Maimuna Adam: Negotiating the in-between

POSTED ON: March 29, 2021 IN ASAI, Conversations, Khumo Sebambo, On Artists, Word View

Maimuna Adam has history of frequent travel and movement through Mozambique, Sweden, South Africa, and the United Kingdom which affected her practice, perspectives, and identity. These experiences of travel, crossing boundaries and developing work in a variety of other spaces is reflected in her past and current practice as a contemporary artist. In a series of exchanges via email and Zoom Adam and I spoke about how home, heritage, and displacement are expressed and documented in her works. [1]

Khumo Sebambo: You mix media such as painting and drawing with photography and video. Tell us about this migration between mediums?

Maimuna Adam: I migrate between mediums and techniques depending on the materials that I have at hand. I see each of these as a different language to be used for their potential to resolve a technical problem or conceptual challenge that I might encounter. For example, when I focus on narrative and memory, found objects connect me to places and moments in time that I am trying to access. I don’t feel ‘tied’ to any one specific medium because I enjoy seeing them interact. This is the case of paper and coffee in the work Role/ Roll(2010), made for the Ocupações Temporárias 20.10 [2] project, produced by Elisa Santos. A stop-motion film of the same name was shown on a few Apple iMacs on display at Minerva Central book shop’s flagship store, which was celebrating its 102-year anniversary at the time. By working with the dimensions of time that video provides, I played with coffee, ink and handmade paper as materials that can relate to books and that I imagined as having their own narratives to tell.

Maimuna Adam
Roll / Role, 2010. Video installation (Photographs by Mauro Pinto)

This way of working can be chaotic, but my process relies on questioning the objects I collect and how I communicate with them. I document and collect images and illustrations in an intuitive way, choosing images that I find interesting but which I have no idea how I will use. At times I find myself fleeting from one idea to the next wanting to work with one medium over another, and so my studio space in Maputo is one where initial ideas or objects are many times left to “incubate” until I find a technical or conceptual solution to them.

Another example of this is the image of the blue-tinted Maputo skyline, appearing in different media. By exploring the same view in the video A Espera / The Wait, (2012) and again for the Colecção Crescente [3] project I tried to bring out the scene’s sense of nostalgia and mystery. This skyline is of interest to me because I grew up in Maputo, specifically the Costa do Sol area, and I am in constant dialogue with this landscape. It is today quite different due to renovation of the main road and the coastline, so each time this older image appears in my drawings or paintings, I feel like it is a place where the present, future, and past can be revisited and transformed.

A Espera / The Wait, 2012. Video still.

When I arrived on São Tome island in November 2011 for a week’s residency, I only had my camera, charcoal, watercolours, banana fibre paper, recycled paper and a copy of Desterro e Contrato: Moçambicanos a caminho de S. Tomé e Príncipe (anos 1940 a 1960) by Augusto Nascimento with me. Forgetting to take my camera battery charger with me meant that the idea of developing a photographic project was scrapped in favour of an installation. Making use of canvas fabric bought locally and with the help of São Tomense tailor Abdulay Salvaterra and sculptor Geane Castro, both from STeP UP, [4] we constructed (M)atrimony (2011). At the centre of the installation was a dress placed in a tacho [5] on loan from chef João Carlos Silva, which was then filled with ground São Tomense coffee and hot water.

Maimuna Adam
(M)atrimony, 2011. Installation (canvas dress, coffee, artist’s book and 3 drawings on banana tree fibre paper), dimensions variable (Image courtesy the artist)

KS: What is your personal relationship with travel and displacement?

MA: My personal relationship with travel and displacement feels permanent at times. My mother is Norwegian but grew up and lived in Chile until the coup d’état in 1973[6] and my father is Mozambican with Mozambican and Indian ancestry, so dislocation feels more normal to me than the idea of an absolute physical permanence somewhere. It is of course more complex than this and I try to spend time equally ‘travelling’ through books, meditation, and delving into historical research, to deepen my experience and inform my understanding of travel and migration.

Displacement, whether forced, voluntary or temporary seems to permeate my family stories and myths. One of these stories is of Issofo Ibrahimo Ahmade, my Khar Dada (paternal great grandfather) who was apparently so impressed with travelling that he had “Safri”[7] written at the entrance of his home in Haldarwa, Gujarat, India. My maternal oldefar (great grandfather), Petrus Johan Einarsen, was a Sea Captain from Bergen, Norway who in 1917 was accused by the United States of smuggling copper coils for Germany. He stated his innocence until his death, and this lives on in his memoir which he typed, apparently, with one finger whilst lying in bed in a home for retired Sea Captains in Bergen.

KS: How do the stories of your Khar Dada and oldefar weave their way into your work?

MA: These stories and more which are taken from family narratives weave their way into my work in subtle ways. Considering the scarcity of pictures and documents of some of my relatives, my interest lies in trying to understand the contexts in which they lived in — which are worlds apart. In the absence of photographs, I might use objects or drawings on paper as a symbolic ‘portrait’ of them, to connect the present with the past. This can be seen, for example, in the drawing of a small bust sculpture of my maternal grandfather Finn Einarsen in the installation Pandora’s Box (Family tree under construction) (2013).

Maimuna Adam
Pandora’s Box (Family tree under construction), 2013. Installation: watercolour drawings, pair of cotton gloves, a prayer mat and a briefcase.

In Memory, The Diary: Page 7 (2012) and Entwined (2011), the long braid of hair symbolises my Dadi (paternal grandmother in Gujarati) Bibi Adam Mussa Hassan. The process of braiding is an exploration of the invisible connection that I feel between family members that I might have spent none or little time with, but whose narratives I feel are inevitably also part of mine.

Maimuna Adam
Memória / Memory, 2012. Found photo album and synthetic hair braid (Image courtesy the artist)

KS: What is the relationship between literature, books and your practice?

MA: It’s something that I’ve become slowly more and more aware of. I grew up with books. One of the images I remember is being back in Mozambique and there was one room in my Dad’s house that I simply couldn’t go into. It was a room that he had filled with shelves and books. There was something about the weight, the smell, and I don’t know what else it was about the books, but I was so freaked out I could barely enter that room. Years later this relationship changed completely when the books left, and I moved into that room. It’s the room where I photographed and edited the video Home (2010). I grew up with books around me. My dad is a historian, and my mother is a librarian. That is the most obvious connection between my works and books.

My affinity to books is also perhaps due to my personality of being more of a bookworm than an extroverted person, perhaps that’s why I’ve continued to find books fascinating. But it is a strange relationship that I think about it a lot. When I was teaching and travelling a few hours to and from work, I carried a basket of books with me. Some were relevant to my classes, but others were just books that I found interesting and wanted to read. I would just pick one up, go through it a little bit and then put it down. The book itself is an object that I find interesting.

KS: How have your experiences living in Sweden, South Africa and Mozambique shaped your work?

MA: Living in different countries such as Sweden, South Africa and Mozambique has shaped me and my work by confronting me with different realities and my own identity. I was born in Maputo, Mozambique in December of 1984. My family and I moved to Gothenburg, Sweden, from the end of 1990 to 1993, for our father to complete his PhD. My earliest memories of creating things are from this time. I recall arts and crafts classes in first or second grade, a book-binding workshop given at a local craft centre and making things at home.

I would tinker around with small inventions made from found or discarded things I’d find at home. These were anything from my father’s pipe cleaners which could be turned into spectacles, to my mother’s empty cigarette cartons which I decorated with old Christmas tree garlands and imagined as a purse. I once used discarded milk cartons, in their distinct vertical cuboid forms to build a pony. It was only later, possibly while in University, that I became aware that our mother had spent two separate week-long sessions at a mental health facility to help her heal from the trauma carried since exile.

Entrelaçado / Entwined, 2011. Video still. (Courtesy the artist)
Entrelaçado / Entwined, 2011. Video still. (Courtesy the artist)

KS: Do you view this memory/trauma (or any other) as a core part of your work?

MA: I think that these memories shape my approach to making art, specifically when it comes to exploring memories and trauma of an individual and collective nature. Although I might personally have physically avoided the effects of Mozambique’s civil war, I still feel the effects of it in personal interactions. To me, the creative process offers the possibility of healing, releasing, and transforming memories and emotions. I am working towards creating more balance in how these traumas are dealt with visually, as well as how the artworks are read once created.

KS: In what ways do your experiences as a traveller contribute to your making?

These experiences influence how I see my own identity and how it is understood by the people and I encounter in each new place. If diasporic identities are seen to have a ‘double-consciousness’ as expressed by W. E. B. Du Bois, my current experience feels like it is one of a ‘multiple-consciousness.’

I was enrolled in the International Baccalaureate course at Waterford Kamhlaba in Mbabane, eSwatini between 2002 and 2003. In 2004 I returned to Maputo for a gap year and I was fortunate to be afforded the opportunity to volunteer part-time at the National Art Museum of Mozambique (MUSART). In this year, the founding members of the MUSART were setting up their first International Biennale. I’d say I was highly influenced by this group and it was a decisive point in solidifying the basis of my visual language. Working at the MUSART library also meant I was able to start to develop my research skills and observe Museum activities such as educational workshops and guided tours.

I moved to Tshwane in 2005 to pursue a Fine Arts degree at the University of Pretoria. This meant that I needed to confront my perceived identity as a Mozambican, within the context of the inherited trauma and effects of apartheid. At the time I found it difficult to balance between being able to do and afford the course, I was internalising the critique brought up by lecturers in practical classes and struggled to see the value of my own lived experience. Looking back at artworks made at the University of Pretoria, for example, I now see that my work was influenced by a strong ‘anthropological’ self-analysis of myself and my body. In terms of the course content itself, I later found myself in a long process of ‘unlearning’ a lot of what I had internalised as being the academically considered ‘good’ or ‘correct’ ways of drawing and painting.

Having run out of money for materials for a third-year project, I was able to exchange an unopened bottle of expensive ink for cheaper ink and paper. I ‘borrowed’ the use of coffee as a painting medium from senior students in a shared painting studio. Its colour fascinated me, and it seemed to be appropriate to illustrate a short story by Mozambican author Mia Couto Myth (The Bird-Dreaming Baobab) that I was interested in at the time.

Maimuna Adam
Myth (The baobab that dreamed birds), 2007-2012. Coffee, ink and pastel on paper, cardboard and canvas, 43 x 31.5 x 4.5 cm (Image courtesy the artist)

KS: Tell us more about your experience of ‘multiple-consciousness’

MA: My lived experience up to now has been one where I have allowed myself to take on positive beliefs from different cultures, religions, and spiritual schools of thought. In this way I feel like I can understand people from different backgrounds. Although my initiation into Islam was short-lived as my Dadi became ill and diagnosed with Parkinson’s a few years after we returned to Mozambique, there are parts of her teachings that have stayed with me. If my Dadi gave me a Muslim / Indian window into the world, my mother gave me a view of the world very much influenced by the curiosity to know about one’s surroundings. To me, these female voices in my family tree are as important to notice as are those that are not as explicit.

Returning to Mozambique in 2009 and beginning to exhibit and travel in and outside of the country has expanded my understanding and experience as a Mozambican. Having learnt to read and write in Swedish, then being enrolled in an English-medium school in Mozambique, Portuguese as a language and a culture is to me both foreign and familiar. Marrying a man of Portuguese descent, born in Zimbabwe and brought up in South Africa, and subsequently moving to England further presented an opportunity to read my own ‘herstory’ from another perspective.

Visits to Chile from around 2000 onwards to see my mother have further given me the opportunity to understand myself as partly and indirectly influenced by my mother’s Chilean / South American culture. This is also a place that, over time, has represented an added to my spiritual journey, from the teachings about Pachamama — an Andean deity, sometimes translated as mother earth — to my first initiation into Reiki (energetic healing) as well as being taught by family friend Susana Sanchez-Bravo to use the Tarot as a tool for introspection.

Maimuna Adam
 Ich habe mich gefunden / I found myself, 2014. Book, plant, soil (Image courtesy the artist)

KS: How do you define “home” and how is this articulated in your work?

MA: Home is to me a complex construct. It can be specific places, like my home city of Maputo, but it also lives as an imagined space, one that goes with me wherever I go and that adapts to each context. In Home (video, 2010), a wall with a window and set of curtains from my father’s home in Maputo where I lived for most of my childhood can be seen. Here, home is a transitory space for contemplating and remembering journeys undertaken. The catalyst for this work was my sister’s reaction upon seeing our father’s house renovated while visiting from Sweden.

O Lar / Home, 2010. Video still (Courtesy of the artist)
O Lar / Home, 2010. Video still (Courtesy of the artist)

KS: How is the personal archive used in your work? And how does memory interact with this?

MA: I make use of my own personal archive of images and objects almost as a ‘toolbox’ of memories and associated emotions, whether directly or indirectly experienced. I tend to record material for videos, from digital photographs in sequence to digital video footage, over time, without a specific result in mind. This means that by the time an image is used, it might not necessarily refer to the original time frame or location. This is clear in the video Release (2013-2015), where footage of a grassy patch with birds (Swallows or similar) filmed in Lisbon, Portugal in 2011 is joined with footage recorded in an empty gallery space at the Escola Nacional de Artes Visuais (ENAV) around 2012.

Images found in archives of extended family as well as photographs that do not exist anymore, are equally important to me. Researching genealogies online, for example, reveals that my Norwegian ancestor’s records are much more accessible than those of Indian or Mozambican origin, many already being digitised and available at a cost through one of the popular genealogy websites. I read this as possibly being influenced by our reliance on oral narratives, when these are shared, but of course there can be political readings too. By using items from personal archives, I allow myself to articulate narratives that are partly invented yet speaking from a point of personal truth and experience of a process of deeper understanding and acceptance of that which is outside of our personal control.

KS: What themes are currently appearing and disappearing in your work? 

MA: Identity, as a theme, can be seen throughout my works, mainly in self-portraits in drawing, painting and photography. Naturally, it’s a theme that has developed over time, alongside those of displacement and migration. By revisiting these themes in different ways, I hope to engage audiences on their own relationship with travel.

If I think of my earlier practice and experimentation, I’d say there was a strong influence of feminist theory and artists. In university I was exploring my identity within specific geographic contexts but now I include theory around migration, diaspora identities, and a deeper curiosity around art history. At present my focus could be said to be the same, and I strive to slowly expand the scope and understanding of these themes specifically in relation to Mozambican history.

KS: What is the appeal of self-portraiture?

MA: Thinking back to the period in question, I have to say that the reason I did it was exactly for how unappealing the process of drawing oneself is as an object of vanity and rather for the process of introspection that it creates. To paint myself is to (try to) look at myself in an objective, distanced way. Of course, if one looks at artists known for their self-portraits, like Vincent van Gogh or Frida Kahlo, there is possibly also an element of a psychological self-analysis, even if this is only read into retrospectively. There is also a practical reason — I am my own most accessible model. Having not yet included these works in any exhibition so far, I see them as documents of a time where I might have felt ‘lost’, professionally and creatively, but continued to create, knowing that this action is what would eventually help me understand myself, and the world, better.

I am currently creating portraits of the less spoken of Empresses that were captured alongside Ngungunyane, Emperor of the Gaza Empire, in Chaimite in 1895 by Portuguese forces led by Mouzinho Albuquerque. In October of 1983, Samora Machel initiated the return of what were initially said to be the Emperor’s remains. Eventually what was returned was a symbolic gift of earth from the cemetery where Ngungunyane was buried on Terceira Island in the Azores Archipelago, as his remains could not be identified in a mass grave so many decades later. Alongside the documentary research of archive photos, I refer to Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa’s Ualapi and As Mulheres do Imperador, and Mia Couto’s trilogy The Sands of the Emperor. I purposely also have broadened where I collect narratives and points of view, and this includes direct conversations as well as recounts shared on Facebook, and stories whose facts could be contested or create contradictions on closer analysis.

Study for Empresses of the Sea, 2018. Coffee and charcoal on Canson watercolour paper, 29.9 x 21.1 cm (Courtesy of the artist)
Study for Empresses of the Sea, 2018. Coffee and charcoal on Canson watercolour paper, 29.9 x 21.1 cm (Courtesy of the artist)

I find that this way of working more closely resembles contemporary life and my current understanding of the world. By mixing what could be criticised as ‘inappropriate sources’ from an academic research perspective, I hope the works will open a view of history as one where dialogue of personal experience is favoured, rather than focusing on a single, limited, narrative. I have chosen to work in this way as I find that Ngungunyana’s status as a political and historical figure in Southern African history is also one that embodies a certain mythology.

Creating any portrait of someone other than myself is always weighed with a certain responsibility to the person portrayed. In the case of Empresses Muzamussi, Dabondi, Fussi, Patihina, Namatuco, Chlézipe and Machacha, I have a limited number of photographs as reference images, all of which seem to have been taken at different moments from their capture in Chaimite to their arrival and imprisonment in Lisbon. Once the men were exiled to Terceira island, the women (the seven Empresses and three wives of Zixaxa) were sent to São Tomé island.

Aside from the challenges such as having access to only a few images of the Empresses, added hindrances so far are that I haven’t been able to identify each individual woman by name. This speaks to the erasure of women and women’s lives in historical recounts and narratives, having sometimes being mentioned as ‘wife of.’   In the case of the Empresses, what strikes me the most is how it seems that their fate as exile was as a result of being in a polygamous marriage which was seen as morally wrong by Portugal. Some suggest that the authorities had given Ngungunyane a last chance to choose one wife to stay with him, and that the Emperor refused to do so.

KS: The female voice and body are recurring in your work. May you please speak about this?

MA: Thinking back to my arts education, I agree that the female body and voice are elements that I repeatedly refer to. If I think back to high-school projects (that were cringe-worthy at best), observing the feminine was a natural effort in trying to understand how I was perceived in society. If there is a female voice in my work it comes from this exploration of how I perceive myself and how it is influenced by my environment, by the people I speak to and by the books I read.

I would say my interest in the female body and voice go together with a study of feminism that I probably started becoming aware of at around the age of 18. I now feel that feminisms develop over time and need to be continuously questioned and opened through discussion. I think there is a natural curiosity for me as a woman to unpack my lived experience, as there are nuances that I notice in different contexts. For example, the difference of how I felt I owned my own body whilst walking in Berlin versus in Maputo.  I see the body, visually and energetically, as a vehicle that connects us to the past. From the present moment in mind, registering the body almost becomes a way of exploring and renegotiating the emotions and memories I carry.

Khumo Sebambo is a writer and curator based in Johannesburg. She holds an MA from the School of Literature, Language and Media, Wits University.

[1] Interview was conducted via email and zoom between and 3 November 2020 and 11 January 2021.

[2] Ocupações Temporárias 20.10 was an art route through Maputo. The exhibition featured Mozambican artists Gonçalo Mabunda, Gemuce, Maimuna Adam, Mauro Pinto, Lourenço Pinto and Celestino Mudaulane temporarily occupying public spaces around the city. Ocupações Temporárias 20.10 allowed audiences to gain a new reading of works and spaces.

[3] Colecção Crescente is an annual exhibition painting, sculpture, ceramics and photography hosted by the Kulungwana Association for Cultural Development in Mozambique

[4] Community development project in Sao Tome e Principe that trains local people about the process of community development and project organisation and implementation.

[5] Wide paella-style pan sometimes made from copper, used for cooking large quantities of food on the plantations

[6] The 1973 military coup in Chile deposed the Popular Unity government of President Salvador Allende.

[7] Meaning “Safari” which is Kiswahili for journey or travel.