Photography in Mozambique was a great collective adventure for about two decades. It was defined by a few books, which, as a rule, were an extension of exhibits and gestures of international cooperation (Moçambique, A Terra e os Homens, 1983; Karingana ua Karingana, 1990; Maputo - Desenrascar a vida, 1997; Iluminando Vidas, 2002). When Europe discovered photography made by Africans, a few years back, Mozambique was in the front line (Africa, Africa, Copenhagen, 1993; Revue Noire, n. º 15, Paris, 1994). With life slowly turning normal in Mozambique (after the revolution and the civil war, after the election of 1994 or 1999…), the chapter of mobilization and propaganda that had called for photography headed to its natural demise and the routes forcibly turned personal. There had been nototious exceptions, such as José Henriques da Silva with Pescadores Macua (Lisbon, 1983 and 1998) and Moira Forjaz with Muitipi, Ilha de Moçambique (Lisbon, 1983).
The aforementioned adventure had trailblazers, Ricardo Rangel and Kok Nam, who came very soon into a colonial press that was more permissive that the one based in Lisbon and who set the models for the transition. More than some Portuguese tradition (Século Ilustrado?), the exciting example of the photographers of Drum magazine, in South Africa, must have made an impact. The adventure then had its headquarters and school, the Associação Moçambicana de Fotografia [Mozambican Association of Photography] and the Centro de Formação Fotográfica [Photography Learning Centre], in which dozens of photographers were trained, some of them more perseverant than others. It had a documental and political style, as a way to answer to the urgencies of socialism, war, hunger and the reconstruction. Times changed.
José Cabral came to this collective history in a unique way, having trained with his amateur photographer and filmmaker father — he also had a grandfather, homonymous, on his father’s side, who was a governor (1910-1938) and who had a park named after him in the old capital (Continuadores Park, today). He started in cinematography and he joined his experience as a news photographer to documental programmes of a less urgent nature. Later, he was probably the first to distance himself from the routines of journalism, and he made that challenge very clear with the choice of works in display in the Iluminando Vidas exhibit: instead of war, misery, victims, ruins and promises of reconstruction, that can still be seen yet another face for exoticism, he showed feminine nudes without any ethnographical pretext. The representation encountered some problems in Bamako, Mali, photographical capital in a country of Islamic severity.
His photography — particularly the fact that he shows it as the work of an artist — became more autobiographical and even more intimate, albeit free from any pretence to self-reference or narcissism. In the country’s new situation of economic growth, that is a battle that matters, a more individualist battle for convivial spaces. As Linhas da Minha Mão [The lines of my hand], in 2006, during the third edition of Photofesta, was an affirmation of the personal dimension of a gallery of portraits and places — meetings with people, landscapes, cities and trees all through Mozambique’s recent history.
The Urban Angels are children: his own three and then four and other people’s children, street children. The differences of colour and of social condition aren’t hidden, quite the opposite, they make the record of the unbearable inequalities more pungent and penetrating. José Cabral’s images are simple and beautiful, tender and terrible, but they always lack the weightings of chance, artifice and policy that so often are the easy formula of the art of photography. They are simultaneously direct and charged with emotion, without distancing themselves from life in search of metaphors. There’s a personal history and many collective histories in these images of Mozambique. One of them associates General Mouzinho de Albuquerque, who defeated Gunganhana in 1895, to Colonel José Cabral’s great-grandson, who had continued his plans for rail tracks and who made a statue to him, which has meanwhile gone down. It is just a family photograph, a child playing…