In Guinea-Bissau sculpture has been the dominant form of art since the earliest of times. The types of sculpture and materials vary slightly based on the ethnic group and location. The most common types of sculpture are in various figurines, which are highly integrated into local religion and spiritualism. One type of figurine or statue is one that is designed to represent a family’s ancestors with the intention of communicating with the ancestors it’s designed after. And because of this, there are many rules that go into creating these figurines; I imagine it must take these sculptors years to perfect this art. There is also a type of half-bird/half-man creature that Bissau-Guineans worship called Iran (not to be confused with the name of the country). It’s believed that it protects those who worship it, but goes after those who look down on it.
The people in Guinea-Bissau are also adept at a variety of handicrafts. Typically, the materials used reflect what is available in a particular area. Shells, wood, metal, stone, ceramic, and fabric are all commonly used in their handicrafts. Many of these items include jewelry, ornaments for dancers, and woven goods (such as baskets, mats, fabric-making, etc.).
The Bijagos Islands are particularly known for their art. Much of their sculpture is described above, but they have many pieces that are well-preserved. Masks representing animals are often used in coming-of-age ceremonies. These coming-of-age ceremonies also utilize many handicrafts and tools that are created by people in the community: masks, headgear, shields, spears, and bracelets. Stylized dolls are often given to girls to teach them about taking care of children.
Most of the literature from Guinea-Bissau is written in Portuguese, and almost all of it was written in the 20th century up until today. After 1990, the question of writing in Portuguese vs. Crioulo came into question. Expressions and terms were different in Portuguese than in the vernacular and the question was how to best express themselves. Bissau-Guinean literature was slow to develop in comparison with other Afro-Lusophone countries. While other countries, such as Cape Verde (sorry, I think they’re officially known as Cabo Verde now, but it’ll take me forever to get used to that), had developed schools and libraries during the mid-1800s, it wasn’t so in Guinea-Bissau.
There are generally four phases of Bissau-Guinean literature. The first period is the time up until 1945. During the early days, many writers came over from the Cape Verde islands. Most of the topics during this time spoke of the societal transformations of colonialism. The second period was between 1945-1970. Many poets emerged during this time. The themes were generally characterized by “combat poetry that denounced domination, the misery and the suffering, inciting to fight for liberation.” The third period of literature was between 1970 and the end of the 1980s. This was during the first years of independence. A new generation of revolutionary poets emerged. The theme of identity is still present, but it’s under different circumstances now. Added to that were topics of assimilation and alienation and the idea of a national identity. Poetry is still the primary form of literature during this time. The final phase is from 1990 to the present. It generally focuses on the dreams of what post-independence life should be and what they would like it to be. Prose in the form of short stories and novels finally began to be published at a greater rate than before.
While doing research on this, I came across a blog written by a woman who read her way around the world and has a great list of novels, short stories, and poetry collections from every country in the world. She wrote that she had several people searching the globe high and low for anything written by a Bissau-Guinean that has been translated into English, but to no avail. There have been translations into French, but none into English. Luckily, I can read a pretty good amount of Portuguese (assuming Bissau-Guinean Portuguese is anything close to Brazilian Portuguese), so it wouldn’t necessarily be a problem for me.
One of the most influential writers is none other than the political leader Amilcar Cabral. Other notable writers from Guinea-Bissau include Vasco Cabral (poet, politician), José Carlos Schwartz (poet, musician), Fausto Duarte (novelist from Cape Verde), Carlos Lopes (educator, economist, writer, worked for the UN and other similar organizations), and Abdulai Silá (engineer, economist, novelist.)
Guinea-Bissau also has made a small footprint in the film industry. Internationally renowned film director Flora Gomes directed such films as Nha Fala and the 1988 award-winning Mortu Nega. He also directed a film called Udju Azul di Yonta, which was screened at the 1992 Cannes Film Festival.
Up next: music and dance