“This Building Belongs to the People”: Cape Verde’s New Center for Art, Crafts and Design
There are two ways to get to Cape Verde, by sea or sky. Either way, we are surprised by the landscape of immense rocky masses sprouting from the Atlantic’s navel before setting foot on land. Unpopulated until the middle of the 15th century, the volcanic archipelago is made up of ten islands, nine of which are currently inhabited, with unique characteristics in each one of them — some more touristy, like Sal, others more rural, like Santo Antão — and a version of Kriolu Kabuverdianuwhich is not the official language (Portuguese occupies this place), but which is by far the most widely spoken.
São Vicente is the second most populous island in the country and makes up the northern insular group called Sotavento, along with Santo Antão, Santa Luzia, São Nicolau, Sal and Boa Vista. Its largest city, Mindelo, has a port vocation and has historically been the point of departure and arrival for people and goods. Marked by traffic, the city is a place of passage and intense cultural exchanges. It is also home to the first museum built in the country, the National Center for Art, Crafts and Design — CNAD.
Opened at the end of July, the new CNAD is the result of a long process that had the support of the Ministry of Culture and Creative Industries of Cape Verde and the Federal Government. In addition to the new museum built from scratch, designed by the local firm Ramos Castellano Arquitectos, the project also includes the rehabilitation of Casa Senador Vera-Cruz, one of the oldest buildings in Mindelo, started in 2019.
The project was entirely financed by the Government of Cape Verde and cost 120 million Cape Verdean escudos (about US$1.1 million). With a collection area, exhibition rooms, library, and space for artistic residencies, the National Center for Art, Crafts and Design seeks to become a reference as a platform for sustainable cultural development and promotion. “We sowed utopia to reap a brand new verse”, says Irlando Ferreira, Director General of CNAD, after years of work managing the demands and needs of government bodies, artists and artisans.
If today the institution extends its arms over arts and design, it keeps its feet firmly planted on crafts. It was created from it, in 1976, as Cooperativa Resistência, a group formed by artists and teachers led by Manuel Figueira, Luísa Queirós and Bela Duarte. The group was dedicated to the experimentation, investigation and promotion of Cape Verdean handicrafts, in particular weaving, seeking in traditional and popular knowledge — transmitted by master artisans, such as Nhô Griga and Nhô Damásio — bases to foster the development of new artisans and artists .
Bonding with the population is embedded in the origin of CNAD. “The reason of this building is to belong to the people, being close to them”, comments the architect Eloisa Ramos. “In other words, we wanted to break down all possible barriers, allowing people to move around here at will, without distancing themselves. The result is this building that, despite being imposing, does not create a distance”, she concludes. Eloisa, born in Santo Antão Island, is one of the architects responsible for the rehabilitation of the old Casa Senador Vera-Cruz and for the design of the new CNAD building, together with the Italian Moreno Castellano. Together they form the Ramos Castellano Arquitectos studio, based in Mindelo, which has in its portfolio Terra Lodge Hotel and Casa Celestina, both in the same city, and Aquiles Eco Hotel, in São Pedro.
For the CNAD project, they seek inspiration from a material that is common in everyday life on the islands of Cape Verde: the bidons, or cylindrical drums made of metal or plastic. Almost all the goods that arrive on the islands, sent by relatives of residents who went to look for better economic conditions in other countries, arrive inside these drums. With 560,000 inhabitants living in the archipelago and almost a million living outside it, it is conceivable that the influx of drums is quite voluminous.
After traveling the sea bringing goods from other continents — mainly Europe and North America, but also South America and Asia — these metal containers are recycled and incorporated into the daily lives of residents in a variety of ways. It is not unusual to find tin houses made with the metal plate of the drums, or pans and other tools made from parts of them. There are countless uses, and we find traces of drums everywhere, especially in communities far from urban centers.
“The drums end up revealing a social, cultural, and economic dimension of the country”, comments Irlando Ferreira, “and here they were re-signified to constitute the second skin of the building”. The lid and the circular bottom of the drums were used to compose a mosaic that envelops the new building. Set about a meter away from the glass façade that encloses the internal spaces, and accessed by a narrow service corridor, this skin works as a screen against the strong Sahelian sun. An elaborate manual mechanism allows the drums to be rotated, controlling the level of brightness and insolation in the interiors. “There is no air conditioning, the environmental comfort systems are all passive”, reveals Eloisa.
What stands out the most, however, are the colors of the building. Each of the hundreds of lids is given a color, and in this palette is encoded a musical score composed by the Cape Verdean multi-instrumentalist and conductor Vasco Martins. A color for each note (the intervals are also painted) and the rhythm of the façade is literally given by the music. In front of this score, the Casa Senador Vera-Cruz, now without walls, opens up to the city. Between the buildings, a rectangular square provides additional space for the CNAD program and connects the side streets, serving as a shortcut through the urban fabric of Mindelo.
Open to the people, the city and the world, looking at the past and the present, the new CNAD stands in Mindelo as a dream for the future. “But not just any future, a future that brings us the past, being diaspora and island”, comments Abraão Anibal Barbosa Vicente, Minister of Culture and Creative Industries. Indeed, the National Center for Art, Crafts and Design seeks to honor the institution’s past as a promoter of popular knowledge — the exhibition Cape Verdean Creation: Routes, curated jointly by Ireland Ferreira and Adélia Borges, bears witness to this. However, it avoids sinking into nostalgia, and keeps its focus firmly on the development of young artisans and artists.
The fulfillment of a project of this importance in a country with just over half a million inhabitants is an admirable achievement; program maintenance, in turn, will continue to be a challenge. “It’s a utopia,” adds Ireland.
But Cape Verdeans are no strangers to this: “I grew up listening to my father, who was a farmer, talking about waiting for the rain. You put the seed in the ground and wait for the water, and then you ought to have faith, because you believe the rain will fall. You have to believe in order to survive,” Eloisa told me. It hadn’t rained on the island of São Vicente for four years and the arid landscape testified to that. We have an expression here that says sow in the dust“,” adds Ireland, “because the earth is so dry that it has already turned to dust and, even so, you put the seed inside waiting for it to sprout”. I no longer knew whether he was talking about plants in the countryside or the arduous work made by the institution he directs, but I felt that, after the sowing was done, we all — myself included — believed that the harvest was, at long last , possible.