As Angolans embark upon a new era of optimism, a precious part of their heritage communicating timeless realities is set for a revival
Flicking through the pages of a new book on Angola’s traditional sand drawings, the
uninitiated would never believe they were viewing an artform dating back more than 300 years. Stylish and clean cut, these mono-linear designs would surely grace the walls of any modern-day gallery or art-lover’s plush apartment. Simplistic yet stunning, they catch the eye and capture the imagination. These sand drawings, revealed in the recently published Sona - Desenhos na Areia (drawings in the sand), have gripped the artistic community and captivated those who appreciate their
straightforward charm. But perhaps more importantly, they are a key to unlocking a rich segment of Angola’s history at a time when the country is re-establishing its own identity, 30 years after its independence from Portugal.
Americo Kwononoka, the director of the National Museum of Anthropology in Luanda, is thrilled that a new window to this ancient culture has been opened. “Many people presume that African people in the past could not read or write, but this is simply not true. Methods like Sona were their way of communicating the reality,” he explains. “The word Sona in the Chokwe language means ‘letters’ – both language and literature.” But it would be wrong to consign Sona to the history books. Even today, Sona is a means of conveying the vibrant tales, myths, sayings and proverbs of the Chokwe culture and forms a cornerstone for training young men to take up their social roles at the heart of the community. For David Alexandre Mwa-Mudiandu, a member of the Chokwe ethnic group, this is the period of intense schooling for young boys, when they are circumcised and garner all the knowledge they must have to hand before they can truly call themselves men, which is central to the Chokwe culture. Crouching down on one knee, Mr Mwa-Mudiandu slowly and methodically creates the lusona which depicts this essential ritual, known as Mukanda. Taking care not to smudge his progress, he draws his index finger in a sweeping circular motion, never once lifting it from the sand. As the illustration takes shape, Mr Mwa-Mudiandu, who works at the anthropological museum and has spent 13 years probing the messages behind his community’s stunning art, explains the legend of Xafwanandenda, the first boy to be circumcised.
The Mukanda ritual, according to Mr Mwa-Mudiandu, remains very strong and encompasses much more than abstract ideas about circumcision and fertility. “Today, the young men go to the Mukanda school to learn about life,” says Mr Mwa-Mudiandu. “In an oral way – not written – they are taught how to dance, how to behave, how to live. The school is designed to unite youth, creating a good harmony and understanding between them, and allowing them to profit from good sources of information and education.” It is during this rigorous Mukanda schooling that the boys pick up the basics of the Sona, but the true sand drawings experts, known as the Akwa kuta sona, are members of highly-esteemed elite, practising the knowledge handed down by their fathers and grandfathers before them.
The Akwa kuta sona smooth out the ground and relay the stories – be that in response to a question, an answer to a problem, a lesson, or purely for entertainment –as they slowly draw the line. “Then, when the story is finished, it is swept away as a way to protect knowledge and maintain the monopoly of the Sona tradition,” Mrs Skogen explains. However, this mystique threatens the very existence of the Sona. “It’s a great pity that most people, even the Chokwe, don’t know too much about this great art because it was passed down mainly by memory. The sand drawing experts were part of a social elite, so a select few who practised the knowledge handed it down through generations,” she says. Yet it seems the Sona sand drawings are set for a new lease of life. Thanks in part to the book, which reproduces some 60 drawings from around 350 which are known to exist, the tradition has sparked great excitement among the country’s artists and culture-lovers, many of whom were previously unaware of this fascinating
part of their history.
“I had never before heard the word Sona, but when I saw the images I realised that I had to go deeper into African art,” says artist Capitao da Silva, known as Hypo. Barely concealing his excitement, Hypo is enjoying the new inspiration unleashed by the Sona rediscovery. “These sand drawings are the people’s culture. They speak about the reality of life in Angola. They are not created or imagined. No one is dreaming this up,” he says. “The Sona is the real life of the Chokwe people.” Hypo was one of more than 120 artists who participated in a recent Norsk Hydro sponsored competition to create works of art – paintings, sculpture, collages or photographs – using the Chokwe culture as stimulation. His painting, symbolising virginity and its loss, was one of 13 images which will be part of a calendar for 2006. “Each artist gets inspiration in his own way, but all artists agree that reality is very important. There are no lies here; no-one is imagining this culture. It is very real,” he says. “This book is very precious,” he adds, hugging it to his chest, “because it is the renovation of a culture, and a populace without culture is dead.”
Mwana Pwo e Mpovo by Hypo (Capitao da Silva) is, in fact, two pictures displayed together which charmed the judges in the recent Norsk Hydro competition to find 13 images for a 2006 calendar based on the Chokwe Sona culture. The art draws on the Chokwe values of purity and chastity with the first yellow swirl depicting a virgin. She is pure, as represented by the white dots and the yellow. But by the second image, the picture is bloodied with red
and the dots are black. “I have created here my own version of a woman, not exactly the way in which the Chokwe represent women, but a new way through my own expression,” Hypo explains. “The painting is mono-linear like the
Sona and, also like the Sona, there is an important message behind it,” he says. “I created it myself, it is my own, but the inspiration comes from the Sona. If young girls are confused, this can be used as a message, advising them to hold on to their virginity. In Chokwe culture, there is a lot of respect for virgins and it is a tremendous honour to marry a virgin,” Hypo explains.
Back at the museum, Mr Kwononoka is glad to hear that this tradition looks set to live on. Though a Luanda resident for more than 25 years, he is of Chokwe origin and can speak, read and write in his mother language. “But I can’t do the drawings,” he sighs. “The fact that these rich and varied stories are not permanent adds to their mystery, but for me personally it is important that this form of our culture continues,” he says. “This form of education and communication must not die.”
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