⁞ Cliff Andrade’s ‘profound internalisation of longing’ ⁞

cliff1all images © Cliff Andrade, from the project Saudade.

Although I enjoy landscape photography very much, I often get bored by the way some photographers build their documentary projects around it, as if the mountain and its goats spoke the same language. They don’t. On this note, Cliff Andrade’s project Saudade (about Madeira) was a good surprise, not because I think the work is outstanding, but because it is filled with discrepancies that got me thinking: there are images, like the one above and others below, which really add something to the core of the project, and then there is a series of portraits which completely miss the mark, that are distant and cold and aesthetically disjointed from the rest of the project.

I usually find statements about projects redundant and unnecessary but in Cliff’s case (and it’s not a short text), his words are enlightening and sincere, so I’ll be posting the entire text here.

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“My childhood memories of the homeland of my parents are of a land very much other worldly. In those years, the early years following Portugal’s accession to the E.U. (then the E.C.), Madeira was, in most respects, still the same island my parents had known as children and young adults. An ochre earthed, tree covered volcanic mountain poking out of the ocean. Fresh air full of the scent of pine trees. Early mornings greeted by the cockerel’s sonorous cock-a-doodle. This was a world apart from the inner cities of Europe’s largest metropolises where most of our parents had ended up, and as a young child I revelled in it. I revelled in the nature. I revelled in the eternal sunshine. I revelled in the difference between that world, untainted by the obligation of school, and the drab grey world in which we existed for the years between summer visits.

Even if at times this difference meant frustration. Frustration at the availability of only one television channel. Frustration at the fear you felt sitting in the makeshift wooden outhouse as the family pigs ran around beneath you. Frustration at the lack of recognisable brands in the locally run shops. Supermarkets and chain stores did not exist here. For this was a land yet to be reached by mass-market consumer capitalism. I revelled in this difference and I revelled in feeling part of an extended family, re-united, a feeling all too rare for us filhos de emigrados, ‘sons of emigrants’, dispersed around the globe. And I revelled in my parents’ visible joy at being reconnected to their homeland.

The experiences of a child are buffered from the harsher realities of the world, and as such the reality of life in Madeira at this time should not be romanticised. It was a poor place, the majority of the population agricultural peasants. Basic infrastructure was lacking. Alcoholism a major problem. A day to day existence as mundane as any small rural community anywhere. But it was also a place full of laughter. Full of community. All this I was to come to realise years later through my mother’s stories. For all its faults, it was a place for which my parents would always feel that most Portuguese of emotions – a place for which they would always have saudade.

Saudade. How does one explain a concept that goes to the very core of the Portuguese national character? No direct translation exists into the English language. Tenho saudades tuas (lit. I have saudades for you) is often translated as ‘I miss you’, but this is misleading. It fails to communicate the profound depth of longing present with saudade. To miss is to feel the absence of something. To have saudade is to bear the additional sorrow of knowing that that absent something may never return. Others have described it as a deep emotional state of melancholic longing; but longing stares outward, to the horizon. Saudade is a profound internalisation of longing, drawing it deep into the soul. And there is a profound paradox at the heart of saudade – the melancholy is accompanied by joy; joy at the memory of having experienced that for which you now pine.

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Despite those handful of visits as a child, as my adult years progressed I became increasingly aware that Madeira was a place I hardly knew. And it knew even less of me. Why did I, then, a ‘second generationer’ from a foreign land across the vast ocean, also feel saudade for that land? Was it saudade I felt, or merely a nostalgia for fond childhood memories?

There is a saudade felt by the offspring of all those who left their home for a new land. A saudade that comes not from an absence for a place once known, but from a need to fill a gap within that has always existed. For to not know the home of our parents is to not know a place to which we are inextricably linked. That land formed them, in turn leaving its imprint upon us. To never know it is to never know a part of ourselves. Its water flows in our blood.

What is this human compulsion to know the past? Logic tells us there is no point in looking back. Time moves only forward. The future lies that way. But saudade knows nothing of logic. It yearns only for what is missing, fuelled by the human desire to know where we come from in the hope we can better understand who we are and where we are going. Perhaps by knowing the land of our parents, we hope in turn to know them better. Maybe out there amongst the pines and laurisilva, between levada and ribeira, serra and calhau, I will find some of the reasons for their joy, their sorrow, their insecurities and their strength.

In my personal case the need to know has become all the more pertinent in recent years. While they survive, our parents exist as the link to such a key part of our identity. What happens when that link is severed, as is its inescapable fate? Then we return to the land of our fathers increasingly as an outsider. As time passes our disconnection deepens. We are viewed with the benevolent and pitying looks reserved for tourists. For, in truth, we know nothing of that place and its people. Our families are ever more comprised of strangers. Things that were once held dear immediately begin to be forgotten, the guardians of that knowledge no longer present to preserve its memory. And what will be the effect on the grandchildren who never knew their avôs, their grandparents? How will they react when they receive that quizzical look that accompanies the question ‘Whereabouts are your parents from?’. For them, will the answer ‘my grandparents on my dad’s side were Portuguese but I never knew them’ suffice?

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During two visits spread over the end of 2013 and early 2014, I returned to the land of my parents for the first time in my adult life in an attempt to heal the disconnection I felt with it. In the build up to my trip, my thoughts often turned to the first Portuguese to arrive on the island. What must they have thought at the first sight of that vast tree covered rock, rising two thousand metres straight up out of the Atlantic Ocean, as if to sneak a peek over the horizon at its neighbour Africa? They arrived there in 1419. So awed were they by the dense forest that covered every centimetre of its surface that they called it simply Madeira, ‘wood’. What I discovered on my own personal voyage of (re)discovery was a place drastically altered from the one I had known through the stories of my parents.

Shortly after my childhood visits ceased, a massive influx of money began to arrive in Madeira from the E.U. as part of a European periphery development programme. The aim was to close the gap in development between Portugal and the leading Western European nations which had opened up over years of underdevelopment during Portugal’s authoritarian Salazar regime. It seems the autonomous Madeiran government decided this was best achieved through mass construction projects, specifically targeting road infrastructure. The network of old roads, painfully following the mountainside, snaking in and out of the island’s sheer sided valleys, were left frozen in time as they were replaced at lightning speed by a vast high speed dual carriageway network, blazing a straight path through the landscape, over bridges and through tunnels. Modern engineering showing all its might. Development in fast forward.

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In an attempt to know the island as my parents would have known it, I decided to travel along these old main roads. Due to the island’s topography, both old and new roads follow a similar route, and I often found the old road taking me under or up and over its modern successor.

What I discovered as I journeyed through the landscape was a land very much at odds with itself about the development of the last 20 years. Family homes sit abandoned under huge stilted flyovers, waiting silently in the vain hope of their owners return. But their occupants have long since gone, forced to move to make way for progress. Those who refused to move find themselves living on a traffic island, a domestic oasis in a concrete and tarmac desert.

The new roads were accompanied by other large scale construction projects. Shopping centres in every town centre. Marinas. Small towns graced with olympic sized swimming pools. Whilst times were good few worried about the wider implications of what was being done, but Madeira was hit particularly hard by 2008’s economic collapse, known there simply as a crise, ‘the crisis’. Now critical voices are ubiquitous.

No ones disagrees that the island was in dire need of development. What they ask is whether this development was pursued in the best way? And who really stood to gain from it – where did all the money go (and into whose pockets)? Was the desire for huge construction projects so all consuming that there was no time to stop and ask whether this was actually the best way to achieve progress? And was all this construction absolutely necessary? As one young man I spoke to along the way told me: ‘What we needed was balanced investment to create a sustainable economy based on our traditions and heritage. What we got was concrete’.

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Shopping centres sit empty. Seafront developments sit disused, sentinels for the yawning blue mouths of empty swimming pools. Sections of old roads rot as no money survives for their upkeep. The irony. The coastline, restructured to accommodate this break neck development, gives way under the force of altered erosion patterns. A new leisure port built in the shadow of the new road sits destroyed. A reminder of the consequences of failing to respect the power of water.

Turn towards the interior. Leave the populated coast and wander up into the lush and misty hills. Here the pace of development has been slower, but is visible nonetheless. Ancient rock, loosened by explosives carelessly used to blow holes in the basalt for road tunnels, cascades down the mountainside. Earth loosened by the mass removal of trees comes cascading with it, blocking roads. Disconnecting.

Up here, Madeira’s winters are wet. In February 2010 Madeira experienced its worst flood damage in living memory. Without the tree coverage to keep the soil together, torrents rushed down the mountainside and down the ribeiras, the steep sided river valleys, taking earth, rock, home and life with it. Four years later, reconstruction is still ongoing. A lonely broken pylon stands isolated in the middle of what were once houses, like a ghost from the past. A reminder of the consequences of failing to respect the power of water.

In the present day recession, when jobs and money are scarce, the myopia of the recent past looks even worse. Back in 2008 when the E.U. money stopped flowing almost overnight, the failure to create a sustainable economy, to enable the island to stand on its own two feet, was immediately cruelly exposed. All wonder whether history is set to repeat itself. Will another generation of young Madeirans be forced to disconnect from their homeland as they have no choice but to look abroad for brighter prospects?

As the European Union project seeks to expand itself ever eastwards, forging into other lands in need of development and unaccustomed to commercial capitalism, there may be a valuable lesson to be taken from Madeira’s experience. Change needs to be managed with careful consideration. Simply providing money is simply not enough.

There is hope. Madeira is endowed with an extremely beautiful and varied landscape and a vibrant and unique culture, full of potential. By western European standards, the level of crime is low. The sense of community high. One huge positive result of the development of the last twenty years is that the young are better educated and more internationally mobile than ever before. Hopefully, they will learn from the mistakes of the previous generations and build a sustainable future, reconnecting the island to itself and its heritage in the process.

Small moves in this direction can already be seen. The economic problems have forced many to return to the land through hardship – but in the process they have had the chance to re-evaluate the path they were taking towards progress. The poios, sloped terraced farm plots, abandoned in the rush to modernise, live again with fresh produce and activity. Small businesses have sprung up as those made redundant in the city return to their villages to pursue alternative ways of making a go of things. There are sparks of regeneration. Like a forest after a fire, charred trunks are soon surrounded by a carpet of new life.

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In the densely wooded mountain ranges, the serra, there hides another secret network of connections. Long before even the old roads were constructed, an intricate network of levadas, ‘water takers’, and veredas, ‘paths’, linked the island’s numerous agricultural settlements. Even in my parents’ time, these were the main form of communication. The sealed road to their village did not arrive until after they had already departed. It would have made little difference. No one owned a car.

First constructed in the 16th century to bring water from the wet north to the drier but more farmable south, levadas are small water canals about a foot across and a foot deep, accompanied on one side by an earth path. Often carved straight out of the mountainside, they were the engineering marvels of their day, bringing life, livelihood and connection.

In the same way that the new roads usurped the old roads in the 21st century, the old roads had usurped the levadas and veredas in the 20th. The more practical veredas survive, used mainly as access to homes and farms. The more picturesque have been appropriated as routes for tourists and extreme sports enthusiasts. Some levadas still fulfil their irrigation purposes. But many of these old routes are slowly fading into history, gradually being reclaimed by the laurisilva.

During my return to Madeira, I traversed the width of the the island along these ancient paths and waterways; a route that took me from coast to coast, south to north, over the island’s mountainous central spine in the process. Through this literal act of following in my ancestors centuries-old footsteps, I hoped that a physical discovery of the land would in turn lead me to an emotional reconnection with it, and a better understanding of the lives that had trodden those paths before me.

I had one more personal motivation in my pursuit of reconnection with my parents’ homeland. When I was still too young to know my father with anything other than a child’s mind, he ‘went with God’, as the Portuguese say. My links to his Madeira, always fragile, were all but severed. When my children ask about their avô, what will I say? Of their avó I can tell them much. I can tell them of a rural childhood. Of bare feet on red earth steps. Of leaving school aged eleven to work weaving wicker baskets. Of emigration, naturalisation and anglicisation. Of hard work, starched aprons and shy smiles.

But of him, only blurred memories. A big laugh. Plates piled with over-salted chouriço macaroni. Asleep on the sofa. I knew none of the members of his side of the family. As I crossed Madeira’s terrain in order to know it better, I decided to at the same time tackle the unknown terrain of my father’s family. Seeking them out before it was too late. And in doing so I hoped to know him better. After all, we leave vestiges, traces of ourselves, in everyone we know and have met. I hoped in them I would find traces of the man.”

Cliff, May, 2014

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