There are a lot more flat surfaces in Maputo’s bairros than there used to be. Houses and fences were once made exclusively from bundled reeds and corrugated zinc and oil drums split open and beaten into panels. Today, though, well into the Age of Concrete, there are now countless vertical acres of suitable canvass. Most concrete-block walls, at least outside walls, remain gray and blank, except for where kids use chalk or charcoal to solve math problems or to spell out their names. Graffiti is rare. Against the general chromatic sameness of the Chamanculo streetscape, Lourinho Makwakwa’s vibrant wall reliefs are like sunflowers in dirt.
I’m not familiar with the early and middle periods of Makwakwa’s career. It’s said he was in Malangatana’s circle, that he made a name for himself in the 1960s and 1970s, that he earned a fellowship to study art in Portugal during the last years of colonial rule. Following independence, he ran afoul of Frelimo, perhaps because of his Portuguese associations, and so he never enjoyed the government support that his peers did. That he worked drunk didn’t help his job prospects any. I don’t think anyone’s cataloged Makwakwa’s work. His late period, though, is visible all over Chamanculo. Makwakwa painted, but he preferred to sculpt in cement, and in a burst of concentrated effort between 2003 and 2004 he sculpted a number of wall reliefs for friends of his. They’d supply bags of cement and alcohol. The walls he did free of charge.
Makwakwa reliefs were construction projects. He would prepare a wall by hammering in the outer faces of concrete blocks and then inserting steel bars to reinforce the craggy, projecting features he intended to sculpt. He’d apply the cement paste by hand, holding it in place until it was firm enough. It doesn’t seem color interested him much, or maybe he just had trouble finishing what he started. He’d leave the job of painting the reliefs to his assistant.
Makwakwa’s home and studio shocked me when I first saw it. Every block in the structure had been punched in, as if the house were built of rows of rotting teeth. I didn’t know until recently that Makwakwa punched in each block himself in preparation for what was to be his crowning achievement. A patron had donated 100 bags of cement so that Makwakwa could turn his house into an inhabited sculpture. But the artist used the bags for other projects. It’s possible he simply sold them off. Today the house sits abandoned. It’s the only uninhabited house I’ve come across in Chamanculo.
The masterwork Makwakwa did finish (though did not paint) is not on public display. It’s the interior of the house where he spent his teens, a house that now belongs to his nephew, Aporim Massinga. When Makwakwa lived there, the house was wood-framed and zinc-paneled. When he learned that Massinga was converting it into concrete block, he offered his services. He camped out on his nephew’s couch for month, and from morning to night he’d be at work on the east wall. Unlike the abstractions of the exterior walls he did around the neighborhood, this wall features a family portrait, not of any family in particular, Massinga told me, but of a man and woman and their children. One of the children is now obscured by a curio. I suppose the bearded man, with a gourd of traditional brew at hand, might be Makwakwa himself. All of the figures have deeply grooved slits for eyes. They’re worn out.
In June I interviewed Gabriel Chiau, the musician, and I was pleased to find in Chiau’s yard two more Makwakwa works to add to the catalog. One was the typical Makwakwa wall, but with musical notes and a drum. The other is likely Makwakwa’s last work, which he did two days before his death, in 2005. Once a year people in southern Mozambique celebrate the cashew by drinking a cashew brew, and Chiau invited Makwakwa for drinks under the big mafureira tree in his yard. At some point in the festivities, Makwakwa got up, grabbed a piece of charcoal, and sketched a scene above the table where Chiau stacked his empty bottles. “He said it was his Last Supper and he sat down again and said a few words I can’t remember.” Chiau later hired Makwakwa’s assistant to paint the apostles’ heads brown.