Did you know that one of the most highly respected dance forms in the world, Capoeira was developed by Angolan slaves in Brazil in the 16th Century? I bet you also didn’t know Michael Jackson’s famous ‘Mama-say mama-sah ma-ma-coo-sah’ lyric from his song Wanna Be Startin’ Something was taken from one of the first ever disco hits by Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango.
Well I didn’t either, until I paid a visit to Stan Douglas’ Disco Angola exhibition at the the Victoria Miro gallery in Mayfair.
In this exhibition, the Canadian artist brings to light some unexpected connections between Africa and Disco, by taking on the fictional guise of a 1970’s photo journalist covering both New York’s flourishing Disco scene and the civil War in newly independent Angola.
Arranged in pairs that face each other on opposite walls, the set of six images encourages its viewers to recognise the obvious similarities, while simultaneously forcing them to consider the difference in context between the scenes shot in contrasting countries.
In A Luta Continua 1974, an Angolan woman is dressed in an eye catching green t-shirt and flares standing in front of a mural of the flag of Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola; the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola, which fought against the Portuguese army in the Angolan War of Independence.
Hanging on the opposing wall is Two Friends. A photograph focusing on an impressively dressed couple at a popular New York discotheque. Brought together, two seemingly unrelated images reveal parallels between Angola and New York. Not only in fashion and music, but also in two expanding movements; the liberation of the homosexual community through Disco and the fight for independence in Angola.
Capoiera and Kung Fu Fighting both depict men practising forms of martial arts. In Capoiera, a group of Angolan rebel fighters are photographed spurring on two comrades as they perform the dance. Capoiera was originally disguised as a dance by Angolan slaves in early 16th century Brazil to avoid being punished by their masters for learning how to fight.
Hung opposite is Kung Fu Fighting; illustrating a disco dancer in a New York ballroom, recreating Bruce Lee’s famous moves. This character is also being watched by a companion. Both pieces focus on a connection linking conflict and dance together, and like Two Friends and A Luta Continua, the similarities between the recently liberated Angolans and the gay community in New York.
Revealing these crossovers of fashion, dancing and music, taking place in these two very different Countries at the same time in history, Douglas creates an unusual link between two worlds; the newly independent Angola and New York’s gay friendly, Disco scene. Worlds were something new has come about, where a change has taken place that will shape how people go about their lives forever.
And if John Travolta and LED dance floors were the images that popped into your head when you thought of Disco, Douglas’ exhibition will change that forever.
The Disco Angola exhibition is showing until 18 Jan at the Victoria Miro gallery in Mayfair.