My friends Malcolm and Kristina (from the Manda Wilderness Community Trust and Nkwichi Lodge) met Beto in a small studio in Albazine on the outskirts of Maputo, Mozambique. The story they had to share was so beautiful, I just had to ask them to share it with us here …
An Artisan’s Art
The wind causes the cloths to shimmy and shake on the washing line, and incandescent blue and orange drops fall in a splatter-bomb effect on the dusty ground below. The sun breaks through intermittently, and injects life into the colours, which throb as they dance in the air. Each of the materials is at a difference stage, some fully finished and drying out, others a series of lines and coloured patches, a sort of geometric puzzle or blueprint. Other prints are spread around on the paving stones, or hanging over walls. Colour falls and hangs everywhere, and I realize that it’s possible to find artists in the most unlikely corners of the world.
In a small studio in Albazine on the outskirts of Maputo, in a dusty setting which is somewhere between a township and a village, Beto works away on his batiks, much as he has done for the last 22 years. Using wax, dye and cloth, Beto uses the same tools and methods as many others but manages to create something different, a unique style that flows through his work, and shows me that not every street art vendor in the city should be painted with the same brush. Behind each there lies a story, and sometimes even beyond the struggle for profit and subsistence, there’s a struggle for recognition.
“I’ve been painting since I was 17” Beto tells me, “and I know that when I paint sincerely, God is with me, and I don’t care about money…”
After a chance meeting through a friend who knew of his work, Beto invited me to his home and studio to meet his family, and learn how he creates his work. The taxi drops me off at the end of a long driveway winding between concrete breeze-blocked walls pocketed with the odd doorframe. Beto is there waiting for me, and a small girl with sparkling-braided hair peeks out from behind his leg. “Marcos!” he greets me as he shakes my hand warmly, a name I’m becoming used to as I travel through Mozambique. He introduces me to Tina, his daughter, who giggles as she retreats further behind his thigh and he leads me past a small counter selling drinks and a few essentials. He explains that he uses some of the money he earns to run a small shop, which brings in a little extra money for the family. Clearly, having another business to supplement making batiks is a good idea.
They certainly don’t fetch much on the streets of Maputo. Batiks are often derided for their simplicity, for being a cliché of a Western tourist’s visit to a sun-soaked country, bought in all enthusiasm and then left in a drawer once home, never to see the light of day. Perhaps that’s part of it, batiks look their best with a backdrop of light, and the grey skies of Europe just don’t do them justice. Or perhaps they’re too incongruous, a painful reminder of carefree holidays and sunshine, a colourful mockery amidst a painful reality. Either way, they are often not in high demand and, even though they may be snatched up in a hurry, they continue to be produced, mostly because of the inexpensive process.
What sets Beto apart from other batik-makers however is his approach, and devotion, to his craft. For a start he no longer sells his batiks on the streets, in the popular areas of Maputo where tourists forage for mementos and gifts to take home. He found that his batiks sold well, but soon others chasing success began to copy them, and his batiks became indistinguishable from theirs. Profit came down once again to the vendor’s patter, and less to the quality of the work. Not that this puts Beto off. Despite the relatively few batiks that he manages to sell now, he still continues day after day, year after year to dream up designs that continue to dazzle those who are lucky enough to find them.
As he says, “to sell on the streets…that’s no good for those who work with love…”
In the courtyard of his home, filled with a few cats and dogs, Beto shows me his most recent work on a washing line and explains the process he goes through with each batik. Tina watches on shyly as he talks about why he designed something a certain way, or how he decided on those colours. What impresses me most is his passion, and his particularity, something more akin to artists rather than someone looking to make a little money. His studio is strewn with his work, the courtyard resembling a patchwork spray-paint blanket, a vibrant Sistine chapel hidden in the anonymous dust of urbanity. I wonder if the cats and dogs have coloured tongues from licking the paint off.
I can understand why he doesn’t want to hawk his work on the streets of Maputo. It’s by no means an easy sell standing outside of the Polana or outside the bars and nightclubs wearing down the resistance of tourists who have a habit of being forcefully sure they really don’t want anything before deciding that, actually, they would. There is a lot of street art in Maputo, some of it very good, some of it equally bad and more often sold on the basis of persuasion rather than due to its quality. If you want to sell your work on the streets there are a limited number of venues, competition is hard, and the window of opportunity is small and full of broken panes.
Some artists manage to ‘make it’, transcending their urban setting and breaking into the art scene proper, where the more discerning, and rich, resident development workers and businessmen offer a much more lucrative market. Kestor became famous with his sculptures of AK-47s, which now sell for thousands of dollars. The work of Renata, a Makonde sculptor from a small village thousands of kilometres from Maputo, has become highly sought after, and its not rare to enter into a house of affluence in the city and be confronted by the multitude of arms and heads of one of her sculptures.
Beto is on this path, though he’s yet to attain such a level. The quality of his work is beyond doubt but it takes more than a little luck to break through, and this hasn’t yet been forthcoming. Having said that, Beto explains to me that a well-known director sought him out recently and asked to use his batiks in a film. He was producing a film, funded by the EU, which highlighted and celebrated their collaboration with Mozambique over the last 20 years. Beto’s batiks would be turned into an animation, his characters made to move to tell an African tale of cooperation. We watch the film later on my laptop and the animation is by far the best part of the film (which, to be fair, is perhaps to be expected of a government-funded film).
And this is actually what makes Beto’s batiks stand out against others. Each of them tells a story, using the lines, shapes and figures to bring the characters and colours to life. You can imagine them being used to illustrate a story, each of them an everyday scene pulled from a world of mystic tradition or vivacious reality. A batik may be a relatively simple way of putting colour on canvas, and they’re much more print than painting, but what they lack in complexity they more than make up for in feeling. And meeting Beto and his family in his own setting, seeing his toil against all expectation, makes me understand that it’s this very struggle, this devotion to his production, that shines from each of his batiks, and what separates him as an artist.