Ana Carolina Rodarte ︎

Image: Reproduction.  

Damnatio demoriae decolonial

An open-call for artistic movements envisioned for a world in ruins

In the year A.D. 31, the Chief of the Praetorian Guard and one of the most feared men of the Roman empire, Lúcio Élio Sejano, was executed at the behest of the emperor Tiberius. The scene was dramatic. In order to purge the evil that the head of the imperial police had imposed on so many people, the Roman people “threw, beat and dragged all his images, as if they were mistreating the man himself”, described the historian Cássio Dio. This gesture, defined by art history professor Verity Platt, as damnatio memoriae (“condemnation of memory”, in free translation), occurred again thousands of years later, in Bristol, England, when members of the Black Lives Matter movement overthrew an old statue of Edward Colston, a 17th century slave trader. The pedestal was temporarily occupied by artist Jen Reid.

In a somewhat less cathartic way, the popular demonstrations also reached the flags. The American state of Mississippi, until recent days, still displayed the Confederate symbol between its stripes. After discussions raised by the Black Lives Matter, the bill that removes the slave scar from the flag was approved. The new representation has already been chosen, and will be presented to the public in November this year.

Sejano's episode shows us that this is not the first time that people have appropriated monuments and images to demonstrate their opposition to leaders and/or values that insist on governing the social order. It is the first time, however, that this practice occurs in a context dominated by digital images and technologies. Equally unprecedented are the uncertainties left over the pedestals of the destroyed statues.

What comes after the end?

Although the overthrow of colonial symbols is cathartic for some, it also arouses insecurity among some historians: after all, wouldn't the simple removal of these icons lead to an erasure of our history? In an interview with the Folha Ilustrada podcast, from one of the largest journalistic groups in Brasil, historian and anthropologist Lilia Moritz Schwarcz suggested that these monuments be politicized. For her, they should be moved to museums and replaced by parallel devices, which would allow the population to reflect on the violence brought by these monuments.

Back in the 70s, far from all the possibilities and paranoia brought by the digital age, the playwright, politician, artist and creator of the Teatro Experimental do Negro (1944) and the Museum of Black Art, Abdias Nascimento, proposed a similar exercise and reinvented the Brasilian flag. He placed it upright and replaced the positivist motto “Ordem e Progresso” with the Yoruba expression “Okê!” - a greeting to Oxóssi, orixá of abundance and hunting.

Far beyond catharsis, the overthrow of colonial symbols around the world is the sublimation of a society guided by the image in search of the new. Anthropologist Bruno Latour uses the term “Iconoclash” to describe the moment when, from the destruction of images, new ones are generated, indicating a social change. But, in order to think about what may come after the end, considering the political developments of what is done on the imagery level, it is also necessary to consider what conservationism brings to this sphere of disputes.

The images of the burning forests of the Amazon and the Pantanal call for apocalyptic narratives under religious precepts. And the fire that wins the popular imagination does not allude to the “Boiada de Salles” - too conspiratorial in the eyes of those who see Bolsonaro's government as a kind of cult - but rather to the prelude to a punitive end of the world, a feeling that intensifies with an ongoing pandemic. This may be the moment for progressive resistance to appropriate the imagery of fire as a starting point for new narratives. The images of the burning Minneapolis police station are a good example.

If the digital age makes our condition of impermanence explicit, the overthrow of colonial symbols around the world shows us that images still anchor discourses and power relations. Statues and monuments, after all, are about the way we see ourselves. And, although we still need time to understand the impacts of these acts on the social order, it is necessary that artists take charge of populating the imaginary with new possibilities for the future, because what conservatism imposes ends at the end. Let us occupy the pedestals.