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Issue 221

Januário Jano’s Elegy to Angola’s Stolen Land

At Jean Claude Maier, Frankfurt am Main, the artist samples from institutions that continue to hoard his native country's heritage, connecting the dots between Christianity and the Angolan textile cultures lost to colonial practices

BY Eric Otieno Sumba in EU Reviews , Exhibition Reviews | 23 JUN 21

The title of Januário Jano’s first solo exhibition in Germany, ‘Arquivo Mestre’, translates from Portuguese as ‘the master(’s) archive’ or ‘master file’. Concerned with colonial subjectivities and their wider implications – particularly in Angola, where the artist was born – the show skilfully connects the seemingly unrelated dots between Christianity gained and textile cultures lost, the opacity of restitution and processes of extractivism, environmental degradation and ecological transformation.

Ambient birdsong offers a welcome respite from the urban cacophony outside. Nevertheless, Dusky Dorky Looking for Dodo (2021), the looped sound installation playing near the entrance of Jean Claude Maier gallery in Frankfurt, might have seemed unexceptional were it not for its backstory: all the contributors to the avian choir that fills the gallery are now extinct. Compiled from the British Museum sound archives, this ghostly warble finds its counterpoint in the installation NSG Lot. 01 (No Stolen Goods) (2021), which comprises six wax-sealed wooden boxes containing photographs of Angolan heritage that was looted during colonial times. By hiding these images from view, Jano reflects on how various European institutions, such as the British Museum, continue to hoard these items.

Januário Jano, ‘Arquivo Mestre’, 2021, exhibition view, Jean Claude Maier, Frankfurt am Main. Courtesy: the artist and Jean Claude Maier

In the ancestral belief system of the Ambundu of Angola, the kazumbi is a mostly benevolent spirit that occupies the human body. Jano’s dual-channel video installation Kazumbi (2021) shows the artist lying prone on the floor, his body moving intermittently, as if entranced. A white dress, similar to the ones Portuguese colonialists required Angolan women to wear as a symbol of ‘civilization’, can be glimpsed under the loosely draped black cloth that covers the artist’s almost-lifeless body.

At the far end of the gallery, visible through propped-open doors in the two dividing walls, is Prayer (2019) – a series of seven images, hung in the form of a large cross, showing the artist in the process of removing the dress. In some pictures, he stands almost naked against a dark background. In others, he is solemnly backing away from the garment, which is now discarded on the floor in front of him, a jumbled mound of contrasting white cloth.

Januário Jano, Prayer, 2019, inkjet on cotton fine art paper rag, 44 × 58 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Jean Claude Maier, Frankfurt am Main

Throughout his practice, Jano conveys meaning through textiles. Axiluanda I (M005) and Axiluanda II (M006) (both 2021), for instance, are textile-based works in which silkscreen-printed photographs, collage, hand sewing, acrylic paint and rope converge and deftly extend into the room. In these works, Jano returns to the textile cultures lost to Portuguese colonial practices, which were designed to homogenize and accelerate assimilation into colonial ‘order’ via Christianity and extractive wage labour. This latter theme is also present in one of the three images that make up SDC 002 (2021), which shows a colonial official, standing elevated on a felled tree on a logging site, giving instructions to locals, presumably workers. Another image depicts details from Lisbon’s Monument to the Discoveries (1960), which celebrates Portuguese explorers of the 15th and 16th centuries. In between the two, a psychedelic digital collage of deep-green foliage alludes to how the natural environment – like the image itself – became invariably caught between labour exploitation and extractivist practices, which transformed stolen land into colonies and sustained the longest-standing empires well into the late 20th century.

Jano’s work reveals the ‘master archive’ or ‘master file’ as a dynamic, paradigmatic repository of normalized systems and codes: the functioning ‘body’ commonly referenced in phrases such as ‘heart of empire’. In ‘Arquivo Mestre’, the artist not only dissects this body to reveal its contents but facilitates an edifying examination of the things that sustain it.

Januário Jano's ‘Arquivo Mestre’ is on view at Jean Claude Maier, Frankfurt am Main, Germany, until August 14.

Main image: Januário Jano, Axiliuanda I, 2021, mixed textile, transfer, collage, stitches, thread, acrylic paint and rope,190 ×130 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Jean Claude Maier

Eric Otieno Sumba is a writer and editor at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, Germany. His work has been featured in publications including Camera Austria, Contemporary And, Griotmag, Lolwe and Texte zur Kunst.