Sunday 6 March 2016

Recent past

Exhibition "Return - Traces of Memory", Lisbon

A few weeks ago I read Lily Hyde’s text Living Memory II, questioning the construction of narratives out of recent historical events. In this case, the armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine and specifically in the town of Slavyansk. A bit more than a year before, Hyde had talked to the Slavyansk Museum director, Lilya Zander, who was already collecting Trophies from an incomprehensible war. At that time, the museum director had said that “Our job is to tell the history of our region”, adding that “the museum is not trying to show ‘for’ and ‘against’. We’re trying to show the facts.”

What ‘facts’ would those be? When Hyde visited the untitled exhibition at the Slavyansk Museum, what she found was this: “The museum has got round the problem of narrative by scarcely offering any narrative at all, and the problem of labelling by providing consistently inconsistent labelling. This is a war exhibition which never mentions the word ‘war’; an ‘Anti-Terrorist Operation’ exhibition which calls the object of the operation ‘fighters’ or ‘separatists’ more often than ‘terrorists’, an exhibition of occupation and liberation which lines up the most deadly weapons on the side of the ‘liberators’ and calls the dead simply ‘victims of armed conflict’”.

This can never be easy. Much less when one attempts to approach very recent events. Even less when one does not acknowledge their absence of neutrality in exhibiting and interpreting those events. And then again, there’s the question of what’s ‘recent’…

Is 40 years recent? Is it distant enough? This is what I was thinking when heading to the exhibition Return – Traces of Memory in Lisbon, which aimed to mark the 40th anniversary of the moment that became known as the return of the Portuguese nationals to the metropolis following the decolonisation of Portugal’s African colonies. What did I already know about this? The ‘official version’, I believe. One that claimed that the Portuguese were not cruel and racist colonisers, like other Europeans, but quiet people, who left their country looking for a better life, prepared to work alongside the black autocthons. Years after arriving to Portugal, I heard the story of the returnees, Portuguese nationals, some of whom had never known the metropolis, who fled the conflict and found themselves in a country that did not really consider them its own, did not exactly welcome them. A Greek inevitably thinks of the 1922 Asia Minor Greek refugees, fleeing to the closest Aegean islands and later to the capital Athens, seen by many of the locals with suspicion and fury, called “Turkish seeds” – a version of the story not told at school at the time I was a student, which only recently started being discussed, almost a century after the events took place. Is a century recent? Is it distant enough?

Back to the exhibition “Return”, the introductory text actually made me think that I was right to keep my expectations high. “The exhibition Return does not pretend to crystallise the name historically given to these displaced persons; it seeks, rather, to create a space for thought, reflection and openness towards examining the tensions, contradictions and perplexities that accompanied them.” And further down: “Aimed at being a moment of reflection and critical thinking, it does not provide an interpretation of events; rather, it offers simultaneous interrogations of the post-colonial condition or the human condition of appropriation, exploitation, displacement and loss.”

Image taken from

And here’s where things became… more of the usual. It is correct that the exhibition did not provide an interpretation. But my feeling was that it did not because the curators did not find the courage to analyse the facts presented to the visitor, to actually present those “simultaneous interrogations” the exhibition had promised to give us. So, either you’re a researcher and can easily read between the lines or you are informed that “These documents [of the Institute to Support the Return of Portuguese Nationals] reveal the confusing nature of the operation to receive and integrate the returnees and the complex relationship between the State and individuals or institutions” and have no means to interpret what “confusion” or “complexity” may actually mean in this context. 

An initial section called “Colonial migrations to Angola and Mozambique” did not try to analyse motivations, social hierarchies and connections, explicit or covered tensions, but simply presented and succinctly identified objects. To most of us, objects alone do not reveal the stories behind them.

The part that actually transmitted something to me was that of the testimonies, listening to different stories in the first person. Here, the exhibition lived up to its promise: “Testimony invites participants to understand how historical experience is lived as a personal, emotional and sensorial experience.” The only thing that was not appropriate, in my opinion, was the format: we are surrounded by beautiful photos of the people who gave their testimony, but the session is rather long and it would have been more comfortable to follow if we could watch a video and not just listen to the stories. Apart from that, the volume was low, considering also the noise coming from the rest of the exhibition. I had to stand most of the time next to the speaker so that I could hear a bit better. I didn’t make it to the end.

Image taken from the newspaper iOnline.

When leaving the exhibition, I asked the person at the reception how people reacted to it. She said that quite a few people felt the need to talk to her, to tell her their story, many times adding “You’re too young, you don’t know”. Some people actually cried. Did the exhibition “create [for them] a space for thought, reflection and openness towards examining the tensions, contradictions and perplexities that accompanied them”? Or was it rather a kind of “memorial service”, that allowed people to remember and mourn, but nothing more? I must mention here that there was a very interesting parallel programme of performances, talks and guided tours, which I was not able to follow and which must have added much to the exhibition.

After leaving the exhibition, I went to a bookshop and bought two books that had been for long on my list: “The Return” by Dulce Maria Cardoso and “Notebook of Colonial Memories” by Isabela Figueiredo. Both writers were involved in the parallel programming. I thought that, had some quotes from their books been included in the exhibition panels, the actual exhibition might have had a better chance of being what it initially aimed to be. Was it too soon to touch on this subject? Did the curators think that we were not ready to be engaged in a real debate? The books of Dulce Maria Cardoso and Isabela Figueiredo have sold thousands of copies, so there are people open to other narratives in the privacy of reading a book. Not in an exhibition? I don’t know, I would have really liked to see the curators taking a step further, just like the writers. Also in Greece, first came the writers.

Suggested reading:

David Rieff, The cult of memory: when history does more harm than good, The Guardian, 2.3.2016

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