"Unwanted Legacies" on “Herança” exhibition, by Ana Vidigal and Nuno Nunes-Ferreira, at Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporânea
On 25 July 2020, in the midst of the turmoil of the COVID-19 pandemic, a tragedy occurred on Avenida de Moscavide, in Lisbon: Bruno Candé, a black man of Guinean origin, 39 years old and an actor, was murdered by Evaristo Carreira Marinho, a white Portuguese man, 76 years old and a retired auxiliary nurse.
The crime took place just a few days after the two men had an argument that ended in racist insults. According to the reconstruction by the Public Prosecution1, utterances such as ‘Go back to your own country, nxxxx!’ and ‘Go stay with the rest of your family in the senzala!’ were uttered, with racism sparking the hate crime planned and committed three days later.
In another barrage of insults from the murderer – whom I would rather not quote directly here – he uses the first person singular in verbal attacks in which he refers to violations and physical violence inflicted by him in Africa. The final phrase he supposedly said at the end of the first confrontation was ‘I have guns from overseas at home and I’m going to kill you!’ As well as being a lamentable promise, this phrase also provided a biographical detail: the fact that he was a soldier in Angola between 1966 and 1968 in what was known as the ‘Overseas War’ or, more usually, the ‘Portuguese Colo-nial War.’ Evaristo was, then, one of the thousands of Portuguese men sent to participate in the armed conflicts between Portugal and its colonies on the African continent between 1961 and 1975, when the Estado Novo regime ended in Portugal.
From his recruitment – whether voluntary or enforced – Evaristo inherited the possession of weapons, violence, racism and, without doubt, a multitude of traumas.
Ana Vidigal and Nuno Nunes-Ferreira, the two artists occupying the rooms of the National Museum of Contemporary Art in this exhibition, can also be regarded as heirs – but of legacies that differ from this tragic episode. Both artists are children of men recruited for this war between the desire for the permanence of the colonies and the independence of various African nations. Sixty years after its start, the various names that historical writing has given to this period seem – but do not quite manage – to superimpose the various microhistories2 in which the artists are characters. As children, they heard stories about the conflicts, they saw photographs taken by their parents and had very different experiences of that time – while Ana Vidigal waited years for her father to return home, Nuno Nunes-Ferreira always experienced the war years in the past tense. She felt the wait physically as she grew; he used to imagine what those years would have been like through newspapers and photographs. Her father was in the territory now called Guinea-Bissau; Nuno’s father, in Angola.
In addition to their diverse ways of witnessing the traumas of war – she with the present, he with the past – both artists are from different generations and experience visuality in contrasting ways. I have the impression that the selection of their works shown in this exhibition provides the public with existential visions and artistic research that complement each other mainly through their differences. There is something, however, that connects them in terms of method: their interest in the notion of accumulation.
Credits: João Neves
In her works, Ana Vidigal reveals that amalgam of elements in the manner an iconophilist: her interest in paper and, what’s more, in the image technically reproduced on paper, allows the artist to create compositions of the most varied kinds where imagery excess can be the protagonist. One image over another image, with many others in the same composition – Vidigal often gives her audiences a kind of falsely disorganised atlas. Her research explores colour in a way that doesn’t belie her early training as a painter: patches of colour appear from the association of images and a clear interest in the two-dimensional relationship of the public body with the object. Stitches of humour also thread through a large part of her work – the kitsch, the excessive, essentially nonsense: images that easily evade the elitist notion of good taste and elegance.
In the first rooms of the exhibition, the artist presents a series of works in which she has appropriated printed material that was circulated during her childhood3. Vidigal chose to explore the surface of the paper itself and it is in this area that the narrative frictions occur. In I had a
farm war in Africa, the use of English in the title plays with the duality between Portuguese ownership in Africa and the war that became necessary for colonialism to endure. These images, however, do not give themselves literally to this phrase and, like a riddle, prefer to bring their subtleties to the foreground. Some of these works show figures of black people represented in a stereotypical way – much like we still see today, unfortunately, with Conguitos, a Spanish chocolate brand that takes its name from black slaves in the Congo. One of the works from this series deals with the cut-out of an image of the body of a black boy whose physicality is imprisoned by another piece of paper showing a collection of birds – a common association made by the exoticising and Eurocentric gaze.
We can see something similar in the work Casa Africana, which makes reference to the famous shop of the same name that existed in Lisbon from 1872 and whose adver-tising figure was a young black man carrying packages for white people. How is it possible to get rid of racism that is so ingrained in Portuguese culture? Ana Vidigal seems, with these works, to point to a pastiche that contributes to muddling and casting doubt on narratives that were solid enough for Casa Africana to remain open until the 1990s.
Credits: João Neves
The next rooms display some works by Nuno Nunes-Ferreira and there is a perceptible difference in the relationship with the notion of accumulation: Ana Vidigal’s works suggest a displacement of objects involving the notion of consumerism, while the other artist’s series focus on newspapers, book covers and photographs from his father’s archive. When we look at Nunes-Ferreira’s career – and having visited his studio – this connection to archivism is almost inevitable: his scattered cardboard boxes attempting to organise the immense volume of newspapers, books, photographs and other objects in his possession. We could say that his research also approaches that of a hoarder4, but when we are in front of his works and exhibitions, what leaps out at us is precisely his organisational effort: he accumulates in order to create fictional ways of presenting this material through a narrative principle that allows us to perceive cycles, repetitions and coincidences. Obsession is a key word for his poetics.
The triptych Ir e morrer. Ir e regressar. Não ir e desertar [To go and die. To go and come back. To not go and desert] is demonstrative of his obsessive method. Based on his collection of newspapers, the artist presents three war narratives: soldiers’ obituaries, the commemoration of those who returned to Portugal and the problematisation of those who refused to participate. Close to this work, one of the destinies (or refusals) of many of the proper names that appear in the newspaper – Angola – has its cartographic boundaries remade by the superimposition of books aimed at different aspects of the colonising process; with titles that range from Angola É Nossa!... [Angola Is Ours, 1975], by Augusto Dias, to Livro Negro da Descolonização [Black Book of Decolonisation, 1977], by Luiz Aguiar, their respective covers placing the seats of domination and freedom side by side. The presence of this work close to the collections of cut-outs made by the artist leads me to reflect too on those bodies recruited during colonisation – what place do they occupy in the narratives of macrohistory? Is there a space for those bodies that, willing or forced to go into conflict, were a kind of mass of manoeuvre for Portuguese colonisation and fed a national identity that is still imbued with the nostalgia of imperialism?
This divergence between a Portuguese state order and the desires of those thousands of people leads the artist to show two works that are formally based on displacement and the cut. Whether it is the image of his father, or the ‘wives of the ex-combatants condemned to 40 years of war,’ sixty years after this war, the traumas still make themselves known in the social memory of Portugal and its various former colonies in Africa. As it says in the same article from 2006 that Nunes-Ferreira used in the work Juntos mas separados [Together but separated], ‘[t]he only support we had was alcohol.’ We feel the weight of memory, as well as the piled up shell casings that structure the work Escola Prática de Cavalaria de Santarém [Santarém Cavalry School].
Credits: João Neves
This equation, which permeates the whole exhibition, between memory, archive, present and trauma acquires a tension in the final room where, finally, the works of Ana Vidigal and Nuno Nunes-Ferreira are placed side by side. In 1344 dias [1344 days], Nunes-Ferreira makes a video where albums of memories, produced according to the number of days his father spent in Angola, are leafed through – photographs, wrappers, tickets, cuttings. The photographic desire of some – and the expression of pleasure captured by the photograph – was proportional to the suffering of others, as Vidigal subtly suggests in a work entitled Vidas a(r)didas [(Burned)/Adidas lives] where three military caps are folded and shaped to resemble the Adidas logo. Once again playing with words, the artist also reminds us of the direct relationship between war and capitalism. As in the whole of the ‘Herança’ exhibition, Nuno Nunes-Ferreira’s leaden gaze creates a counterpoint to Ana Vidigal’s constant irony.
In this meeting of investigations – and in the friendship cultivated in recent years between these two artists – a certain melancholy prevails, not just in the way they face and recodify their family memories, but also in the way both observe and reshape narratives for the multiple histories of Portugal. Their gaze is certainly not that of the nationalism proclaimed by the band Da Vinci, in the 1989 song ‘Conquistador’: ‘It was a whole nation / guided by the heavens / spread around the world / following their heroes / and they took the light of culture / sowing bonds of tenderness / a thousand epic poems / lives so full / and oceans of love.’5
Credits: João Neves
There is nothing loving about the colonial relationships disseminated by the echelons of state in Portugal – from the Empire to recent democracy. Nevertheless, this idea of a hegemonic Portuguese identity endures and, arguably since the Estado Novo regime, is latent – note the nearly five hundred thousand votes received by a certain presidential candidate who, after the death of Bruno Candé, organised a demonstration to assert that ‘Portugal is not racist.’ In these days when historical narratives are shaped by tweets and fake news, it is essential to touch on the historical traumas of the many stories of Portuguese colonisation – seen, for example, in the public monuments scattered around the country.
This exhibition proposes an intimate exercise in remembrance, reflection and fissure in the small histories that form the jigsaw pieces of an extremely complex whole, where the processes of structural racism became solidified as a generation of Portuguese recruits suffered insurmountable traumas. Each artist, in their own way, brings to the surface the fact that, yes, racism was and is an essential aspect of Portuguese culture.
At the end of a recent interview for TVI, the activist Mamadou Ba said: ‘The argument about memory is different from the argument for memory. An argument about memory belongs to those who don’t want the past to pass. An argument for memory belongs to those who want to be included in the collective narrative. They want to be included in the collective narrative in order to be represented and reflected in the collective national imagination.’6
In the desire for an argument for collective memory and historical reparation, what could be better than starting with our own storage trunks, albums and dining tables?
Researcher on the intersection between curatorship, art history, criticism and education
The Portuguese version of this text is available here.
1 HENRIQUES, Joana Gorjão. ‘Bruno Candé’s mocking laugh led the accused to fire five shots at him’ in Público, Lisbon, 29 January 2021. Accessed on 1 March 2021. [https://www.publico.pt/2021/01/29/sociedade/noticia/riso-tom-gozo-fez-arguido-disparar-cinco-tiros-bruno-cande-1948359]
2 I refer here to a historiographic genre developed by Carlo Ginzburg and Giovanni Levi during the course of their careers, particularly a series of publications called ‘Microstorie,’ published in Italy between 1981 and 1988. Ginzburg’s best-known book in Brazil – a testimony to his interest in the narratives of subordinated voices through a writing of macrohistory – is The Cheese and the Worms, from 1976.
3 Bear in mind that the artist had previously developed other works that dealt with questions relating to her family and their relationship with the Portuguese Colonial War: Void, an installation from 2007 and Penélope, another installation made in 2000.
4 There is such public curiosity about people who suffer from compulsive hoarding that, since 2009, the American network A&E has shown a programme called Hoarders, on which people reveal their homes and relationships with the act of accumulating objects.
5 I am grateful to Tiago Cadete for the reference to this song in his performative show Atlântico [Atlantic], 2020, where there is an entire sequence that reflects on this song.
6 Interview with Mamadou Ba for TVI, broadcast on 24 February 2021. Accessed on 1 March 2021. [https://tvi24.iol.pt/sociedade/antirracismo/mamadou-ba-e-o-haraquiri-nacional-nao-ha-mudanca-sem-incomodo-o-racismo-mata]
HERANÇA at Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporânea - Museu do Chiado, Lisboa
ANA VIDIGAL E NUNO NUNES-FERREIRA
2021-05-18 - 2021-09-26