In memory of our mother Erna Vamos
her intellectual legacy
I should first tell you about how I feel about the colonial society back then (1940-1958) in an urban back-ground (Katanga, Belgian Congo): it was made of certainties and moral high ground (we are civilizing the ‘negros’). This white, segregationist society showed a real “petty racism”, although less arrogant than what was observed in close-by British colonies or farther away in Apartheid South Africa. This society consisted largely of employees of colonial companies. They had limited cultural knowledge, lived comfortably, and returned regularly to Belgium for a six-month leave after a two to four-year assignment. In short, there was little space for them to put their situation and the environment in which they evolved into perspective. A ‘flat’ society, with hardly any asperities, with strong inward internal cohesion. It should be mentioned that, despite our legal status as foreigners and stateless individuals with limited resources, it wasn’t, by any means, an obstacle to open and good relationships with this colonial society.
Despite segregation, contacts with the Africans were constant and apparently friendly even if clearly marked by this "white superiority".
Thus, a motley society which I still like to recall as this human variety calls for putting into perspective this internal cohesion which I mentioned before.
Fortunately, there were Europeans outsiders, including Mother, who were somehow a bit like ‘salt of the earth” for my sisters and me.
In fact, Mother had a critical outlook and a healthy perspective vis-à-vis those European colonials from Belgium or elsewhere: she taught us not to look at the world and the people at face value. We learned to decode, to read beyond appearances and statements. Mother was an artist and an intellectual in an European population predominantly composed of employees, tradesman, businessman. The rather marginal position of our family among this colonial society taught us to face up to our environment (despite our limited resources and an uncertain future). Thus we learned to take on this out of step societal gap with the surrounding society.
More importantly, her critical outlook on the “black” and “white” relationships greatly contributed to the shaping of our mindsets. During her stay in Chad then part of the French colony “Afrique Equatoriale Française“ she took care of children from the local Sara ethnic group, among them many orphans. She drafted an ethno-psychoanalytical record of her experiences, intended for the renowned anthropologist and psychoanalyst Géza Roheim. Disciple of Freud he had encouraged Mother to write down the observations she made during her field work. She illustrated this document with related ethnographic pictures (*). Erna Vamos, without being totally free of prejudices, transmitted to us an open and human respect towards the black people and their culture. Testimony to this is her passion for collecting African art and crafts despite her small income. She would go to the “Cité Indigène” market (for Black people) not only to buy local goods but also to search for African art and crafts. She would decorate our home with it. It also served as an inspiration source. Other testimony of her open mind and her good taste: she would encourage ever since the early fifties, Mwenze Kibwanga nowadays well-known Congolese artist (she drew his portrait and bought some of his works). She had also received a signed copy of Father Tempels’ book "Philosophie Bantoue" much criticized because it was obvious, in the colonial establishment at the fringe of which Erna Vamos lived, that such so-called “childish” animism could not have any significant philosophical grounds, could it?
As one looks at the portraits she made of Africans, one can feel this human outlook from “man-to-man”, on an equal footing. In a nutshell, it is thanks to her that we were forewarned against any feelings of superiority, notwithstanding a colonial environment which dragged us in the opposite direction.
As far as her career is concerned, I remember an artist women, isolated, lacking useful connections (notwithstanding a few patrons and kindly persons), away from any careerist ambition, hoping merely to be acknowledged by her contemporaries for her works.
2012, June 24th
(*) these documents can be consulted on request addressed to Esther Vamos-Hurwitz, or Elie Vamos.