A past that has not fully passed yet
Interdisciplinary artist with an undisciplined voice, ready to be heard, this is the cry of Grada Kilomba, through different academic and artistic languages, the central point of a work that speaks about history, memory, trauma, colonialism, racism. The past that has already passed, tidied away in books, monuments and speeches, (still) too deeply rooted in Portugal, a country that is still reluctant to assume its involvement.
“Memory is the fictitious clarity of overlaps that cancel each other out. Meaning is that kind of interpretative map, where scars of successive blows are created. Our feelings. The intensity of feeling is intolerable. From feeling to meaning, from meaning to signification: what is left is impact that replaces impact –behold the invention”.
We live in times that seem to require the ability to remember everything. Or perhaps we are immersed in an obsession with memorial culture – what is this current phenomenon, marked by the delirium or exaltation of memory? Memory, which is innate and personal, is today reorganised collectively, in a reckless and convulsive expansion. It is a social manifesto, like language, capable of succumbing to the community and traditional context, as well as to the intimate and psychological aspects. Collective memory, according to Maurice Halbwachs. As Pierre Nora would say, the term memory is only in the present, alienated from any other time. Disconnected from the past, it is weak or impossible for us to use any previous foundation to project the future or to walk in the now. There was an attempt to make a memory with everything, immediately supplanting history. An altered polarity, when every statement and memorial glimpse brutally invaded history, discourses, readings. A dangerous compass where historical facts are lost and/or details diminished, subjugating all chronological events to subjective or even passionate compositions and recollections of the past.
But a memorial culture is oblivious. There is no memory without forgetting: the ecstasy of the former will never avoid signs of the latter. Over forgetting, we have no power of decision or possession; individual memory, the consequence of our mental processes, is what we are left with, safe and secure. But is that so?
We live in an eternal correspondence of associations, memories and visions that move, condense and interconnect. There is a dispersed and permanent whirlwind, where memory is never fixed. It is the shield against natural losses imposed by time. Words, colour, form… thus we delimit a time and a space. Memories remain as images, from still to moving scenes. The fusion of our subjective memory with the actual passage that then evaporates. “We rewrite memory as much history is rewritten”, says Chris Marker in Sans Soleil.
It sounds like an ambush. Today, we proclaim history based on past memories. Are these just a volatile and fallible set, seized upon so many times by an unconscious collectivity, where is universal history created? How much can we trust it?
In all her works, Grada Kilomba tries to break through this membrane to remind us that history and memory are incompatible: the former is a group of wounds that contaminate the latter, whose sacralisation in various media, to try to retain their meaning or feeling, may be extremely inglorious nowadays, preserving only major misconceptions.
O Barco/The Boat, a hybrid between sculpture, artistic installation, and performance, landed in Lisbon, at Museu de Arte, Arquitetura e Tecnologia (MAAT), on September 3. Commissioned by the 3rd edition of BoCA – Biennial of Contemporary Art, it remains visitable and imposing, in its 32-metre length, until October 17. As the artist says, it is a symbolic garden, where those who remember the past and those who contemplate the future sit. There are 140 blocks of burnt wood, 18 of which show us a multilingual poem. All of them are presented to mimic the silhouette of the base of a ship; this time, finally on the surface, clarifying the transportation and enslavement, for five centuries, of millions of Africans at the mercy of European empires.
Like any individual history, the universal one is made up of each chapter, a choice between what we prefer to keep and perpetuate and what we reject and silence. We do not choose to forget, only to remember. Grada Kilomba did not forget. This performance recovers just that: the voices, the actions and the presences, so often refused and erased by history. The aim was to find the tangibility of a knowledge to become more physical and real; and, through art, let it penetrate us, change us. It is the ritual that creates memory, through which we acquire identity and existence, according to the artist.
The boat, an inescapable element in the fanciful imagery of a “discovering” Portugal, acquires a new light, a reflection of the healthy breath of fresh air created by the Afro-descendant art-cultural movement, which clarifies themes that are generally murky. Contemporary art, to which we attribute a critical foundation, is the mobile between the anchored and uncritical memory of the past and the activist and restless memory of the present.
If colonialism or slavery in Portugal is still narrated heroically, showing a people who opened worlds in the world, a form of bravery immortalised by pedestals and nationalist words, only reviving the memory allows us to deal with the trauma and cruelty of collective forgetfulness, creating narratives that appease our conscience, with which we identify and feel represented in the public space. It is urgent to decolonise language and attitudes. To demythologise.
However, myth is a very powerful narrative, which we constantly consider to be absolute truth. Can this action against the myth be stronger than it is?
Choosing Lisbon was no accident, and neither was the proximity to the river. In the three performances, neither was the involvement and participation of several communities of the African diaspora. This added more range and memorial resonance to the sculpture. Art recreates space and time; it proposes new readings of our surroundings. O Barco/The Boat reclaims history to enliven our responsibility of whether we want to ponder the past, reflecting on how we want to face the present and guide the future. “History only does not repeat itself when it is questioned and interrupted” ; when we construct new memories, when we express them audibly true.
In the digital age, where the internet is the global server that stores universal memory, always available to all and accessible anywhere, the ability to remember is increasingly remote. It travels the painful path of archaism, in the suppression of its exercise. Moreover, in an increasingly inhuman world, controlled by the media and the production of mass knowledge, “memory societies” are created, a term that Pierre Nora used to warn us that we inherit the past through memories reproduced collectively and instinctively. If memory, like the history described from it, is only a web composed of ephemeral and fallible lines, moulded season after season according to the desires and wishes of society, it will always be a reconstructive phenomenon. This power of renewal of cultural memory is our inglorious hope, capable of converting historical facts into fables, or the opposite; the force capable of (re)constructing narratives of the past.
Given her proposal to reinvent language, images and signs, visual or semantic, Grada Kilomba, without moralism, audaciously calls for the reformulation of history as it has been, whilst asking for responsibility and new memories. The last performance takes place at 4 pm on October 17. For the third time, the boat will be rowed against the tide (until now apparently favourable) of the normalisation of violence and the poorly told episodes of imperialist “discoveries”.
 Ana Hatherley, Cidade das Palavras, 1988.
 Grada Kilomba, in an interview for Ípsilon, Público, conducted by Vítor Belanciano, September 3, 2021.