Bertina Lopes

Maputo, Mozambique, 1924

Mozambican-Italian painter. The story of Bertina Lopes – artist, activist, and Roman by adoption – is one of the great stories in contemporary art and politics. She is considered the mother of contemporary African painting. Her mother was Mozambican from Maputo, her father a Portuguese entrepreneur. She completed her art studies locally and later in Lisbon, and returned to Maputo as a teacher in 1953, influencing local artists such as the self-taught Malangatana Ngwenya (1936-2011). In Africa the early 1960s was incandescent, with anti-colonial movements followed by national independence for many countries and B. Lopes was part of this fight. In Maputo, her contact with poets – particularly through her first husband Virgilio de Lemos with whom she had twin sons in 1955 – writers, and political activists was fundamental in forming her anti-fascist activism both in Portugal (where she returned to study and exhibit) and Mozambique. She carried this political attitude when she arrived in Rome in 1964, thanks to grants from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. She married Franco Confaloni in 1965. Rome in those years was vastly different from today; there were few educated non-European artists and B. Lopes was most probably the only African. Her biography shows it was not easy to attain recognition, especially for her abstract works: she was never represented by a commercial gallery. Her vibrant paintings reflect a double identity that would continue in her work throughout her career. Both Western art influence and African primitivism joined in a personal and explosive use of colour and content resulting in an unusual abstract construction, often mixed with found materials, which evolved into her own unique painterly identity. A stunning example is her Totem from 1979.

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