Mozambique: Culture capitals, Paris, New York... Maputo

Art permeates the streets of Maputo

Art permeates the streets of Maputo.

Pouring out from the house is a drumbeat. It’s pounding over the traffic of the wide avenue to where I stand on the opposite pavement surrounded by second hand shoes, artfully arranged by one of Africa’s many footpath vendors. This is Maputo, scene of my weekend cultural odyssey.


Art: Situated just off one of Maputo’s main drags, in between a strip of local bars and a posh shopping centre, Núcleo De Arte made its name as a gallery through artists who turned the decommissioned, rusting weapons of Mozambique’s too-long civil war into sculptures.

Walking into the main building I am shocked to find it is almost empty. On the walls are photo prints, they are interesting photos – arresting faces framed by cracked doorways – but they are unframed on flimsy, glossy, poster print.

The building itself looks decrepit. Partitioning rooms are torn sheets, in one corner is a pile of rubbish, the Portuguese-only explanation of the photographs on one wall is no good to me.

Is this an art installation? Is it meant to look like a squat?

Outside I walk through the funky café and friendly workshop where artists with Bob Marley dreadlocks stand over a palette discussing the exact shade needed for a piece. I pass massive metal sculptures and finally find what I’ve come here to see.

A ubiquitous African drummer – his drum a bazooka casing, the drummer himself made up of rifle parts. The artist is Arlindo, the piece ‘O Batuqueiro’ and it’s selling for $700 (US).

Further along there is a cow with the head of a handgun and a machine gun tilling a field – the wooden butt broken raggedly making the farmer’s hair.

A chair made up of various weapons, costing $1,000 (US), sits near the doorway. A similar one is being sat on in the artist’s workshop.

The signature pieces of Núcleo De Arte are nestled among various sculptures and paintings representing almost every genre imaginable: Rembrandt-esque, Picasso-esque, video game fantasy, material and paint on canvas, ‘traditional’ art not too dissimilar to what is sold to tourists at local markets.

The space is cramped, and despite some stand out pieces, both paintings and sculpture, it looks more like a jumble sale than an art gallery. On the way out I learn that the main building (where the photographs are) is being renovated, hence the current cramped conditions. That’s good news for the artists – sad news for my theory of the disorder being part of an art installation.

Still, it could have been, and it’s random question marks like these entwined with Maputo’s chaotic past and present, which mark out this unscripted art-gallery experience.


Live music and dance: It’s Friday night and some of the options (all less than $10 (US) in the immediate vicinity of my city hostel are: contemporary dance at cinema/theatre Scala; hip hop at Africa Bar (which on Thursday nights has a long-standing tradition of hosting jazz); rap with instrumental accompaniment at Bar Gil Vicente (which on Saturday night is hosting a touring Norweigan-African fusion band); or back to Núcleo De Arte for some local music.

I choose Núcleo De Arte, It’s relaxed, full of regulars and well-groomed artists and the ageing performer, who was probably quite a big name a decade or two ago has a huge, deep voice and knows how to use it.

An electric keyboard sometimes dates the music but there are also dynamic beats, provided by drums, an electric guitar and electric bass, that break out regularly and get hotter as the night goes on.

In between sets Bob Marley is played. A fabulously tipsy, fabulously gay regular grabs the microphone and soon we’re all singing “I remember when we used to sit, in the government yard in Maputo”.

An older gentleman is carving up the dancefloor. Somehow, in less than 30 seconds, he has taught me how to dance to the African rhythm with him.


Architecture: Maputo’s centre is a landscape of fading and re-emerging colonial era grandeur. If you’ve ever dreamed of seeing the smooth, round lines of European architecture as it emerged once transported to Africa, complete with Portuguese tile murals, palm trees and flame trees in the picture, than Maputo is the place for you.

Perhaps the jewel in the city is its old train station. A functioning transport hub for ramshackle long-distance trains, the station itself has been renovated and turned back, and forward, in time.

The ornate fixtures and high ceilings, which were the hallmark of a by-gone era, have been rejuvenated. At the same time the spaces have been filled with elegant, modern, establishments that would not be out of place in any of the world’s leading cultural precincts.

A beautiful restaurant, café, bar and music venue, where I drink my espresso from stylishly small cups with tiny spoons, sits next to a photo gallery – my favourite image: two raggedly dressed children gazing at a piece of contemporary art.

Outside, back in the hectic, rubbish-strewn Praça dos Trabalhadores (Workers Square), is one of Maputo’s many statues; this one older and more understated than the imposing bronze cast of Samora Machel, finger poised making a point, that stands outside the castle-like town hall.

Inside the small, and frankly not-very impressive, old fort (free but donation appreciated) is a jumble of colonial-era statues that have been removed from public places and stored here now in this symbolic place, we are told, as a reminder not only of colonisation, but of resistance.

Walking here is an adventure. Stopping on Karl Marx Street to stare up at an interesting steeple I almost fall into an open drain. My way to the Revolution Museum (unfortunately closed for renovations) passes through a particularly rubble and rubbish strewn, nose-wrenching stretch of road.

But, it is the contrast itself which makes the place such a sensation for the senses.

There is a grip on my heart as, coming in from the poor outskirts in a taxi, I pass the run-down colonial arches of the Praça de Touros (bullfight arena). My taxi driver – three fingers on his right hand violently missing, former soldier and nurse – says that I can see a bull die there every day. That turns out not to be true – perhaps we were lost in translation and he was referring to a bygone era.

In the chaotic jumble of bus parks and second hand clothes markets every now and then you pass a humble single story building with a stunning, vibrant reliefs engraved into the cement work.

In the city, dingy flats – tiny balconies overrun with flapping washing – bump against modern, architect-designed, tile-decorated apartments, bump against wooden colonial mansions, bump against large city parks.

There you will find the Cathedral of Nossa Senhora da Conceição, that reaches to heaven in straight white lines, and the church of Saint António da Polana which looks like a juice squeezer. In short a Mozambican medley.


Markets: Christmas shopping. I visit two markets: the weekly Saturday morning craft market at the bottom of Av Samora Machel and the last-Sunday-of-the-month market at Praça dos Continuadores.

Both have an excellent range of African painting, woodwork, jewelry and home decorations; ebony and ivory rubbing shoulders with lampshades made out of dented Fanta tops from the glass soda bottles that are still most commonly used in Africa.

The monthly Sunday market is by far the most enjoyable with music, food stalls and tables in the shade of the large grounds.

At both markets there are no fixed prices and be ready for some hard bargaining. For some this is a horrendous experience – for others it’s part of the fun of travelling.


Museums: Maputo’s hosts a clutch of museums, including the National Art Museum, the Geological Museum, the National Money Museum, The Natural History Museum and more. Unfortunately, I visited none as the Revolution Museum, which was top of my list, was a building site. We discover it has been closed for years but according to a passer-by it will be a museum again in January.


On my bus journey from the northern Bazaruto Archipelagoin to Maputo, on the outskirts of the city, there flashed past the window a 10m tall piece of stand-alone art. In form it reminded me of a Chinese temple but instead of elegant eaves a jumble of recycled metal – funky and cool.

Coupled with what I’d already read and heard about Maputo I was instantly convinced I was heading into an up-and-coming culture capital – a city that would soon be knocking at the doors of Paris, New York and Barcelona.

That verdict turned out to be premature. Maputo’s cultural industry is still too small to be able to make that call. Perhaps it may never grow to more than what it is; a chilled, interesting place with a thin but vibrant vein of culture running through it – then again, perhaps, in time, it will surpass my rash expectations.

In the meantime, Maputo’s good looking, good value cafes continue to throw their eclectic music into the street, and the city’s cultural heart continues to beat out a rhythm all of its own.


Chrisanthi Giotis