Planting seeds of opposition: Cabral’s cultural front

  • March 4, 2022

Imperialism & Insurgency

Amílcar Cabral’s vision of liberation through the creative expression of the oppressed remains central to contemporary anti-colonial struggle.

Image: Bertina Lopes’ painting “Tribute to Amílcar Cabral” (1973) overlaid with the portrait of Amílcar Cabral

From the 1950s to the early ‘70s, uprisings across Africa saw workers, peasants, artists and intellectuals taking up arms against their European oppressors. In the Lusophone colonies and provinces — then under the control of Portugal’s dictator António de Oliveira Salazar — revolutionary leaders like Amílcar Cabral advocated for a socialism rooted in African culture. From the humanist literature of his native Cape Verde to the radical imaginary of the Harlem Renaissance and Négritude, art was key to Cabral’s understanding of shared struggle across the diaspora, providing an early foundation for the anti-colonial theory he developed with the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and the Cape Verde Islands (PAIGC).

African decolonization occurred within the context of the Cold War, with communist and capitalist countries vying for ideological influence over the continent. The International Congress of Africanists (ICA), a conference dedicated to African art in the 1960s and ‘70s, found anti-colonial supporters like the Soviet Union, Cuba and China competing with the United States and France to form alliances with emerging nationalist leaders. This came just a few years after what British journalist and historian Frances Stonor Saunders described as the “Cultural Cold War,” in which US intelligence agencies pitted Abstract Expressionism as an ideological alternative to Socialist Realism. The use of culture in advancing a political strategy was central to Cabral’s writings, in which he outlined a Pan-African vision of liberation rooted in the creative expression of the oppressed.

Cabral’s engagement with diaspora art and literature, along with his agricultural studies of Portuguese peasants, all contributed to his internationalist perspective, supporting socialist revolution against the Portuguese Empire both in the colonies and in Portugal itself. His integral theory of cultural nationalism, developed throughout his life, remains influential in contemporary critiques of racial capitalism and neocolonialism. In addition, it remains a vital framework for broadening our knowledge of socialist and anti-colonial art.

While the Portuguese Empire enforced its language and institutions on indigenous populations, Cabral theorized that a cultural counteroffensive would be key to liberation. Throughout the period of increased mobilization against colonial regimes in the Third World, Black painters and poets across the Lusophone colonies pushed back against Salazar’s Estado Novo (New State) regime by withdrawing from prominent exhibitions and denouncing the role of colonial art in the fetishization of African life, all while organizing with Marxist political parties and waging guerrilla warfare against occupying military forces.

Cabral understood that, to propel a nationalist movement forward, art must cross into the realm of social change. His essays and speeches move from political commentary to poetics and criticism, pitted directly against the cultural hegemony imposed by capitalist superpowers to stop the spread of Third-Worldism. Today, European museums are only beginning to recognize politically active artists from the decolonization period, coincidentally as they take slow steps to meet repatriation demands — most notably in the campaigns to return the Benin Bronzes. Western cultural institutions go to great lengths to preserve their credibility, eager not to be seen on the wrong side of history. Nearly 50 years after Cabral’s assassination in 1973, however, traces of his cultural front continue to manifest in anti-colonial art movements around the world, which stand antithetical to the contemporary liberal art world.

Poetic Justice

Before becoming a revolutionary, Cabral engaged with Pan-Africanism through literature. Raised in Cape Verde at the height of Claridade and Certeza — two journals that centered the struggles of daily life — he spent his college years in Portugal, absorbed in radical books and pamphlets by diaspora writers in Europe. While he eventually garnered a reputation as a political leader, guerrilla fighter and agricultural engineer, Cabral’s first passion was poetry. His earliest writings are short, impassioned verses from his teenage years, when he wrote of a “struggle” to which poetry can “bind life.” “My poetry is me,” he concluded in a piece he authored in 1946, at the age of 22, that was rejected by influential Portuguese literary review, Seara Nova.

While studying at Lisbon’s School of Agronomics in the late 1940s, he joined a literary circle of like-minded Marxists from Portuguese colonies, including Mozambican poet Marcelino dos Santos, Angolan poets Agostinho Neto — who would later become Angola’s first president — and Mário Pinto de Andrade, and fellow Cape Verdean poets António Nunes and Aguinaldo Fonseca. Each of these poets would go on to fight in wars for independence, but this initial contact in Portugal bridged a divide perpetuated by the colonial regime — laying the groundwork for an international movement when they returned to Africa.

Over the years, as he matured from young organizer to nationalist leader, poetics became Cabral’s method of translating unrest into concerted action. In “National Liberation and Culture,” a 1970 speech honoring Mozambican revolutionary Eduardo Mondlane, he espoused his belief that culture is a “product” of a nation’s history, “just as the flower is the product of a plant.” Colonized Africans had long envisioned their freedom in art, music, dance and spirituality, and, building on this, Cabral advocated for a politics rooted in culture. Pan-African artists of this era helped spread an aesthetic of internationalist pride, in what Cabral deemed the “popular character of the culture,” devoid of individual privilege.

Cabral’s critique of Western imperialism and culture was dialectical and epistemological – examining capitalism and colonialism through material conditions and prevailing aesthetics. “The value of culture as an element of resistance to foreign domination lies in the fact that culture is the vigorous manifestation on the ideological or idealist plane of the physical and historical reality of the society that is dominated or to be dominated,” he said in “National Liberation and Culture.”

For Cabral, culture was not just the manifestation of a people’s consciousness; it was proof that total control over a population was unattainable. He contended that complete suppression could only be attained by exterminating the population, as the Nazis — whom he described as “the most tragic expression of imperialism and of its thirst for domination” — had attempted. “As long as there continues to exist a part of [the dominated] people retaining their own cultural life, foreign domination cannot be sure of its perpetuation,” he said.

Indeed, colonized people’s communal art practices inevitably carried expressions of anti-colonial sentiment. For indigenous populations under Portuguese rule, cultural production was the sole realm of planting what Cabral called the “seed of opposition” to structure the liberation movement, in preparation for broader methods of outright confrontation. “At any moment,” he said, “depending on internal and external factors determining the evolution of the society in question, cultural resistance (indestructible) may take on new forms (political, economic, armed) in order fully to contest foreign domination.”

“Everything starts with culture, everything starts with reading, everything starts with poetry,” says Cabral biographer António Tomás. He posits that the most prescient problem for Cabral to solve was not capitalism but colonialism, and that in Portugal, cultural spaces allowed for some level of organizing under severe political repression. As media activist and author Jacquie Luqman noted in a recent discussion, anti-colonial movements were fighting against the destruction of their own history. For Cabral, art instilled a “social conscience… in the search for survival and progress.” In the spirit of his contemporaries Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon, he considered liberation movements in the global periphery — formed through the intertwined experience of race and class — to be at a more developed and revolutionary point than the European left, whose reductive focus on capital and labor obscured the broader realities of imperialism and white supremacy.

Focusing on the foundational connections of race and class was not so much a rejection of Marxism as an expansion, embodying a central tenet of the Black radical tradition. Moreover, Cabral’s analysis emerged as one thread within larger debates around the role of culture in African liberation. In his On African Socialism, Senegalese political leader and poet Léopold Senghor argued that Karl Marx’s “methods and means” of addressing class oppression were not entirely relevant to an emerging Africa, but that socialism instead grew out of the people’s predisposition to collective action. Senghor’s notion of an ingrained communalism, however, was critiqued by his Ghanaian peer Kwame Nkrumah. For Nkrumah, socialism meant a form of social organization that required a historical materialist view of any society in accordance with demographic and technological developments. Rather than look to pre-colonial traditions, he argued that socialists must look forward based on present circumstances.

Cabral no doubt aligned more closely with Nkrumah’s view, as he developed a class-based analysis of the differences between Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau. He pointed to this more specifically in his essay “Unity and Struggle,” presenting a two-fold dilemma for the PAIGC: “The significance of our struggle is not only in respect of colonialism, it is also in respect of ourselves. Unity and struggle. Unity for us to struggle against the colonialists and struggle for us to achieve our unity, for us to construct our land as it should be.” Colonialism stifled historical and creative development, thereby making African art — which challenged the colonial regime and asserted equality for all colonized people — a key aspect of revolution. The struggle, therefore, was not to revert to an elementary Africanism, but to build new social structures aligned with each nation’s contemporary needs, all rooted in solidarity against Western cultural hegemony.

The PAIGC’s Return to the Source

For centuries, Portugal had maintained control over Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau as sites of transit for the transatlantic slave trade. Still in Cabral’s time, indigenous populations were considered socially inferior to whites by Portuguese law. While those who assimilated renounced their indigenous status to join the colonial bureaucracy in Cape Verde, the indigenous of Guinea-Bissau were stripped of tribal sovereignty and discriminated against in work and trade.

This was the case when Cabral moved to Guinea-Bissau in the early 1950s to find a job in agronomy, an experience that would come to clarify and radicalize his political worldview. For all his exposure to and participation in diaspora cultural movements since the 1940s, Cabral’s convictions as a Pan-African nationalist were not so clear-cut until he engaged with the situation in Guinea-Bissau. He was of a relatively privileged strata in Cape Verde, formed through the tensions between assimilation and self-determination — specifically, the choice between working for the empire or rebellion. His hands-on work as an agronomist, however, exposed him to the plight of the Guinean peasants who could not afford taxes and were either forced into labor or criminalized, leading to worker revolts and police violence. It was the men and women of this emerging lumpenproletariat that would form the basis of the revolutionary PAIGC, which Cabral co-founded in 1956.

After failed appeals to the United Nations in 1962 and repeated rejections of negotiations from the Portuguese, Cabral and the PAIGC mobilized the Fulani, Balanta and Mandinka masses into armed conflict, using radio to disseminate propaganda across cultural, ethnic and linguistic barriers. In the prolonged Guinea-Bissau War for Independence (1963-1974), the PAIGC forces out-maneuvered the Portuguese through their embeddedness in the local population, familiarity with the terrain and the proximity of their cross-border allies, patiently carving out “liberated zones” as they advanced. A rare Granada Productions documentary from this period captures the early stages of “nation-building” — with rebel units constructing their own hospitals and schools or working alongside local peasants, helping them to improve their farming practices, while continuing their campaign on the remaining Portuguese-held territory. For the Portuguese, this front became one of many, as they faced simultaneous liberation struggles in Angola and Mozambique.

As the war progressed, Cabral traveled to Italy, Cuba, Tanzania, Algeria, the US and elsewhere, speaking on his strategy to “return to the source” of shared cultural values across classes. In these speeches, he pointed to the “undeniable reality” of Africa manifesting in “works of art as well as in oral and written traditions, in cosmological conceptions as well as in music and dance, in religions and beliefs.” Rather than a regression to pre-colonial traditions, Cabral believed that developing a new nation from the ground up, with the lessons learned from the colonial period, would eventually render class distinctions obsolete. This principle of what he called “class suicide” was inherently cultural in its opposition to capitalist assimilation, predicting an eventual breakdown of divisions between peasant, agricultural worker and petty bourgeoisie.

Countering Colonial Aesthetics

By the mid-20th century, the Portuguese Empire had gradually expanded its aesthetic purview across the Lusophone colonies. Salazar expressed a chauvinistic sense of ownership over African art but ignored the harsh realities of colonized artists living under his regime. In the early days of his rule, the 1934 Portuguese Colonial Exhibition in Porto embodied this racist ideology, showing off “achievements” of colonized artists to give spectators a microcosmic tour of the empire. This was followed by a 1940 exhibition heralding a new era of “discovery” that glossed over long-standing colonial tensions. By the early 1960s, Salazar was bringing African artists to the São Paulo Biennial in Brazil, promoting Portugal as a diplomatic and peaceful world power that celebrated its African artists. Much of these developments reflected Salazar’s long-term efforts to place Portugal on par with other colonial-imperial powers like Britain and the US, which were both keeping the Estado Novo afloat through military and financial support.

Concurrently, Pan-African arts events like the 1966 First World Festival of Negro Arts in Senegal celebrated Black artists who rarely adhered to realism or abstraction, often crossing into Expressionism and Surrealism to portray the joys and hardships of daily life. For anti-colonial painters and poets in the Lusophone colonies, inspiration thus came from an artwork’s utility in shaping contemporary realities, much like Socialist Realism in Russia and China and the colorful propaganda posters of the Organización de Solidaridad de los Pueblos de Asia, África y América Latina (OSPAAAL) in Cuba.

In Angola and Mozambique, paintings and literature directly served the revolution by uplifting proletarian struggle. During the Angolan War of Independence (1961-1974), socialist painter Vitor Manuel Teixeira (known as “Viteix”) and his contemporaries organized the União Nacional dos Artistas Plásticos (National Artists Union) to bring art into nationalist education programs. Like Cabral, Viteix studied art in Lisbon and Paris, engaging with Pan-Africanism through popular literary journal, Présence Africaine. Angolan writers and poets like Luandino Vieira and António Cardoso confronted the Portuguese regime in their work and, along with Viteix, were exiled until post-independence. Salazar frequently ordered the International State Defense Police (PIDE) to censor or jail artists who refused to participate in colonial art programs, leading many musicians, painters and writers to flee to other countries.

In Mozambique, painters like Valente Ngwenya Malangatana, Bertina Lopes and Noel Langa organized with the Liberation Front of Mozambique (FRELIMO). These artists employed a collectivist style of Surrealism in colorful public frescoes and murals at the Museum of Natural History and Centre of African Studies at Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo. All three were persecuted during the Mozambican War for Independence (1964-1974) for speaking out against Salazar. More recently, their work has been acquired by US museums and presented as individual representative examples of Mozambican artistic merit — particularly with Malangatana’s work in a popular Surrealism exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. This curatorial approach tends to filter out political context and retrospectively makes the artists appear as unwitting assimilados. In our present era of neocolonialism and latent anti-communism, attempts to “return to the source” clearly still threaten the liberal Western art-world, which tends to appraise revolutionary artists as examples of individual genius in hindsight.

Following Cabral’s assassination by Portuguese-backed agents, Bertina Lopes painted the sublime “Tribute to Amílcar Cabral” (1973). She depicts Cabral’s ascension in bold shades of crimson, with a beacon shining above the African masses and Portuguese soldiers in pith helmets. Across the wood stretcher on its backside, she scrawled the message, “Cabral has died physically, not only in Guinea, but in all of Africa, all the world! But he lives on … forever!” and clarified that the work should never be sold — a directive that was since ignored. More than a eulogy, “Tribute” was Lopes’ way of critiquing, in both style and substance, a world order that commodifies every ounce of expression for profit at the expense of underdeveloped nations. Lopes had long rejected European colonialism’s monopoly on African culture, withdrawing from the São Paulo Biennial in 1963, and her subsequent fleeing to Europe speaks to the perpetual state of fugitivity for colonized artists living in the aftermath of a suppressed revolution.

Theory in Practice

The revolutions of the decolonization period were met with violent counterinsurgencies from the US and Europe, resulting in our present era of neocolonialism. Since then, African art has continued to reflect on the Guinea-Bissau War of Independence, critiquing the prolonged influence of imperialism through methods of aesthetic corruption. Guinean filmmakers and PAIGC members Sana N’Hada and Flora Gomes, who documented nation-building efforts during the war, weaved their archives into the 1980 documentary Guinea-Bissau Six Years After, in which footage of Cabral unfolds in grainy, eroded celluloid — reflecting colonialism’s slow decay. More recently in 2012, Colombian photographer Juan Orranta ventured to the capital city of Bissau to identify visual traces of Cabral’s legacy. He found small glimmers of radical optimism in the daily lives of ordinary people, despite decades of political and economic instability in a country labeled Africa’s first “narco-state” by the UN.

The year of Orranta’s visit, Guinea-Bissau experienced a military coup following the death of President Malam Bacai Sanhá of the PAIGC. Since the attempted restoration of tentative democracy in 2014, the country is still struggling to emerge from its long-standing economic and political crises; yet another coup attempt occurred on Feb 1, 2022, one of several across the continent over the past 18 months — many with increasingly blatant US influence via the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM).

Amidst such upheaval, contemporary Guinean artists are still committed to critically portraying the contradictions of neocolonial life. Groups like Netos de Bandim highlight the resilience of everyday people, tribal history and enduring connections to the land. Mamadù Bangura’s painting “Mama Africa” (2015) shows a matronly woman walking tall across the continent, evoking the Pan-African vision. Other artists remain more outwardly critical of outside expropriators. In his “Iniquitous Thought” (2015), for example, satirical cartoonist Youssouf Ben Oscar Barry shows a businessman’s finger running through Africa, with US Dollar and Euro signs chained together below.

Across the wider Global South, liberation movements have been working to restore historical consciousness through art, putting Cabral’s theory in practice. The archives of Malian artistic and agricultural cooperative Somankidi Coura exemplify how migrant workers and activists developed photography practices centering their self-reliance and evading the colonial gaze. The fine arts, particularly paintings depicting the full spectrum of experiences of the Bangladesh Liberation War, were seen as a valued part of the struggle — later leading to the founding of the influential Shilpakala Academy, which integrated art into national culture. Contemporary literacy campaigns in Brazil, India and Kenya emphasize the role of art in education. In Bolivia, the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) has been connecting decolonial art and infrastructure by tearing down Spanish landmarks and installing community housing adorned in colors of the Wiphala flag. These organizing efforts, which link material with cultural production, reveal how art outside the capitalist market is still very much engaged in collective efforts for self-determination.

Cabral’s assassination in 1973 came just one year before the Carnation Revolution in Portugal brought an end to the Estado Novo — a decisive factor in Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau’s eventual independence from Portugal. While the colonial regime was decisively toppled, subsequent periods of political instability show that Cabral’s revolution remains unfinished — further proving that “postcolonialism” is a misleading term. Today, colonial forces in the US and Europe continue to import African art while asserting indirect control over the continent, fortifying their murderous borders and exploiting native resources. The colonial drain of wealth across the Global South continues with complicity from major art institutions, leading to a new abolitionist critique against the interlocking directorate of money-laundering financiers, fossil fuel executives and weapons manufacturers running Western museums.

Portugal has seen its own iteration of the global far-right resurgence, with racialized violence on the rise, especially against diaspora Africans. As such, Cabral’s cultural front remains central to understanding the prolonged struggle against new generations of the same enemy — wherever traditions of imperialist entitlement and white supremacy still need to be dismantled.

Billie Anania

Billie Anania is an editor, critic and journalist in New York City whose work focuses on political economy in the cultural industries and the history of art in global liberation movements.

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