Sunday, 14 June 2020

My responsibilty for this vandalism

Father António Vieira's statue in Lisbon (Photo: Nuno Fox, for the newspaper Expresso)

The vandalism, destruction or removal of statues is not today’s “fashion”. I already knew that, but I didn’t know how far back this story went. In an interview for the New York Times, art historian Erin L. Thompson mentioned that there are statues of Assyrian kings with curses carved on them (“He who knocks down my statue, let him be in pain for the rest of his life”) and that date from 2700 B.C. Thompson’s career, according to the newspaper, has been spent on thinking what it means when people deliberately destroy icons of cultural heritage. Placing a statue in the public space is a political decision, a public statement, an attempt to solidify a society’s acknowledgement of a person’s values, character and contribution to society. The public space is a place of political affirmation; but also of contestation. These public affirmations of an official version of history are not necessarily immortal and do not necessarily make sense for ever.

The protests around the world against racism and the chain of historical events that have turned it into a systemic practice (such as slavery, colonialism, policies of segregation) have brought the discussion to the streets, to the public space. A space shared by all of us, marked by a number of statues that pay homage to men who had an active and negative role in all this, such as kings, politicians, explorers and slave traders. In recent days, we´ve seen the toppling of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol (read more), the removal of the statue of King Leopold II in Antwerp (vandalised on a number of occasions before – read who was King Leopold II) and that of Robert Milligan (slave trader who had stood in front of the Museum of London Docklands – read the Museum of London statement).

Reading the notes left at Edward Coston statue's plinth (Photo: Adrian Sherratt for The Guardian)

The toppling and removal of statues drew immediate criticism from some. They saw it as the end of civilisation or an attempt to erase / whitewash / rewrite history. Historian Charlotte Lydia Riley tells us not to worry: “(…) rewriting history is our [the historians’] occupation, our professional endeavour. We are constantly engaged in a process of re-evaluating the past and reinterpreting stories that we thought we knew. Despite what Leopold von Ranke – one of the pioneers of modern historical research – said, history is not only about finding out ‘how it actually happened’, but also about how we think about the past and our relationship to it. The past may be dead but history is alive, and it is constructed in the present.” We should also add here that the removal of a statue from public space has never prevented us from continuing to learn about that figure at school...
Some compared these recent acts to the destruction of statues by the Taliban or by ISIS/Daesh. In her interview for the New York Times, Erin L. Thompson gives an answer to this: “I don’t think we can say that destruction is always warranted or that destruction is never warranted. We have to think about who is doing the destruction and for what purposes. ISIS was destroying monuments of a tolerant past in order to achieve a future of violence and hate. These protesters are attacking symbols of a hateful past as part of fighting for a peaceful future. So I think they’re exactly opposite actions.”
Protests have also arrived to Portugal. Vandalism too. In the last two or three days, both the social media sphere and the press have been inundated with practically everyone’s opinion about the graffitti on the statue of Father António Vieira. People condemning the vandalism have expressed their horror, they have called out the perpetrator’s “ignorance” (and probably also of all those who have criticised the statue), they have vehemently asked for education and dialogue.
Vandalism is illegal, I have never incited or practised it. That said, could we perhaps have a look at so many other things this and other actions are inviting us to reflect upon?
Many of the critics had never heard of this statue before. They didn’t know about the controversy it provoked since the first moment it was placed in the public space. They didn’t know (or didn’t wish to mention) that a legal demonstration against it days after it was inaugurated was blocked by a group of neo-nazis, under the eyes of the police. They didn’t know it had been vandalised before. They assumed the criticism against it had to do with the priest himself and argumented extensively in his favour. Considering that many of these people work in the field of Culture (specifically Heritage), History and Education, I find their manifestation of ignorance when wishing to take part in a public debate unacceptable and irresponsible (for those wishing to know a bit more, writer and journalist Alexandra Lucas Coelho summarises the criticism to the statue in this text, while the group Decolonizando, which had organised the protest in 2017, clarifies its position here). Taking part in a public discussion, wishing to influence the public opinion without doing your homework first is common, but it’s also intolerable and intellectually dishonest. 

The public discussion around the vandalism raised a number of other questions in me:
  • Can we expect that people working in Culture – Heritage – History - Education will not limit themselves to condemning the vandalism, but use their vast knowledge in order to reflect on the context of the events and acts?
  • Trying to understand and look for lessons to be learnt means that one approves of the vandalism?
  • Can scholars and other commentators of the events honestly tell us that statues are doing a good job in “educating” people?
  • In the specific case of the statue of Father António Vieira, is it acceptable that a 2017 statue placed by the municipality in the public space ignores all public discussion regarding the country’s colonial past and perpetuates offensive stereotypes regarding citizens who live in the city or visit it? (some are even asking: “Wouldn’t have Father António Vieira himself felt appalled at this depiction?”)
  • In the specific case of the statue of Father António Vieira, how can one explain the immense, disproportionate fury an easily and immediately cleaned graffiti caused in historians, art historians, heritage experts and others?
  • Why many of these people did not express the same fury and horror when we saw the images of the vandalised face of Cláudia Simões (a black woman) by a policeman? Why many of these people did not condemn the fact that the camera recordings from the police station were not given to her lawyer when required and before being legally destroyed? Is it, perhaps, that they don’t see the connection I see?
  • Are there people whose bodies, faces and opinions matter less than statues?
  • Is this about the radical right and radical left? Can we continue to summarily and conveniently classify these matters as such and leave to that? Where does this leave the "humane middle"?

And finally:
Those who vehemently call in moments like this for education and dialogue, what have they done about it up to now? Have they done their homework, to start with? Have they demanded the revision of schoolbooks (where black and white Portuguese students are taught at the age of 10-11 that the Portuguese were benevolent colonialists, trading different products - such as slaves)? Have they worked to make sure that every Portuguese citizen has the right to take part in public dialogue and to be actually heard? Have they made an effort to listen to voices they didn’t hear before?
If living in society is a constant negotiation, if politics is the art of living together, how responsible is each one of us for the course the events have taken and for this and other vandalisms? How responsible is each one of us for the lack of dialogue, the lack of knowledge, the lack of empathy, the level of frustration and anger among some of our co-citizens? In three years, many people now asking for education and dialogue and accusing others of ignorance were not informed about the controversy around the statue of Padre António Vieira. In Bristol, discussions around the statue of Edward Colston were at least eight years old. Other discussions, in Belgium or the US, are decades-long. We are living the accumulated anger and frustration of years of peaceful protests and demands which have left people hopeless and which we chose to ignore. Do we have the right to feel surprised and horrified at vandalism? And isn’t it true that some of our rights were won thanks to people who disobeyed the law? Isn’t it true that many times in History we were forced into dialogue? Let’s not claim education and knowledge if we are not willing to learn. Let’s not condemn the ignorance of others when we ourselves are choosing to live in the comfortable space of our own ignorance.
The final words are those of a priest. In his 10th of June speech (National Day of Portugal), Father Tolentino Mendonça, quoting Simone Weil, said: “A country can be loved for two reasons, and these are, in fact, two separate loves. We can love a country ideally, framing it so that it remains fixed in an image of glory, and wishing that it will never change. Or we can love a country as something that, precisely because it is placed within history, subject to its jolts, is exposed to so many risks. These are two different kinds of love. We can love it for its power or we can love it for its fragility. But, explains Simone Weil, when it is the recognition of fragility that ignites our love, its flame is much more pure.” Tolentino Mendonça also reminded us in his speech that “the root of our civilisation is the community. It is in the community that our story begins. When we were able to move from ‘I’ to ‘we’ and give it a certain historical, spiritual and ethical configuration.”
These thoughts give me a context to reflect on what is happening today, to not feel afraid or threatened and to look for my role and responsibility in all this.

Further readings

Isabel Costa, O que pode uma estátua

Miguel Esteves Cardoso, Vieira está bem

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