"Extraordinary" Tala show brings Visions of Angola to Kent's Powell-Cotton Museum

By Ben Miller | 22 May 2012
A black and white photo of two Angolan people lying together on grassland
© Copyright Diana and Antoinette Powell-Cotton, courtesy Powell-Cotton Museum
Exhibition: Tala! – Visions of Angola, Powell-Cotton Museum, Birchington, until November 2 2012

The curators of this revelatory show at Powell-Cotton might forgive you for being at least slightly surprised to learn that the Kent museum holds the largest collection relating to Angola anywhere in Europe.

The clue, though, is in the name: Diana and Antoinette Powell-Cotton, the daughters of founder Percy, gathered this record of the Republic during the 1930s, aiming to present it in an immersive, multimedia way which was so far ahead of its time it ultimately proved unfeasible.

The best part of a century later, backed by Heritage Lottery Fund support, curator Catherine Moore has taken the project on. She's created a three-screen projection area featuring contemporary Angolan photographer Joaquim Fortunato, a “collage” of 107 diaspora internet video clips collected by members of the Angolan Cultural Foundation, and creative spins on the original film created by the sisters, augmented by excerpts from their diaries and letters while on their travels.

“The sisters had a very strong idea as to how the collection might be displayed and experienced,” she says.

“They always intended to creatively juxtapose the film footage and photographs they brought back to inform and illustrate the usage and meaning of the objects they collected.

“Limited by the technology of their day, they were unable to realise their intentions, and a large majority of the visual archive remained undeveloped and unseen for decades.

“Using new digital technology and audience familiarity with an interactive museum environment means we can finally demonstrate the breadth of their work and vision for the collection.”

This is a journey through a truly living, emotive history. Helga Gamboa, who has contributed ceramics and a video installation, says she only rediscovered herself and her culture by visiting the museum, having been living in exile.

“I was enthralled but also horrified to find I had to travel to this small museum in Kent to find my Angolan heritage,” she admits, offering work which has drawn comparisons with Grayson Perry.

“This museum has so much more than other museums in Angola. It has great potential for Angolans in the future.”

While in Africa, the Powell-Cottons met a couple, Hamjungo and Datilla, who agreed to let them pitch their tent outside their home and share their kitchen, going on to feature in their films and help collect the ceremonies, crafts and objects of local people. The generous duo are remembered through films, photographs and presentations.

Other exhibits have been picked by members of the diaspora, alongside an interactive piece where you can click on the leaves of an Angolan Baobab tree, leading the way through routes and clips in an installation made by students from the University of Kent.

Moore and her fellow curators’ have had to be inventive in responding to an ostensibly daunting responsibility.

“We’ve always felt that this extraordinary collection really needed to be seen and used by the community it rightfully belongs to,” she says.

“The Angolan community here in the UK had a right to be involved in the decisions made about the collection – it’s their history, after all.

“It was only by working closely with groups here in the UK that we truly began to realize the potential of this exhibition, finding new means of reconnecting, defining and displaying the material we were privileged to have access to.

“We wanted to open it out to the world, free from a limited colonial context, allowing autonomous voices to speak about, explore and display their own history.”

  • Open 10am-5pm. Admission £5-£7 (free for under-5s, family ticket £20).

More pictures:

A black and white photo of two African children standing next to a bull
© Copyright Diana and Antoinette Powell-Cotton, courtesy Powell-Cotton Museum

A black and white photo of three people in Africa raising circular carriers off the ground
© Copyright Diana and Antoinette Powell-Cotton, courtesy Powell-Cotton Museum
A black and white photo of an African woman carrying a basket on top of her head
© Copyright Diana and Antoinette Powell-Cotton, courtesy Powell-Cotton Museum

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