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Januário Jano: Telling the African story through art

September 24, 2021
tags:#Africa, #Angola, #African art, #art, #cultural heritage, #African culture
by:Bob Koigi
Januário Janos' multimedia art highlights his personal story, Angolan culture and African history - fronting the conversation about telling African narratives through African perspectives.

Januário Jano is an Angolan artist and a man on a mission. Tapping into his cocktail of multimedia installations, which range from photography, video, painting, textile and performance art, he has interwoven the native practices of the Ambundu people in Angola with pop culture elements to spotlight traditional practices, historical injustices, like colonialism, and the theft of African cultural heritage and identity. 

The Arquivo Mestreis, his first solo exhibition in Germany, which took place at the Jean-Claude Maier Gallery in Frankfurt, gave him a platform to highlight his work and impart a message on the impact of traditional practices on today’s global interactions - and how they will affect the future. 

He spoke to FairPlanet.

FairPlanet: Tell us a bit about your work, how it has evolved over the years and what inspired you to start it?

Januário Jano: I started doing art before I understood the definition of it. When I was growing up in Angola, I was exposed to various materials that sparked my creativity and inspired me to invent different objects, like toys. When I went to school, I did a Bachelor of Arts in Design in the UK. I briefly worked in the design field - but my heart was yearning for freedom, for something unique. I wanted to go beyond the realm of the work I was doing.

My light bulb moment came when I did an exhibition in Angola where I did a portrait of my grandmother. I was thinking about all the memories I had with my grandmother, who had a huge influence on my upbringing, and how I could bring them to life and into my work. I used coffee to draw the portrait in order to epitomise the strong smells and scents I grew up experiencing deep in Angola.

But taking pictures or drawing paintings for me wasn’t good enough, even though I had practiced doing it for years. I needed to engage with the critical side of my work itself. So I decided to go back to school and last year I graduated with a Master of Fine Arts degree from Goldsmiths University in London.

You are keen on using fabric and textile in your work. Is there any reason behind this?

I have a very personal relationship with textiles because they remind me of my roots and the ethnic people of Ambundu, in Angola. The fabric is revered among the women of Ambundu because they don’t wear conventional dresses: they wrap layers of fabric around themselves. The fabrics were also symbolic of Angolan women’s resistance to colonial rule and assimilation to Western culture. That is very important to me because my work is about reflection of the past and constructions of narratives through art. It is about telling the African story by Africans.

Let’s talk about the Arquivo Mestre solo exhibition at the Jean Claude Maier Gallery in Frankfurt Germany: What was your experience and to what extent did the exhibition help you advance your cause?

I had a series of artistic impressions to showcase, all tied to the cultural heritage of my homeland. The Kazumbi video, for example, in which I was wearing a white garment, which is synonymous with colonialism and a representation of the oppression and the cultural identity that was taken from our people.

There were also various textile works, including Mponda - a belt-like cotton bag where daily items are stored; but it also stored memories, represented in the form of notes and photographs.

Part of my photographic work depicted various aspects of colonial oppression and violence. Crosses, for example, highlighted the role that the church played in advancing colonial rule in Africa - something that is still prominent today.

In one of my installations, there were shipping crates and photographs showcasing Angola’s cultural objects that were stolen from its people and are now stashed in foreign countries. This was meant to highlight that more than 80 percent of African cultural heritage is held in private collections and museums outside of the continent. 

Arquivo Maestre was timely and very relevant to me because it is a platform that still brings out the debate about historical occurrences, like colonialism, and how they have shaped the coexistence in the modern world and what this portends for the future.

What would you say was the highlight of the exhibition? What was unique about the exhibition and how has it helped you?

It is primarily having the platform to showcase my work, but beyond that, to start a conversation about memories, cultural identity and what that means to modern society. The more we discuss these issues, the more we discover ourselves, and I am happy that platforms like Arquivo Maestre are being bold in shaping the conversation, which we should have had a long time ago.

How is art in general, and also your work, contributing to cultural identity, especially among young people who have forgotten about their roots?

From the comments and reviews I have received, I feel that my work has shifted the narrative and sparked the discussion on African culture and modernism, not just among the young people but also in older generations. This kind of knowledge and artistic representation should be shared freely in Africa to cultivate our heritage. However, it is not so simple in a continent where a lot of focus is on economic gain. 

Our African culture is so rich and diverse - and art offers an important platform to showcase this diversity. However, the African narrative in art has not been embraced as it should. Nowadays, there is a tendency by African artists - especially the young generation and upcoming artists - to look at what Westerners draw to represent African art. The market is flooded by African art that is mainly paintings with a colonial inclination of Africa and everyone is doing the same thing. For example, there are many paintings with colourful backgrounds and black figures; I am not saying that they are not commendable and valid, but by concentrating on this concept, we are leaving behind the other, more important, aspects that should be presented to the world to spark dialogue. 

As a continent, we need a conversation about what happens when outsiders bring their ideas and then dictate what they want to see from us, leaving the rest of us without the power to showcase what is truly ours. My paintings have sparked that debate and discussion about understanding the African narrative and telling the real African story by African artists in an African way.

Among the initiatives you have been involved in, you’ve participated in Pés Descalços - a cultural and philanthropic collective focused on developing artistic and cultural projects in Angola with TEDx. What has been their mission and impact in promoting art and culture?

I have been organising TEDx Luanda talks since 2012, which birthed the Pés Descalços project. The idea behind this was to create a platform to engage young artists and encourage the youth of Angola to think outside the box, not just about issues that everyone always complains about like, for example, the lack of government support. We have been working on actualising the dreams of young people, especially artists, through various collaborations with like-minded people.

We work on art and cultural projects, including research on our people’s background, cultural engagements and spaces. With grants, we run various artist residence projects to boost emerging artists’ skills. 

What are your future plans?

One of the projects I have always wanted to initiate is to have an up to date and well organised archive that documents various cultural and artistic aspects. At the moment, the majority of young people have a limited knowledge about our heritage and historical happenings because there is little to no information about these traditional gems. People are dying and taking that knowledge with them. So we need to tap into that knowledge and transform it into a repository for future generations. That is one of my major focuses at the moment.

Image credit: Januário Jano

Article written by:
Bob Koigi
Bob Koigi
Author, Contributing Editor
Januário Jano's first solo exhibition in Germany at the Jean-Claude Maier Gallery in Frankfurt.
© Januario Jano
Untitled (Broken Bed), 2019.  Mixed textile, rope, dye, wooden piece, steel, transfer, bedding, stitches, hand sewing.
© Januario Jano
Untitled (Broken Bed), 2019. Mixed textile, rope, dye, wooden piece, steel, transfer, bedding, stitches, hand sewing.
Ceremonial II, 2018.  Inkjet on 100% cotton fine art paper rag.
© Januario Jano
Ceremonial II, 2018. Inkjet on 100% cotton fine art paper rag.
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