José Eduardo Agualusa: from the art of words to the art of photography

The Angolan writer tells AQA about his relationship with photography and the visual arts in general; also announces an exhibition of his in Maputo, Mozambique

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Photography by José Eduardo Agualusa

Anyone who follows the Angolan writer José Eduardo Agualusa on social media, one of the most translated contemporary Portuguese-speaking authors in the world, has already realized that it is not just the art of the word that he dominates. That's because a quick look at his Instagram page is enough to be enchanted by the photographs he captures in his wanderings around.

What many don't know is that his love for photography began as early as he did for literature, as a child, when he discovered an old camera at home and decided to take an adventure with it. Despite this long experience, including professional experience, he does not consider himself a photographer. His craft as a writer, however, is heavily influenced by photographs, both his own and those of others.

Known in Brazil especially for his novels The Seller of the Past and General Theory of Forgetting, he lives today between Portugal and Mozambique. recently launched The living and the others, The Society of Involuntary Dreamers and The Elegant Terrorist and Other Stories (this one in four hands with Mia Couto). All three of these books published by Tusquets in Brazil, Planeta dos Livros label, have works by Brazilian artist Alex Cerveny on their covers. In 2020, Agualusa also launched in Portugal the book-object Grammar of the Instant and the Infinite, his first book with original photographs and poetry of his own!

AQA prepared an interview with the writer to talk a little about his relationship with photography and the visual arts in general. He, who has a degree in Silviculture and Agronomy, said that he had always been “more interested in art than in exact sciences” and that he is now preparing, at the Portuguese Cultural Center in Maputo, in the Mozambican capital, an exhibition of his photographs curated by the artist Brazilian graphic and editor Lúcia Bertazzo. He also reveals other Angolan authors who have some practice related to the visual arts!

Check out the full interview below:

Photography by José Eduardo Agualusa

ARTEQUEACONTECE: How long have you been photographing and how did you become interested in photography?

Jose Eduardo Agualusa: I must have been ten or eleven years old when I discovered an old bellows camera at home. I was fascinated. I cleaned and retrieved the camera and started shooting with it. At the age of 16, I took a darkroom development course. I remember that in college, in agronomy, there was a group of students who were interested in photography. We had a small but well equipped laboratory. I spent more time developing photographs than in classrooms. Also during the time I studied agronomy, or pretended to, I took a course in pottery. He made small sculptures that he sold on the street and with that money he bought books. I think I've always been more interested in art than exact sciences.

How much does what you photograph relate to what you write? Do photographs help you in writing? 

Sometimes, when I'm working on a new novel, I like to photograph the places I visit or the people I interview. Later, as I write, these images help me. I can also start from images of other authors to write. In my new novel, The Living and the Other there is a scene, which I really like, which begins with one of the characters seeing an extraordinary photograph by a Mozambican photographer named Mário Macilau. It's a photo I have in my house. I bought it (and it wasn't cheap at all). Mozambique managed to create a remarkable school of photography, and today it is one of the African countries, together with South Africa, with the most interesting photographers. 

Talk a little about the exhibition that will open! How was the invitation? 

After I published a book of poetry and photography called Grammar of the Instant and the Infinite, a very, very, very beautiful object, with graphic art by a Brazilian woman, Lúcia Bertazzo, I started to receive invitations to exhibitions. I ended up accepting the proposal from the Centro Cultural Português de Maputo, which has a good exhibition room. Lúcia Bertazzo will be the curator. Lúcia invented me as a photographer. Obviously, I'm not a photographer. All the beauty of that book, Grammar of the Instant and the Infinite, is due to Lucia's immense talent. She makes the most beautiful books in the world. The exhibition will have images of the Island of Mozambique, as in the book, but also some portraits of writers. Photography implies intimacy. As a writer, I gained intimacy with other fellow craftsmen. So I managed to make some really interesting portraits. Those, yes, if I may be immodest, are really good. 

Internal image of Grammar of the Instant and the Infinite.

Do you have photographers that you accompany? If yes, which ones?

Perhaps I would start by mentioning some African photographers that I really like. I already mentioned Mário Macilau. There is a South African, quite famous, Pieter Hugo, who I follow very closely. By the way, it also influenced my books. One of the most cinematic episodes ofMy father's women [Agualusa's novel], which involves trained hyenas and dwarfs, was inspired by a series of images by Pieter Hugo. In Mozambique I also really like Mauro Pinto and Filipe Branquinho. In Angola, from Kiluange. In Brazil I could talk about Sebastião Salgado, obviously, with a universe and an ideology with which I identify. There is a photographer friend of mine, Marcelo Buainaim, from Mato Grosso do Sul, who now lives in the northeast, who I like very much. It was thanks to Marcelo that I interviewed Manoel de Barros, almost 25 years ago. Marcelo, by the way, has fabulous photos of Manoel walking in the Pantanal. 

What is your personal relationship with the visual arts in general?  

I have always been very interested in visual arts. I think that if I weren't a writer I would want to be an artist. There is nothing original about it. There are many writers who are interested in the fine arts. So suddenly I'm remembering Ferreira Gullar, in Brazil. Lúcia Bertazzo produced a book with works by Gullar. In Angola, we have several writer-artists: from Luandino Vieira to the great poet Ruy Duarte de Carvalho. Ruy, who before becoming an anthropologist was an agricultural manager, knew everything about oxen, and spent many hours drawing watercolors of the oxen of nomadic shepherds in southern Angola. He gave me two of those watercolors, which I framed and are in my office. I've been trying to convince publishers to publish a book with Ruy's watercolors and drawings for years. Ondjaki also paints. And there are many others. 

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