Mario Macilau is preoccupied with “how things change over time” and its influence on ordinary lives. This fascination is prevalent throughout the Mozambique photographer’s work. At the age of 23 he swapped his mother’s mobile phone for a digital camera taking up the medium professionally. His experiences have influenced not only his subject matter but also focus. Often stark and uncompromising his images portray life in its bleakest form. Series such as the ‘The price of cement’ captures the impact cement dust is having on men and children who collect their remains from manufacturers to sell at street markets. “During the collecting process, the cement collectors aren’t aware that they are being exposed to increased risk of developing silicosis, an incurable lung disease that causes disability or death,” he explains. “They are literally paying the price of cement”.
“I use photography as witness, to record facts and then to show these facts.”
His most recent project ‘Growing up in Darkness’, captures children living on the streets of Mozambique. “Against the common sense that separates this group of people from the ‘normal’ ones, my aim was to go where everyone advised me not to go”, he says. “I was determined to reach the site that seemed to frighten so many. I entered their private spaces: bridges and abandoned buildings where they live and sleep, that is, where they camp. These places were very dark, damp and dangerous.”
‘Shot in natural light and developed using a pigmented inkjet technique’ they are haunting yet simultaneously hopeful. In contrast, his ‘Moments of Transition’ series focuses on Mozambique’s avant-gardism and shows “how in search of identity young people from the country mix European fashion with traditional dress”.
“I focus on identity and culture and present a kind of homage, as a continuation of and inspiration in Malick Sidibé, Seydou Keïtaʼs work and other African photographers.”
Currently showing at the Venice Biennial 2015, All World Futures his next exhibition is at Somerset House in London as part of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair.
Is there a particular story you are trying to tell with your photography?
I like to use this medium in particular documentary photography to tell stories and themes in Mozambique because it’s my environment and I feel culturally connected. My work is mostly about socially isolated groups, working and living conditions and cultural heritage.
Why do you prefer photography as a medium?
Preferring is something that one takes as a choice between many things, that’s not my case as photography came into my life in a natural way. I feel comfortable using it as my language and all I do, I do because I want and find pleasure in it and I also believe in it as a tool for positive influences.
Tell us about Moments of Transition – what was the goal with this?
Every Sunday, most Mozambicans like to mix the new urban and traditional fashion trends dressing up in outstanding customized outfits. Revisiting the past to the period of post independence, after 1975, we can see the influence of the younger generations that where sent to study in Europe and came back to the country with new concepts of fashion. Also, the appearance of enormous quantities of used clothes sent by the United States and Europe, in the informal markets, which caught the attention of many people. Now, the Mozambican taste in fashion is changing and the mixture of urban cloths and accessories with Capulana, the primary item of the Mozambican wardrobe, seems to be the perfect solution for a Sunday walk. In this on-going project I focus on identity and culture and present a kind of homage, as a continuation of and inspiration in Malick Sidibé, Seydou Keïtaʼs work and other African photographers.
Tell us about The Price of Cement – what were you trying to achieve with this? What was the inspiration?
I use photography as witness, to record facts and then to show these facts. In the price of cement, trucks carrying tons of cement from private companies working under cement manufacturers in Maputo, Mozambique leave their waste behind, when unloading their products in the factories to be sold for any kind of construction. From the dirt, men and children collect the remains of cement to resell in the street markets and earn some money to survive. Their faces are masked by dust they are literally paying the price of cement, which accounts to a daily wage of about 20 Mts per day (1USD=30 Mts).
Why did you decide to shoot the Grand Hotel?
I am interested on the history and environment of it. The hotel opened in 1954 when it was billed as the “pride of Africa,” and was widely regarded as the largest and most exquisite hotel on the continent. Its owners intended to include a casino, but failed to secure the necessary government authorization. The hotel was never profitable, and never attracted the wealthy clientele it was intended to. It closed as a hotel in the early 1960s. Since independence in 1975 its basement were used as cells to hold political prisoners. Some members of the police and army started using the third floor as their living quarters. After 1981, it started being taken over by the general population.
During the civil war it was occupied by around 1,000 homeless Beirans, and by the end of the civil war it was in near-ruins. The new guests used the entire parquet floors as combustible fuel. The building today has no running water or electricity, and is currently home to 2,000 families.
Who or what influences you?
I am influenced by people and history, environment and places, time and changes.
Do you think it is harder to break into photography if you are from the continent?
I think it always depends on what we want and to whom we want to break into. Photography in Africa is powerful and I think we are very lucky most of us in the new generation, but there is still a lot to do starting from education, production and more but we should be careful, this period is important and dangerous.
In the past giving attention to Chinese, Asian art or other countries and continent was a fashion worldwide in certain periods but as things change over time, now it sounds like African art and artists are on the right road in term of credibility from global audiences and art markets but it can be a risk because most of the time young artist in the continent are pushed and marginalised by the market and by commercial galleries for just what they can sell quickly and I am not sure if that can last, if artist work under pressure it can affect the quality of our work.
Where do you see the direction of photography heading within the continent? What is it its future?
I still think that we are doing well but not as well, I don’t see Africa as a small place, it is considered the world’s second largest and the second most populous continent and for that reason I would like to see more photographers that represents their own countries, some times when we count African contemporary photographers, it is like they are coming from 10 countries.
Mario Macilau is exhibiting as part of the 1-54 exhibition at Somerset House in London, UK from 15 -18 October.