Angolan civil war refugee Nelson Da Costa earns his MFA in Boston

Up at my alma mater, the Tufts University Art Gallery continues its series of MFA thesis exhibitions from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts this month. In The Tufts Daily, reporter Kyle Chayka reports that Nelson Da Costa is the only traditional painter in this soon-to-graduate group of installation and video artists. “A refugee of the Angolan civil war, Da Costa attended art school in Cuba before moving to the United States. Da Costa’s paintings engage the language of abstraction, dissolving figures and backgrounds into biomorphic shapes that bring to mind Keith Haring as much as they do contemporary graffiti. The paintings’ acid colors are punchy and bright, but they also lend an air of superficiality that is only enhanced by the cartoon-like, rhythmic shapes throughout the pieces. Da Costa recognizes in his artist statement that he is trying to ‘rebuild himself’ through his work, and perhaps that personal intimacy is needed to truly develop the paintings beyond their energetic surfaces.”

In a 2003 Boston Globe article about Da Costa, Susan C. Boni tells the whole story. “When government soldiers murdered his father, mother, and brother in their village of Kwanza Norte, Angola, 12-year-old Da Costa became an orphan. Later, he says, troops came to the orphanage, shot him in the shoulder, and left him for dead. After his recovery, a Cuban doctor arranged for Nelson to flee to Cuba. ‘I hoped that I would be with a family when I arrived in Havana, but it didn’t happen,’ says Da Costa as sadness clouds his usually cheerful face. “Da Costa, whose fear of persecution and death never left him, held onto his love of art as he was shuffled from school to school. In the 11th grade, Da Costa became more serious and confident about his art under the guidance of his teacher, Julio Cesar Banasco, who would later become a famous Cuban artist. ‘Canvas and oils are very expensive in Cuba,’ Da Costa notes, ‘so I worked with pen and pencil on paper.’ Many of his works today are drawings in pen or pencil on paper. One striking piece shows a mother and child locked in an embrace. The child’s body winds around the mother, and his head rests on top of hers, signifying his importance to the mother. Da Costa painted wherever possible — in libraries, shelters, churches, and the Boston Center for Adult Education.” Read more.

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