Bertina Lopes, Acrobacia 2 (Stunt 2), 1972–73, mixed media on canvas, 59 × 51 1⁄8".

Bertina Lopes, Acrobacia 2 (Stunt 2), 1972–73, mixed media on canvas, 59 × 51 1⁄8".

Bertina Lopes

For the opening of its new venue in Rome, this London gallery introduced Bertina Lopes, a little-known artist with a multicultural upbringing who inhabited many different social and political milieus. Born in 1924 in Mozambique—then a Portuguese colony—and of mixed race, she was sent to study in Lisbon at the age of twelve, first at the António Arroio School of Decorative Arts and later at the Lisbon School of Fine Arts. After returning to Mozambique in 1953, she taught art and began exhibiting her work in 1956, influencing local artists. On account of her increasing involvement in anticolonial activism, she was forced to leave the country in 1961. Awarded a scholarship by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, she painted in Lisbon, but her difficulties with the authoritarian regime of Portuguese dictator António Salazar led her to move to Rome in 1964, where she worked for the rest of her life. (She died in 2012.) Even as she befriended Italian artists and became a point of reference for African intellectuals and expats, she retained a political edge that shines through her entire artistic production.

Her encounter with the art of Picasso and then with the artist himself, in Paris in 1964, left a strong emotional mark. The impact of his Guernica, 1937, is evident in paintings in which Lopes denounces the oppression of Portuguese colonialism and Mozambique’s long struggle for independence, which the country finally gained in 1975. In paintings with bright-red hues, faces contorted in screams and men armed with rifles, lances, and bayonets are packed together in agitated and violent scenes. Grido grande (Big Cry), 1970, reveals a clear desire to express political fervor against racism and exploitation in a strong and communicative language tied to the tradition of the European avant-gardes as well as to primitivism. While for Picasso and many other artists the forms of African sculpture offered ways to resolve constructive and formal issues, for Lopes primitive art had a personal value, representing her roots and her identity.

Thus, alongside her most fiercely polemical works are paintings that reveal the other side of her artistic personality, reflecting her attachment to her country and to African traditions. The most abstract of these retain a fundamental connection to nature; some circular and elliptical compositions with vibrant colors and bold brushstrokes refer to the sun, to the movement of the celestial spheres, and to vaginal forms. Lopes finds unique freedom in the complex and expressive geometries of tribal masks in her “Totem” series, 1968–81, as well as in the fluid gestures of ceremonial dances, as in Acrobacia 2 (Stunt 2), 1972–73. Here, earth tones—yellow ocher, orange, brown, and green—prevail, along with the black and white of body decorations. Lopes enriches her surfaces with straw, feathers, and colored fabric in works inspired by Nyau rites or Tufo ritual dances in ceremonies that are both religious and social, where shamans and dancers covered with a white paste called mussiro perform with straw ornaments on their ankles and arms and wraps on their heads. But Lopes’s allusions to these aesthetic traditions have a political value, too, not least given that when the Portuguese attempted to repress local customs, tribal communities reacted by emphasizing their own cultural and religious values, introducing into their rituals a critique of colonial power structures, ridiculing the colonizers and recounting tales of oppression, exploitation, and forced labor. With her capacity for spatial synthesis, Lopes succeeds both in evoking the motifs of Indigenous culture and in infusing them with her politics; her vast oeuvre emerges as a continuous homage to the resistance of the Mozambican people.

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.