The last space of cultural dynamism in Luanda’s baixa is no more

Angolans protest as the state threatens to tear down an historic building.

 Image by Kiluanje Kia Henda.

Thirty years ago Joni Mitchell sang: “They paved paradise/ And put up a parking lot/ With a pink hotel, a boutique/ And a swinging hot spot. /Don’t it always seem to go/ That you don’t know what you’ve got/ Till it’s gone.” Who knew her words would resonate in today’s Luanda? Since 1988, Elinga Theater, has anchored cultural life in the Angolan capital. On March 22, 2014 José Mena Abrantes, director of Elinga Theater, as well as poet, dramaturge, journalist, and communications consultant (read: sometimes speechwriter) for Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos, announced the impending destruction of Elinga’s historic space.

This comes after the theater group was told in January this year to vacate by the end of last month.

Come April 1, fear turned to action. Central Angola launched a campaign on Facebook to get bodies in front of Elinga and stall the destruction. A petition began circulating on April 2 (online and at Luanda schools), after Ângela Mingas, professor of Architecture at Lusíada University, suggested that 1,000 signatures delivered to the National Assembly on April 18, UNESCO’s international day for monuments and sites, would pack symbolic punch.

Kiluanje Kia Henda, renowned photographer, posted an eloquent lament on Facebook on April 2 too. He noted that Elinga, under actor Orlando Sergio, in 2000-2001 opened

… to artists considered marginal and poorly behaved. And there I had the opportunity to meet and the privilege to work with individuals like: Marcos Opcional Kabenda, Lino Damião, Sunny Dilage, Muamby Wassaky Wassaky, Yonamine Miguel, MCK, Keita Mayanda, Edson Chagas, Raul Rosário, Michel Figueiredo, O Toke É Esse, Anabela Aya, Paulo Kapela, Nástio Mosquito…and others.

Many of those listed above have achieved international kudos for their work. The Ministry of Culture (we’ll return to them in a second) embraces them only ex-post facto.

“In a country without art schools, Elinga played this role spontaneously and singularly, and clearly, with greater freedom,” continued Kia Henda.

Bulldozers will raze Elinga to build … you guessed it: a parking lot!

Elipark will consist of a large parking lot, a skyscraper with two floors for a “cultural center” (Elinga got a verbal offer to manage the space), and the rest for offices and condos.

The hunger for building luxury high rises in Luanda’s historic baixa will not be sated.

Elinga’s saga started in 2006 when Imogestin S.A. purchased their building. In April 2012, Minister of Culture Rosa Cruz e Silva (historian and erstwhile director of the Angolan Archives), signed the decree declassifying the Challet building, home to Elinga, from its status as historic patrimony. Journalist Reginaldo Silva called out the minister and the “gang of concrete” taking over Luanda. The Minister decreed “that the reasons of an historical nature that determined the classification of the referred building no longer exist.” Weeks earlier she’d raged at a rise in demolitions of historic monuments across the country. What gives? (Luaty Beirão leaned in on this question this morning).

Built in the 19th century, the building served as a school in the colonial period. Angolans with nationalist credentials like Cônego Manuel das Neves, Hoji Ya Henda, and Nito Alves studied here. After independence it was the home of the Young Literature Brigade.

But Elinga is not just historic, it’s inconvenient. It’s on prime real estate. And every piece bemoaning its closure highlights the rare “magic” and “informality” of the space; the “mix of global and local” it attracts. Artists and audiences are multi-generational and aesthetically diverse. Officially home to Elinga, the theater houses acclaimed artist António Ole’s atelier, that of fashion designer Mwamby Wassaky, and it is the base of the traditional dance group Kussanguluka. Angolan and foreign artists (of reputation or emerging) have exhibited or performed there. Cultural elites mix with the urban hoi polloi.

The Joni of Big Yellow Taxi would feel right at home here: someone mouthing off at authority taken off by the cops as artists sing out, against, and in between state strictures. But Luanda’s downtown is no longer about education, urban culture, and interaction between different walks of life. That is history.

Elinga may be the last space of cultural dynamism in Luanda’s baixa. It’s a shrinking spot of horizontal connections in a downtown that’s all about vertical integration in the global economy.

But its end may be the beginning of a new way of engaging the state. Central Angola laid it out in convo with Kia Henda on FB: first they came for the 17th century Palácio de Dona Ana Joaquina and then they razed the modernist gem of Kinaxixi to build a shopping mall- i.e., this is systematic. Then CA shouted “O ESTADO SOMOS NÓS!” (We are the state!), torquing the old MPLA slogan: “the MPLA are the people, and the people are the MPLA.”

Further Reading

The skeleton in the closet

The novelist Nadifa Mohamed complicates Britain’s troubled, racist legal history through the personal tale of one otherwise insignificant person, a Somali immigrant to Cardiff in Wales.

Life to the sound of gunfire

Nigerians fleeing extremist violence at home take refuge across the border in Niger among an already fragile population. Together they proceed to carve out a way to live better lives for now.

Democraticizing money

Cameroonian economist Joseph Tchundjang Pouemi died in 1984, either poisoned or by suicide. His ideas about the international monetary system and the CFA franc are worth revisiting.