28 April 2021 -

Report: DHS Strategic Research Grant by Milia Lorraine Khoury

Research Project/ Paper Title: ‘The Writing is on the Wall’: colonial fantasies and the reinterpretation and analysis of the art of Azulejos in Maputo, Mozambique

Mozambique’s capital Maputo is a vibrant metropolis, heady from its’ own sun-drenched streets. Often it is referred to as part of Latin Africa and it’s buildings from the 20th century relating to Tropical Modernism. In walking the streets, one is continuously reminded of the city’s past, as if the very streets have a memory. Armed with a map, one might be forgiven for asking if you are in the right city. As the street names on the map are ever-changing, denoting once the early Portuguese colonial rule, then the 20th century rule of the Estado Novo (New State) dictatorship under António de Oliveira Salazar and thereafter the independence of Mozambique in the 1970s.

This visit to Maputo was thanks and courtesy to the Strategic Research Grant from the Design History Society awarded in December 2018 in order to conduct field research for a project and paper entitled ‘The Writing is on the Wall’: colonial fantasies and the reinterpretation and analysis of the art of Azulejos in Maputo, Mozambique. A paper which was presented at the Colonial and Postcolonial Landscapes: Architecture, Cities, Infrastructure conference in Lisbon held at the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon in January 2019. The conference was organised by a research project called “Coast to Coast” between several universities/ research institutes in Portugal and universities in Angola, South Africa and Mozambique. Researching Lusophone Africa and the legacy of colonialism on its landscape, architecture and infrastructure. During the Scramble for Africa period (1881 – 1914) the British – through the imperialist Cecil John Rhodes – envisioned colonialising from Cape to Cairo, the Portuguese on the other hand, with the concept of the Mapa Cor-de-Rosa imagined a colonial landscape extending from Coast to Coast, from Angola to Mozambique.

Fig. 1 The Rhodes Colossus Striding from Cape Town to Cairo, Punch,10 December 1892

Fig. 2 Detail of the map known as the Mapa Cor-de-Rosa illustrating the Portuguese (Lusophone) colonies in Africa.

However, colonialism’s effects went beyond the annexed territories and imagined landscapes. Its’ most insidious of practices was cultural assimilation. The assimilation project adopted and imposed the language, cultural practices, religion, art and architecture of the coloniser on the colonised spaces and people and thus creating an imagined association with the colonial power and a false affinity for ‘the motherland’. These notions of cultural assimilation, particularly of art forms, has informed my research project. Which explored the art of Azulejos (tilework) and how it was applied to several public buildings and homes within Maputo (Mozambique), namely: Casa dos Azulejos and Vila Algarve. The purpose of the project was to interrogate the aesthetic, decorative, symbolic and communicative elements of the Azulejos. Addressing the adaptation of a once imported art form (relating to the Moors) that was additionally imported to the Lusophone colonies creating further transculturality and transmutation. The association of Azulejos relating to a national Portuguese identity and nationhood was investigated, reinterpreted and analysed. Modernist surface decoration in Modernist Maputo was also discussed in comparison to illustrate cultural independence i.e. the works of architect Pancho Guedes. The intention of this research project was to illustrate the shift in surface decoration from the colonial-style Azulejos to the traditional African art surface decoration referencing fractal geometry and patterning in the Afro-Modernist work of Pancho Guedes. Creating and expressing cultural independence and a move away from the colonial motifs relating to Portuguese national identity i.e. Azulejos.

In order to complete the field research, the colonial, Estado Novo and independence era maps were superimposed upon each other. Remapping the city was essential in place-finding and conducting the research, partly an exercise in the Situationists Dérive and the early 20th century Flâneur. By adopting the Dérive in the field research, it also allowed for the psychological effects of the terrain and space to also drive the research mapping. Learning through walking.

In the downtown Baixa area, along the port, the first proper municipal town hall was inaugurated in 1888 it was known as Casa dos Azulejos. Due to the façade being completely clad with the distinctive Portuguese blue-and-white Azulejos (tilework). It is considered one of the oldest buildings in the city. Today it houses the company Cosmos Holdings Lde, but its façade belies its colonial history as a relic of its time. The building tiled façade was a clear attempt to associate with the ‘motherland’ and a Portuguese national identity. The fact that it held the city’s seat of power during colonial times suggests that the building represented the appropriate mirror image of its counterparts in continental Portugal.

Fig. 3 a, b, c, d Façade and detail of the door and Azulejos of the Casa dos Azulejos, c. 1879 Maputo, Mozambique Photographs by Milia Lorraine Khoury on 11, 13 December 2018.

In the affluent Polana district, is the abandoned Vila Algarve. Today the villa is a shell of its’ former glory. Built in 1934, it stood as a prime example of the Casa Portuguesa architectural style in Maputo, a style which helped to re-create the notion of the Portuguese home in the 20th century. With typical terracotta red roof tiles, balustrades and adorned with Azulejos on its vast verandas. The tile panels on the villa depicted classical scenes of Portuguese everyday life like fishing, women engaging in handy crafts and maritime culture etc.

Fig. 5 a, b, c Vila Algarve, 1934 Polana, Maputo (Mozambique) Photographs by Milia Lorraine Khoury on 12 December 2018

Under the Estado Novo regime in the 20th century, there was an attempt to attain the African Portuguese colonies by engaging in extensive building projects in Angola and Mozambique. Prior to independence in 1975, it is the work of the Portuguese architect Pancho Guedes that stands apart in Mozambique. He married Afro-Modernist elements in the surface decoration of his buildings. A move away from the imported Portuguese Azulejos. This is particularly notable in his building Edifício Abreu Santos e Rocha, Maputo in 1955 which melded the Modernist with the African aesthetic, creating Afro-Modernist. The tonal value of the building and the treatment of the surface referencing indigenous building methods / materials and the reference to mud. Gone are the Portuguese clad walls with Azulejos but instead the African ingenuity of using found objects and natural materials i.e. pebbles and stones. Instead of the controlled Modernist geometry, fractal geometry is applied here. Patterning reminiscent in most traditional African crafts and traditions which is recurring patterns that are intuitive and individual, not objective. Thus, the surface decoration moving away from the colonial to the Modernist and to the Afro-Modernist. Leading towards an independent cultural expression.

Fig. 6 a, b, c Pancho Guedes Edifício Abreu Santos e Rocha, 1955 Maputo, Mozambique Photographs by Milia Lorraine Khoury on 13 December 2018

This field research formed the basis for this research paper which is being expanded into a full article. In addition, the project is ongoing with further interrogations in other parts of Lusophone Africa and investigating notions of transplantation of art forms and how their meanings shift. The Design History Society award was central in the initial instigation of this project.


Milia completed a BTEC Diploma in Foundation Studies in Art and Design at Central Saint Martins College (London) in 1999. In 2003 and 2008, she obtained a BA Fine Art degree and a Masters in Philosophy in Fine Arts degree from Michaelis School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town. She has taught at tertiary level since 2003 and has published several papers on art and architecture. Currently, she lectures in History/ Theory of Art and Design at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (Cape Town).


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