You call it Utopia, I call it World
Every year new and decisive global-impacting events are written. We are in 2022 and two facts particularly strike me: the celebration of Brazil’s independence bicentenary, and the death of the queen with the British crown’s longest reign in history, Elizabeth II. Though little seems to connect them, I would say that both incite the political and cultural debate on history and its isms – both imperial and colonial – that we insist on not ending. There is nothing new about the fact that under the English monarchy a deeply unequal world thrived, eventually coming to an end “So long as she reigned, the establishment was able to gloss over the horrors of empire. Now is a time for painful truths”. The English situation is merely an example (the Portuguese will have much to say about Brazil) of the many agonizing memories of a legacy that today neither recognizes nor tries to change: the looting of land and diamonds in South Africa, the violence inflicted in Kenya or the genocide in Nigeria, just to name a few. What do they all have in common? The entrenchment of abusive spheres of power between northern and southern hemispheres.
This is the background to the exhibition O Estado do Mundo: Museu do Atlântico Sul, which opened on September 22 at Galerias Municipais de Lisboa. As relevant now as it was in 1965 when it was first conceived, this “Museum” opens two weeks exactly after the death of the British monarch. Odd detail.
When we enter the place, we are visitors, almost sixty years later, of a model suggested by Marcelo Rezende (its curator) to what was once the museological project envisioned by Agostinho da Silva for the “South Atlantic Museum”, whose mission would be based on the “fraternal ability of intertwining diversity”. Agostinho named the intention to found a collection from historical artefacts, traditions and ethnographies, as well as artistic items from countries that would constitute what he defined as “New Equator” (countries from the lower hemisphere, in a weaker economic and socio-political condition, subject to the greedy exploitation of the world’s major powers). The author wanted to establish a symbol and a tool from which these countries could unite for a cultural and political “return to order”, safeguarding their specificities and vital transformations in the structures of power; this is still crucial today and after their independence. How much are the concepts of national identity and human rights worth? What do we still need to understand before we can finally achieve peaceful and respectful coexistence between nations? To break the centrality/periphery nexus? To fulfil the postcolonial “reconstruction”?
At Pavilhão Branco, O Estado do Mundo: Museu do Atlântico Sul brings together works by thirteen artists from around the world, with Agostinho da Siva’s personal documentation and the publications that guided his thought and actions. This is a prelude to a narrative that could have much more to tell, displayed here on two floors, successive rooms within rooms, even if mentally we remain in one place: the analogy and the clash between pieces, whose aesthetics freezes us before the magnitude of its echo – the historical and political struggle that originated them. An eternal ghost.
Assaf Gruber welcomes us with Movement 6, juxtaposing two historical moments: a photograph of the political protests in West Berlin before 1989 in the background, and, in front of it, a real and sacred red coral, part of Grünes Gewölb’s treasure room, objectifying the monarchy’s economic power. Political repercussions also appear in Mário Teixeira and José Carlos Santana Pinto’s collections, punctuating the rooms with issues of property and expropriation. In the first case, the bronze figures – the hunter, mother, and female figure -, probably portraying the Mangbetu people, evoke power and transcendence; while Santana Pinto’s collections remember the resilience of the tribes who gave shaped them. At the same time, they awaken our memory to the ethnographic fetishization of these people, who are the greatest examples of how to preserve their cultures. The anthropomorphic Carajás dolls would be distorted as a result of interethnic interaction with the colonisers, when a model manufactured solely for decorative purposes was sold; and the Ashanti dolls would be converted into a cultural trophy when, after many years of resistance, the Ashanti Empire fell to the British.
Such historical echo can be felt in Marcelino Santos’ tapestry, to whom resistance is in his blood and background. The raw material highlighted – cotton -, the greatest icon of Cape Verde’s cultural identity, is used here to rekindle not only slave labour but also the empowerment and political presence of those who have made a voice out of this material and its harmony.
Giving voice to either the natural influence of time or the public reaction is something reflected by the photographs on show in Terra, Juraci Dórea’s work. This is a comprehensive documentation of the author’s archaeological study of small Bahian communities with deep-rooted colonial mythologies. For over four decades he has been developing a project with these communities that challenges the way in which the works are presented to the public. Opting for a radical change in the exhibition format and resorting to materials and techniques reflecting the local population’s cultural and landscape identity, Dórea has been developing wood and leather sculptures in public areas, such as totems or landmarks with great visual impact, all of which will eventually disappear. This notion of memory archaeology is also recaptured by Maxim Malhado, according to a poetics that rediscovers places and reinvents forms, beginning with the theme on which he often starts: the house. In Three Popular Houses, three small scale and habitable models recall his project ESTEIO, an art gallery with a communal spirit.
Two moments also address the memorial issue, both in collective and individual practices. Memória para 14 Bustos e 12 placas by Márcio Carvalho, extolling the role of the revolutionary and the settler respectively, prompt reflection on public monuments, questioning their value as historical documents. Who raises this memory? What is its right? And what is its truth? More personally, Tenzin Phuntsog introduces the subjects of identity and displacement through four photographs documenting the performance My Skins. Exposed to sunlight, he invokes the Tibetan heritage, the result of the genetic evolution that allows this people to inhabit higher altitudes without suffering from intense UV radiation. The gradual change of skin tone is what symbolically allows him to connect to his uncle whom he never met, banned from entering the country for political reasons.
Similarly, another work that poetically and melancholically manifests the historical and political context behind its origin is Dead Drawing by Charbel-Joseph H. Boutros, whose birth during the Lebanese civil war cannot be kept apart from his artistic output. A sensitive experience, as we have always been used to, this time translated by the simplicity of two nails, a graphite bar and an invisible gesture that once outlined the equilateral triangle that we now see. Looking into the future, A time & a place at some point in the future is the pending proposal by Johnathan Monk through the piece Somewhere Soon, contradicted by Fez show depois fechou eles todos fecham e todo o mundo sai by Tuti Minervino, whose strategic location at the exhibition’s exit confirms a future appointment that has already been decided. A challenging translation can be guessed from the sentence, of difficult grammatical comprehension, making us feel uneasy about tomorrow, about what will be left. What is the impact of a cultural misunderstanding? And how many stories have been written in this way?
Ritual and spirituality come out of Jacira Conceição’s five ceramic sculptures, where the four elements of nature (water, air, fire, and earth) are brought together in full balance around the fifth member O Umbigo (centro) of the World. Through her words and their absence, Jacira grants us the opportunity to observe, feel and think the intangible. While Luísa Mota’s Macumbinhas decorate the walls with their precious stones, healing, and non-representational creations.
Finally, Priceless, the installation by Gisela Casimiro and Rodrigo Ribeiro Saturnino, a duo known for using graphic activism as a means and a mission to communicate about identity, belonging, nation and naturalness, provides a witty remark on the commerce of images and of an entire culture, a consequence of the Portuguese ex-colonies’ exploitation. Straightforward and raw messages coexist alongside childhood reminiscences – tastes, smells, images -, whose regular presence sought to trivialise them. We haven’t lost a Queen, but we still have time in Portugal to discover and change painful truths. We should not see these “souvenirs” as canons on display, and we should not be passive bystanders. We should welcome the slap; this will be the opportunity we need to restore meaning and integrity to them (and to us). “There is no freedom for me if others do not have it.”
The exhibition, O Estado do Mundo: Museu do Atlântico Sul, is on show at the Pavilhão Branco, Galerias Municipais de Lisboa until 15 January 2023.
 This is a Britain that has lost its Queen – and the luxury of denial about its past, Afua Hirsch. The Guardian, September 13, 2022.
 Portuguese philosopher, poet, essayist, teacher, philologist, pedagogue, and translator (1906-1994).
 Agostinho da Silva