This Artist Is Making the Soundtrack Of The Portuguese Revival
Diaphra at Iwalewahaus, Photo by Ves_OFF

This Artist Is Making the Soundtrack Of The Portuguese Revival

Alexandre Francisco on the creative process and the importance of ancestry featured in his new project, EVMS.

In 2015, Bissau-Guinean and Angolan multimedia artist Alexandre Francisco released Diaphra's Blackbook of the Beats, a debut album that would sell out of physical copies. That album was received well by critics and listeners but never really saw a tour and Diaphra disappeared back into the beats just as quickly as he emerged.

Recently, the Portugal-based artist has resurfaced and he's given OkayAfrica an exclusive download of the B-sides to the sold out Blackbook. The project, called EVMS, is like the rebirth of Diaphra, the blank side of a well-worn page, and gives insight into the mind of the elusive artist.

The multimedia artist is now working on his new project: a series of live, interactive performances around the world called #FolhasBrancas (#WhitePages) culminating in an exhibition in 2020. OkayAfrica caught up with Francisco via Skype to chat about the project, his process and how a residency at the Iwalewahaus University of Bayreuth (and their archive of rare African art) made him want to create a new future.

EVMS art work by the artist.

It's been some time since we last heard from Diaphra. What's he been up to since the Blackbook?

Growing. Growing. My kid was born right when I started working on Blackbook. Actually the song 'Todo o Fado é Vadio' (Destiny is a Wanderer) was one song I made for him. Becoming a father was crazy, that was a huge thing.

I feel that Diaphra is going through a process of initiation—in a really ritualistic sense. He died when he made the Blackbook, he was really drowned. Since then, I've been living and growing, trying to come above water. Actually I did EVMS and the Blackbook at the same time, it was the same process. Like, at the same time of creating, I was trying to understand the 'he' I was living in.

Is it possible to separate Diaphra and you?

Alexandre Francisco Diaphra is the name, and Alexandre Francisco is my personal name. I think that says a lot. I can't disconnect my personal life from my artistic life—one goes with the other. I try to get a hold of Diaphra when I do the artistic work. Alexandre Francisco for me…he's like what we call materia prima in Portuguese. Imagine you have a mound of earth. Alexandre Francisco is that mound. I see a lot of possibility, but unrefined. Diaphra is the aspect that works the earth that Alexandre Francisco is—the knife or the hands or the fire. That's the relationship between me as a person and the artistic part.

I think now the art is more mature in that aspect. I think everything I did with Blackbook was only scratching the surface to see what I could really do. And now I feel that potential and that, Diaphra can be more effective with it. The opportunity to do that really came when I was able to go to the Iwalewahaus for a residency.

What is the Iwalewahaus?

Iwalewa is a Yoruban word that kind of means 'the beauty of character.' Haus is German for 'house.' For me, it became a space I could be me. It has a deep connection to what I call the 'Cult to the Ancestrals.' So it's a space where I can not only be me, but part of a continuity. A lot of things have happened in that space and a lot of things will happen in that space, so to engage with it is to be part of something continuous.

The Iwalewahaus gave me the time, space and the structure—but also some academic support. It's connected to the University of Bayreuth and they have a protocol. I had to write a kind of thesis about my work. I remember the first time I went there, I had taken some of my samplers and everything but I did almost no music. I spent five days writing about my vision. It was a sort of school business I had lacked in my work. It made sense to really get a structure and make it clear for me and the people I wanted to get involved.

Iwalewahaus has a bunch of never-before-seen or rarely seen art pieces from all over Africa from most of the 20th century, right? What was it like to be presented with that type of archive?

It was almost like a kid playing with bricolage, like Lego. I was lost because it's so huge. I wrote a lot of projects being in contact with it because there was so much. I was like, okay I can use that, do that, use that, do that. It's kind of like when you look at the sky and you start to see that there's a whole word out there, but you also see the sky as a reflection of yourself and your earth.

With this archive, I was able to explore parts of me that I always knew and loved. I had never done an artistic residency where I was working as an artist. Not as a spoken word artist or musician, but as an artist. It was kind of like, I'm not a painter…but I'll paint.

I really felt ready to explore. But at the same time, it was very serious. The story of that house is crazy, they brought me there for a reason and I needed to respect that.

Still of #FolhasBrancas performance live at Centro Cultural de Belém by Tiago Maya

Growing up in Europe and then being exposed to so much rare and valued African content, was it difficult to navigate? Was it familiar? Was it overwhelming?

I got initiated into the Cult of the Orishas in Brazil some years ago. I'm not deep into religion but I couldn't avoid this connection and this event in my life. It was like a door opened for me and said 'this is Africa.' It was full of sculptures and it seemed other worldly, but you could see that there was a deep connection to Africa, to the blackness of the Earth. There was something primordial about it.

I think because of the time that had passed since engaging with the Orishas, the Iwalewahaus actually felt like home. It was like: I understand this. No, it was more like: I am this. Some people would say the art was too powerful or wouldn't want to interact with some of the pieces because of their spiritual ties, but I didn't feel that way.

It's kind of like you have access to this cypher. Not because you're a special person, but just because you are where you are when you happen to be there. I felt like I was surrounded by new things and amazing things that were definitely bigger than myself but, at the same time, I could look up and say, "You're just like me. You're bigger than me, but you're just like me."

I felt at home. It's funny, me and my father we never talked about it.

What do you mean by that? Never talked about what?

My father has a deep connection with these sort of rituals, relics and practices. He's from Guinea-Bissau and from a tribe called Manjaku, so my father was doing this all his life. When you get involved with it, you have to really get involved. You can't do it halfway and so my father kept me away from it.

But the way I grew up wasn't normal for a black kid in Portugal. I had access to unusual realities. My father was the housekeeper of a rich family with a big name in Portugal, the Seabras. One of them wrote one part of the Portuguese Civil Code—a very official document. I grew up in the midst of that legacy. My father was serving one of the presidents of Portugal and I was there, as a kid. That really influenced me because they're an important family, but somehow I'm part of that family. My grandmother, the woman I call grandmother, is their grandmother. She's the only grandmother I knew.

The mansion my father was serving in, for me that was my house. Until I was 6, I saw that as my house. Then we moved into our own house and I understood that it wasn't my house, it wasn't my things. I was just the son of the housekeeper.

I think in art, there's a chance to build a bridge between that. We need a bridge between the elite and the people. I think art connects people in a certain time and space. That makes a difference when you have people who usually stay in their own space. The elite is also a ghetto. They don't interact with the rest of the world and they're isolated because of their income. That's a type of ghetto for me. But in art, the village walls can come down.

Photo by Ana Telhado

That effort is kind of evident in your work, I feel. In Blackbook, you explore a lot of what it means to be Portuguese. You have a line like 'what is Portugal? it's the Portuguese language' as a way to extend Portugal further than its borders. And then for #FolhasBrancas, it's kind of taking Portugal away and exploring that same idea of what connects people.

That's exactly it. Even now, with the work, I have texts in German, English, Portuguese. And I'll probably have some in French, I was doing some freestyles over somethings I had and some of it came out in French. So that will probably make it into the mix for the performances.

I feel like the more there is in my work, I'm more free. I don't want to do everything in Portuguese, it doesn't make sense for me anymore. I'm learning to see language as a kind of trick. Language sometimes gets in the way, you know. Like with Depeche Mode [sings] 'Words are very, unnecessary. They can only do harm.' It's not about not speaking, it's about finding the right expression. I need to make a connection through that.

I was in Liverpool speaking with an American artist named Innaspace and he said 'No one's going to understand you if you do your lyrics in Portuguese. You know why? Cause you're not Edith Piaf.'

And I was like, okay. Well, that's what I need to do. She sings in French, and a lot of people get what she's saying, what she's doing. So, I need to be Edith Piaf. #FolhasBrancas is that.

You've explained #FolhasBrancas to me as imagining the future while looking at the past. Why is it important for you to take to the past before going forward?

It's that continuity again. We call it the past because we need to have a sense of time. But if you put time aside, the past is always present and accessible. To everyone. We have all the knowledge of the ancients, we have it. We just aren't paying attention most of the time.

That's why I do spoken word. Storytellers used to pass on these histories, this knowledge. But, now we feel like, who wants to hear a story about a healing plant? But it depends on the way you talk about the plant, how you present it to the people. It's like I said, sometimes it's not a matter of language but a matter of expression. That's how you move forward.

I started to paint, I started to draw. I loved drawing and I love painting as a kid. But now I'm getting back to it. I did the masks for some of the videos. I loved going and buying the materials. I always saw myself doing that with the words, but now getting my hands into it – it has a different feeling.

More tactile, more real?

Yeah. Well, on a practical, marketing level, Diaphra has been difficult. Because if someone calls the agency to book me. They're kind of like 'We'd like to book him, but we don't really know what he does.' People wanted to keep me strictly to music because it's easier to explain. But at the same time, I'm not just doing music. And my subject matter involves much more than just music. That's why I'm trying to be open and bring #FolhasBrancas as a full performance—a series of performances and finally an exhibition for people to explore.

Still of #FolhasBrancas performance live at Centro Cultural de Belém by Tiago Maya

How are the performances set up?

It's just me on stage. There will be a lot of improvising. We're trying to connect with an old-time jester—you know, like a clown—who acts as my interpreter. There's a visual team who will be working on some video playback and visuals and lighting. There are masks and relics from my time at Iwalewahaus.

During the performance, audience members will receive paper and given some materials to create, write or paint during the performance—to express how they feel at that moment. We're going to share these on a website and include them in the final exhibition in 2020. From those drawings and creations, I'll turn them into symbols and create a sort of new universal language – showing how we connected at those moments.

What do you think people can expect from these performances?

Production-wise, for the music and stuff, there are moments of inspiration. At least that's what I'm expecting [laughs]. Because if there isn't, I'm not going to work.

And there will be a sense of belonging. At the end of the day, that's what art is, for me. If the work is well done, it's inspiring and gives a sense of belonging, of connection. I hope people get out of their chairs and join me on stage.