A Look at Thó Simões

Between Traditional African Cultures and Global Urban Art

Through his work, the Angolan artist resists a culture based on Westernized actions and thought, reclaiming key elements of traditional African societies that suffered under colonization’s systems of appropriation and extermination.

Rethinking and rereading ancestral African cultures

Congolândia (Luanda, 2018) is one example. In it, Simões uses performance, which emerged within the European avant-garde movements of the early 20th century, to (re)think, (re)structure, (re)read ancestral African cultures today. Graphic body painting in stripes, curves, and circles allows the observer to make associations both with the Mursi people of Ethiopia, who maintain their customs and traditions in today’s globalized world, and adinkra symbols present in West African societies.

The history of African cultures is one of Simões’ greatest influences, and by inscribing pichação-style characters, or pixo, onto the performers’ bodies, he creates a hybrid message that drives the viewer to reflect on potential cultural resistances. The aim is to establish countercurrents to the arbitrary, colonizing, and normalizing tendencies present not only on the African continent, but in all regions of the world that have undergone the decimation of culture, language, and their native inhabitants.

Congolândia, therefore, presents a fiction that is given substance through culturally “pure and perfect” African performing bodies, coming from a place invented by the artist and with no colonial contamination. “There’s nothing in our culture that hasn’t been an arrangement. Everything was so adulterated back then that we can’t find anything else that didn’t have some external touch,” says Simões. In that sense, the viewer grasps the artist’s resistance to a culture founded on modes of behavior forged in external and westernized actions and thought, and which hamper the bodies and minds of individuals in the traditional societies that suffered under colonization’s systems of appropriation and extermination.

The assimilation of contemporary urban art

This fusion of representations of traditional African societies and those of the global urban world clearly expresses another cornerstone of Simões’s modus operandi: graffiti and pichação—products of the “influence the streets had on me”, reveals the artist. The assimilation of this subversive art form, produced on the outskirts of major urban centers of the West, originally by African-Americans in 1960s, offers the artist the ideal means to portray themes of daily life and the history of his territory.

With his graffiti, Simões superimposes components of distinct times and aesthetic and chromatic elements, creating a big mash-up of collages in public spaces. Portraits like that of Samuel Maharero (leader of the Herero uprising against German colonists, in what is now Namibia), elderly people, women with bundles on their heads, children, rappers or passers-by who crossed paths with the artist in their daily lives, occupy walls and murals through the juxtaposition of Simões’ graphic elements.

Simões’ images pulse with life that arises from the color composition of his graffiti. The choice of contrasts between light and dark, as well as the tuning of shadows and points of light, give an effect of depth, resulting in a kind of “portrait of reality”. Just like portraits in the European painting tradition, whose aim was to dignify and legitimize the person portrayed, Simões’ choice of African individuals relates to his desire to capture the sublime, in contrast to the social conditions in which these people are embedded – going beyond the place to which they were conditioned by the colonial legacy. “They’re everyday people, nameless people who I happen across in the streets. I look to them with reverence and respect. A person may think he’s nothing, he’s nobody, but, for me, he will always be an ultimate expression,” sums up the artist.

Authored by: Cristina A. Barros, Edgar Costa Silva, Iêda Aleluia, Luis Fernando Lisboa, Leila Patrícia de Jesus Santos Requião, Renata Martins, Uriel Bezerra.

This article is the result of the collective work fostered by the workshop entitled “Art Criticism as Writing Exercises. Analysis of the works of Thó Simões and Koffi Mensah Akagbor”, held in May and June 2020 by Renata Martins, as part of her virtual Vila Sul 2020 residence, sponsored by the Goethe-Institut Salvador-Bahia. Over the course of six weeks, participants from different cities and areas of expertise met in groups online, where they were able to engage virtually with Thó Simões in order to produce this work of collective knowledge on the Angolan artist’s creations.

Translated from Portuguese by Zoë Perry.