Suspended: Notes on dreams of liberation
By Juan Orrantia
The image elides, it slips away. Not like water escaping through fingers, but more subtly and still more poignantly, like a flash, like a spark that hits, that ignites, that catches one by surprise and leaves an imprint; a momentary imprint of a long, long time passed, as images flashing by at the deathbed. The image is one of beginnings, of crossings that were ignited by histories of shared imperialism, of pasts carved inside people’s skins, on their landscapes and in their minds. An image that rests in tiles cracked by the sun, in pavements that open up to the mercy of the waters, of mouldy walls on architectures once made to impress. It also rests in the eyes of men and women that saw, that lived through fleeting impulses of revolutionary dreams. That is the image that catches me, where the document takes the shape of the river, or rather its impulse to continue a slow and gentle flow as an ongoing, non-determined form of being. It’s the image of the presence of suspended dreams hanging around, as lives and notions of liberation switch back and forth, confounding the role of who liberated whom, from whom, and for whom.
He wrote me that the pictures of Guinea-Bissau ought to be accompanied by music from the Cape Verde islands. That would be our contribution to the unity dreamed of by Amilcar Cabral.
Why should so small a country, and one so poor, interest the world?
They did what they could. They freed themselves, they chased out the Portuguese. They traumatized the Portuguese army to such an extent that it gave rise to a movement that overthrew the dictatorship, and led one for a moment to believe in a new revolution in Europe.
Who remembers all that? History throws its empty bottles out the window.
This morning I was on the dock at Pidjiguti. Where everything began in 1959, when the first victims of the struggle were killed. It may be as difficult to recognize Africa in this leaden fog as it is to recognize struggle in the rather dull activity of tropical longshoremen.
Rumor has it that every third world leader coined the same phrase the morning after independence: now the real problems start. Cabral never had a chance to say it. He was assassinated first. But the problems started, and went on, and are still going on. Rather unexciting problems for revolutionary romanticism: to work, to produce, to distribute, to overcome postwar exhaustion, temptations of power and privilege.
Ah well, history only tastes bitter for those who expected it to be sugar coated.
From Chris Markers, Sans Soleil (passages on Guinea-Bissau)
In his 1983 film Sans Soleil, Chris Marker considered Guinea-Bissau a pole of survival from where to think about the historical developments of imagery and ideology, of Marxism and its history as life unfolded in front him. It was an understanding of the role of the past, what we do with it, and of its ongoing and unstable relation with the future. The other pole was Japan. Poles are sources, eminent places where things irradiate from, and to. They contain traces, sometimes on the surface and also sometimes in the depths of crevices that act like breathing holes for those (things) that are inside. Getting close to them implies therefore an oblique engagement with notions of movement and time.
Travel, time and memory are concepts woven together, interconnected, related, probably even necessary for the existence of each other. Central to Marker’s work, in Sans Soleil he thus moved from poles, from places to places, through montage, like memory does. But he also took the reality of forms of movement, exploring the direct implication of the western notion of travel, of visiting, seeing, maybe even learning, as a way of creating alternative vantage points for political commentaries, as in the series Petite Planète which he edited in the 1950s. Maybe more conceptually, the notion of time as movement was there in his use and reflections on film and photography, on film stills (Sans Soleil and Staring Back) and animated photos (La Jetée), or in the compendium of them all, Immemory, the CD rom, the true multimedia.
More recently another French man, a French Algerian to be precise, roams the African continent producing photo series and montages that speak to the intricacy of memory, time and movement. Bruno Boudejelal’s work is built on elements of personal history that meet political histories. Travelling through places like Ghana and Algeria he relies on creations of movements in the everyday and its poetic banality to invite one to ponder on the rustic feeling of not being still. But these also happened to be (and not randomly chosen of course) places where anticolonial thinkers and revolutionaries like Fanon or Nkrumah inhabit roads as much as they do blurred faces and bodies tainted in the greens, yellows and reds of dimly lit nights.
Through such works, what we (can) see, are how such powerful ideals of liberation as Pan-Africanism, or the questioning of the forms and shapes that real postcolonial developments were about to take, continue to unfold in the apparent banality of life in the places that once nurtured these ideas. Today, they might also seem to be places where dreams continue to elide the presence of liberation as one category of affliction replaces the next, one after the other. But liberation is a word for some that for others is merely an invasion, a replacement, which for others is nothing more than a façade to cover the original defeat and abuse, not of one empire over the other, but of one form of greed over another. Imagine then, what to do with the memory of liberation. Because following dreams of liberation, and more so documenting them is sometimes like documenting the smoke after the fire, the tenuous marks dissolving in front of our eyes, governed by the rules of altered states of (historical) consciousness.
From an old Portuguese club, with its once gleaming pool overlooking the river, at sundown the pier takes on a different shade of pink. In a way it reflects the colours of the houses that line the way from the hill to this the old part of town, only a few blocks away from the house where he was born. Close by, the bust rises from a star. A lonely 40-watt bulb covered in insects hangs over his head, providing a faint yet slightly saintly glow. Cabral’s face is turned away from the former market and the ruins of a Portuguese bridge. He stares at the new part of town up on the hill, a bit out of his reach. Over the adjacent fields of rice a couple of vultures take off, reminding me of scenes in the films of Flora Gomes, as if painting a picture where moments collide, where the now too easy image of the country is shaken up by the beauty and mystery, by the uneasy poetics of it.
Bafatá is the second city in Guinea-Bissau, where Amilcar Cabral was born. It’s rather small, and at moments of the day is bustling with activity, yet mostly is a quiet, sleepy town. On the top of the hill, on the newer neighbourhoods another monument stands, a (lonely) socialist star surrounded by a stairway of uneven columns. In the back of it is a rotting political placard depicting Carlos Gomes Junior, the last president to be evicted from office, now residing in exile after the coup d’etat of April 2012. In this monument to Cabral, unlike the others down by the river or even the one overlooking the docks at Pidjiguti in the capital Bissau, his presence is not that of the revolutionary intellectual with his peculiar glasses, but a symbol of a socialist revolution, one that was ignited, in a way completed, and that now struggles along the path of history.
But that path is the one that has been told many times, one that begins with the assassination of Cabral himself just a few months before liberating the country, and ends with the latest media reports that label this the “first narco state” where stories are told of lonely nights disturbed by planes coming from Colombia or Venezuela landing in cleared strips of the national highway under the apparent supervision of the authorities. The planes are supposed to be unloading cocaine, which will then be shipped to Europe.
The other path, however, is one that runs contrary to the notion of usual time. It does not go further or back. It does not advance nor recede. It lives in a state of suspension, holding on to small and unexpected things.
Under military rule, the powers of the people are suspended. When a coup is taking place, the news is suspended, and they tell me that on the radio they only play old revolutionary songs and sometimes fragments of Amilcar’s speeches. As a result of the last coup most projects funded by the European Union and the large NGO’s, which pretty much sustain the country, have of course, been suspended. And for some, the path of the country led in a way by greed, has suspended Cabral’s dreams. The greed they say, which has led to active members of the government being directly involved in the traffic of cocaine. And cocaine too, suspends. It alters rhythms creating momentary lapses, impulses in the regular flow of things. It’s that way it seems, for those living in a mental illness facility that also serves as a drug rehab centre outside of Bissau. Some patients were the brothers or sons of high ranked politicians and government officials. Here, suspension is an ongoing state that still appears to reflect much more than a life filled with antidepressants.
In the early morning I go back down to the old Portuguese club by the river and sit next to the once gleaming pool. I’m only surrounded by the emptiness of the ruins, the cracked walls and smell of piss. Everything seems to be, once again, quietly peaceful. The night before we spent long hours in a concert in an upscale hotel. The stage was set at the back edge of an empty pool. Around it, plastic tables were set, some occupied by men in army uniforms and a few women with elaborate headdress. At the end of the main event—a young band of traditional griots— only a handful of bottles of whisky had been drank excessively. From the looks of it, most of the other tables only afforded a few sodas that the ticket voucher included. Still, as the night prolonged itself and we followed some friends to the after-parties at the discos around the new market, we found ourselves amidst a condensed moment of intoxication where young men and women in tight jeans, fitted shirts and loose blouses dodged the pressures of historical accountability under purple neon lights. Bodies were closely tied together undergoing some sort of liberation—yet the revolution here was not necessarily socialist, and the powers of capital seemed to fill the place. The same powers that were also there, when at dawn we came back to our hotel to the smell of cooking oil and liquor stench seeping out of the room next to ours, as the Chinese entrepreneurs—illegal loggers, rumours had it—prepared their breakfast.
 Suspended is the title of an ongoing multimedia project co-produced with Salym Fayad.
About Juan Orrantia:
(b. bogota, colombia) Based in Johannesburg, South Africa. Working in the documentary arts his practice is based on the evocative possibilities of photography as a critical form. His works also explore the medium in its relation to text, sound, and multimedia, particularly regarding questions about memory, history, violence, dislocation and time. Awards include the Tierney Fellowship in Photography (2010) as well as various grants and residencies at research institutes, solo exhibitions in Germany, Colombia, and South Africa, as well as group shows including the New York Photo Festival, Le Cube (Paris), Cape Town Month of Photography, Bonani Africa Festival of Photography, and Ethnographic Terminalia (New Orleans). His work has appeared in publications such as Sensate (A journal for experiments in critical media practice), Visual Anthropology Review, Iconos, and online platforms such as Foto8, Africa is a Country, Documentography, Fototazo and F-Stop.