Cazenga’s “Wall of Citizenship”: the making of a political community
On the 2nd of January 2021, a mural painted on the walls of a community space in Cazenga1 was vandalised. The painting is an initiative of a group of local activists who have used the wall since 2011 to promote local artists, organise graffiti contests and more broadly celebrate their collective identity. Since 2020, the mural came to represent the faces of famous Angolan human-rights activists, hence its nickname “Wall of Citizenship”. The damaging of the painting coincided with the investiture of a new municipal administrator and was interpreted by the activists as a direct provocation against their movement. I reproduce below a text written by one of them, Hitler Samussuku, who expresses his indignation and recalls that it is not the first time the wall was targeted (my own translation from Portugueses to English).
This text is interesting on several levels. It shows the efforts made by the activists to make their action intelligible to a broader public and to offer their own definition of citizenship. It translates their twofold political strategy. Firstly, they are very effective in branding themselves as the legitimate voice of their local community. They are highly reactive on social media and make sure to comment almost immediately on any micro political event likely to highlight their involvement in their community and/or to denounce the enactment of the local authorities. Secondly, they make a deliberate effort to capitalise on any happening to bring together their peers and assert a sense of community that is based both on specific cultural references (here the hip hop culture at large) and on a clear political agenda (here a campaign for the organisation of local elections).
Samussuku’s narrative of the Wall of Citizenship is thus both a political artefact in itself and a living archive of a political movement in the making. By reproducing it here, I intend to capture the concrete expression of citizenship nowadays in Luanda and experiment a sort of cowriting where the voice of the activist can be heard at the same time than that of the researcher.
The Wall of Citizenship in Cazenga, in the words of Hitler Samussuku2
“Tomás Bika chose the plaza Mulemba W’axangola to organize a traditional ceremony with the sobas [traditional leaders] of Cazenga’s municipe that marked the beginning of his mandate as the new [municipal] administrator. The plaza that was chosen is a public space partly used by local youth for recreative activities (basketball and hip hop session). Since 2011, the wall on the side of the historic source was converted by the youth into a Wall of Citizenship where various public figures are honoured in the form of graffiti paintings. The first figures were Agostinho Neto and Jonas Savimbi3. Later on, members of the Youth League of the MPLA came and decided to remove the image of Jonas Savimbi. The young artists decided to exclude the portrait of Agostinho Neto. In April 2020, new portraits were added to the mural. Amongst them we can note: Padre Pio Wakussanga, Sizaltina Cutaia, Carbono Casimiro, José Patrocínio, Estrudes Gaspar and Rafael Marques4. After the death of Inocêncio Matos, killed during the street protest of the 11th of November of 2020, the artists added his image on the Wall of Citizenship. Yesterday, the neighbourhood woke up to find the mural damaged with motor oil, in particular the image of Inocêncio Matos. The authors of the erasure of the mural were later confirmed on the page of Tomás Bika when the incoming administrator revealed his decision to realise the rite of his investiture. The activists reacted on social media with texts calling for the boycott of his mission as administrator of Cazenga. This morning, a goup of young people managed to clean up the images.
The Vosi Yetu Project took this initiative, and not the University of Hip Hop, as we wrote yesterday.
“Make some noise”: the strategy of immediate publicisation
The text presented above demonstrates the diverse tools used by young activists to promote their activities and disseminate their messages. Social media are obviously key resources here. The text was initially published by Samussuku on both his Facebook and Instagram pages. He also forwarded it directly to me on Whatssap and when I asked whether I could republished it on my blog he edited it slightly and send me the final version on the same day. In addition to the text, the video was posted on YouTube on the very day of the vandalisation. Three weeks later, the video has been seen over 1300 times, a significant number for such a micro event, especially given the fact that most of the residents in that area have limited access to the kind of internet connexion allowing video streaming.
As Samussuku relates himself, the paintings were cleaned up just the next day. Undoubtedly, if it wasn’t for his effort to publicise the happening, the degradation of the mural would have only been noticed by those present that day. On the video, Samussuku says that he was called in by one of the local activists for he is known for his ability to make noise around events such as this one. This strategy of “noise making” also appears in addition of Inocêncio Matos to the wall. Contrary to the other figures, the young man was not known for his activism but because he died during a protest partly organised by Cazenga’s youth collective, the activists made him a martyr of their struggle. Making an anonymous protester a figure to be honoured is an important symbolic turn in the definition of citizenship. It implies that the essence of Angolan citizenship is not only in what a person does for / in her community but also in the relationship of enmity that this person might have towards the ruling forces.
Without going further in the exegesis of Samussuku’s words, what I’m interested in here is the fact that although the actual damaging of the paintings was in itself pretty anecdotical, the story of the damaged wall tells quite a lot about the politics of citizenship at play in Luanda nowadays. To understand why, one needs to look at the untold stories that are hidden in the text.
Preaching to the converted: the untold stories behind an incomplete “press release”
Hitler Samussuku is probably one of the most audible political activists in Angola nowadays. Beyond his direct involvement in community activism in the northern peripheries of Luanda, his (unforgettable) name circulates amongst all foreign journalists interested with youth politics in Angola. Samussuku is present in various student movements and exchanges with same-minded political groups throughout the country. As he himself says, he has deliberately made a brand of himself and is not scared to appear in events organised by international human rights NGOs, by the diplomatic community in Luanda or even by opposition parties, even if he never took any official positions within a political party. Feeding regular “press releases” to political observers in Angola has thus become a professional skill.
However, this strategy of immediate publicisation also comes with its pitfalls. The text reproduced above shows at least two main obstacles for community activists. Firstly, most readers who do not live in Cazenga will probably understand very little of the social and geographical context. In the present case, the name “Mulemba W’axangola” for example probably does not carry much signification for outsiders and the reference to the “historic source” remains largely an enigma. Secondly, the accusation made against the incoming administrator might seem largely unfounded unless the activists were able to entirely convey the broader political field in which they play. As a result, the text largely fails in its role as a “press release”: only insiders are likely to have all the keys to understand the message.
If a journalist had to publish the story, s/he would have to explain that “Mulemba” is the name of a tree that was traditionally used by Kimbundu people to mark their territory. In Cazenga, an old Mulemba tree has been recognised by the ministry of Culture as a historical landmark, hence the name “Mulemba W’axangola” given to the place. The story goes that the tree was planted in the early days of colonial occupation to mark the limit between Portuguese territory and ‘indigenous’ lands. The “Mulemba W’axangola” plaza is thus not a mere “public space” available for recreative activities. It is a highly symbolic place that is associated with the Nation at large. This historical element is crucial if we are to understand why a newly nominated administrator would choose this place to enact his investiture. Of course, a whole chapter could also be written about the ambivalent relationship that links the ruling party to the sobas. Again these “traditional leaders” are not just folkloric old men involved in witchcraft (as Samussuku suggests in the video), they do represent an important piece in the fragmented puzzle of authority assembled by the ruling party since the early years of the anticolonial struggle.
Another story that remains untold in Samussuku’s text is the multiple confrontations that he and his peers have had with the government in the last decade or so. The reference to 2011 for example is in itself a strong political statement, since it roots their anti-government discourses into the recent history of pro-democracy protests in Angola. More precisely, Samussuku represents a group of activists who are not only profoundly anti-MPLA, they are also involved in a long-running campaign for the organisation of local elections. If they are so vividly opposed to Tomás Bika, it is of course because the man represents the party they hate. It might also be because of things he’s done or said (Samussuku refers to the Facebook page of the man). But first and foremost, the nomination of the new administrator is a symbol of the failure of their campaign for a democratically elected local government. Behind the man lies a general governance system that leaves no space for local democracy. Here again, I could write a few pages about the weakness of decentralisation in Angola. Brad Safarik recently defended a PhD where he describes the relationship the central authorities cultivates towards rural peripheries as a form of “strategic abandon”. This idea would probably be very accurate to describe the situation in Cazenga but that goes beyond the purpose of this text.
Unraveling the manifold background stories that lie behind Samussuku’s short text would feed a whole academic paper. I might write it one day and submit it to Sources, a young academic journal that looks at original materials collected by social scientists in Africa. But my point here, is that, by not telling some of the key elements we need to understand his position, Samussuku might fail in his attempt to build comprehensive press release but he also (consciously or not) makes an important step for the mobilisation of his peers. Those who do decipher his messages are made to feel they belong to his circle. In this case, preaching to the convinced actually means creating a community of interest and leading its members towards an unequivocal political struggle that is directed against the local administrator in person. It then comes as a logical outcome to hear that the activists are calling for a boycott of the current administration or that some of them are considering running as candidates in the future elections.
The ambivalence of visual “history-telling” beyond contemporary graffiti
One of the key back stories of Samussuku’s text is the reference to a broader hip hop movement that goes back to 2011 and has been using the plaza of the historical tree for its “recreative activities” since then. In fact, Samussuku refers alternatively to “the youth”, “the artists” and “the activists” as one same group of people. The erratum added at the end of the text suggests that there have been some debates regarding the labelling of this group (“Vosi Yetu Project” rather than “University of Hip Hop”). But whatever the internal debates might be, it is clear that the people who are vehemently rejecting the authority of the new administrator in Cazenga self identify as members of a large hip hop movement. In that sense, it is worth noting that the wall of Citizenship is not merely described as a “mural” but as a piece of graffiti art.
In Luanda as in many places all over the world, the spray painting techniques experimented on the derelict metro wagons of Harlem in late 1970s New York City have become a mode of expression associated with emancipatory struggles. By definition, a graffiti is a visual cry for freedom. It is a way to reclaim a particular space that would otherwise be empty, dirty, or even dangerous. It relates to the voice of those who are silenced by the structures of power. It also questions the governing capacity of public authorities : it can be ruled out as vandalism or on the contrary be commissioned as a project of public art.
In Luanda, it is easy to say that derelict spaces are numerous, freedom of expression limited and governing capacity aleatory. In her PhD thesis dedicated to hip hop culture in Luanda, Jacqueline Lima Santos argues that young Angolans have used graffiti to develop emancipatory narratives5. She takes the courtyard of the University of Hip Hop in Cazenga as her core example of the vitality of Angolan graffiti, reproducing almost word by word the narrative of Samussuku. At the time of her fieldwork, the Wall of Citizenship had not been labelled yet and the paintings found there were not as directly political as they are today. To illustrate the capacity of graffiti artists to make bold statements, Lima Santos brings up the example of a large mural painted downtown Luanda to protest against the planned destruction of the Elinga Theatre.
The mural painted on the wall of the Elinga Theatre is indeed a spectacular example of visual protest. It shows that the professional graffiti artists who are emerging in the city are not only bold and talented ; they are also able to navigate a complex cultural space where public art is rarely formally commissioned but where local authorities are nevertheless likely to let artists take ownership of certain walls as long as it is for embellishment purposes. However, murals have a much longer and more ambivalent history in Angola. Deolinda Collier unfolds the multifaceted heritage of the murals originally painted in rural villages in the Eastern Angolan region of Lunda. Through an in-depth study combining critical history, anthropology and arts, Colliers shows that the Lunda paintings have taken various meanings since they have become the object of academic research in the 1930s. They have been central to both colonial culturalism and socialist propaganda and have become emblems of Angolan art following;wing complex trajectories that range from blunt stolen art to politically conscious acts of cultural re-mediation6
In this general context, it is clear that Angolan graffiti is not just a “glocal”7 expression of hip hop culture and that the Wall of Citizenship does not only illustrate an interpersonal struggle between Cazenga activists and the MPLA. Visual “history-telling” in Angola is a contested field where deep ideologies have been at play for at least a century.
Through this discussion of Cazenga’s Wall of Citizenship, I attempted to show why it is important to listen closely to what activists have to say. The point is not just to reproduce their discourses, to highlight their multimedia skills or to praise their ability to articulate citizenship both in theory and in practice. Unravelling how they craft their messages helps understand their growing capacity to mobilise. This political capacity extends beyond their “natural” constituency defined by geography (“the youth of Cazenga”) or mere cultural affinities (“the hip hop community”). Most importantly, it is a capacity to mobilise around an unequivocal political agenda that demands a radical change of paradigm. The untold basis for the adhesion to this movement is threefold: rejection of the MPLA, lobbying for the organisation of local elections, and readiness to participate to these decentralised municipal governments. The question that remains is how the state will respond to these demands that have now become impossible to ignore.
- Cazenga is a popular neighbourhood located about 5km from Luanda’s city centre
- my translation
- Agostinho Neto is the official ‘Father of the Nation’, he became the president of the Republic of Angola in 1975 when his movement, the MPLA, declared independence in Luanda. Jonas Savimbi was the leader of UNITA, another anti colonial movement, who also declared independence on the 1st of November 1975, in the Southern city of Huambo. Neto and Savimbi soon became fierce enemies as MPLA and UNITA engaged in a war that lasted until Savimbi was killed in 2002
- this list includes internationally acclaimed human rights activists as well as less visible figures known mostly from the local community they serve
- Lima Santos, Jacqueline, 2019, Imaginando Uma Angola opós-colonial: a Cultura hip-hop e os indigos políticos da Nova República, PhD dissertation in Social Anthropology, University of Campinas
- Collier, Deolinda. 2016. Repainting the Walls of Lunda: Information Colonialism and Angolan Art, University of Minnesota Press
- the word “glocal” is a neologism used to capture the process of local appropriation of global trends