, together with its founder, who is physically present on a regular basis and also gets involved in activities. João Carlos Silva carries out the FACA project mostly for the enormous gratification he receives when he enters a space that was previously in ruins and sees people working enthusiastically on crafts and art.[41] João Carlos Silva channels the profits he obtains from other sources to boost these projects of social transformation.[42] Although works of art are temporarily exhibited there, FACA is not seen by its founder as merely an artistic project, but as an important part of the cultural tourism circuit. However, it can still be analyzed as a social art project due to its focus on the artistic process and its local context. The role of mediator assumed by the project’s promoter and the fact that it works with a marginalized community through collaborative, creative practices also, in my view, justify this identification, in line with the definition of New Genre Public Art provided by Suzanne Lacy.[43]

On the other hand, in the case of Reino Angolar–a Origem, the Angolar community does not play an active role in the production of the work, its authorship is not shared, and it enters the circuit of artworks under the name of the artist. However, this work would not have been produced without the existence of this particular community, and there is, therefore, an interdependence between them. In the context of São Tomé and Príncipe, in order for social change to occur, there must be something that fosters a reconsideration of the country’s foundations. The ex-colonizer—dominant until recently—defined otherness as the opposite of itself: not civilized, not relational, and so forth. This project seeks to create a new symbolic narrative, independent of the ex-colonizer’s historical narrative, and aims to free Santomeans from their role as passive agents of their own history. Through the pictorial representation of his research, Sousa argues that the cultural roots of the Santomean people lie with the Angolars, thereby valorizing their origin. In a way, the masks in his images personify the ancestral spirits of the Angolars (fig. 8).

Fig. 8. Kwame Sousa, Reino Angolar series  Dance of Fertility. Oil on canvas, 80 x 90 cm, 2019.Photo courtesy of MOVART Gallery.

The paintings resist the illusion of depth, playing with the interweaving of two semi-transparent planes. Akin to memory, the painting is like a river with different currents; the layers coexist, smoothly fading into completely abstract patches, reappearing, and always changing (fig. 8).

Fig. 9. Kwame Sousa,  Reino Angolar series  A origem. Oil on canvas, 150 x 150 cm, 2019. Photo courtesy of MOVART Gallery.

Thus, the metaphor of metamorphosis is present not only in the masks but in the blurring of the boundaries between the figurative and the abstract, between what is and what only appears to be; this is the very ambiguity of the mask (fig. 9). Reino Angolar–a Origem is therefore a tribute to the people who carried out one of the first rebellions in Africa against the slave trade and also, in a more universal sense, to the courage of all those who fight against oppression.

Fig. 10. Kwame Sousa, Reino Angolar series  A origem. Oil on canvas, 150 x 150 cm, 2019. Photo courtesy of MOVART Gallery

As noted by Charles Taylor, “the new social imaginary comes essentially through a retrospective reinterpretation,’’ implying a creative remembrance.[44] The social imaginary is therefore a cultural construction that implies both an emotional link to this reinterpretation and critical reflection, which is to say a “reflective subjectivity.”[45] The latter is necessary in order for there to be a sense of a common destiny and for it to be possible to conceive of a change in imaginable futures, which cannot, as Maxine Greene says, exist “without the release of imagination, the capacity to look through the capacities of the actual.”[46] This reflective subjectivity allows the individual to not simply be a passive receiver of the collective imaginary but to question it. The rehabilitation of the dignity and pride of Santomeans, broken by colonialism, is a profoundly important mission for Kwame Sousa. This is reflected not only in his artistic work, but also in his other projects, such as the creation of Atelier M, the first independent art school in São Tomé, founded by the artist in 2017. The school offers free teaching instruction and materials for a course lasting three years and intends to train artists who will transform the image of São Tomé and Príncipe and contribute to the renewal of Santomean identity.[47]

In the case of the Reino Angolar-a Origem, the social transformation effected by Kwame Sousa can be seen, above all, on the emotional level of the social imaginary, and in the symbolic representations in which Santomeans see themselves and recognize their qualities. Indeed, for there to be social change there must be a change of values in the “ways in which people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations.”[48] In the same way that collaborative practices do not by themselves imply collective action resulting in social emancipation, we can understand how an action carried out by a single individual can be considered a collective action when it is done in the name of the community.[49] In this sense, an artist’s work can also contribute to a change in the social imaginary of a community or operate a social transformation in the mid-to-long-term without this process necessarily implying a physical collaboration. Thus, in my view, aesthetics—in the sense of what is perceived by the senses—can also be an agent of social change since it creates the symbolic language of values that underlies actions, allowing one to imagine beyond that which exists. By altering the repertoire of social images and narratives, the Reino Angolara Origem project calls for a critical reflection on the imaginary inherited from colonialism, creating a new imaginary that seeks to strengthen ties with the African continent.

Decolonizing the Imaginary  [50]

Given that social imaginaries are normative, they may also, for instance, include norms that exclude minorities from enjoying certain human rights, and are not necessarily good in and of themselves.[51] In the same way, as we have seen, certain collaborative practices can be characterized by relations of exploitation and/or relations in which agency is reserved for one party, while the Other only has the role of executing or reacting to a plan that is created by someone else. The definition of social transformation provided by the biennial’s curator in her opening speech is unclear and still informed by a biased, Western perspective and imaginary. The biennial’s website and the main exhibition space—the CACAU— exclusively showcased artists from the African continent with an established international reputation; there was a notable absence of Santomean artists. Aside from O Mundo das Voltas, there were only a few collaborative projects on display at the CACAU exhibition. These involved communities in their countries of origin on the African continent and included the projects of Christian Benimana & Mass Design, Atelier Masomi, and Bobbin Case & Joan Hoek.[52] However, only the documentary record of these projects was on display, in the form of photographs. On the whole, the selection of artists present in the CACAU space largely reflects the West’s image of African art: the cheerful colors of Omar Victor Diop’s self-portraits, the exoticism of the Surma people, from southwest Ethiopia, photographed by Tabi Bonney, and the extravagance of the afro-futurist aesthetic of Osborne Macharia’s photographs of old female ex-circumcisers dressed in drag against the backdrop of desert plains. The Other sells. Symptomatic of this phenomenon is the self-portrait that made Cameroonian photographer Samuel Fosso—whose work was also present in the exhibition—internationally renowned as a self-parody of the artist’s commodification as an African artist.[53]

Thus, there was a patent clash between different social imaginaries at this biennial. Generalizing, we could consider that one of these social imaginaries, seen at the Baiá da Bô and FACA, where works from artists and members of the Santomean community were curated by João Carlos Silva, was made up of local, non-idealized narratives which look to the future of São Tomé and Príncipe. Another was the hegemonic Western imaginary, which constructs the Other as an object and casts itself as the Good Samaritan in a paternalistic fantasy. Finally, there were other, varied imaginaries represented by the different artists of African origin, many of them part of the diaspora. These artists are subject to being branded as exotic and original, and circulate in channels lubricated by Western financial streams that aim to confirm the pseudo-rational Western model of progress as good, going so far as to export “glamor” to the most remote locations in the world. As Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar has argued, encounters between different modernisms and their social imaginaries are “invariably mediated by colonialism and imperialism in the past and today by the implacable forces of global media, migration, and capital.”[54] The tensions between these are exacerbated by the so-called ABC effect (amplification by compression), one of the five characteristics of islandness identified by Godfrey Baldacchino.[55] According to this theory, in small island states which have often suffered processes of colonization, the struggle against a colonial legacy enters into flagrant conflict with the challenges presented by Western-oriented modernity and the pressure to keep up with globalization.[56]

In this context, despite the good intentions and refined aesthetic quality of Água Grande, this project, which was commissioned by the curator through DROOG, is paradigmatic of this conflict, reflecting the well-intentioned projection of a Western imaginary about a completely different reality. Aside from the fact that the process did not reveal a true understanding of the specific context of São Tomé and Príncipe, the project itself also lacked a deeper involvement with Santomean culture. Thus, although the tapestry project is inspired by the fauna and flora of São Tomé and Príncipe, it mainly reflects Western tastes and does not relate visually to the Santomean imaginary nor uses any traditional Santomean techniques or materials. The landscape appears to be cut out like Chinese shadows, evoking the elegance of oriental screens, although the shapes are white with faint notes of color. The “African beauty” that the biennial’s curator said she wanted to give value to in her opening speech is understood, above all, from a cosmetic perspective, reflecting a notion of social transformation that works from the outside in. This superficial idea of beauty is also evident in the biennial’s catalog, where beauty is equated with appearance: “excessive attention to appearance is often considered superficial. But I realized anew in these past few months that outward appearances can possess significance and meaning, and that fashion, style, and beauty can be vehicles of dignity and self-actualization.”[57]

This notion of social transformation contrasts with that which underlies O Mundo das Voltas, FACA and Reino Angolar-a Origem projects, which does not entail the application of an external model but rather seeks to channel the internal creativity of each Santomean individual and incorporate the specificity of each project’s participants. This notion is reflected in the way O Mundo das Voltas led to the creation of an audiovisual narrative seen through the eyes of the Santomeans themselves and contributed to the construction of a social imaginary in which they are represented interacting with their daily environment, and not in a fetishized manner. In turn, the kind of social transformation that João Carlos Silva, the biennial’s founder, seeks to achieve is not subservient to existing Western circuits, but aims to give value to unique features of São Tomé and Príncipe: its unspoiled nature, crafts, and slower lifestyle, which can constitute a kind of added value in the face of the all-devouring speed implied by a Western lifestyle. When  members of the community start producing objects that are admired by people from outside—as in FACA—make a video that is shown at the biennial under their own name—as in O Mundo das Voltas—or see themselves represented in a positive narrative of their history—as in Reino Angolar-a Origem —they contribute decisively to the creation of a positive identity. We can, therefore, consider that the ongoing projects, FACA, O Mundo das Voltas and Reino Angolar-a Origem, contribute to the creation of the necessary conditions for social transformation since they strengthen the cohesion and self-confidence of the Santomean community and work to decolonize its imaginary, changing the way it perceives itself and, consequently, its repertoire of imaginable and possible actions.

Concluding Remarks

The N’Gola Festival has, on the one hand, turned into an exotic showcase of “African art” on the São Tomé tourist circuit. On the other hand, it is important to note that, in a country with so many difficulties, this circuit may become a means of encouraging economic, cultural and artistic development in the long term. This possibility can be seen, for example, in the spaces created through the biennial, such as FACA, the Roça Água Ize and Baiá da Bô, not to mention CACAU, which also came to life as part of the biennials. Indeed, ultimately it is all the preparatory work that goes into organizing the biennial and stimulating other initiatives which, since 1995, has continued to steer social change. Together, the biennials foster synergies, fueling new social imaginaries which, in turn, contribute to positive social transformation, both on an artistic level—through the training of craftspeople and artists—on the level of the self-esteem that they provide to Santomeans who visit the exhibitions, and, also, through the amount of labor that these activities entail. Furthermore, these same activities also generate work for local communities.

Both Emeka Okereke’s workshop and Kwame de Sousa’s work constitute issue-specific art forms since they deal with a specific social issue in São Tomé and Príncipe, which, in this case, is the forced separation of the country’s population from the African continent. They seek to bridge this gap by creating a collective imaginary built around a Santomean narrative. As the writer Patrick Lagrange stated: “history is that certainty which is produced at the point where the imperfections of memory intersect with the insufficiencies of documentation.”[58] Regardless of the actual origin of Angolars, which is lost to the annals of history, the creation of a Santomean imaginary, created by Santomeans, is necessary in order to remodel the collective imaginary, abandon a defeatist colonial narrative, and empower Santomeans. This imaginary creates disruptions in thoughtforms that were instilled by Portuguese colonialism and that have taken root, having been internalized by the population of São Tomé and Príncipe and mixed with African beliefs.

Ironically, the Água Grande tapestry (figs. 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5) ultimately revealed the exploitative relations existing in São Tomé and Príncipe, and reproduced them, thus making visible the fracture between the art world—dominated by the West—and those on the periphery of globalization. In contrast, projects which provide positive experiences of self-discovery—such as Emeka’s workshop, the training of artisans from the Água Izé community and the artistic education provided by Kwame—or retrospectively reinterpret Santomean history—as in the case of The Angolar Kingdomcontribute to an improvement in the self-esteem and cohesion of the Santomean community, a necessary condition for the decolonization of social imaginaries.[59] It becomes evident that these projects can play a role in creating new social imaginaries and providing the necessary conditions for social transformation, insofar as they contribute to self-esteem and to the construction of a positive identity. In this way, the social transformation encouraged by the biennial is not only material, reflected in its creation of an institutional infrastructure, but is also manifested in the mental openness it fosters, a space in which Santomeans can meet with themselves in order to build a better future for São Tomé and Príncipe.

Acknowledgments. I wish to thank my supervisor, Prof. Dr. Rodrigo Cunha, and co-supervisor, Prof. Dr. Carlos Garrido, for the support they gave me.

Funding: This work was supported by the Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT), Portugal, through a Post-doctoral Grant (SFRH/BPD/108392/2015).

Ana Nolasco holds a doctorate and Master of Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art from the School of Arts and Humanities, University of Lisbon, and is a tutor in Art and Aesthetics at the High Institute of Education and Science, Lisbon. She is currently developing a postdoctoral project entitled “Innovation, Art and Design: Emerging Creative Archipelagos; The Influences of Contemporary Creative Processes on Lusophone Atlantic islands, Africa and Portugal”. She has published essays on the theory of art, including: “Gazes of the South: The Tchiloli and the Work of René Tavares,” African Arts (2020); “Creating Kinship Together: Collaborative Practices in Art and Design,” in Kinship and Collective Action (2020); “Social Art–‘Echoes of Machim,” in Advances in Social and Occupational Ergonomics (2019) and “Post-Production: Archive and Memory in the Work of César Schofield Cardoso,” in Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art (2019).


[1] Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at large: Cultural dimensions of globalization (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1996).

[2] Charles Taylor, Modern Social imaginaries (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), p. 106.

[3] Ibid., p. 111.

[4] Ibid., p. 107.

[5] See, Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at large: Cultural dimensions of globalization, Craig Calhoun, Nationalism (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1997) and Charles Taylor, Philosophical arguments (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,1995).

[6] Gerhard Seibert, “Colonialismo em São Tomé e Príncipe: hierarquização, classificação e segregação da vida social.” Anuário Antropológico, vol. 40, no. 2. (2015), pp. 99-120, p. 100.

[7] Como, por exemplo, a dança do congo e os rituais funerários, ver, a este respeito, Françoise Gründ, Tchiloli–Charlemagne à São Tomé sur l´île du milieu du monde (Paris: Magellan & Cie, 2006)

[8] Isaura de Carvalho was more dedicated to the development of literacy in São Tomé and Príncipe.

[9] Interview with João Carlos Silva in the roça of São João dos Angolares on September 28, 2019.

[10] São Tomé and Príncipe has a population of about 204,500 inhabitants, of which about 180,000 residing on the island of Sao Tome. See CIA, “Sao Tome and Principe in the CIA World Factbook.” Available at; Gerhard Seibert, ” A Cooperação Portuguesa num Pequeno País Dependente das Ajudas Internacionais: o Caso de São Tomé e Príncipe” in O Cluster como Instrumento Teórico e Prático da Cooperação Internacional para o Desenvolvimento Portuguesa. O Caso de Moçambique, Timor-Leste, São Tomé e Príncipe e Angola , edited by Carlos Sangreman (Lisboa: CEsA-ISEG/ULisboa & CEI-ISCTE/IUL, 2015), p. 258.

[11] Augusto Nascimento, Ciências Sociais em S. Tomé e Príncipe: a independência e o estado da arte (Porto: Centro de Estudos Africanos da Universidade do Porto, 2007), p. 11, “As ONG em São Tomé e Príncipe: entre a armação da sociedade civil e a emulação do clientelismo nas práticas políticas”, 2008. Available at <>. See also Gerhard Seibert, Comrades, clients and compadres: colonialism, socialism and democratization in São Tomé and Príncipe (Lisbon: Veja, 2001).

[12] Gerhard Seibert, “Democracia e Corrupção. O caso de São Tomé e Principe.”Paper presented at the VI Congresso Luso-Afro-Brasileiro de Ciências Sociais, Universidade do Porto. Available at http://

[13] Christabelle Peters, “The Cultural Politics of Luso-African Identity: A Look at the 7th São Tomé Biennial,” Critical Interventions, vol. 10, no. 3 (2016), pp. 261-275., p. 263.

[14] Lecture given by João Carlos Silva at the Conference on the future of São Tomé and Príncipe, N’Gola Festival, São Tomé, July 27, 2019.; It is necessary to understand the context of São Tomé to understand the relevance of this effort. With the beginning of colonization by the Portuguese in 1493, and with the introduction of sugarcane monoculture in the early sixteenth-century, the first plantation economy of the tropics was established. After its peak in 1580, when São Tomé and Príncipe became the world’s leading sugar producer, the archipelago was supplanted by Brazil, turned mostly into a hub on the transatlantic slave routes. At the beginning of the twentieth century, for five years, São Tomé and Príncipe was the world’s largest cocoa producer. But in 1984—ten years after its independence—São Tomé and Príncipe’s production had fallen to 3.4 tons. This decrease led to a project to rehabilitate the roças. The single-party socialist system that followed independence—which had nationalized the roças—granted concession to management by foreign investors. However, the project failed and, after the transition to democracy in 1991, the government ceded the roças in small parcels to contracted African workers and their descendants in order to diversify food production and reduce imports. However, lack of means and know-how, as well as difficult access to markets, prevented these objectives from being achieved. A large part of the population currently lives in poverty (49.6% in 2014) largely due to the decline of the roças, that caused a rural exodus to the urban periphery, which “puts increasing pressure on the capital’s infrastructure and feeds the informal sector estimated at 63% of the economy”. See, on this, Gerhard Seibert,“São Tomé and Príncipe 1975-2015: Politics and Economy in a Former Plantation Colony,” Estudos Ibero-Americanos, vol. 42, no.3 (2016), pp. 987-1012, p. 1002 and Aires Meneses Ribeiro, Bessa Ribeiro, Artur Cristóvão, “Estados Insulares, Agendas Políticas e Políticas Públicas: Os casos de Cabo Verde e São Tomé e Príncipe,” Configurações, no. 10, (2012). Available at, p. 15.

[15] As explained by the late Isaura Carvalho. In Ducineia Barros, Cultura e Desenvolvimento O caso de São Tomé e Príncipe. Master Dissertation (Lisbon: Faculdade de Letras, University of Lisbon, 2014). Available at

[16] Christabelle Peters, “The Cultural Politics of Luso-African Identity: A Look at the 7th São Tomé Biennial,” Critical Interventions, vol. 10, no. 3 (2016), pp. 261-275, 263.

[17] João Carlos Silva, “Renny Ramakers and The Nest Collective,” Gola VIII Biennial of Arts and Culture–Celebrating the Power and Beauty of African Arts and Culture (Netherlands: DR&DV Media Services, 2019), pp. 11-12.

[18] Christabelle Peters, “The Cultural Politics of Luso-African Identity: A Look at the 7th São Tomé Biennial”.

[19] João Carlos Silva, Renny Ramakers and The Nest Collective,” Gola VIII Biennial of Arts and Culture – Celebrating the Power and Beauty of African Arts and Culture (Netherlands: DR&DV Media Services, 2019).

[20] “Faca” means knife in Portuguese.

[21] Dutch design company founded in 1993 by designers Gijs Bakker and design historian and curator of the biennial, Renny Ramakers.

[22] Interview held on July 30, 2019.

[23] The poem is very difficult to translate. The only translation I found was from Marisa Bruno, “Bound for the fields, by Água Grande/Black woman beat and beat cloth against stone./ They beat and sing songs of their home/They sing and laugh, laughs full of scorn, Tell stories . . . tossed into wind/Strongly they laugh, keeping cloth against stone/Turning to white the cloth that they clean/The children play! And the waters sing!/The children in gay waters play . . ./Keeping baby black boy in the reeds/The cries that the black women by the river sing/Go quiet at the hour of the return . . ./Fall still returning to the fields”.

It is worth citing the commentary of the translator: “I have made what feel like thousands of attempts to properly translate Alda do Espírito Santo´s Lá no Água Grande, and have failed in each of them. But, there, I submit one such attempt for publication in the hopes that my translation can help shed light on this important woman poet”. In

The fragment of the verse that appears on the tapestry exhibit at CACAU was “. . . of scorn, Tell stories . . .tossed into wind/. . . keeping cloth against stone . . . The children in gay waters play . . ./Keeping”.

[24] The initial group consisted of thirty individuals—four men and 26 women—many of whom worked as seamstresses for a project of the Catholic Church, having been chosen precisely because they already had some manual experience. Over time, some of the weavers dropped out, so that when I visited the community at the end of July 2019, there were twenty-three weavers: 19 women and four men. The salary was 1,875 dobra monthly (75 euros), the equivalent of what a household cleaner in São Tomé and Príncipe might earn working five hours a day, except for supervisors who received 2,500 dobra (100 euros). The minimum wage in São Tomé and Príncipe is 60 euros per month.

[25] In

[26] Interview with the designer on July 30, 2019

[27] “João Carlos Silva, Renny Ramakers and The Nest Collective,” N´Gola VIII Biennal of Arts and Culture–Celebrating the Power and Beauty of African Arts and Culture, p. 37.

[28] When I interviewed the designer on July 30, 2019, she said that “it was the goal, to implement a new industry here because weaving had been forgotten and we wanted to implement it again . . . There was some [tradition of weaving], but then I am speaking of 1850, and then the tradition is gone.” Ibid. In my research, I have never become aware of the existence of a textile tradition in São Tomé and Príncipe. I asked when that tradition would have existed, she answered in the eighteenth century (she thought). But in fact, there has never been a textile tradition in São Tomé and Príncipe.

[29] In

[30] Emanuel Sousa, Orlando Augusto, Luis Afonso, Odair Carvalho, Ana Luísa Varela, and Edinilsa Fernandes e Dodamy.

[31] “João Carlos Silva, Renny Ramakers and The Nest Collective,” N´Gola VIII Biennal of Arts and Culture – Celebrating the Power and Beauty of African Arts and Culture, p. 87.

[32] Lucas Azevedo, Memórias da Ilha de Sam Thomé (São Tomé: Museu Nacional de São Tomé e Príncipe, 1978); Francisco Tenreiro, A Ilha de São Tomé (Lisboa: Memórias da Junta de Investigação do Ultramar, 1961): Fernando de Macedo, O Povo Angolar de S. Tomé e Príncipe.

[33] According to the 1734 Relation of Rosário Pinto, “in the year 1595 a black man from the island of São Tomé, called Amador, raised the men of his color . . . presenting himself as Captain General of Arms of War, appointed absolute King with power to give freedom to all captives”. In Isabel Castro Henriques, São Tomé e Príncipe–A Invenção de uma Sociedade (Lisboa: Veja, 2000), p. 116.

[34] A non-profit founded in 2016. Its objective is to provide educational activities and support for children and young people at risk of social exclusion in São Tomé and Príncipe.

[35] These aspirations were summarized by João Carlos Silva in a series of conferences during the N’Gola Festival in which several Santomean cultural agents reflected on the future of São Tomé. They could already be seen in their actions since the first biennial, as well as by the creation of the Roça Mundo Association, co-founded by João Carlos Silva and Isaura Carvalho—which became a Foundation in 2002, whose objective was “to transform a typically colonial hub into a cultural hub in the broadest sense of the term Culture”. See Dulcineia Barros, Cultura e Desenvolvimento. O caso de São Tomé e Princípe (Master Thesis, Universidade de Lisboa,2014), p. 96.

[36] Interview with the designer in São Tomé held on July 30, 2019; “It is about empowerment and then making sure that you are out of the loop and that it functions on its own.”

[37] “The weavers are entirely free to put colors wherever they like or to weave in a certain way. So, if you take notice of the weaving, you can see differences in their weaving, you can see, ‘oh, that is the part that Walter did,’ or, ‘that is the part that Engrácia did,’ so you can see their hand.” Ibid.

[38] Interviews held on August 1 and 3, 2019 and

[39] Interviews held on August 1, 2019.

[40] Since the beginning of the project’s conception, the designer has been, in total, four times in São Tomé and Príncipe: fifteen days in November 2015; the month of July 2016 to give training; fifteen days in February 2019 to collaborate in Atelier M; fifteen days before the inauguration of the biennial to work with the weavers. She communicated by skype/mail during the remaining time.

[41] Interview, in the roça of São João dos Angolares on July 28, 2019.

[42] In an interview in São João dos Angolares on July 28, 2019 João Carlos Silva commented that he can channel funds he obtains from other sources—such as the countryside of São João—where he promotes eco-tourism—to projects like this.

[43] Suzanne Lacy, Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art (Seattle: Bay Press, 1995).

[44] Charles Taylor, Modern Social imaginaries, p. 112.; Taylor speaks of the importance of “creative misremembering” by giving the example of the storming of the Bastille, which at first was motivated by defending against Swiss mercenaries and then was retrospectively reinterpreted as an affirmation of popular power, See Ibid., p. 120. This is not necessarily the case here because the origin of the Angolar people is lost in the depths of memory, with no conclusive evidence in favor of any of the theses.

[45] Cornelius Castoriadis, “The Psyche and Society Anew” in Cornelius Castoriadis, Figures of the Thinkable, translated by Helen Arnold (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007), pp. 203–220.

[46] Maxine Greene, Releasing the Imagination: Essays on Education, the Arts, and Social Change (San Francisco, CA:Jossey-Bass, 1995), p. 140.

[47] In the interviews conducted, I found that Kwame Sousa separates the Atelier M project from his own artistic career and, eschewing any cult of personality, carries out this teaching project for what I would call an “inner need,” on a full-time, voluntary basis.

[48] Ibid., 106.

[49] Martin Van Zomeren, Tom Postmes, and Russell Spears, “The Return of Moral Motivation in Predicting Collective Action against Collective Disadvantage,” Revista de Psicología Social: International Journal of Social Psychology, no. 26 (2011), pp. 163-176, p. 165.

[50] The title of this section is a citation from Serge Latouche, Décoloniser l´imaginaire: la pensée créative (Lyon: Parangon, 2005).

[51] Max O. Stephenson Jr., “Considering the Relationships among Social Conflict, Social Imaginaries, Resilience, and Community-based Organization Leadership”, Ecology and Society, vol. 16, no.1, (2011), pp. 1-12, p. 3.

[52] See Carlos Garrido Castellano, “The Boda Moment: Positioning Socially Engaged Art in Contemporary Uganda,” Field: A Journal of Socially Engaged Art Criticism, no. 10 (2018), pp. 1-16.

[53] This is the case especially since the 1989 exhibition Les Magiciens de la Terre, curated by Jean Hubert Martin, so it is not within the scope of this article to discuss the subject. However, I would argue that there is not an “invented nature,” but rather, inventions that become naturalized. See Theresa Sims, “Selling Africa–Samuel Fosso´s The Chief: he Who Sold Africa to the Colonists,” Nka, no. 44 (2019), pp. 52-63, and Carlos Garrido Castellano, “The Boda Moment: Positioning Socially Engaged Art in Contemporary Uganda.”

[54] Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar, “Toward New Imaginaries: An Introduction,” Public Culture, vol. 14, no.1 (2002), pp. 1-19.

[55] Godfrey Baldacchino, “Understanding Islandness: A Journey in Five Steps” in Senses & Sensibility 17: Design Beyond Borders and Rhizomes, Proceedings of the UNIDCOM/IADE Conferences, edited by Ana Nolasco, Emíla Duarte and Susana Gonzada (Lisbon: UNIDCOM, 2017). pp. 211-220, p. 216.

[56] See Yaso Nadarajah and Adam Grydehoj, “Island studies as a decolonial project,” Island Studies Journal vol. 11, no.2 (2016), pp. 437-446.

[57] “João Carlos Silva, Renny Ramakers and The Nest Collective,” N´Gola VIII Biennal of Arts and Culture–Celebrating the Power and Beauty of African Arts and Culture, p. 13.

[58] Cited in Julian Barnes, O Sentido do Fim (Lisbon: Quetzal, 2001), p. 24.

[59] Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries, p. 112.