TERESA KUTALA FIRMINO

Teresa Kutala Firmino was born in 1993 in Pomfret a farmer military camp in the North West. She now works and lives in Johannesburg. 
She is a multimedia artist working with mediums such as paint, photography and performance. She is part of a collective called Kutala Chopeto. The collective started as an investigation in their history which is linked to the 32 Battalion. Their work addresses issues of identity, heritage and history associated with their family’s migration. Similar to her work in the collective, she takes different stories that are derived from the Pomfret community and restructures, rewrites and re-imagines them in different art forms.

A Diasporic Gaze, ©Teresa Kutala Firmino

PD: Please describe yourself, your practice and aspiration?

TKF: My name is Teresa Kutala Firmino; I am a young black female artist, born in 1993 a year before the South African democratic elections, in a small desert military town called Pomfret. I have just recently completed my Masters in Fine Arts at the Witwatersrand University and live and work in Johannesburg. That is who I am on paper. I am Angolan, Congolese, and South African at heart. I carry all the nuisances of being from multiple places. My practice is about all the above-mentioned things, race, gender, politics and the complexities within these discourses. My aspirations right now are to be a successful artist in an industry where many young black females have been overlooked.

PD: The idea of home for many people mean the place where the heart belonged, is that notion of home has any link with childhood to you? Please guide us to the place that you call home?

TKF: The question of belonging has always been an emotional one for me. I have always found comfort in being South African until I encountered the uncomfortable truth about who I really am or how people in South Africa see me. I always knew that I was different but never questioned my identity as a South African. I remember in primary school the other black children would tell me to sit down whenever the teacher counted the different races in the classroom. They would, without doubt, tell the teacher that I was not black because I didn’t speak their language or the texture of my hair was too soft or my English was too good and there was something odd about my accent. I was definitely not white or Indian, too dark to be coloured and not black enough to be “black”. When you are at home, you don’t think about “who you are”; “who you are” is all around you but as soon as you leave your comfort zone there are triggers everywhere. In a taxi, having to explain to the taxi driver why you responded to his question in English, always having to explain why you do not have an “African” surname. Even during the xenophobic attacks in 2012, I found comfort in my identity book until my older sister was attacked in a taxi because she didn’t understand Zulu. The first thing they told her is to go back to where she came from.

I could imagine her, as I do sometimes as well, thinking where do I go back too? We have only known South Africa as home, Angola is this distant place that some of us might never see.

I visited Angola in 2015. I was told that I would feel right at home because everyone spoke Portuguese as I do. Instead, everything in Angola was unfamiliar; I felt more like a foreigner in Angola than in South Africa. The Angolans noticed that I was different; I guess my broken Portuguese spoken with the “wrong” accent as well. They couldn’t understand why I used phrases like “eish” and “neh”. They found it funny that I could not believe that Shoprite was so clean in Luanda and called me a “spoilt brat” for complaining about dirty tap water. Home, then, becomes an imagined place that cannot be fixed to land, in both countries. I have to constantly negotiate who I am. I am both a foreigner and a native that always has to explain because you can only be one of the two. How does one feel unwelcomed in their own home? And if you are home why do you feel the need to feel welcome.

PD: Who are your childhood legends? Please describe the relationship with them.

TKF: My Grandmother, her strength inspires me. How does a girl from a small village in Angola survive a child marriage, and abusive relationships, civil war, borders wars and ending up in South Africa? They type of pain and experience she has is something I could never imagine.

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).

TKF: They might be different mediums but they both do the same thing for me: they tell stories. I see both as tools to tell my stories and the stories of others. I usually begin a project or art piece with a story in mind and the medium allows me to explore the narrative in different ways. Performance is more of a happening even if it is recorded I could never experience that situation again. Sometimes, even if I have practised the performance several times, the atmosphere, people and space give a lot of opportunities to improve. Painting, on the other hand, is about time and choices. I can start a painting with a certain sketch or idea but because I spend so much time looking at it new ideas and thoughts manifest. This is why my paintings are so layered, the stories become multiple stories, from the past, present and future.

A Band of Baboons, ©Teresa Kutala Firmino

PD: Please take us through your creative process and how different places may affect or influence your work?

TKF: As I mentioned above, I usually start a project with a story in mind. Whether it is a personal story or world news. Currently, I have been working mostly with paintings, so most of my stories a told through my paintings. After thinking about a story and doing the research I begin collecting images from the internet, magazines and newspapers.

These images could relate to my story or not and some do or do not end up on that specific painting. While painting I always begin by creating a setting or as some have said a stage for my characters that would be performing the story. Then it becomes a process of layering colours, lines and figures. Often the story I started with remains on the painting and sometimes it becomes a completely new story.

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?

TKF: My ongoing project has always been Rewriting History, especially African history that is in turn world history. Rewriting history is an act of reimagining one’s past in a world of pre-inscribed histories that have set themselves as truth. The exercise demands that one re-imagine their own pasts, complicating these histories. In order for one to reimagine history, one has to borrow from the past and present knowledge. Histories are always in the present, they carry themselves from one’s own personal memories to street signs and old buildings. In the process of rewriting stories, one has to borrow from the past and present to rebuild archives.

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?

TKF: I think images of Africa or rather representations of what Africa is, whether they are stereotypical, colonial, futuristic etc. This can range from images of political figures to certain colours and objects. They appear in my work in different ways.

PD: Could you define your practice using four descriptive keywords:

TKF: Political, storytelling, reconstructing and dismantling.

Museum Of The Dead Playing Dress Up, ©Teresa Kutala Firmino

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?

TKF: For me, Art is supposed to be one of the industries that allow people to speak or as they say “the mirror of the world”. The silencing and control of artist in Africa, one of the most artistic continents in the world, is troubling. Why must we travel to the land of our oppressors to make work about our homes?

PD: Is there anything relevant that you would like to share with us, by taking on the cultural Angolan context?

TKF: I don’t think you can separate politics. The same politics the cultural scene is experiencing is a reflection of the country, continent and world. If not then we are in trouble.

PD: Open note: used the space below to share anything that you may think is relevant. (fiction or reality)

TKF: Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness!

More about Teresa.


BY JANUARIO JANO, 2019 © PD