ATO (DES)COLONIAL at Museu do Aljube – Resistência e Liberdade

The former Parlatory of Lisbon’s Aljube Prison, the place where prisoners received visits, always divided by a separation, was the site chosen to host ATO (DES)COLONIAL, the most recent temporary exhibition of Museu do Aljube – Resistência e Liberdade.

The Parlatory’s small room has two sections: a colourful and diverse one to explore and document the colonial resistance struggles in the Portuguese occupied territories, and the revolutionary process that led to the independence of these nations; a parallel one, grey and communicating, exploring the origins and consequences of the Portuguese colonial empire. Always with supporting texts, the exhibition reveals its literal nature: it wants to educate, intervene and remember. The introductory sentences say this right at the entrance: “May this ATO (DES)COLONIAL be one more, among others, and may it stimulate anti-colonial and anti-racist thought and action, the abolitionist of all forms of violence”.

The banners as insignia capable of exposing, resisting and confronting are relevant. There are several in the first section, suspended almost at our height, with portraits and names of key figures in the process of resistance to Portuguese colonialism: Titina Silá, Deolinda Rodrigues, Josina Machel, Lilica Boal, Carmen Pereira, Agostinho Neto, Amílcar Cabral, Eduardo Modiane. In the second section, there is only one, long, which shows the prisons and concentration camps of the colonization process.

There are no works of art in this show. Everything is converted into a historical document. The exhibition’s pathos is visible when we see these traces directly. We highlight the countless posters of colonial resistance movements, such as the Mozambican FRELIMO, but also of the international community calling for the territories’ independence. Also important is the emphasis on the role of women in the revolutionary process, documented in texts and images that show the active and empowering role that FRELIMO and MPLA would have given to them as key agents in political mobilisation. In the exhibition’s promotional image, at the entrance, we see a woman with a rifle resting on her shoulders, with a distant look. After all, revolution is a feminine word.

The objective approach to the content – in line with the museum’s permanent exhibition content – sometimes allows us to enter into more immersive and cinematic territories. The aim is to balance the excess of text with an excerpt from Natureza Morta, a documentary by Susana de Sousa Dias, with archive recollections. The colonists’ plight is visible through their desolate, frightened, horrified faces. The director uses slow motion, zooming in on scattered faces in the background of the images, which could even go unnoticed, but which share the same statement: the suffering is severe, and inevitable, wherever we look. This more affective dialogue with the visitor is also made tangible in the exhibition’s epilogue, where the liberation of the former colonies is celebrated. We hear songs from these contexts, testimonies of the goal achieved, and the soundtrack to the film credits we have just seen. They follow us to the exit as if they were a mantra, so that we don’t forget the values attained, the same ones that today are found in this museum’s title, formerly a prison: resistance and freedom.

The exhibition is a must in a country that does not want to discuss the consequences and traces of its colonial past. However, it is hardly creative from a museographic perspective. It employs too much text, weakening the interaction with the viewer, and prevents a deeper confrontation that could have existed in our immediate and difficult relationship with objects originating from or evocative of these contexts. This is even achieved in the documentary by Susana de Sousa Dias, but there are not many more traces that enable us to directly question our position as spectators, our ethnic and socio-political origin and the construction of the society in which we live – most of them seem to confirm only what the text says in the background, where information is the main element. Yes, this is something that is always implied in an exhibition that wants to call for a decolonising act. And perhaps this highly contextualised, almost journalistic approach is the most correct way to address this reality accurately. Basically, this is what we are looking for: the thoroughness of the historian who factually researches and explains. We are left with an informative and problematizing account, a class converted into space, something crucial: in a country where the far-right has gained greater media prominence, opening new avenues of disinformation, the exhibition wakes us up so that we do not fall asleep.

ATO (DES)COLONIAL is at Museu do Aljube – Resistência e Liberdade until June 12.

Miguel Pinto (Lisbon, 2000) is graduated in Art History by NOVA/FCSH and made his internship at the National Museum of Azulejo. He has participated in the research project VEST - Vestir a corte: traje, género e identidade(s) at the Humanities Centre of the same institution. He has created and is running the project Parte da Arte, which tries to investigate the artistic scene in Portugal through video essays.

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