The Associação Núcleo de Arte is the oldest collective of artists in Mozambique. Seated in an old villa in the centre of Maputo, the Centre has played a significant role in metropolitan cultural life for decades. Over one hundred painters, sculptors and ceramists are member of the Núcleo, which regularly stages exhibitions on its own premises and over the last few years has actively participated in exchanges with artists from abroad.
Every day of the week, the villa buzzes with activity. A few artists are working in a shed-like building, others are painting and sculpturing somewhere in the garden or on the lawn. One or two ceramists are at work in the rickety, small buildings on the far side of the garden. They frequently cross the garden, carrying pots and sculptures on their way to the self-built oven.
Especially during weekends, the permanent exhibition is frequented by potential buyers, mostly ambassadors, aid workers, journalists, art connoisseurs and businessmen.
In the extension to the villa and on the adjoining terrace, artists and visitors can buy an inexpensive meal and drinks. All through the afternoon and early evening, members are dropping in for a chat and to hear the latest news. Two artists / staff members mind the shop from two pocket-sized rooms with the aid of a few assistants, and a fax/telephone, and counselled by an executive committee.
Besides, the Núcleo has earned the position of being an advisor to the Government. Businesses and institutions on the look-out for art to purchase, come round. The Núcleo also displays activity in starting international cultural exchanges and workshops.
Artists have an opportunity to meet, to get inspiration from their contacts with fellow artists and to discuss their views. The strength of the Núcleo is in the differentiation of its members. The Núcleo is explicitly not an artistic trend, not a particular School. It is neither a compulsory collective, nor the exclusive protector of the interests of contemporary art and artists.
The group also got its reputation through the fame of its individual artists, like Bertina Lopes, Malangatana and Alberto Chissano. By now, a third generation of Mozambicans has entered the Núcleo.
The ups and downs of the Núcleo and its members reflect the political history of Mozambique. The name Núcleo first occurred in 1937 as the title of an exhibition in former Lourenço Marques (Maputo), in which exclusively Portuguese artists participated. Even the more official foundation in 1948 was basically a matter of Portuguese although there were people among them who felt little love for Salazar-fascism.
Scantily, Mozambican artists gained admission, and a policy in support of local artists came about gradually. The most remarkable story in this respect is the "discovery" of Malangatana Valente Ngwenya. He used to work as a servant in the colonial Lourenço Marques Club. The Núcleo chairman at that time, Augusto Cabral, encouraged the young Malangatana, who was to develop into the spiritual father of Mozambican painters after his successful solo exhibition in 1961. His work was also an expression of emerging nationalism. When, in 1964, the Core Group of African Students (Núcleo dos Estudantes Africanos) staged an exhibition of exclusively Mozambican artists' works, the secret police (Pide) interfered. The successful exhibition displaying many of Malangatana's work was closed because the works had too much of a nationalist slant. Repression increased and Malangatana disappeared behind bars for a period of eighteen months for alleged Frelimo membership.
After independence in 1975 the name was changed into Centro Organizativo dos Artistas Plásticos (COAP); eventually, the name Associação Núcleo de Arte was re-established.
It was not until after independence that the Núcleo could cast off the colonial past and engage fully in the development of Mozambican modern art. For a long time, colonial art concepts had prevailed and reduced African art to folklore. Even during the forties, discussions started on African art, the situation of Africans, their relation to Portugal and the West, and the necessity of retrieving the African roots.
To this day, the Núcleo and its individual members take part in that debate.
The Government pursued an active cultural policy, provided funds for the Núcleo, and gave artists opportunities to travel abroad. The disastrous civil war and consequently the poor economic situation put the Núcleo in an awkward position as well. Financial support ceased, international exchanges came to a standstill, and the Núcleo had to close its doors on several occasions.
In the early nineties this happened again. Now a conflict of generations was also an element. The period of inactivity was broken by a group of young artists. In 1993 they took control, reopened the building, painted the interior and staged an exhibition. This heralded a new period. International contacts were restored.
Notwithstanding the problems with the Núcleo, small-scale foreign contacts had continued thanks to individual artists. Bertina Lopes resided in Italy, and a few artists exhibited in Europe. In 1992, a group of artists was ready to present itself at the World Exhibition in Sevilla.
In co-operation with the Triangle Art Trust in London, artist Fatima Fernandes organized the first international workshop in Maputo, entitled Ujamaa 1. It was followed by two more, entitled Ujamaa 2 and 3.
In 1995, now with a new executive committee, the Núcleo took up the thread and organized the Ujamaa 4 workshop in co-operation with the Gate Foundation (in Amsterdam). Especially artists from surrounding countries were invited. Two years later, twelve artists participated in a workshop in Durban at the invitation of the Technikon Natal. In a related activity, the Durban Art Gallery gave a presentation of 32 works of art by 27 Núcleo members. It was the first large-scale exhibition of Mozambican art in South-Africa.
Furthermore, relations with the Netherlands and Finland were established or intensified. The Núcleo advised the Government on the participation of Mozambican artists in the 1998 World Exhibition in Lisbon.
Right now, the Núcleo is experiencing a flourishing period: numerous workshops have come off the ground; among them one on the subject Women and Art, and two (in 1997 and 1998) on the subject Arms transformed into Art; exhibitions are being staged. The relative international isolation was broken down. A few donors, such as Hivos in the Netherlands, grant financial assistance.
By trial and error, the Núcleo is working at realizing a long-standing desire to reach and support young artists in the provinces, where hardly any facilities and information are available.
To put it shortly, the Núcleo has regained its position as am reference point to artists and art-lovers.