While in Africa, I witnessed the Tchiloli dance ceremony. We painted and drew from the live performers. Tchiloli is the creole name for the TragÃ©dia do MarquÃªs de MÃ¢ntua e do Imperador Carlos Magno (The Tragedy of the Marquis of MÃ¢ntua and the Emperor Charlemagne). It was written in the 16th century by Baltazar Dias, a blind poet from Madeira. It was also printed in the Romanceiro (XXXVII) of Almeida Garrett, and was a work of medieval inspiration recreated by the people of SÃ£o TomÃ©. Tchiloli focuses on the concept of royal justice. It brings punishment to D. Carlote for the death of Valdevinos. He is condemned to death and executed at the order of his own father, the Emperor Charlemagne.
On June 27th, we traveled to the south of the island to Porto Alegra. The drive was long squishing two woodcraftsmen, Cesario and Will, a seamstress, the driver and his son Diego, four MICA students, and a Professor in a small van. It was interesting to watch the landscape change. Northward the plant life is far more diverse. In the south of the island, many of the trees had been mowed down and replanted only with palm trees. Palm oil is then harvested from these palms. It is a lucrative export for the island, but at great cost since the practice destroys local ecosystems and harms endemic plant and animal species.
Our first stop in the south was a large beach. The sand was a light yellow, almost white drastically different from the rocky beaches of the north. Huge waves of cobalt blue crashed rhythmically against the onyx rock formations that pierced the waters. Tidal pools housed small colorful fishes ducking in and out of coral edged in florescent blue. Sea anemones and snails clung stubbornly to the rocks. After diving deep beneath the waves and gasping for breath before being thrown against the surf, Cynthu, Melissa, and I lay on the beach while Cesario climbed one of the palm trees to retrieve the coconuts. Will spoke with a local boy carrying a sack; the boy presented will with three coconuts hacking them open skillfully with a large machete. Cynthu and I drank the coconut water that seemed incredibly refreshing after the swim. Salt remained encrusted on the hairs of my forearms and around my ankles. I took the coconut and cracked it open on a rock, greedily pulling the flesh away from the walls. I could feel the weight of the sand filling my pockets.
Next, Will and I fashioned a man sculpting his face, chest, and legs out of sand. Will patiently carved the planes of the face with a small shell while I collected large split coconut husks to utilize as shoes. Palm fronds made a skirt with large nuts for eyes. Small branches became hair and shells were used as a necklace. My Professor encourages creating found object pieces in order to broaden our thinking concerning materiality, scale, and narrative.
Next, I created a small temporary sculpture inspired by Goldsworthy. I rolled a large stump to an area and then lifted it so it balanced on end. Then I dragged a six-foot piece of driftwood and hung that diagonally from the stump. This was then rimmed in small nuts and coconuts balanced on end.
Before going to the beach, my Professor had asked a woman to cook for our small group. When we retuned to the village, the fish was not yet completed so I decide d to explore. I ventured around the dirt roads, tripping over the occasional cobble, and introduced myself to the locals as an art student from the United States. I stopped to take photographs of a large women grinding coffee squeezed between two small wooden houses. Down an alley, I saw two elderly women sitting on a concrete stoop. Golden light lit them from beneath; the light emanated from the large swath of yellow that I initially mistook for a blanket but on closer investigation saw that it consisted of hundreds of thousands of little corn kernels.
A few minutes later, I stumbled upon abandoned machinery that lay rusting on the far side of the village abutting the hill. Vines grew across broken panes of glass that dangled perilously on end threatening to fall at any moment. This place, that may at one time been used to fabricate machinery, was now home to pig sties. I climbed atop the stairs to the next level trying to escape the smell of the feces and stumbled upon another path shrouded in trees that led to a few homes on the hill. Children were playing jacks with small pebbles and a boy pushed a makeshift wheelbarrow consisting of small branches. Atop the hill was a small white chapel that peered out stubbornly against the sea of green.
Next I walked to the plantation mansion that lay in a state of dismal disrepair. Over time, the building had been stripped of a window, then a door, and then a roof…bit by bit. In the rainy season, water had poured in through the open ceiling and eroded the building’s very core. Now the paint lay peeling marred by crude drawings and writing and clothed in the foul smell of defecation. This stench seemed far more inappropriate in a room housing parallel rows of benches; at one time this room may have been a chapel. I climbed the crumbling concrete stairs, now devoid of railings, to the top and sat quietly. The building overlooked the ocean making the contrast between the decaying building and the lush natural abundance of the bay far too apparent. I could see boys balanced on two long pieces of bamboo strapped together with large bucket squeezed between their thighs possibly holding fishes or large sea snails. An elderly fisherman melted tires over a small fire, using the tar to patch a cracked canoe. A two-year old sat crushing nuts with a rock unheeded by anyone at all.
When the Portuguese left almost immediately after the island’s liberation, these buildings were in almost perfect condition. The locals however lacked the motivation and the resources to preserve these potential assets for the reason that these buildings remained a sign of the people subjugation. It was the master’s house. When their president rose to power, he stressed the importance of the communist collective, of equality, and did not allow a single family to take control of these mansions. Additionally, Sao Tomeans were naturally resistant and incredulous of organization after years of what is equivocal to indentured servitude. For that reason, this building fell into disuse and disrepair. When the multi-party and more liberal leaders came to presence, they lacked the funds and the will to renovate these properties even though they could serve as tourism centers, hotels, or centers for the arts and education. Now they stand merely as skeletons of a missed opportunity overlooking the wooden shacks of the local fishermen.