The Woyingi Blog

African Filmmaker Profiles: Flora Gomes

Flora (Florentino) Gomes was born on December 31, 1949 in Cadique, Guinea-Bissau. Gomes was born to illiterate parents and grew up under Salazar’s oppressive Portuguese colonial regime. He supported the Bissau-Guinean resistance to colonialism led by Amilcar Cabral. Gomes left Guinea-Bissau for Cuba, where he completed his high school and went on to study Film at the Cuban Institute of Art and Cinematography under the guidance of Cuban filmmaker Santiago Alvarez. He continued his Film Studies in Senegal under the direction of Senegalese filmmaker and film historian Paulin Soumanou Vieyra. Gomes was inspired to become a film director after discovering the films of Ousmane Sembene.

Gomes had the honour of filming his country’s independence ceremony in 1974. Guinea-Bissau was visited by many socialist filmmakers and reporters after its independence and Gomes assisted many of them with filming. By the end of the 1970s, Gomes was working as a photographer and cameraman for the Ministry of Information. In 1979 he served as an intern with French filmmaker Chris Marker, whose film Sans Soleil is partly filmed in Guinea-Bissau. Gomes later co-directed three short films: “La reconstruction” (The Reconstruction), “Anos no oça luta” and “Regresso do Cabral” (The return of Cabral), these last two with fellow Bissau-Guinean filmmaker and Cuban Institute of Art and Cinematography graduate Sana na N’hada, who would later be the assistant director for Gome’s film Mortu Nega.

In 1987, Gomes made his first feature film (It was Guinea-Bissau’s first fictional feature length film), Mortu Nega. After the film was selected for showing during Critic’s Week at the Venice Film Festival, Gomes was heralded as a great new voice in African cinema. Gomes has gone on to become one of Africa’s most internationally well respected filmmakers.

In 1994, Gomes was distinguished with the Order of Merit for Culture by the Tunisian government. In the same year, he was also named a member of the principal jury at the Tunisia’s Carthage Film Festival. In 1996, Gomes was knighted by the French government with the Chevalier des Arts et Lettres.

In 2002, Gomes was recognized in Portugal by the Guinean community for his services in making Guinean culture known around the world. In 2004, he was a member of the jury at the Amien Film Festival. Also in 2004, a retrospective of Gomes’ films was showcased at the first Brown University African Film Festival.

In 2005, Gomes received an award from the University of Lisbon in Portugal in recognition of his body of work. Also in 2005, Gomes was the president of the ECOWAS jury at the Pan-African Film and Television Festival (FESPACO)

In 2006,Gomes’ was a visting artist and professor in Brown University’s Africana Studies Department in 2006.

About the films of Flora Gomes

According to Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies:

Flora Gomes has international stature as a distinguished filmmaker whose works are aesthetically innovative and historically significant texts of African and global culture. It is notoriously difficult for major African filmmakers to produce a sustained output of high quality, because of the historical legacy of profound funding and infrastructural deficiencies on the continent. Yet Gomes makes a point of residing in his native country of Guinea-Bissau, and despite the severe material constraints this poses to film-making, has completed a number of shorts, starting in 1977, as well as five full-length feature films, beginning with “Mortu Nega” in 1988. Filmed using local languages and shot above all in Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, as well as France and Portugal, his features have won awards at prestigious international film festivals and are invariably discussed in textbooks on African cinema and post-colonial film. His work often deals with questions of history and memory, particularly regarding the national liberation struggle, as well as notions of modernization and the conceptualization of identity. Gomes’s films go beyond many conventional binomials. For example, his female characters depict a sophisticated African feminism , by turns militant and gentle, tragic and comic, seldom seen in representations of black women. His more recent work, especially “Po di sangui,” broaches the timely subject of environmental degradation , by using a complex layering of symbols, landscape and nature, drawn from indigenous African systems of knowledge and belief. Both the aesthetic quality and powerful narratives of these later works touch audiences everywhere.

Mortu Nega (1987)

Film Description from California Newsreel:

California Newsreel has released Flora Gomes’ now classic, Mortu Nega, to commemorate three starkly dissimilar events. 1998 marked both the 25th anniversary of the independence of Guinea-Bissau and the assasination of its leader Amilcar Cabral but it was also the year that country virtually annihilated itself in a brutal civil war.

Mortu Nega, as its title implies, is a unique kind of elegy – not so much to the victims of the liberation struggle as to its survivors….is a bittersweet eulogy to those veterans who gave so much yet often benefited so little from the struggle. The film poses a question facing much of Africa at the start of the 21st century: with the goal of independence achieved, what can serve as an equally unifying and compelling vision around which to construct a new society? Or as Chris Marker observed in his 1980 documentary San Soleil, coincidentally contemplating the decay of Guinea-Bissau’s revolution: “What every revolutionary thinks the morning after victory: now the real problems begin.”

Mortu Nega covers the period from January 1973 during the closing months of the war against the Portuguese until the consolidation of an independent Guinea-Bissau in 1974 and 1975. This tiny West African nation’s valiant struggle and eventual triumph over 500 years of Portuguese domination attracted international support and heralded the final anti-colonial wave culminating in the defeat of apartheid in 1994. The revolution’s charismatic leader, the Cape Verdean agronomist, Amilcar Cabral, was assassinated on the eve of victory in January 1973 by Portuguese assisted mainland nationalists. The fragile union between Guinea-Bissau and the Cape Verde islands itself was finally dissolved in a bloodless military coup in 1980 led by an old guerilla commander, the present president, João Bernardo Vieira. When the post-revolutionary generation in the military and the population as a whole began to oppose Vieira’s increasingly kleptocratic regime, he called in troops from Senegal and Guinea (Conakry) resulting in the carnage of June, 1998.

Mortu Nega can be divided into three “movements” each with a style reflecting a distinct stage in the revolutionary process. The film begins mysteriously someplace in the bush on the supply road from Conakry to the front. A convoy weaves its way through tall grasses camouflaging itself like Mao’s “fish in the sea.” Gomes’ portrayal of guerilla war is one of the most accurate on film, capturing its tedium, terror and heroism, its rhythm of fragile silences broken by helicopter fire from above or exploding landmines from below. In this war of attrition with the Portuguese, the exhausted militants press forward along a unclear, even circuitous path, directed only by their vision of a free Guinea-Bissau. Throughout this section, the emphasis is on the group over the individual. Only after five minutes, does a heroine, Diminga, emerge and the story of her unflagging loyalty to her husband, Sako, a wounded guerilla commander, serves to underline the sense of solidarity developed among the freedom fighters.

The first feature film that Gomes directed, Mortu Nega, which means Those Whom Death Refused, was selected for showing during the Critics’ Week at the Venice Film Festival in 1988. Mortu Nega won the Bronze Tanit and the Prize for the Best Actress at the Carthage Film Festival. It also was awarded the prize for the Best Film and the Best Actress at the 1988 Pan-African Film and Television Festival (FESPACO).

Trailer for Mortu Nega available online

Description of Mortu Nega from California Newsreel available online

Review of Mortu Nega by Professor Mustafah Dhada available online

The Blue Eyes of Yonta (1992)

Film Description from California Newsreel:

…Udju Azul di Yonta (The Blue Eyes of Yonta) is one of the few recent African films to make the disillusionment of the revolutionary generation its primary subject – and offer a glimmer of hope for the future. Flora Gomes (born 1949) is a member of the generation which fought for Guinea-Bissau’s independence. This director’s first feature film, indeed the first feature film made in Guinea-Bissau, Mortu Nega (Those Whom Death Refused), commemorates that nation’s arduous independence struggle, while hinting at its subsequent bureaucratization. Udju Azul di Yonta can be seen as a continuation and commentary on this film.

In Udju Azul di Yonta, the most compelling character is Vicente, a disenchanted hero of the independence struggle who has only grudgingly adapted himself to post-revolutionary society. He is a figure with whom many disappointed Western ’60s activists will identify. As “Comrade Boss” of a fish warehouse, he continues to work for the development of his country against staggering odds. A power outage (a recurrent motif in the film) has spoiled an entire catch of fish and the fishermen and fishmongers are furious. Corruption and kickbacks have become rampant in the city; unbridled free market capitalism is triumphant. Vicente confesses to an old comrade, “We thought the revolution was for everyone, but it is only here for a few of us.” Despairing at his own compromised ideals, he exclaims, “Vicente no longer exists; I am a vulture,” devouring the carcass of his revolutionary hopes.

Vicente is so despondent he doesn’t notice that Yonta, the beautiful daughter of two of his old comrades, is infatuated with him. Yonta represents the generation which has grown up since liberation whose heads are full of dreams of fashion, music and European affluence. In fact, one of the guilty pleasures of this film is noting how revolutionary culture has given way to stunning couture.

Yonta, for her part, is unaware of the attentions of a third character, Zé, a poor student from the country. He anonymously sends her love poems cribbed from a book written about a Swedish girl. One reads, “In the cold long nights when snow caresses your windows…the blue of your eyes is the immensity of the sky over my life.” The younger generation’s incongruous dreams give the film its striking title.

Flora Gomes identifies a fourth important character, “quite an unusual one, who gradually changes everything, the motion and color of the film: it is Bissau, the capital city of Guinea-Bissau, where I have always lived…For fifteen years, while I reluctantly grew older, I saw Bissau recovering its youth almost every day. I heard it switching to another language, another dream, another aim.”

Gomes’s second feature film, The Blue Eyes of Yonta, was produced in 1992. It was selected for the “Un certain regard” section at the Cannes Film Festival, and won the Bronze Tanit and the OAU (Organization of African Unity) prize at the Carthage Film Festival. “Os Olhos Azuis de Yonta” won also won the Best Actress Prize at FESPACO, and the Special Jury Prize at Greece’s  Thessaloniki International Film Festival.

Trailer for The Blue Eyes of Yonta available online

Description of the film from California Newsreel available online

Tensions of Modernity in Flora Gomes’ The Blue Eyese of Yonta by K. Ogunfolabi (academic essay available online)

Po di Sangui (1996)

Film Description from The African Film Library:

This film is a joint collaboration between several European and African countries, and is said to be among the most elaborate, high-tech films of the African film genre. Exquisitely photographed and filled with archetypal figures to create a poetic look at nature’s revenge against those who would exploit her, it is set in the forest village of Amanha Lundju, a place where the birth of children is celebrated by the planting of a tree. The trees are considered spiritual twins. But for every tree planted, the rapacious state destroys many more for firewood and lumber.

The beauty of Po di Sangui is the insight it gives into the nature of rural African culture. The veil between the world of the living and the dead is not absolute, as in Western culture. The living communicate with the dead through visions, conversing with trees, and signs. Conflict erupts when scientists arrive who neither respect nor believe in the power of rural culture. The people must decide if the solution is isolation from the modern world, embracing it, or a mixture of the two. Each viewing of this gripping feature provides deeper insights into the dilemma.

Po di Sangui, which means Tree of Blood, is Gomes’ third feature film, was screened in the official competition at Cannes in 1996 where it was nominated for the Golden Palm Award.  Po di Sangui  also won the Silver Tanit Award at the Carthage Film Festival.

Trailer for Po di Sangui available online

Description of the film available online

Nha Fala (2002)

Film Description:

Set in the gorgeous pastel cities of the Cape Verde Islands, the film avoids the usual grim images of Africa, locating itself instead halfway between Brazilian Carnival and African politics. Fatou Ndiaye (from the French TV hit series Fatou, The Malian) plays Vita, a young African woman who aspires to be a singer, but is prevented from doing so by a longstanding curse which she circumvents in an especially beautiful, ingenious, and musical way; seizing the chance to speak and sing as a woman for her generation. This may be the only musical that has rousing, danceable numbers that critique identity politics and ballot-box democracy. 2002, Portugal, France, Luxembourg, color, 35mm, in Creole with English subtitles, 110 minutes.

Nha fala, which means My Voice, is Gomes’s fourth feature film. It was an official selection at the Venice Film Festival competition. Nha fala also won the city prize at the Amiens Festival in 2002 (France), and the Grand Prize at the Vie d’Afrique Festival in Montreal in 2003. It was the only African film selected to be screened during the 2002 Berlin Film Festival.

Music for the film was composed by Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango, the “grandpappy of Makossa soul“.

Flora Gomes had this to say about Nha Fala:

Whenever Africa is spoken about or depicted, it is always in terms of the aid we receive, war, people dying of starvation, sick people . . . These things do of course exist in Africa: Africans kill other Africans, and nobody knows why we go to war, yet it still goes on. But there is another side to Africa, and that is what I wanted to show. It is a side you never see on your television screens in the West. That is why I made this film. I wanted people to see our Africa, the Africa of my dreams, the Africa that I love and that I would like my children to know one day. It is a happy Africa, where people dance, where people can speak freely. It is my take on the future for a new generation.

In the fallout of Guinea-Bissau’s civil war, Gomes had to flee his homeland. Surprisingly, these events inspired him to make a film far brighter and more light-heartened than his earlier work-the musical comedy Nha Fala. The conditions in Guinea-Bissau after the 1998 war, also meant that Gomes would have to find another location for his film. He chose Cape Verde. In reality, Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau are deeply linked. Cape Verde is the island nation just across from Guinea-Bissau. The Bissau-Guinean revolutionary Amilcar Cabral’s parents actually came from Cape Verde and he was also educated there. Both countries speak Portuguese Creole and from 1974 to 1980, Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau were one nation. Therefore, the connections between the two small countries run quite deep. However, most of the cast and crew actually came from Guinea-Bissau, including Bia Gomes who has been in all of Gomes’ films. The film’s star, Fatou N’Diaye, is actually French of Senegale descent. Canadian film-goers would have seen her in the film adaptation of French-Canadian writer Gil Courtemanche’s novel A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali. For Nha Fala, N’Diaye learned Portuguese Creole in two months.

Despite the more whimsical nature of this film, it is still political. The film opens with a dedication to Amilcar Cabral: “Father of Independence of Guinea-Bissau and the Cape Verde Islands, assassinated in 1973”. Gomes wishes to evoke all the promise of Cabral’s struggle for independence, which he himself never lived to see. Despite all the disappointments and horrors of post-colonial Africa, that promise can still be a resevoir of hope for Africa’s younger generations.

Trailer for Nha Fala available online

Review of Nha Fala available online


Further Reading:

Flora Gomes

Flora Gomes on Wikipedia

Flora Gomes Profile from Brown University available online

Portuguese Colonialism in Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde

Portuguese Colonialism in Africa: The end of an Era by E. de Sousa Ferreira, with an Introduction by Basil Davidson (UNESCO Press history text available online)

Image available online of a 1974 Demonstration in New York outside the Portuguese Consulate to commemorate the memory of Amilcar Cabral and protest against Portuguese Colonialism in Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau


The History of Guinea-Bissau by LEAD International (webpage available online)

History of Cinema in Guinea-Bissau (article available online)

Guinea-Bissau: If a Boat Moored by P. Cardoso (article available online)

Amilcar Cabral

The Weapon of Theory (1966) (Political Speech available online)

National Liberation and Culture (1970) (Political Speech available online)

Amilcar Cabral’s theory of class suicide and revolutionary socialism by Tom Meisenhelder (1993) (Academic Essay available online)

Amilcar Cabral: an extraction from the literature (1998) (Academic Essay available online)

Critical Reflection on Amilcar Cabral’s Criteria for Citizenship by Victor Alumona (Academic Esssay available online)

Amilcar Cabral’s Vision of Diplomacy by Carmen Neto (Essay available online)

Portrait of Cabral by Ana Maria Cabral

Cabral’s Speeches and Writings available online in Portugese

African Artist Profile: Malangatana Ngwenya

Malangatana, Photo by Werner Puntigam

Mozambican artist Malangatana , (pronounced mah-LANG-gah-tah-nah en-GWEN-yah),  died following respiratory complications on January 5th of this year. I had an opportunity to learn about his life and work from the BBC African Perspective Podcast. I have decided to write my own profile of Malangatana in order to help me learn more about the man, his work, and his country.

Born Valente Malangatana  Ngwenya  (Ngwenya means crocodile) on June 6th 1936, Malangatana grew up in a village called Matalana, located about 30 km north of Maputo, Mozambique’s capital. He helped his mother, who was a traditional healer, on her farm while attending first Swiss Protestant and then Roman Catholic mission schools. His father, like many men from the country’s southern region, was often absent as he was away working in the gold mines of South Africa. While growing up in Matalana he worked herding cattle and studied traditional healing from two of his uncles.

At the age of 12, Malangatana moved to the capital to find work. At that time, the capital, now called Maputo, was called Lourenço Marques by the Portuguese colonial authorities. Marques was a Portuguese trader and explorer who settled in Mozambique. The capital was renamed Maputo, after the Maputo River, during independence in 1976. He first found work as a nanny, then, in 1953, Malangatana found work as a ball boy at a tennis club. It was here that he met Augusto Cabral and Pancho Guedes, both members of the tennis club, who would help to introduce him to Maputo’s artistic community and support his education as an artist. As Joe Pollitt recounts how Cabral met Malangatana:

[Malangatana] asked Cabral, one of [the tennis club’s] members, whether he had a pair of old sandals he could spare. The young biologist – and amateur painter – took him home. Malangatana asked to be taught painting, and Cabral gave him equipment and the advice to paint whatever was in his head. Putting aside his teenage training as a traditional healer, Malangatana did just that, encouraged by Cabral and the prolific Portuguese-born architect Pancho Guedes, another tennis club member.

Years later in 1981, when Cabral had become the director of the Natural History Museum in Maputo, he would give Malangatana a commission to create a mural in its gardens. Joe Pollitt describes the mural as follows: “In a celebration of the unity of humankind and the often brutal world of nature, the work depicts wide-eyed figures in earth-coloured pastels, with extended limbs and claw-like hands.” Malangatana began to attend events organized by Nucleo de Arte. In 1959, he exhibited publicly for the first time as part of a group show organized by Nucleo. Alda Costa describes the formation of the Nucleo de Arte as follows:

In 1936, some of these individuals were involved in the creation of the Núcleo de Arte da Colónia de Moçambique, which was set up in the city of Lourenço Marques with the aim of spreading aesthetic education and promoting the progress of art in the colony. According to the association’s statutes, its job was to organise art courses, put on art exhibitions, create an art museum (with an indigenous art section), and organise visits by artists from Portugal, who could create works of art in the colony inspired by local subjects. It was also its job to organise art exhibitions dealing with Mozambican subjects in Portugal and contribute, in every possible way, to the artistic exchange between Mozambique and the metrópole. Its sections included: Architecture, Fine and Decorative Arts; Music and Choreography; Theatre; Literature and History of Art; Indigenous Art and Ethnography and also Propaganda and Publicity. In the event of a situation not being covered by the association’s statutes, the statutes of the metropóle’s Sociedade Nacional de Belas Artes (Portuguese Fine Arts Society) would apply. The creation of the Núcleo de Arte was clearly the embodiment of imperial thinking and of the attempt to build closer relations between Portugal and its colonies, as were the large-scale propaganda campaigns carried out at the time. Its actions and importance in the colony, however, spread far beyond those interests…

Final Judgement, 1961 from the site of the David Winton Bell Gallery

In 1961, at the age of 25, he had his first solo exhibition. According to Joe Pollitt, writing Malangatana’s obituary in The Guardian:

He courageously presented his ambitious Juízo Final (Final Judgment), a commentary on life under oppressive Portuguese rule. Mystical figures of many colours, including a black priest dressed in white, evoke a vision of hell. Some of the figures have sharp white fangs, a recurring motif in Malangatana’s work, symbolising the ugliness of human savagery.

Malangatana also wrote poetry. In 1963, some of his poetry was included in the journal Black Orpheus and was included in the anthology Modern Poetry from Africa.

In 1964, Malangatana joined the struggle for Mozambican independence by becoming a member of the Liberation Front of Mozambique (FRELIMO). For his involvement, he was arrested by the Portuguese secret police (PIDE) and spent 18 months in jail. One of his fellow prisoners was Mozambique’s leading poet, José Craveirinha.

In 1971, he received a grant from the Lisbon-based Gulbenkian Foundation (created by the Armenian oil magnate and art collector Calouste Gulbenkian, who played a key role in making the Middle East’s oil reserves available to the Western world) and went to Portugal to study printmaking and ceramics. His art reached an international audience and he had exhibitions in Lisbon. Three years later, he returned to Mozambique. The Carnation Revolution of April 1974, the military coup in Portugal that forced its government from a dictatorship to a democracy, accelerated Mozambique’s independence. He rejoined FRELIMO, which had developed from a guerrilla movement into a single-party Communist organization aimed at becoming the new ruling political power. However, a rival political party, the Mozambique Resistance Movement (RENAMO), supported by Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and South Africa, came into conflict with FRELIMO, and a devastating civil war ensues costing the country about a million lives, as people died in combat, from starvation. About five million people were displaced. Many were made amputees by landmines, which are still a problem even after the civil war ended in 1992.

Malangatana was active in FRELIMO during this period but he also continued his work as an artist. His work during this time is a reflection on the horrors of the civil war. According to art critic Holland Cotter in his obituary for Malangatana:

Most of the paintings and drawings Mr. Ngwenya did during this period were a direct response to the violence he witnessed. Densely packed with figures, they presented lurid, Boschian visions of the Last Judgment and the torments of hell rooted in images related to healing and witchcraft remembered from childhood. It was only after peace was finally declared in 1992 that the content and the look of his work changed: he introduced landscape images and cooled a palette dominated by charred reds and stained whites with greens and blues.

In 1997 he was named a UNESCO Artist for Peace and received a Prince Claus Award.

He is survived by his wife, Sinkwenta Gelita Mhangwana, two daughters, and two sons.

According to Guardian journalist Duncan Campbell, who met Malangatana in 2005:

While on an assignment for the Guardian in Mozambique in 2005, I was fortunate enough to be introduced to Malangatana, who was then living in a large house near the airport which was part gallery and part archive. I had already been shown some of his work, which was not only in public galleries in Maputo, but also widely used for book covers and CDs. What was remarkable about him was that he brushed off questions about his own work and insisted instead on taking us on a magical conducted tour of local artists from painter to sculptor to batik-maker. He was anxious that they should receive publicity rather than him. For their part, they clearly held him in high esteem. “He is my general,” one of the young artists told me.

He was a generous and entertaining host, telling us with a smile that his father had been a cook for the British in South Africa. A volume of his paintings, entitled Cumplicidades, published in 2004 with a foreword by the Mozambican writer Mia Couto, illustrates the impressive range of his work. I treasure my copy, which is inscribed “for Dunken Cambell from my heart”.

Further Reading:

Obituary by Joe Pollitt from The Guardian available online

Obituary by Holland Cotter from The New York Times available online

Obituary from BBC News available online

Obituary by Pauline Wynter from Pambazuka News available online

Interview with Albie Sachs available online

Images of Malangatana’s paintings at the Contemporary African Art Gallery  available online

Images of Malangatan’s paintings at Kulungwana available online

Malangatana, edited by Julio Navarro,  “this superbly illustrated book of Malangatana’s paintings is a showcase of his work. The paintings are accompanied by two introductory essays, one on the artist’s biography, the other a critical essay situating the paintings and the importance of his work in context. To date only available in Portuguese, this English-language edition provides the opportunity for a wider audience to gain an in-depth appreciation and understanding of the background and meanings of the paintings” (description available online)

Webpage for the 2007 documentary film “Ngwenya, the Crocodile” about Malangatana

In search of new African art in the 1960s. Sponsorship and training in the decade of euphoria – Ulli Beier, Pancho Guedes and Julian Beinart by. A. Pomar (article available online)

Revisiting the Years When Pancho Guedes Lived in Mozambique: The Arts and the Artists by A. Costa (article available online)

Duncan Campbell’s 2005 Maputo Photo Gallery for The Guardian, includes a picture of Malangatana, available online

British Artist Joe Pollitt’s Blog

Portuguese Colonialism in Africa: The end of an Era by E. de Sousa Ferreira, with an Introduction by Basil Davidson (UNESCO Press history text available online)