A boy stands centered in the frame. The eyes of his lightly painted face are closed. The foliage behind him, out of focus, situates him out of any identifiable place. In the photograph’s shallow depth of field, the focus is on the doll the boy is holding. In Mozambican traditional religious practices, as in many other religious practices, dolls - these proxies for, and approximations of, the human - are objects of possibility. They can be supernatural vehicles; carrying human needs and desires to realms we cannot enter. In their being at once close enough, but not quite, human, they can function as messengers between our world and that of the spirits of the seas, mountains, rivers, and beyond.
Part of Mozambican photographer Mário Macilau’s ongoing Faith (2012 – present) project, A boy with a toy (2018) offers a valuable point of entry into the artist's sustained engagement with the traditional spiritual practices of his homeland. Since the project's beginnings it has expanded from a series of images of public prayer and devotion on the beaches of Maputo to a broader provocation; attending to local ecologies of belief and their interplay with global systems and associated temporalities.
By taking an ecological approach to the question of faith, Macilau draws our attention to the open and encompassing nature of these practices, highlighting the risks involved in their loss and reminding us “if we lose our traditions we lose a lot of things. We lose our values, we lose our ethics.” In his approach is a rejection of the Eurocentric idea that religion can be neatly seperated from the totality of life, “I am trying to bring to life the sociality of these communities lived at a distance from the concerns of globalism or capital to life. Yes, it is about how people relate to god, but its also about how this frame enables the building of particular forms of community that can be very accommodating.”
Macilau’s photographs put traditional spiritual time - concerned with the moment and infinite duration, imagined as cyclical, bound to the flows of the natural world - in correspondence with the linear, fast-paced, primarily future-oriented, accumulative time of global flows, capital, and colonial relations. He explains “in the community I work with, there is no time. There are moments. There are periods. When you deal with traditional religious movements you have to adjust how capital expects you to relate to time. You have to be able to align yourself with the time before the watch or the clock.”
Repeated across his portraiture are representations that get at the entanglements between work, leisure, devotion, and play. In A boy with a toy, the relationships between play, ritual, and global flows come to the fore. This doll, dressed and fed in accordance with local spiritual instruction, is to be offered to the spirit of the sea. In this offering is the interplay of different articulations of reality and assumptions about how life should be lived. Macilau offers a context for these relations, “the toy is something that has been produced in the West, or perhaps in China, for a particular purpose, under a different timeframe. It may even be understood as an object aligned with the continued domination and erasure of Black people”, continuing, “it’s still unusual for children here to have toys that look like them”. In this white doll, imported for African play, is the negation of one's right to centre, or even see, themselves in the work of their imaginations. The proliferation of these dolls can be understood as the insistence on whiteness, and the spectre of The West, as a integral aspect of African world-making.
Macilau reminds the viewer about Mozambican traditional practices, “these ways of living don’t invalidate other ways of living, but other ways of living do invalidate ours.” The appropriation of this doll as a ritual object makes it amenable to local cosmologies while highlighting the parallels between play and spiritual practice. Both foundational human activities that facilitate our comprehension, and articulation, of a qualitative life, unbound by the fixity of the rational or quantitative valuations of labour and productivity, play and spiritual practice are different scales of the same sort of activity. Considering these activities together, with this mass-produced doll functioning as the materialisation of the concerns of both, helps us get closer to understanding the terms by which oppositional world-views interact.
By Adjoa Armah.