Saturday, November 25, 2006
Kiki Lima | Cape Verde
Image: Rua de Lisboa, 1999 by Kiki Lima
“I feel the need to paint in order to survive as a person”
He left Cape Verde with a scholarship to study Law, but the “bug” for art spoke more loudly and his ambition to earn a doctorate was set aside. A smart choice, say the admirers of Kiki Lima, one of the most important Cape Verdean painters today. The visual artist, who is also a musician, is one of the few Africans to have an art gallery in Portugal. But one day, as nostalgia gripped his heart, he decided to return to his native land. Today, residing in Mindelo, he is the mentor of the Kaza d’Ajinha, an innovative project bringing together art, cuisine and camaraderie in a single space, while he continues to create the human and natural landscapes of Cape Verde with his colorful brushstrokes.
Interviewed by: Teresa Sofia Fortes
How and when was your interest in the visual arts awakened?
This happened relatively late, when I was 21, if I’m not mistaken. While in high school I had never shown any interest in drawing. Only in my last year in high school did I earn a good grade in a drawing exam, and this awoke by attention. I starting making a few drawings, my mother always supported me and friends encouraged me to learn more. So I signed up for a long-distance drawing and paining course in Portugal and I began to acquire technical knowledge. In 1974 I’d already painted my first paintings, although recently a painting surfaced that I apparently painted in the late 1960s, which would make it my first. After this, I began participating in collective exhibits here in Mindelo, in 1975, and later I went to Portugal to study.
But you didn’t go to study visual arts?
No, I didn’t go to study visual arts. I sent to Portugal in 1983 to study Law. I spent two years studying Law, but then I switched to visual arts, as I came to the conclusion that Law was not my specialty. I had chosen Law because I’d been given a scholarship for it. I worked at the union and they needed someone with a degree in this area, so they gave me a scholarship. I originally intended to go to Portugal and simultaneously study Law and Visual Arts, but when I got there the art bug was stronger. So I switched to Visual Arts. It wasn’t an easy path, first of all because I already had a family - five children - and supporting them was difficult because I was living on a stipend. So after I abandoned the Law course, I would play at various different places in Lisbon in order to earn a little bit more. So this transition process was not easy, because I also had to get used to the Lisboa milieu, which is nothing like the calm life we lead here in Cape Verde. But this wasn’t my only challenge. The other was trying to live from art. There was and still is the idea, which is real, that it isn’t possible to live off art, so I had to create the conditions to be able to live from art. I created my own space in Portugal’s artistic milieu so that I could be the one dictating the rules in what I wanted to do. I think I was successful.
As soon as you completed your course, did you immediately begin to earn your living as a visual artist?
I went to Portugal in 1983 and three years later I was already holding exhibits. I had the help of good friends in Portugal, people connected to the world of art who introduced me to gallery owners, published my serigraphs, which allowed me to support myself. When I finished the course in 1989, I already had some experience in the milieu, so it wasn’t so complicated.
What was the initial reception to your first paintings?
The reception was always good. I think this is what gave me the courage to go on. If the reception had been bad, I might have come up against other difficulties and re-thought the future. Although at the time African artists still had a lot of doors closed to them, I think I managed to knock on the right doors, and they opened.
What do you think made it easier for you to make your way to places that were up until then closed off to African artists?
Well, from the very beginning I had to count on people who knew their way around and who could introduce me to people who work in the art world. People then had to look at my work and think that it was worth something, or at least invest in me. When I got to Portugal I already had some technical knowledge acquired through the long-distance course, so I didn’t do a painting course but rather communications design, as my professors suggested, as they thought that from a technical point of view there wasn’t much I needed to learn, and that it would be more worthwhile to find my own path and create a style. So as I already had the technical knowledge that would allow me to have my own expression in painting, people looked at my work and saw that, although I wasn’t yet a major artist, there was the possibility of them finding something new.
And what was the path that you chose within painting?
The first phase of my painting is predominantly dramatic, and has to do with the dramas experienced by Cape Verdeans - the problems of drought, famine, family needs, the brown landscape - but it also has an emotional part, which is linked to the woman as a mother. This is all expressed through a very Cape Verdean color scheme. As you know, from the point of view of color harmony, the nature of Cape Verde is poor and I decided that I should invest in people, as they make up for nature’s lack of color, because they wear colorful, joyful clothes. This first phase was related to the post-independence period, with the turbulence that was experienced at the time with social demands. But when I decided to hold my first exhibits I decided to alter things, but not because the paintings I’d done before were negative. At the time, the image people had of Cape Verdeans in Portugal was horrible. People had the idea that Cape Verdeans were a synonym of violence. The newspapers echoed this idea, and, indeed, there were very few people in the context in which I lived who knew that Cape Verdeans had a culture behind them, just like all peoples throughout the world. Above all a joyous culture, with a great deal of music and dance, very beautiful. You can’t generalize acts of violence, which are much fewer in quantity and meaning than the cultural aspect, and turn this into the disaster of a people. So I opted for expressing this joyous vein Cape Verdeans have. It was a change that was worthwhile, and resulted well. This was accompanied by evolution in technical terms. The way I painted, with short brushstrokes of a more impressionist type, from the school in which I’d learned, became a more open, wide style of painting.
When did you feel you had already conquered your own space in the artistic world?
There was no specific moment, but I think that the number of invitations to hold exhibits is a sure sign. I managed to hold ten exhibits in one year, which is practically one exhibit per month. And this was in the 1990s, a decade of a major artistic boom in Portugal. There were many gallery owners and marchands who invited me to display and sell my works. I was also solicited quite a bit by the media. At one point there were many invitations from radio and television stations and the written press.
Do you think your painting helped change the negative image the Portuguese had of Cape Verdeans, at least in artistic circles?
I think so, but it wasn’t just me. Fortunately there were other interventions in this respect that allowed people to reach this conclusion. Cape Verdean associations adhered to the idea of introducing culture as a strong expression, making it overshadow the negative aspects. For example, batuko groups would go sing and dance in schools. After this, their bosses would regard them with respect and admiration. And the children, the sons and daughters of these batuko singers, began to feel happier because their mothers were artists and this boosted their ego, and the relationships with their classmates would operate on another plane. The result of all this is that many Portuguese began to attend Cape Verdean association events, such as dances, concerts, etc., for they began to lose their fear. Not just my painting but Cape Verdean music and dance began to become more visible and helped change the image people had of Cape Verdeans. In the specific case of my painting, this was visible in the demand for my works. People would buy my paintings as a way of making their environment or their home more joyful.
You said that for some time you played at various spots in Lisbon, and actually in Cape Verde many people also think of you as a singer. Right now, what is music’s place in your life?
Music is currently in a very intimate corner. I only sing and play for my friends and family. Because as I dedicated myself so fully to painting, no time was left for music in a way that would allow me to dedicate myself to it in a deeper, more “serious” way. Cape Verdean music has evolved quite a bit, and in order to accompany this development, considering my way of looking at life, I would have to study, invest in and dedicate myself much more to music, like I did with painting. I didn’t have time to do both, so I relegated music to a more intimate plane. And I think I’m fine that way.
But music is very much present in your painting, isn’t it?
Yes, it’s implicit from the thematic point of view, in the rhythm, the harmony, the movement...
At one point you had your own art gallery in Portugal. How did you manage to achieve this, considering the difficulties Africans have moving about in the Portuguese artistic milieu?
It was a good experience, but short-lasting, as Portugal entered a financial crisis, and when there’s a crisis, things related to art are the first to be cut. The gallery’s main objective was to create a space to dignify Cape Verdean culture and, by extension, African culture. I would display my works and those of other African artists and, in third place, those of Portuguese and other European artists. It was a gratifying experience, despite the hardships, because, as you know, a gallery requires a lot of money, art isn’t something that sells every day. But I didn’t do this based on money, I managed to reach my objective, which was bringing together good African artists in that space and making the Portuguese public and others go there. Swedes, Danes, and other Europeans also went there often. I made that gallery a little of what Kaza d’Ajinha is here: making it a space for conviviality, and soon people would begin calling to be invited to the openings, which was very, very gratifying.
Since you mentioned Kaza d’Ajinha, let me ask you what led you to move back to Cape Verde after so many years outside the country?
Well, this was already a part of my plans when I went to Portugal. I never intended to emigrate. I left here to study and my intention was to return as soon as I completed my studies. But after finishing my studies came the problem of having to find a space in the artistic world and dedicate myself professionally to painting and, at that point, Cape Verde did not offer the conditions to do this. So I decided to establish my base there. But from the beginning my intention was always to return to Cape Verde. The problem was when. I always reacted to this from an emotional point of view, and as my anguish increased I began to feel that the time to return was drawing near. Because even though I was never mistreated in Portugal - on the contrary - I don’t identify entirely with spaces outside of Cape Verde. So as I got older I began to feel that I really needed to be in my place of origin and I began working to make this possible.
How was this dream born? What does Kaza d’Ajinha consist of?
Again, Kaza d’Ajinha was born from the inside out, the same way my works of art are born. It’s something I felt the need to do in order to feel satisfied from an emotional point of view. There building was already there - the house was practically abandoned after my parents’ death - and behind it was an entire history of conviviality, a lot of joy and solidarity that were disappearing with the house. So I thought I could recover all of this, re-connect the ties of friendship and fraternity with by siblings, cousins and friends who’d passed through here. So first I tried to create the conditions to recuperate the house, trying to maintain its spirit. This meant keeping the building the way it was, as much as possible, and adapting it to what I wanted to do: activities linked to my profession and to things my parents did. My father was a musician, he played violin, and my mother was a housewife who dedicated herself to cooking, she was a wonderful candy maker. The other side has to do with the experience of conviviality that we had here. At some points, as many as 20 people lived in this house. My father was a public servant and went to various islands where he made friends, so many of these friends’ children who’d come to study in São Vicente stayed here in this house. This ensured that there were always a lot of us here, always with a very good atmosphere. I don’t remember there ever being arguments or disturbances here! Everyone who came through here shares this impression. So there was already the potential for good things to recover and I invested in this perspective, I wanted to create a space where we could do something traditional, something specific to Cape Verde and where people feel satisfied from an emotional point of view. So I organized this space as a house, not as a commercial space. I don’t live off this, I live for this, and to a certain degree I am the one who supports this because it’s part of me. I think that this idea is becoming accepted little by little. I want people to feel at home. There are no counters, no barriers, things that can make people uncomfortable. Everything related to money is relegated to a second plane, albeit in a correct manner. Kaza d’Ajinha is a space for camaraderie and culture, where we try to recuperate elements of Cape Verdean tradition without ever closing the door on modernity, and where we try to promote human contact. So we have the Bejama Room my father was named Benjamim, but for us he was Bejama, which is a space for exhibits, musical concerts, meetings, conferences, etc. We have the Ajinha Eatery, which is dedicated to my mother and to the culinary arts, a space for selling fine arts materials something I had always intended to do ever since I left Cape Verde, because the main difficulty Cape Verdean visual artists face in the development of their work is precisely the lack of materials to work with, a space dedicated to graphic design which has to do with my academic training and a framing studio, where we make frames.
Here in Mindelo, developing this cultural project, are you also continuing your career as a visual artist?
Yes, of course. I still hold exhibits both here and abroad. After I moved to Cape Verde I schemed my life in another way: instead of being based in Portugal, now my base is here, and I do work abroad based here. To sell art you don’t have to be in the place where it sells best. I can very well work in Cape Verde, and I prefer to do so, considering the themes of my work. I feel the need to pain in order to survive as a person, which is very important. But I cal also say that Kaza d’Ajinha was conceived as complementary to my activity. In other words, it was organized to respond to my desire to multiply activities. I like to diversify my activities - painting, music, sculpture, design, furniture creations, photography, etc. - and a space like Kaza d’Ajinha allows me to be constantly changing activities, and this way I don’t get tired, I don’t become repetitive or get stuck in monotonous schemes.