There’s something unmistakable about a Mário Macilau image – perhaps a detail that has drawn his interest, or the openness with which he approaches it. Macilau’s knack for snatching moments and forging connections with his subjects (often, he is working on a given series for months at a time) has served him well since he started making photographs as a teenager in Maputo, Mozambique, 20 years ago. Today, he’s in high demand – but as his new series demonstrates, the gaps between jobs can be just as fruitful as any assignment.
In those pauses, Macilau has found time to turn cumulative intervals into a striking body of work. Things Fall Apart – in progress for years, and with no plans to stop any time soon – has been added to as and when its artist could. ‘Say someone hired me [to travel on an assignment] for five days, I’d decide to stay 10 days and have five to do my stuff’ says Macilau; bit by bit, the series has grown into something characteristically nuanced, at once sprawling and discrete. Echoing the composition’s carpe diem energy – ‘I’d take the chance to use the flight that has been paid’ – Macilau’s method befits his medium. Snap.
While that sprezzatura infuses his whole oeuvre, Things Fall Apart represents a break from form in that itisn’t rooted to one place per se. With individual images made in numerous locations in Mozambique, Macilau is seeking something more like poetry than documentary; ‘I was looking for something that you can find anywhere’ he says. ‘lf you see a particular photo, [I want it to seem possible that] it could have been taken anywhere – in the UK, in the US, anywhere’, he continues. ‘So that's how I bring in this poetry [to the work]’.
For all that poetic universality – an eye peeking through foliage, crossed ankles and bare feet, an ear (we’ll come to that) – these are images which attend to particularities as well as shared experiences. The counter-intuitive truism, that in what is most specific one finds what is most universal, is in abundant evidence throughout Things Fall Apart. Idiosyncrasies of time and place are inherent in Macilau’s compositions – because in another diversion from his earlier work, largely shot in stark black and white, the seriesis gloriously full-colour. ‘I was very convinced that I had to do this project in colour’ says Macilau, who wants ‘to show the colour of the light in the morning’ to foreground all it shares with ‘the light of the afternoon’ as well as where they differ. And while it’s not Macilau’s first dalliance with shooting in colour, its renewed primacy in his practice is noteworthy.
‘In the past I did work a lot in colour, but I was forced by the market’ explains the artist. ‘When I became independent, I went back to black and white’, he continues; ‘the thing is, when you work in colour, people always see your colours and they don't see what you're talking about – they don't see the subject’, Macilau says. ‘People always focused on the colour [rather than] on the subject itself; so I took my time working in black and white’. Arguably, that detour into monochrome has made Macilau’s re-entry into colour all the more electric: vibrant verdance obscures a face in one shot, ambiently glowing coals hover beneath a spent fire’s ash in another. But even in full technicolour, some things are black and white.
The framing of Ear (‘I don't like to give titles to individual photos’, says Macilau, especially when ‘they have so much to give’ anyway) drew his interest because of ‘the way [its subject] looked, the colour of his skin – there’s so much contrast on him, the contrast between the black and the white hair’. And from the smallest scale – a hair’s breadth – to the biggest of big pictures, Ear is characteristically articulate about the current global situation while retaining an emotional remove. ‘We are living in [a time of] huge transformation’, says Macilau – that’s one way of putting it.
Of course, he’s talking about the ongoing pandemic. After 18 months and counting, artists like Macilau have had time to digest the signifiers as well as the signs wrought by the virus, its insistent presence in our lives and on our bodies. Beyond the immediate physical threat of infection, what happens to a body under restrictions? According to Macilau, when ‘our mouths must be covered by masks’, some aspect of ‘our identities have been compromised’. Far beyond photography, faces are a crucial means of communication – obscuring one part of that powerful toolkit, however measured the gesture, enacts a profound rupture in human beings’ established means of moving through the world.
‘I don’t want to use this project to criticise or support [any particular idea]’ emphasises the artist. As ever, interpretation remains the prerogative of his viewer – but to follow the thought experiment, mouths behind masks, what other organ might we atomise? Macilau’s bait and switch synaesthesia – your eyes on his ear, looking at hearing – offers something deceptively straightforward on a richly nuanced plate. The poetry of Ear is abundant, available to hear, see, read – and speaking of literary connections, they run deeper here than even Macilau could have imagined.
Things Fall Apart shares not only its title but numerous themes with Chinua Achebe’s 1958 novel of the same name; yet, when he was working on what to call his series, ‘I didn’t know about the book’, Macilau says. Rather, ‘I wanted to find something that reflects the reality of the world we're living in without being aggressive [or dogmatic].’ And while it’s undoubtedly a coincidence that two artists (one a writer, one a photographer) should alight on the same title for such different projects, it’s perhaps more fitting than it might seem.
‘[Achebe’s] book was written [in the 1950s], but there's something about the world, something about time, something about space...’ muses Macilau. ‘There’s something about life [in the themes that the book and the series share] that’s key to my work.’ Whatever that something is, across temporal and geographic spans, those three words seem as elegant a summation of existence as any: Things fall apart. Descriptive rather than didactic, arcing and unspooling, universal and specific. Listen to what you see.
By Emily Watkins