PRINT April 2012


Stan Douglas, A Luta Continua, 1974, 2012, color photograph, 47 1/2 x 71 1/4". From the eight-part suite Disco Angola, 2012.

DISCO ANGOLA HAS A CERTAIN RING, the seeming incongruity of the two words registering as a dark irony and something more specific, a godforsaken watering hole or open-air dance floor in some late-colonial “paradise.” Then again, it could be the name of a New York club meant to suggest such a fantasy of excess. But as the title of a recent body of work by Stan Douglas, the words posit separate histories, those of disco and of Angola in the years 1974 and 1975. Disco in that moment was just emerging as an underground, late-night phenomenon, and Angola was rapidly decolonizing in the wake of Portugal’s Carnation Revolution. Pairing diverse (but latently related) sets of imagery and meanings is a formula that Douglas has employed consistently, from player-piano rolls and textile-mill punch patterns (in the installation Onomatopoeia, 1985–86) to E. T. A. Hoffmann and German agrarian reform (in the split-screen film Der Sandmann, 1995) to Herman Melville and noir (in the film Journey into Fear, 2001). But in this new project, two territories are not enmeshed as a single narrative formed of disparate parts. Instead, Disco Angola, like its name, is a diptych: eight large-scale panoramic photographs, four related to disco, four to Angola, each carefully re-created either from a found source image or as an amalgamation of research and lore.

Last year, with his work Midcentury Studio, Douglas began producing suites of exclusively still images using extensive crews and meticulous casting, props, makeup, and lighting, as he might have for the production of a film (the medium for which he’s best known, although he has periodically made photo-based work). Disco Angola shares not only a format with this predecessor but a central conceit: Both projects are to be construed as the body of work of a fictitious photojournalist. But unlike Midcentury Studio, which documents in twenty-eight black-and-white photographs the output of an imagined Weegee-like figure prone to indelicate flash use and cannily indecisive moments, the fictitious photojournalist traveling from New York to Angola and back leaves little to no personal imprint on the pictures he takes. Instead, like a kind of invisible demiurge of these worlds—“disco” and “Angola”—he leaves the images to be deciphered via echoes that are ephemeral, unstable, and charged with meanings that become more apparent in retrospect. Obliquely, the photographs anticipate the particular pressures that would eventually distort both Angola’s newfound independence and disco’s early, integrative subculture, in each case resulting in something quite different from what was initially hoped for.

In 1974, both the underground exuberance of disco and the peaceful and remarkably quick exodus of the Portuguese from Angola represented open moments that were quickly lost to their own origins by subsuming historical forces. The Angolan images reconstruct a period that saw not only the end of Portuguese rule but also the ominous commencement of a devastatingly violent twenty-seven-year civil war among four opposing factions, fueled by the requisite postcolonial meddling of the United States and the Soviet Union and an endless supply of blood money from diamonds and oil. Meanwhile, the disco scenes, and perhaps most especially the group shot Club Versailles, 1974, recapture the heyday of Manhattan’s DJ’ed private dance parties, when people of all races and sexual orientations gathered in abandoned midtown warehouses for all-night revelry. We take note of the jockstrap, of the small, intimate, and somewhat unlikely crowd, with the understanding that disco was soon to become its more sanitized and vapid self, expropriated by whites and by corporate radio, marking a regretful gateway to the New York of the 1980s.

Dancing and national-liberation movements are not of the same order, obviously, but the symmetry in which Douglas places them introduces a call to find some logic in their formal pairing, and parity. Correspondences abound: Checkpoint, 1975 and Coat Check, 1974, for instance, aside from their shared morpheme, are similar compositions to the extent that each features a shallowly arcing form—in the former, a rope stretched across a road and bounded on each end by an odd assembly of objects (like a refrigerator); in the latter, a huge sectional banquette scattered with discarded handbags and jackets. Both are seemingly static, empty scenes that vibrate with imminence, of the dancers’ return to claim their handbags and jackets, of the next tense encounter at the checkpoint (although Checkpoint, on closer examination, is not devoid of people, like Coat Check, but manned by four armed and semi-hidden men). In both Capoeira, 1974 and Kung-Fu Fighting, 1975, the central figures demonstrate physical gestures for onlookers. The moves themselves are the result of certain reflexive cultural transmutations: Capoeira, a martial art initially disguised as dance or performance so that it could be practiced covertly, was developed in Brazil by slaves from Angola. And kung fu, originally all fight, became pure dance with the hit to which that image’s title refers.

Stan Douglas, Two Friends, 1975, 2012, color photograph, 42 x 56". From the eight-part suite Disco Angola, 2012.

Another photograph, A Luta Continua, 1974, was inspired by an image Douglas found online, featuring a rakish colonist standing in front of a cinder-block building emblazoned with the initials MPLA, for Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola). A white sympathizer to the cause, he probably nonetheless departed the country quickly when it became clear that Angola was descending into civil war in early 1975. For his re-creation of this photograph, Douglas found a near-identical cinder-block hut, painted it like the one in his source photo, and positioned his model in the same pose, to the right of the gold star. The only difference is that the model is a black woman. But something about her petulant demeanor separates her from the revolutionary sympathies writ large behind her. Or perhaps “revolutionary sympathies writ large” by themselves don’t accommodate the contradictions of reality. This well-dressed young woman might seem of the class of native Angolans who successfully ingratiated themselves to their Portuguese “hosts.” The complicating shades of class and skin tone are reinflected in the color scheme of her outfit: pure green, so that she forms, with the black and red behind her, the color trio of the pan-African flag, especially freighted with significance in the early 1970s, at the apex of national-liberation movements. And yet . . . her imperious pout, that brilliant green, the color that, on the flag, symbolizes the natural wealth of Africa: hard not to think of the pretty Angolan face currently representing the continent’s power elite, that of Isabel dos Santos, one of the richest women in Africa and the eldest daughter of Angola’s president, revolutionary-turned-kleptocrat José Eduardo dos Santos.

The question of who usurped what and oppressed whom also pertains to disco, if, of course, on a different scale. Take the couple facing us in Two Friends, 1975: interlopers, not exactly trying to conceal their boredom, whose clothes bear the glint of their expectations of novelty and glamour. Vanguard scouts, maybe, for the era to come, when the law of exclusion for exclusion’s sake (like all real laws, fundamentally arbitrary) came to govern the discotheque. And in any case, the emergence of disco could itself be perceived as neocolonial: The first disco hit, Cameroonian Manu Dibango’s 1972 “Soul Makossa,” was lifted from obscurity by a white DJ, David Mancuso, who’d “discovered” it in a West Indian record store. When I mentioned this to Douglas, whose work has always revealed a subtle commitment to documenting working-class oppression while addressing race far less directly, he responded that Italian-American DJs, in the racist cultural hierarchy of 1970s New York, were “not really considered white.” And indeed, this blurring is at the core of the film that marks the height and end of both disco and working-class America: Saturday Night Fever. John Travolta wants out of the hardware store, and with his own synthetic threads, bought less easily, to be sure, than those of the gentleman in Two Friends, he acknowledges that if he looked any better he’d be black—although he doesn’t say black, but instead, and famously, the radioactive epithet there’s no need to quote here. The implication, regardless, is that he’s already closer to black than to white in terms of his chances for any kind of mobility, at least beyond the dance floor.

Mobility of another sort entirely is pictured in Exodus, 1975, which documents the mass departure of “dispossessed” colonists from Angola. The photograph is a tableau of heat, waiting, and delusional optimism, evidenced by the impractical possessions, including livestock and enormous crates, dragged to the collection point for return to an ancestral country inclined to accommodate neither these people nor their stuff. The colonists waiting to depart Luanda could be called overseers and oppressors, sure. But the Portuguese called them degredados, a reference to the mother country’s early policy of deporting criminals to the colonies. The class of Portuguese that Douglas’s portrait is intended to represent returned penniless and possessionless—a future inscribed, in the image, in the lassitude of their postures. An account of losers, winners, and then losers, once again, Disco Angola slyly proposes—in its nostalgic return, its tension between staging and verisimilitude, its deliberate freeze-frame capture of costume-drama conventions—a way of piling up and compressing various layers of history into one photo-ready moment.

Rachel Kushner, a writer based in Los Angeles, is the author of the novels The Flamethrowers (forthcoming) and Telex From Cuba (2008; both Scribner).