The “constructed character” of Sarah Maldoror
— a conversation between Annouchka de Andrade, François Piron, and Tobi Maier.
Sara Magno (SM): Sarah Maldoror: Cinema Tricontinental is one of the two exhibitions that are taking place at Galerias Municipais — Torreão Nascente da Cordoaria Nacional, in Lisbon, as part of the French-Portuguese Season 2022. This exhibition was previously on view at the Palais de Tokyo in 2021 in Paris, and is now being presented as part of the programme of Galerias Municipais de Lisboa, curated by Tobi Maier, who is joining me in welcoming Annouchka de Andrade [one of Sarah Maldoror’s two daughters] and François Piron [curator at the Palais de Tokyo] for this conversation. Tobi, could you explain the context of this exhibition within the broader programme of the Galerias Municipais?
Tobi Maier (TM): This exhibition does not exist in a void within our programme. For some time now, and also under previous directorships, Galerias Municipais have been working intensively with artists connected to former Portuguese colonies through the organisation of solo exhibitions, as well as themed group exhibitions. At this moment, we are presenting Mónica de Miranda’s first institutional solo exhibition in Lisbon at Galeria Avenida da India; we are working with Marcelo Rezende on an exhibition at Pavilhão Branco that stems from the context of the bicentenary of Brazilian independence and departs from Agostinho da Silva, a Portuguese educator who went on to co-found several universities in Brazil; and we are also presenting Cecilia Lisa Eliceche and Leandro Nerefuh’s exhibition Panamérica, lavro e dou fé! Ato 1 – Haiti o Ayiti, at Galeria da Boavista. We are presenting Sarah Maldoror: Cinema Tricontinental in combination with another exhibition that has previously been shown in Paris, namely at the National Institute of Art History [INHA], and which will be featuring photobooks from Angola, Cabo Verde, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau [curated by Catarina Boieiro and Raquel Schefer] and where visitors will have the opportunity to see Sarah Maldoror’s film in full length. It was also the context of the French-Portuguese Season that allowed us to dialogue with Annouchka and François, who had already begun working on Sarah Maldoror’s exhibition for the Palais de Tokyo, and who were both here in Lisbon during Maldoror’s retrospective at Cinemateca, which took place in September 2021. During that time, we met and discussed the possibility of touring the exhibition from Palais de Tokyo to Lisbon. We also made contact with local institutions such as the Mário Soares and Maria Barroso Foundation, which lent us some material deposited by Annouchka and Henda about their father for this exhibition in Lisbon. Certainly, drawing connections with the Portuguese context was very important to François and Annouchka, as well as to us at Galerias Municipais.
SM: In what way did Sarah Maldoror's films inspire François to curate an exhibition?
François Piron (FP): The story might seem a bit anecdotal, but the circumstances affected the process. It was April 2020, and we were in the middle of a worldwide lockdown. It was my first time working for an institution after twenty years of freelancing, and I wondered what I could contribute. Simultaneously, I heard about the passing of Sarah Maldoror. In our first meetings with Annouchka, my colleague Cédric Fauq and I understood the importance of Sarah Maldoror's filmography beyond what we had expected. The only films we had access to before this meeting were the two or three films available on the Internet. We discovered that Sarah Maldoror shot forty-five films over her fifty-year career and that Annouchka kept a very extensive archive in her living room. The discrepancy between the importance of her work and her absence from the institutional history of cinema quickly convinced us that it was urgent to dedicate an exhibition to her life. It was shocking to understand how someone who had been acquainted with so many well-known political and artistic figures of the 20th century had remained in the shadows. I suggested then that an institution in France should pay tribute to her work, and we spent the rest of 2020, as well as the first semester of 2021, researching and framing the scope of this exhibition.
The exhibition was conceived as a first attempt at gathering her work in its complexity and diversity. The most important aspect was to collect her films and make them accessible so that they could finally be seen together. We thought it was too early to wrap her into a chronological account, and so we preferred to unfold her life into independent chapters. In other words, we understood this exhibition as a starting point for other researchers, as a moment of delivery, of access, to a work that was unfolding before us. We invited contemporary artists and commissioned new works to create a sort of community around her films and around the documents we gathered to tell her story and to show her as an artist making aesthetic decisions, which are as poetical as they are political. She was a filmmaker with a strong aesthetic ambition and with many links, especially to theatre and poetry in many different contexts. Of course, French poetry, but also African poetry, as well as poetry from the Caribbean. This enlargement to a poetical gesture that we wanted to reflect in this exhibition has greatly impacted its process.
SM: You have described Maldoror as a "constructed character." What do you mean by this exactly? How does this "constructed character" unfold in the exhibition? Does this exhibition demystify her, or does it make her character even more mythical? How can this exhibition provide us with a deeper understanding of Sarah Maldoror and her work?
FP: The self-construction refers to her choosing her name, which was a political as well as a poetical act. She was not born Maldoror, but Sarah Ducados. She took, at the starting point of her career as an artist, a very loaded poetical name borrowed from a poem written by Lautréamont in the mid-nineteenth century, Les Chants de Maldoror, which was praised by the Surrealists in the 1920s. Choosing Maldoror for an artist's name was a very conscious gesture by Sarah of placing herself in the Surrealist legacy, probably influenced by Aimé Césaire, who mentioned Lautréamont in his discourse on colonialism published in the early 1950s. Sarah would meet Césaire a few years later at the First Congress of Black writers and artists at the Sorbonne, in 1956. In the mid-1950s, she was part of an active Black poetic and political scene in Paris. This is what the exhibition aims to do, I believe: to provide contextual elements that place her gestures, the choices she made, and the people she met in a larger cultural and historical context.
SM: Do you see your mother as a constructed character, Annouchka, and can you talk a little about your experience growing up as Sarah Maldoror's daughter? How did this character manifest in your daily life?
Annouchka de Andrade (AA): Yes, I completely agree with what François said. I would like to add that this exhibition, in this institution, was very important for us, my sister Henda and I, as Sarah’s daughters. Not only does it represent a recognition of her work after her death—that's the first step—but it also puts her on the level of an artist, which is fundamental. What was it like to be her daughter? She was an unconventional person. It was wonderful to have her as a mother, but, when I was a little child, she was just my mum. I didn't exactly know we were in this community surrounded by artists and politicians, but we knew, by looking at others and our friends at school, that what we were living was different—and that was because we had a mother like Sarah, but also because we had a father like Mário de Andrade. Our daily life was not so easy, and we knew that there were political tensions during the fight for independence. Mário was always traveling, but Sarah was our base, our reference as daughters; she gave us a lot of strength, and also a capacity for adaptation. Yet, we should not forget: Sarah also tried hard to bring a lot of fantasy into our daily life to make it smoother.
SM: Is that fantasy part of her being a constructed character?
AA: Yes. She would say, “Okay, let's move and change.” Yet, each time she tried that, regardless of the difficulties, we understood what the situation was. Her wearing of vibrant colours throughout her life, for example, was her way to instil confidence in us. One of the things that we will keep from her is this confidence that came with her political consciousness as a Black female filmmaker.
SM: Did you spend some time on the film set with her?
AA: Yes, we did. We even wanted to be part of the shooting, but she would say, “No way!” It was really hard for us to get in. And then, little by little, because I wanted to be more involved, I started reading poetry, and that's how I began working with her in the 1980s.
SM: While Sarah Maldoror's work is relatively unknown, it has lately been circulating in Lisbon. For example, last September, IndieLisboa and Cinemateca Portuguesa collaborated on a retrospective of her work. Following that, in October, Hangar organised a seminar with Maria do Carmo Piçarra where Annouchka was also present. Among other things, this seminar offered a space to engage critically with some of Maldoror’s films. In what ways does an exhibition of her work add to these previous presentations? To put it another way, what does this exhibition offer that cinema screenings or seminars cannot?
FP: I believe that an exhibition is not primarily a space of discourse but rather a space for showing. The main goal of this exhibition is to create a balance between Sarah's films, the film extracts that we selected, and the documents offering contextual elements. They provide a background for the artworks, be them chosen or commissioned, casting a more subjective light on and promoting dialogue with Sarah Maldoror’s work. In particular, these artworks show her as an inspiring figure for younger artists and connect her films to today's concerns. We tried to envision her work from a contemporary perspective. We certainly did not want to demystify Sarah Maldoror; rather, we wanted to reveal how difficult it was sometimes for her to keep on working. Her exploration of many cinematographic genres also reveals how she worked with commissions, how she sometimes twisted them, and eventually how her career as a filmmaker is more complex than a continuous series of masterpieces. Since she herself refused chronologies and left a lot of her life in a blur, we respected that, and also relied on her daughters' testimony, which we felt was important to preserve an emotional space as much as a historical account.
SM: One thing that caught my attention was, as you've just mentioned, the way you have strategically placed Sarah Maldoror's work in conversation with other contemporary artists, especially artists whose work is not directly related to film, filmmaking, or even moving images in general, but instead to sculpture, drawing, and writing. Why is it important, in this context, to include other artists in the exhibition? Was Annouchka also involved in this process?
FP: Thinking about how and who Sarah Madoror could inspire, we decided to prominently address younger black women artists living in France. Sarah Maldoror was a French artist that has never been fully recognised, so it made sense to address local artists at first, and to commission new works from local artists. Some existing pieces from international artists such as Melvin Edwards, Maud Sulter, Wifredo Lam, and Ana Mercedes Hoyos completed the puzzle, although they are not part of the slightly reduced version of the show in Lisbon.
AA: I discovered most of these young artists during the process of the exhibition; I must say that this was something very fundamental for me, and it's also part of why I am so happy to be involved in this exhibition. The fact that it features young artists who decided to pay attention to Sarah’s work and to produce new work in tribute to her was absolutely amazing, for that corresponds with who Sarah was. She liked this idea of transmission. I'm sure she would be very proud to see more than just documents and information. The fact that young artists are nourished by Sarah's work and universe is in some way a victory. That means that the paths she opened are now accessible to new generations. And they are taking them.
FP: They brought energy and warmth to an exhibition that could have also been austere, given the nature of the documents. Black and white, plenty to read… Something else needed to be added to the discourse, something more direct, more sensual.
SM: I was particularly drawn to Maya Mihindou’s work where we see the contour of a woman's silhouette against a dark background. Over her chest, there is what I would describe as a kind of a rhizome, or a web, where several names are connected or linked together. To me, the drawing represents the network, or "structure of feeling," in which Maldoror lived. There we can find names such as Glissant, Senghor, Césaire, Cabral, Mário de Andrade, Fanon, Marker, Genet, and also Annouchka and Henda, among many others that have been recognised internationally as participating in the Negritude movement. Annouchka, at the moment, how do you feel about finding yourself amongst all these historical names? What is your relationship with this cultural heritage, and how do you position yourself within it?
AA: Those people were our close friends! [chuckles] Cabral was my Godfather—I remember him as a sweet person and as my dad's best friend, not as the myth he became for others. There is a difference between a public person and a family member. Sarah Maldoror is my mom. I know that she also belongs to the public and I can't control that; but my mother is also part of my intimacy, which I won't share with anyone other than my sister or my daughter. As for what I'm trying to do now, I feel like I have a duty, a joyful duty, to preserve and promote my parents' legacy. I was afraid that Sarah could be completely forgotten. My job now is to locate and collect all the material she left and to keep it in better condition. The exhibition has given us a big boost in that direction. It is an honour for me to be a part of this project and to devote my life to it.
FP: It is interesting to think that, since Sarah passed away, very few obituaries have been published. Now, two years later, it seems as if everyone wants to know about Sarah Maldoror; the interest is huge; and Annouchka is traveling the world to screen her films. As you said, she could have been forgotten. History does not write itself, and we are proud that the exhibition has contributed to reframing a picture where she had been a peripheral figure.
AA: I'm sure that the context of feminist movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter has given the exhibition a push. Anyway, Sarah Maldoror is sort of lucky; some women before her had to wait a century to be recognised. Think of Alice Guy, for example.
FP: Of course, it provides a very exciting framework to rethink her work from today's perspective, because she was, as you say, Annouchka, an unconventional character. She acted ahead of her time in many cases, and for that she's very inspiring for our contemporary moment. Now that we have a better understanding of her work, we can recognise that.
SM: The newspaper that was published for the exhibition in Paris, and that was distributed here as well, contains an entire text by Sarah Maldoror titled “To make a film is to take a position.” This text is a statement that reflects the strong commitment to educational, anti-racist, and feminist goals that pervades all of her work, and perhaps also all of her life. Would you also consider that to make an exhibition is to take a position?
FP: You certainly need to take a position in the process of making an exhibition. On many other occasions when she was interviewed, Sarah said that she was not a feminist; that she was not interested in feminism. But we have to understand that the feminist movement in the 1970s was mostly a white feminist movement. For someone like Sarah, these feminist movements appropriated the women's struggles in ways she would not relate to. But obviously, in the text you mentioned, she has a strong take on the role of women in filmmaking and in political action. So, there is no doubt that she was indeed a feminist.
SM: How do you think this exhibition might contribute to our understanding of Portuguese colonialism?
FP: I'm not the best to judge. Our contribution is really framed as part of the practice of Sarah Maldoror’s life, but I hope we are in tune with what's going on in Portugal, with the type of research that is being conducted, and with the political acknowledgment of what Portuguese colonialism was at the time.
SM: You've stated that you didn't want this exhibition to be seen as an end in itself, but rather as a starting point for further research into the topics already addressed by Sarah Maldoror’s work. Do you think there are any films or documents in particular that should be researched immediately?
FP: Everything is pretty urgent. It's difficult to point to one film in particular. There are urgencies, for sure, especially to restore. The exhibition shows the films as they exist now, in their various qualities and various states of aging. Some are really pale, and some have been preserved miraculously. But most of it was already deteriorating. We hope, with this exhibition, to generate greater interest in her work in order to eventually find the means to restore the films.
AA: In fact, all of her work needs to be preserved and stored. We have lost the sound of some films, for example, and we still have to find five of the forty-eight films she made.
TM: Could you bring us a little bit closer to Lisbon and to the time when she made Sambizanga? This is a film that implicates the Portuguese in Angola. Also, how was your father’s relationship with Portugal? We know that part of his family is here, but he was also persecuted by the Portuguese military dictatorship. Now that the exhibition is here in Lisbon, could you say something about your parents' relationship with Portugal when you were growing up? And what can you tell us about Mário de Andrade and Mário Soares' relationship?
AA: When Sarah met Mário in the 1950s, she embraced his struggles with equal intensity. They worked together and extensively on different film projects. The first three feature films made by Sarah dealt with fights against Portuguese colonies: Monangambééé , Gun for Banta , and Sambizanga . Also, Mario translated the novel A verdadeira vida de Domingos Xavier, by Luandino Vieira, and Sarah adapted it to cinema under the title Sambizanga. Lisbon was fundamental for Mário. That was where he first arrived from Luanda and where he met Cabral and Neto, for example. The first article he ever wrote was in Lisbon on the massacre of Pidjiguiti. Later, he moved to Paris, in 1954–55, where he would always come back, always hiding, never taking the same route, never traveling by airplane, to visit his family.
The interesting thing about Mário is that he was constantly writing, and he owned thousands of books. My grandfather was also an archivist—this is very important because Mário was raised with an awareness of the importance of archives. After his death, we knew that there were some very important documents which we could not keep at home because we might have to move again or they could be damaged by water or fire… Mário Soares and Joaquim [Pinto de Andrade], my uncle, had previously been in jail together. Joaquim was very close to his brother [my father], and that is why Mário Soares was also in contact with Mário de Andrade. They were not friends, but they were close. After my father’s death, we met with Mário Soares in Paris and asked him whether it was possible to archive these documents at his foundation. To my memory, the only time we were all together after Mário's death was when we officially deposited his archive at the Mário Soares and Maria Barroso Foundation, in Lisbon, in 1998. It was a very important moment for us because it meant that the archive would be accessible to the public. For now, the archives are in Lisbon, but the personal library of Mário is in Angola. Henda and I decided to offer his personal library—almost two thousand books—to his people in Luanda, a collection that can be found in the National Archives.
SM: Do you think Sarah would have approved of this exhibition if she were still here?
FP: She was obviously someone not turned to the past. If we had approached her with the idea of such an exhibition, in my opinion, she would probably have said, “No, give me the money and I will shoot another film.”
AA: I do not agree. She liked museums and exhibitions very much; that was part of her life. The idea would have appealed to her because she would have liked to inspire the next generation. She has opened different ways for making films, and new paths for other artists to come. So, yes, she would have loved the idea that some people would depart from her work and go much further.
Sara Magno [Lisbon 1983] is a researcher in Cultural Studies at the CECC — Centro de Estudos de Comunicação e Cultura, Universidade Católica Portuguesa. She wrote her PhD thesis entitled Documentality in Contemporary Art: Paraesthetic Strategies in the Works of Salomé Lamas, Jeremy Shaw, and Louis Henderson. She completed her MA in Communication and Art at Universidade Nova de Lisboa and her BA in Art History at the Universidade de Lisboa. She is currently co-editor of Diffractions, an interdisciplinary and cross-cultural journal dedicated to the study of culture, and assistant editor of Hangar Books.
Proofreading: Diogo Montenegro
Sarah Maldoror, Cinema Tricontinental (2022). Exhibition, Galerias Municipais — Torreão Nascente da Cordoaria Nacional. Photography: Guillaume Vieira. Courtesy of Galerias Municipais de Lisboa.