MADRINHAS DE GUERRA
Thanks to the eyes of the photographer Amilton Neves, we are guided into a very personal and intimate journey. Set among ruined and old corrugated iron or wooden painted walls, passing through some small modest doors, we enter into dilapidated houses of several old Mozambican women. In this private space, we gain access into their life, to meet them, to acknowledge their past and to listen to an otherwise hidden episode of the history of Mozambique.
But who are exactly these women? How old are they? What are their names? What have they personally experienced?
Everything here seems so quiet, so still, so basic, so timeless. Are these women just silent or nostalgic or afraid or ashamed or angry or guilty? Or are they just shy or resigned or relieved? Do they want to laugh or to cry? What have they lost? Their past, their life, their reputation, their dignity, their lover? Will they accept to talk to us, to let out what they have been carrying and hiding deep inside themselves for so long? Will they agree to share their testimony before it’s too late, not to forget, but to remember?
Whatever all this, whatever they have done, whatever their harsh conditions of life! These old Mozambican women will always be beautiful, elegant and respectable, inspiring us compassion if as they were our mothers, our grandmothers, our aunts, that we want to take care of, to protect, to cherish, to embrace. Thanks its unique photographical documentary, Amilton Neves finally reveals us a subject that has stayed undercover and undocumented for too long.
These women are called “Madrinhas de Guerra” — “Godmothers of War.”
Christine Cibert (CC) – As a young Mozambican photographer, how did you start this new series of photographies on Madrinhas de Guerra?
Amilton Neves (AN) – I got the idea to work on this subject because of a famous speech by Samora Machel where he says “Madrinhas de Guerra are long term explosives, we have to stop this system in our society.” When you ask your mother or your aunt about Madrinhas de Guerra, they don’t want to talk about it. They tell you it happened, but they don’t want to share the details. That is why I deliberately wanted to document this story, often forgotten, so that it is not only remembered by the elder generation, “assimilados” and people from the army. This is a story that should be known by everyone and yet most people don’t know it.
CC – Can you remind us the historical context?
AN – “Madrinhas de Guerra” or “Godmothers of War” is a project telling the story of the Mozambican women who took part in the National Women’s Movement (Movimento National Feminino) from 1961 to 1974. These women were part of the strategy of the Portuguese government to provide moral support to colonial soldiers, fighting on the frontlines during the struggle for Independence. Through letter writing campaigns to soldiers – many of whom they never actually met – the Madrinhas de Guerra played a critical role in the psychological support to the colonial armed forces. Some Madrinhas went so far as to meet and regularly visit the soldiers to whom they wrote letters, developing deep relationships, sometimes leading to promises of marriage when the young men returned at the end of the war. In exchange, for their support to soldiers during the war, some of these women managed to get economic and social advantages. But in 1974, when the war of independence finished, the National Women’s Movement officially ended along with it. After that, the Madrinhas de Guerra were ostracized within Mozambican society for their role in supporting the colonial forces.
CC – Was it difficult to be in contact with Madrinhas?
AN – I began researching the Madrinhas to find archive photographs and stories and eventually, I managed to speak to a former soldier in the army who had a Madrinha, who was still alive, based in Mafalala, where he took me to meet her. Although she has passed away now, it took me three months to convince her to let me take her portrait. This is when I became really interested in this project because of the challenge. Then, she accepted to introduce me to others and for three years, I have visited the homes of about fifty Madrinhas de Guerra who still live in Maputo today and experienced a different life during the colonial period and the subsequent marginalization felt after independence.
CC – It is a premiere in Mozambique. Have you shown the series elsewhere before?
AN – The work has been exhibited on SDN (online course) when I was nominated Photographer of the Month (January 2018). It was also exhibited as part of the Nuku Studio component of the Addis Photo Festival (2016) and just recently, at the Nuku Photography Festival in Ghana which was just launched last September. It was reviewed at PhotoNOLA (New Orleans) in 2017. The work also won the Portfolio Review Prize at the Palm Springs Photo Festival (2018) and was shortlisted for the 2018 Contemporary African Photography Award.
We tend to look at the Past as something inert. As something that is definitively and irreparably behind us, encapsulated and fixed forever in our memory and impossible to act upon or change. In this sense, the Past seems to be in unquestionably opposed to our perception of the Present, which we feel is constantly moving and changing.
But in reality this is a misleading and deceptive perception. In fact, each time we dive in our memories or think of the Past, we set it in motion. Contemporary science tell us that just by summoning or verbalizing past memories we are altering, reconfiguring and rewriting them. We are constantly reframing events and facts that we believed were encoded in our brain cells forever. And so, our recollection of the Past is unequivocally influenced by our Present experiences, feelings and emotions. The Past is definitively not a set fixture but a fluid landscape.
Moreover, contemporary science has also been challenging, for some decades now, our conventional perception of time. At the quantum level, it seems time flows, chaotically and simultaneously in all directions which, unthinkable as it might be, implies that there are permanent retroactions between past and future and future and past. Thus, some say, our conventional perception of time, as unidirectional, is an illusion. In fact, time, in itself, is the ultimate illusion.
This said, it should become clear that the speculative exercise that the theme “The Future of The Future/Reinventing Narratives from Africa” embodies, must be framed within this larger conceptual approach. As someone has wisely described it, the Past should be looked upon as a “traveler companion”, always present, always with us. And the same should be said about the future. The future is not in the future, it is here today. Thus, this exhibition challenges us to engage in this “conversation”, to inhabit this timeless space and to discover, through this constant dialogue, how we can address and affect our Present.
Rui Trindade, MFF – Program Director
Amilton Neves is a professional photographer based in Mozambique whose work examines contemporary societal issues using storytelling and documentary techniques. His past and current projects focus on addressing perceptions of individuals who find themselves at the margins of society through narratives of empowerment while preserving often forgotten aspects of our modern history.
Neves has participated in training courses at the Sooke Photography School in Canada and Nuku Studio in Ghana, and has been prominently featured several times at the Franco Moçambicano Cultural Center. His work has been exhibited in Mozambique, Ghana, Portugal, Brazil, Ethiopia and Canada. In addition to pursuing his independent projects, Neves also works as a freelance documentary photographer throughout Africa.