As a ‘retrospective foreword to an absent film’, Matthieu Kleyebe Abbonenc’s installation at Gasworks Gallery has a playful temporality, which tactically unravels the complex political constellations around Sarah Maldoror’s work, a militant filmmaker famous for Sambizanga (1972), depicting the armed struggle against the Portuguese in Angola.
However Abonnenc’s installation does not focus on Maldoror’s ‘visible’ work. Instead it seeks to (re)imagine the missing Guns For Banta (1970), which was commissioned by the Algerian Army, but later seized as Maldoror refused to concede editing rights. The film is truly lost, save for a few photographs from the shoot in Guinea-Bissau. It is an absence upon which Abonnenc builds his exploration into Maldoror’s work, an absence from which he departs to navigate the complexities of post-colonial legacies, and the enduring relevance and power of the militant image.
The work takes the form of a diaporama; a two screen slide projection narrated by voices that figure not only Abonnenc’ s close friendship with Maldoror and her work, but Maldoror’s own political affiliations, particularly with Mario de Andrade, her former partner and founder of the MPLA. The stream of photographs that accompany the narrative are taken from Maldoror’s personal archive, but also from partisan publications of the time, such as Triconteninental. Maldoror’s memories of the time are blurry, inconsistent, at times imagined and re-imagined. But by building upon this blurry history, Abonnenc’ s work takes a tangential route to the context, and in turn the meanings of these images. The work prospers from this approach. The images are archival, documentary, yet through the hazy memories and fictionalization, their relevance and potency is expanded.
These images are somewhat archetypal to the period of decolonization; a huddle of young men, dressed in mismatching uniforms brandishing worn weapons, staring defiantly at the camera, or images of women and children dressed in bullet belts. Yet Abonnenc does not allow them to become stereotypical images of ‘African conflict’, by reactivating them through this fictionalized method, they become suggestive of a set of political conditions, rather than representative. Instead, the content of images become secondary to their journey as documentary objects. For it is precisely these journeys that Abonnenc’s work seems to address. For through the absence of Guns For Banta, and the artist’s inability to retrieve it, the circulation of images and their immersion within political contexts can be explored.
For the political conditions of the film and the photographs displayed at Gasworks are physically etched into the film stock- their dusty quality – scratched and stretched with time – their degradation attests to ‘appropriation and displacement’, and their precarity as political documents. In the rhythmical shift of the slides, the absence of Guns For Banta makes clear the complex political climate that allowed for its making – and for its seizure.
The slideshow tentatively activates the militancy of Maldoror’s work through an imaginative process, while allowing for the complex journey’s for these images and films to be revealed. In this way the exhibition seeks to understand the complicated process of cinemas role within armed struggle, as a strategy for mobilization, for feedback and amplification of political loyalties and identities.
Hito Steyerl’s notion of ‘the poor image’ is particularly appropriate for this exhibition. Steyerl writes of the poor image, that ‘[its] situation reveals much more than the content or appearance of the images themselves: it also reveals the conditions of their marginalization, the constellation of social forces leading to their…circulation as poor images’. Although Steyerl is speaking primarily of the digital, her suggestions are strikingly relevant to the kinds of militant images that Abonnenc displays. The absence of Guns For Banta gestures toward the precarious political forces it was embedded within, that allowed for both its creation and destruction, leaving only traces from which we might begin to reconstruct a ghost of its presence, and its enduring power.
In the films made during the liberation struggles, the physical conditions of their making are inscribed within the celluloid itself; scratches, burns, degradation, seizure. Instead of apologizing for the poor quality of the photographs and films within the installation, Abonnenc’s work implicitly celebrates it- for the journey that the images have made is as important as their content.
Steyerl suggests that ‘while some nation states are dismantled or fall apart, new cultures and traditions are invented and new histories are created. This obviously also affects film archives- in many cases, a whole heritage of film prints is left without its supporting framework of national culture’. In the falling of the Portugese colonial regimes, the Soviet Union seized the opportunity to use cinema as a tool to encourage the already communist-inclinations in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau. The cinematic image was seen as a useful strategy of re-making political images, and in turn, subjects- ‘by the people for the people’, which was the tagline for the Mozambican newsreel programme Kuxa Kanema. The moving image became a tool through which to build new cultures and traditions, as Steyerl suggests.
The absence of Guns For Banta, and the poor quality of Sambizanga, indicate the ‘real conditions of [the films] existence’. Steyerl writes in the closing part of her article, that the poor image gestures toward ‘swarm circulation, digital dispersion, fractured and flexible temporalities. It is about defiance and appropriation…’. The diaporama at Gasworks seems a sharp example of this kind of dispersion, and reassemblage. Abonnenc’s exhibition approaches the moving image as both a contested material commodity and as a complex political tract, unraveling the political contexts of liberation movements through an imaginative, thoughtful method. The consequence of reactivating militancy in the gallery context seems to allow for the possibility of contemplating the material economies of film, their movement, their availability, and their political power in a radically open way.