Both Uambembe’ Parents are Angolans (she born in Pomfret South Africa), who fled from the civil war, her father was a soldier of the 32 Battalion. The 32 Battalion and her Angolan heritage are dominated themes in Uambembe’ work. The 32 Battalion was a military unit within the South African Defence Force mainly made up of black Angolan Soldiers.
Uambembe explores the history and the narratives about the 32 Battalion by making use of symbolism and archival materials.
She works in a variety of mediums such as photography, video, sound, performance, installation and printmaking.

Portrait of Neto and I, 2019, ©Helena Uambembe

PD: Please describe yourself, your practice and aspiration?
HU: Describing my self is honestly a daunting task because I have to talk about myself. Well, I guess we could start with I identify as a girl and I am an artist. Part of my description would be that I am an artist born in South Africa to Angolan parents. My work revolves around my family history which is tied to the Angolan Civil War but also claiming and questioning an identity that I have often performed. My parents especially my father insisted on the fact that I am Angolan more, so I am Umbundu and that one should take pride in it. My practice takes form in performance, photography, video, installation and printmaking. My history and that of Angola is to complex to just use one medium to express it.

PD: The idea of home for many people means the place where the heart belongs, does that notion of home has any link with childhood to you? Please guide us to the place that you call home?
HU: Pomfret is home. Pomfret is a small town on the outskirts of the North West Provence in South Africa. This desert town is home to many Soldiers of the former soldiers of the 32 Battalion. Before Pomfret, Buffalo was home to the 32 Battalion. Buffalo was in Namibia, on the banks of the Okavango River.
Pomfret is home because well that was where I was born, where I have my fondest memories. It is where my identity of “Angolana” was confirmed and my identity of South African was questioned. Pomfret carries a lot of emotions but it is also my source of inspiration. But most importantly it is where my mother died and is buried.

PD: Who are your childhood legends? Please describe the relationship with them.
HU: My mother, my father and my brother; I know this may sound silly but the musician Paulo Flores and Irmaos Verdades. My mother because I believe that she is the strongest women to have ever lived, one of her biggest dreams was to see her children finish school. She sold bread that she would bake every morning to send her eight kids to school and here I am her wildest dream. Sadly, she did not live long enough to see me finish High School and graduate university.
My father because I finally understand him, investigating his personal history in the war and in the 32 Battalion, understanding his trauma, I have more respect for him and more empathy.
My brother because he was the artist of the house, and all I wanted to do was draw like him and honestly that is still was I would like to do.
Irmaos Verdades was something that was always played at parties when I was younger, their music comes with a lot of memory. Even after always listening to them my kizomba skills still lack but they used to carry me to another world. Paulo Flores used to inform me about what was happening in Angola. He is so poetic in his music and writing, he is a profound storyteller. Till today his music holds a lot of memory for me and they have influenced how I used spoken word and music in my art.

PD: Your practice encompasses painting, written, performance… Please elaborate on what role they play on your process and your approach with each one? (you can refine it to suits your practice).
HU: My practice encompasses performance, installation, photography, video, printmaking. My performances are often my reactions to stories that I hear in the community, most stories are imbedded in trauma, art-making has become a form of coping mechanism. I used different mediums in an attempt to archive history that is only told through stories. It also allows being to get away with some commentaries that would not be permitted to say out loud.

Chipenda, Savimbi, Roberto and I, 2019, ©Helena Uambembe

PD: Please take us through your creative process and how different places may affect or influence your work?
HU: I usually start by going through my personal archive of interview, videos or photographs. There is an extensive research period. The is no set process, it flows naturally, depending on the content that I would like to work with or the theme. With printmaking, I usually like experimenting with different techniques. My preferred techniques are paper lithography, silk-screening and recently I have been experimenting with cyanotype.

PD: Using your past, present or on-going projects as examples, please tell us more about the themes you are dealing with, your interests and how it gives emphasis to your work?
HU: I deal with memory, collective memory, identity, location. Mt current body of work explores the year 1976 in the context of Angolan history as well as South Africa’s history. 1976 was the year that the Battalion was officially formed. The founding Soldiers force numbers start with 76. In the community, they have been nicknamed “Sete Seis”. I am looking at the circumstances that lead to that fateful year. But more especially exploring my fathers’ personal story because he is a “Sete Seis”. Through this, I am also attempting to trace my family origin.

PD: What are the iconography has the most significant meaning to you and has influenced directly or indirectly you practice? Please share it with us?
HU: The buffalo. The buffalo is the insignia used for the 32 Battalion. But I also see it like a beast that has consumed people. I associate the buffalo with a story my brother in law told me of the Tchingangi in Buffalo and how it would go look for uncircumcised boys, and how it would swallow the boys and how some of the boys would never come back. It is the same with the 32 Battalion, where young Angolan men, refugees, children were recruited by the South African Army many of them did not survive, many came back broken.

Viva Liberdade, 2019, ©Helena Uambembe

PD: Could you define your practice using four descriptive keywords::
HU: Striking, honest, emotional and necessary.

PD: Please, do share with us any thoughts, worries, suggestions or criticism regarding the state of art in the world by emphasizing the Angola art scene?
HU: I think Angolan art is on the right track. I think it has something new to offer, it is still very much an untapped art market. Artist like Nástio Mosquito, Kiluanji Kia Henda, Antonio Ole and the curator Paula Nascimento gave me motivation and inspiration to carry on with art when I was a student and wanted to give many times. The way these individuals where able to put Angolan art on the map despite all the difficulties is admirable. However, I do have to highlight in my shortlist of artists there are no females, maybe it is my ignorance but there seems to be a lack of female artist. And yes, I do know of Keyezua but there needs to be more elevation of a female artist.

PD: Is there anything relevant that you would like to share with us, by taking on the cultural Angolan context?
HU: One thing that I am happy about is that the borders of Angola are now more open, and the is no strict visa requirements that had turned people away. Now they are the opportunity to create art tourism to Angola. Hopefully, there will be more residency, workshops and projects.

The Forgotten, 2019, ©Helena Uambembe
The Unknown, 2019, ©Helena Uambembe

PD: Open note: used the space below to share anything that you may think is relevant (fiction or reality).
HU: I am as Angolan as Palm oil is.

More about Helena.