Portugal unbolts its statues (gently) – Jeune Afrique

On the coffee table, a huge blue ceramic phallus pointing proudly to the ceiling. On the ground, a large drawing of three meters by two represents a statue of the Marquis of Pombal (1699-1782), an important Portuguese politician, slaveholder, assailed by a gymnast and cherubs with painted faces like those of the peoples of Amazonia. On the walls, sketches, photographs, a few stains of mold.

Bearded, with sparkling eyes, a piece of coral hanging around his neck, the Angolan-born artist Marcio Carvalho enthusiastically presents his work in his small workshop in Lisbon. There is in his drawings a seriousness mixed with humor and a little provocation, too, in a country that always gargles about its past, its explorers and its “discoveries”. This is also why the exhibition curator Antonio Pinto Ribeiro chose two drawings by Carvalho to appear in “Europa Oxala”, the exhibition which is being held at the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon until August 22, after being passed through Marseille (Mucem) and before opening in Tervuren (AfricaMuseum).

Patrice Lumumba against Leopold II

“Falling Thrones” by Márcio Carvalho (2019), micro pigment ink and acrylic on paper © Márcio Carvalho

Taken from the series “Falling Thrones”, the works that Marcio Carvalho exhibit represent, if you will, combat scenes. On the first, the Mozambican feminist and independent activist Josina Abiatar Muthemba Machel dressed as a judoka performs an ippon on the Portuguese king Joao 1uh. On the second, it is a Patrice Lumumba also in judoka outfit who makes the Belgian king of sinister memory Leopold II fly. In both cases, European historical figures were drawn in black and white from very real equestrian statues.

“I like to use the image of judo, because in this martial art, we use the opponent’s strength to gain the advantage,” explains the artist. We must take power from the systems of power. But knocking down a monument, I think it’s a great artistic performance, which cannot be repeated. By using drawing with statues of colonizers or slavers who are in public space, I try to push everyone to question the way we interact with public objects. I try to push the communities to rethink the common space for better living together. »

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“Falling Thrones” – more than a hundred drawings of different sizes – systematically depicts real statues of controversial historical figures, in black and white, facing off against different athletes of Olympic disciplines painted in color. “The series illustrates very well what a creative approach to colonial history can consist of,” write the curators of the exhibition in their catalog. This project uses the Olympic Games and their power structure to evoke, in the mode of sporting rivalry, the history of these oppressed peoples which it is a question of remembering: each of the athletes represented represents a woman or a man. who fought against colonial rulers. A rare element in this kind of approach, humor does not prove the artist. For him, the glorifying statues of slavers or colonizers must be symbolically knocked down, but remain in public space so that no one forgets.

“Memories for the Future”

This is the approach that Antonio Pinto Ribeiro has been advocating for many years. He did this in particular with the Gulbenkian Foundation’s “Proximo Futuro” program at the end of the 2000s, then as coordinator of the “Lisbon Ibero-American Capital of Culture” event in 2017. That year, he had dared to install a “decolonial” exhibition in the heart of the Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument of the Discoveries), emblematic of the Salazarist style recognized in 1960 in the district of Bélem to celebrate the memory of the Portuguese navigators of the 15th and 16th centuries.

A real provocation: “Discoveries in Portugal are sacred,” explains Marcio Carvalho. If we take them away from the Portuguese, it’s like depriving them of part of their biography. Europa Oxala participates in the same kind of approach: rereading history in a country whose colonial and slavery past began in the 14th century and only ended between 1974 and 1975, after the fall of the dictatorship.

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“I obtained carte blanche to mount a contemporary art exhibition on the question of post-memory, with Afro-European artists from three former colonial empires, Portugal, France and Belgium, says Antonio Pinto Ribeiro . The title “Europa Oxala” makes it possible to introduce the other, the elsewhere, the strangeness, with an optimistic dimension. “Oxala” is indeed a vernacular derivation of “Insh’Allah”, with a diminished religious aspect. There is in this expression an openness to the future and to hope. And indeed, even if certain creations remain violently critical, the whole of the exhibition presented within the walls of the Gulbenkian Foundation is far from being a desperate indictment – ​​like the judokas of Marcio Carvalho.

The twenty or so artists exhibited come from immigration, second or third generation. If the former are mainly interested in past memories, the latter rather seek to produce “memories for the future”. “My family fled Angola and went into exile in Portugal,” says Marcio Carvalho. The food I ate, the music I listened to conflicted with what I was experiencing outside the family home. I was living in a situation of duplication that I tried to hide as best I could, until I discovered the tools to understand. At one point, I realized that there were also African writers, thinkers, philosophers…”

Conquering and virile nations

"echoes of the world" by Malala Adrianalavidrazana ©  Malala Adrianalavidrazana

“Echoes of the World” by Malala Adrianalavidrazana © Malala Adrianalavidrazana

Aided by the Congolese visual artist Aimé Mpane and by the Franco-Algerian visual artist Katia Kameli, Antonio Pinto Ribeiro brought together creators who, each in their own way, invoked the memory issues specific to “Afropaeans” while inventorying a universal proposal. Thus, the Malagasy Malala Andrialavidrazana like the Franco-Algerian Fayçal Baghriche is related to the territorial question with virtuosity. The first with its montages of old maps, “live and vibrant paintings in different periods and representations (merge)”. The second with “Elective Purification”, a superb “enhanced blue sky studded with a myriad of stars of different shapes, colors and arrangements” which is “an enlarged version of a double-page dictionary representing the flags of the countries of the world, covered by the artist with a blue tint which has not been preserved except the stars of the national banners”.

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As Antonio Pinto Ribeiro points out, “cartography has always been a fundamental instrument of colonialism. And the resources plundered during colonialism continue to be exploited, often by foreign companies. The blue phallus painted in the style of the azulejos by Marcio Carvalho, which is not in the exhibition, is none other than a scathing and humorous criticism of these conquering and virile nations which wanted to subject the world to their desires, erecting here and there flags and monuments.

If the so-called “decolonial” question has been at the heart of the debate for several years in France and Belgium, Portugal is still lagging behind in this area. “Europa Oxala” is one more step towards a better understanding of the past, a gentle reversal of established certainties. According to Monica de Miranda, who also has Angolan origins and works on the “postcolonial geography of Lisbon”, this memorial work belongs above all to the children of this complex history of domination and resistance. “We spend a lot of time complaining about not being in history, when we are history,” she says.