Over the last years, we have seen disputes over statues and monuments all over the world. Memorials dedicated to military achievements, war heroes, colonialists and slave traders have been at the centre of debates on the deconstruction of history and the ways some events and national groups have been inscribed in the public space. In 2019, for example, we saw Santiago, the capital of Chile, being occupied by protesters waving the flag of the indigenous Mapuche people. One particular image went viral all around the world: in the photo, dozens of protesters climb a military monument in the centre of Santiago and at the top of the statue, a man raises the Mapuche’s flag, a people that has been under attack in Chile since the arrival of Spanish colonizers, in the 16th century. In South Africa, the campaign Rhodes Must Fall led to the removal of a statue in honour of British imperialist Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town. The withdraw flared up a discussion regarding what to do with other monuments to Rhodes around the country. In 2020, we saw similar scenes being repeated throughout Europe, United States and Latin America, when statues of slave trader Edward Colston, Columbus, Belgian King Leopold II and Portuguese Jesuit missionary Father António Vieira, just to name a few, woke up either, at the bottom of a river, painted in red, headless or wearing signs saying: ‘decolonize’. Such movements intended to problematise what is remembered in the public sphere and how those monuments relate to the way we conceive a country’s history or the history of colonialism and slavery.
‘There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism’[i], writes Walter Benjamin on his 7th thesis on the philosophy of History. For some, statues such as those of Colston, Rhodes and Vieira are symbols of civilisation. For many others, they are memories of massacres and genocides, symbols of barbarism. Monuments as, for example, the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, built in the memory of the infant Henry the Navigator – considered the patron of the 16th century Portuguese colonial expansion – represent the memory of the victors, they anchor history the way power wants it seen. That is the reason why, if we take Benjamin’s critique of history as a guide, we need to deconstruct such monuments built by hegemonic historical narratives. And what we have been seeing over recent years throughout the world are precisely such moments of such deconstruction.
That is to say that the debate over monuments and statues should be considered under a broader scope of history, memory and dynamics of power intertwined in both phenomena. In a recent article in the French newspaper Le Libération, Paul B. Preciado described statues as ‘prosthesis of historic memory that remind us the lives “that matter”’. They inscribe on public space the bodies that deserve to be immortalized in stone and metal. ‘Public sculptures’, he writes, ‘do not represent the people, they build it: they depict a national pure body and determine an ideal of colonial and sexual citizenship’. To critique history as celebrated by statues is, then, to critique the construction of the nation state itself. This series analyses both how events and characters are chosen to be marked in a city or a country’s landscape, and how art might disrupt national and imperial ideals, functioning sometimes as a sort of counter-memory.
Series Publication Schedule
- Part I: Portugal: the return of the colonial war, by Miguel Cardina
- Part II: Which door to which city? The Vraca Memorial Park and anti-fascism legacy in Sarajevo, by Renata Summa
- Part III: Indigenous Uruguay: monuments, histories and memories, by Henrique Gasperin
- Part IV: The Red Atlantic: modernity and markers of discrimination, by Victor Coutinho Lage
- Part V: The Memory Sewing: alternative history(ies) of the past and present, by Mariana Caldas
[i] Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ in Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 2007), p. 256.