Issue 3: Othering (in)(of) the Periphery
From The Citizens to Their City (3/3)

Issue 3: Othering (in)(of) the Periphery

The third edition of GSG Magazine explores the contemporary use of historical narratives and cultural artifacts, and the ideology of heritage and cultural (re)production to reveal and resist forms of inequality and violence.

Work by Jasmina Cibic from the series Ornamental Rash (2018).

Toward a Horizontal Decolonization

Iva Kovač has worked as a program director at the City of Women in Ljubljana, Slovenia since 2021. She has been a visual artist at Fokus Grupa since 2012. She was the curator at PM Gallery in Zagreb, Croatia from 2010 to 2012 and at SIZ Gallery in Rijeka, Croatia from 2013 to 2015.

Sanja Horvatinčić is an art historian and a Research Associate at the Institute of Art History in Zagreb, Croatia. Her research focuses on the WW2 heritage through the production of monuments and commemorative culture in socialist Yugoslavia and beyond.

The third edition of GSG magazine was assembled for over a year, amid tempestuous political events, civil movements and protests. The increasing inability to establish a meaningful political resistance resulted in efforts to, at least, symbolically remove signifiers of centuries-lasting imperialistic politics. If, during the earlier stages of capitalism, the problem of racism was perhaps geographically circumscribed, the contemporary dynamics of the global flow of capital, goods, and labour make such efforts utterly pointless. This issue focuses on matters derived from current social and political events and debates. We were primarily interested in subjects pertaining to the contemporary utilization of historical narratives and cultural artifacts, the ideology of heritage and cultural production, along with their role in the process of normalization and reproduction, or in revealing and resisting, forms of inequality and violence.

 On the fringes of the European continent deliberation on such issues is still confined to progressive, yet inherently privileged academic and cultural circles. Although the incentive for increasing their inclusiveness is commonly the result of a mere “western” trend emulation, ignoring these issues is equally problematic and unproductive. By doing so, we are neglecting the opportunity to address important social topics, while simultaneously removing responsibility for critical examination of an increasingly dynamic and influential field of discussion. We are also missing an opportunity to create preconditions for an analytical, culturally situated and class-conscious debate on structural causes and stakeholders, a debate not solely concerned about symptoms of inequality within a prevalent system of knowledge production. Any discussion about history and heritage is conditioned by current economic and social relations. Therefore, not only does the discussion about causes and legacy of imperialistic policies, colonialism and racism in contemporary circumstances have a large critical and emancipatory potential; it is equally important in broadening the horizons of the cultural-political alternative of the present moment.  

It is not particularly surprising that within a local context, pervaded with nationalistic mythologies, there is little room for a critique of heritage, which is dominated by eurocentric and capitalist values. The reactions of representatives of the cultural and academic elites to occasional and nearly timid critical interpretations of these phenomena in Croatia, are regularly manifested through self-imaging as “guardians” or “defenders” of canonical national cultural values. The ideological grounds of contemporary heritage policies is evident not only in the inauguration of a new set of heritage values during the so-called post-socialist transition, but also in the omission of analysis and criticism of expert selection and valourization criteria—an analysis which was to a large extent also absent during the socialist period—which is, however, crucial to understand heritage as a phenomenon predominantly conditioned by the imperative to create and justify national, class, race and gender divisions. Therefore, discussions on the need or adequacy of examining racism, or even the very possibility of the manifestation of racism and colonial heritage in contexts which are geo-historically located outside, or on the margins of traditional colonial centres of power, further underscore the importance of addressing this subject, as well as the necessity of forming more democratic and more inclusive forums of discussion, along with new forms of learning and knowledge production.

 Within this context one might find indicative the volatile reaction to the public debate on the present reception of Meštrović’s sculptures of Indians erected in Chicago in 1928, initiated by the city authorities at the beginning of 2021.[1] The resulting unanimous defensive disposition of official state and academic institutions and the limited critical debate on the subject suggests a myopic viewpoint and blind spots in the established national-artistic canons. What is troubling is not merely the inability of differentiating context and recognizing the right to debate the representative racial forms within the American society, debates that are layered with structural patterns of racism and the hypocrisy of identity politics in the United States. The problem lays primarily in the potential consequences that the attitudes, exposed by such impulses, may have on generating further blind spots in the public perception of injustice, inequality and discrimination in contemporary society. By fetishizing artifacts of the past, by their commodification and exemption from social and material circumstances of production and contemporary reception, the structures of power are thusly maintained and the ideology of the ruling elites reproduced while creating fertile ground for heritage manipulation for short term political goals.

This example is just one of many manifestations of the dominant heritage discourse, in no way particular to the Croatian context. Yet, while political struggles of marginalized societies, primarily in Latin America, originated decolonial critical thought and the development of the theory of decolonization, the semi-peripheral context of Eastern Europe is still dominated by the inability to recognize the consequences of their own involvement in centuries-long colonial power relations. Therefore, critical theoretical tools for reading these relations have been mainly imported through a western epistemological prism, which, within the context of post-socialism is often perceived as (exclusively) legitimate and desired.[2] However, the fact remains that by way of different modes of economical and ideological influences, the construct of racial hierarchy has been insuppressibly entering even those communities of the European economic-cultural circle which have themselves suffered colonial-capitalist exploitative despotism. Even though we have lately been witnessing the proliferation of critical academic discourse advocating the necessity of epistemological decolonization of so-called “Eastern Europe,” it represents merely initial outlines, of a primarily academic interest in these matters, which are in need of an active, critical stance towards a number of contradictions and inconsistencies included in the theoretical discourse of decolonization. 

This issue of the GSG magazine has not the ambition to assemble a systematic theoretical approach to the aforementioned occurrences. Through contributions of invited authors with various backgrounds, methodologies and disciplinary foundations, it aims to generalize and diversify a discussion that should transcend western binary categories, such as artistic vs. theoretical, Eastern and Western Europe, identity vs. class, etc. Therefore, the intention of this assemblage of artistic works, discussions, critical texts and analysis of phenomena originating in different contexts located on the (semi)margins or outside the European continent, is to ensure a more horizontal context to consider and produce knowledge, as well as to activate critical reflections on contemporary social and economic symptoms of the previously mentioned taboos and contradictions.

The hybrid editorial approach, which has been employed since the first issue, has with this issue achieved its fuller potential. Apart from a greater number and variety of texts, this volume also sees an increasing number of artistic contributions. One of the reasons for this is the fact that it is precisely through artistic research—due to the wider scope of its research methods, as well as a multifaceted mode of production and circulation of the artwork itself—one can more easily and directly respond to and speak of topics belonging to the critical paradigm of decolonization.

Through most of its history, the territories of modern Croatia and other former Yugoslav republics were in a subordinate political and economic position, while population itself was subjected to racial theories. This, however, does not contradict the fact that modern ideas on race have been present in class differentiated societies comprising the “bulwark of christendom.” At least as far back as the “birth” of the notion of Barbarogenij,[3] at the dawn of World War II, it is possible to trace the regional interpretation and implementation of the globally fluctuating notion of race: sometimes distinctive, like the aforementioned Barbarogenij created by artist Ljubomir Micić, in terms of accepting the premise of racially exceptional Balkan folk, who are called to regenerate a stagnant European culture; or, perhaps more often, it was a form of self-identification with European “whiteness” or the appropriation of racial theories as a means to economic and political empowerment and/or superiority.

In the end, learned forms of behaviour upon encountering the “racial” other manifest themselves locally in the same manner as in historical centres of colonial expansion, where the presence of diverse populations throughout history had led to racial segregation and white supremacy. While these contexts have an acute and eerie everyday presence of colonial heritage, causing more engaging forms of raising awareness and opposing (the normalization of) such a heritage, at the edge of empires,—then as now—it is more difficult to differentiate, and as such easier to conceal, the mechanisms of double exploitation and specific modes of racialization.

In conversation with Ana Sladojević,[4] Catherine Baker emphasizes that the region, belonging to the Mediterranean cultural-economic circle, was always at an intersection of encounters and economic-cultural exchange of various pre-modern cultures, European and beyond European influences, or the dividing line between Central European rule and the Ottoman Empire. Because of this flow, people of different origins met through the ages. Their contact, or the exchange of culture and goods circulating throughout Europe, resulted in the transference and—more or less conscious acceptance—of racism as an ideology justifying all capitalistic and imperial aims across Europe, including the Slavic south. So, despite its peripheral position and the orientalization of its population, the region’s people primarily self-identify as “white.” Even though they were politically subordinated, the local political and economic elites also profited from colonialism by means of trade and the circulation of goods, with its consumer products permeating everyday lives of the lower and working classes.[5]

Contrary to the geopolitical concept of Eastern and Southeastern Europe, as an intersection of cultures, the right wing nationalists attempt to consolidate this region by perpetually establishing and drawing borders. In their vision, Southeastern Europe and the Balkans are the front lines defending European “whiteness.” Researching European paintings depicting the Ottoman wars, Ferenc Gróf’s work discusses the Hungarian extreme right’s invocation of identical imagery in current historical circumstances, as immigrants arrive at the European Union’s borders, trying to escape economic deprivation caused by neoliberal capitalism and the aftermath of imperial wars of the capitalist West. 

The exclusion of the Yugoslav region from issues of inherited colonial relations and contemporary racism becomes more evident, when compared to similar phenomena from other semi-peripheral parts of Europe. Minna Henriksson contribution identifies customs of implementing racial science in Finnish modern culture by way of visual art production during the late 19th and early 20th century. Exposed to racial theories, Nordic countries became fertile ground for the reproduction of racist ideology employed to stratify and control their population through national and ethnic consolidation.

Using archival footage from the Radio Television Novi Sad in Vojvodina (Serbia), the artistic duo Doplgenger introduces a critical interpretation of Yugoslavia’s view of the Non-Aligned Movement, which was unsurprisingly eurocentric. At the centre of discussion is the established proposition of Yugoslavia’s exceptionality within NAM as the global anti-block movement. They examine the position from which Yugoslavia, as the only European member of the Movement, has been commonly referred to as the „leader of the Non-Aligned“, disregarding the fact that important roles were played by more powerful and larger countries of the Global South. Even though Yugoslav foreign politics strongly supported decolonization processes and liberation movements,  Dopelgenger delve into the broader meaning of differentiating colonialism and coloniality[6] by examining the latter’s manner of application alongside, or even within, declared Yugoslav anticolonial politics.[7]

On the other hand, former colonial powers such as Portugal continue to distance themselves from any role in the development of modern racism. Starting in the 1950s, the concept of lusotropicalism became central in the legitimization of Portugal’s late empire. According to this concept, the Portuguese built an exceptionally “benevolent” form of colonialism, an idea that continues to resonate in today’s public sphere. Inês Beleza Barreiros, Rui Gomes Coelho, Patrícia Martins Marcos and Pedro Schacht Pereira used the example of debates triggered by the recent statue of missionary António Vieira in Lisbon to shed light on current discursive acrobatics by those who continue to support the so-called Portuguese lusotropical consensus. 

Behzad Khosravi Noori explores and elaborates on the phenomenon he calls “the colonial unconscious.” Stepping outside the historically laid geographical borders of the European continent, Behzad discusses the European presence in Iran as manifested through the appropriation of the position of the other, the Teheran’s working class photographic self-exoticization in the figure of a dervish. In determining possible reasons for the creation of such photographic imagery, Behzad talks about Iranian modernization in the 1960s and the simultaneous racial and class oppression. 

The roundtable opens and closes with the work of Jasmina Cibic who imagines the appearance of two extinct types of roses. The reasons for their disappearance in the second half of the 20th century are their racist names.[8] This work, along with others published in this issue, indicates, however, the fact that by simply removing racist speech from public communication, or by removing statues of racists and colonists, we cannot unburden ourselves of the past nor solve the problem of society’s contemporary racism. In this, as with every other struggle for social justice and equality, it is necessary to know and understand the reasons and mechanisms behind its longevity at all levels of various societies worldwide, and its connection with material living conditions, in order to contribute to the new antiracist epistemological foundations. It is our hope that the articles and work contained in this issue contribute to the construction of a more complex approach to various forms and manifestations of colonial heritage and contemporary anticolonial stances on the semi-periphery of Europe.

Endnotes

[1] Apart from the official statement of the Ministry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Croatia, this event triggered numerous texts, analyses and statements from scientists, culture workers and politicians, as well as two online public panels. For an overview of articles on the subject see: “Public discussion on Ivan Meštrović’s Indians sculptures in Chicago“, Historiografija.hr, 15 March 2021, URL: https://historiografija.hr/?p=25408

[2] See, for example: Katarina Kušić, Philipp Lottholz, Polina Manolova, “From dialogue to practice: Pathways towards decoloniality in Southeast Europe”, dВЕРСИЯ, special issue: Decolonial Theory & Practice in Southeast Europe (2019), 3. URL: https://dialoguingposts.files.wordpress.com/2019/03/special-issue.pdf

[3] Ljubomir Micić, Barbarogenije civilizator, Filip Višnjić, Beograd, 1993, URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HeNk5EQjOrs

[4] Ana Sladojević herself researches the subject of race within the region of Yugoslavia, examining and contextualizing history and contemporary use of the Museum of African Art’s collection in Belgrade. See: Ana Sladojević, Museum of African Art, Contexts and Representations, Muzej afričke umjetnosti, Belgrade, 2014, URL: http://mau.rs/images/publications/Epublications/Muzej_africke_umetnosti_konteksti_i_reprezentacije/Ana_Sladojevic_Muzej_africke_umetnosti_konteksti_i_reprezentacije.pdf; Ana Sladojević , “Anticolonial representation at the Museum of African Art“, TrAIN Open Live Event, April 2021, URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GvnbxEHO-Sg

[5] Fokus Grupa did research on Rijeka’s considerable progress, whose basis was a monopoly on refining sugar imported from Caribbean cane plantations. Fokus Grupa, “A Room with a landscape: Vedute from the Palace of the Privileged Company of Trieste and Rijeka“, ARTMargins (2021), 10(1): 77-92., URL: https://direct.mit.edu/artm/article/10/1/77/100605/A-Room-with-a-landscape-Vedute-from-the-Palace-of

[6] See: Aníbal Quijano, “Coloniality and Modernity/Rationality”, Cultural Studies (2007) 21:2-3: 168-178.

[7] The artist Naeem Mohaiemen, in collaboration with Uroš Pajović, in the art section of ARTMargins has even more directly pointed out the issue analyzing Tito’s self-confident statement prompted by the division of Pakistan in 1971: “There will be no Balkan question ever again in the world.” Uroš Pajović, Naeem Mohaiemen, “Southward and Otherwise”, ARTMargins (2019), 8 (2): 79–89., URL: https://direct.mit.edu/artm/article/8/2/79/18089/Southward-and-Otherwise

[8] Illustrations on the inside of the front and back covers of the print magazine are an adapted work by Jasmina Cibic from the series Ornamental Rash (2018). The racist names of the roses, which are an integral part of the work, are omitted. The illustrations were created in collaboration with botanical illustrator Beatriz Inglessis.

Top: N****r Boy Rose (R. Hennessey, 1931), inkjet print on cotton paper, 100 x 70cm
Bottom: Gypsy Rose (Van Rossem, 1931), inkjet print on cotton paper, 100 x 70cm

Jump to Response

Portrait of Ferenc Gróf
Ferenc Gróf
Portrait of Ana Sladojević
Ana Sladojević
Portrait of Catherine Baker
Catherine Baker
Portrait of Minna Henriksson
Minna Henriksson
Portrait of Behzad Noori
Behzad Khosravi Noori
Portrait of Doplgenger
Doplgenger
Portrait of Inês Barreiros
Inês Beleza Barreiros
Rui Gomes Coelho
Portrait of Patrícia Martins Marcos
Patrícia Martins Marcos
Portrait of Pedro Pereira
Pedro Pereira

Ferenc Gróf is a graduate of the Hungarian University of the Arts, Budapest, and since 2012 he has taught at the École Nationale Supérieur d’Art (ENSA) in Bourges (FR). His work considers ideological footprints, at the intersection of graphic design and spatial experiences.

Our Rogue State

The summer of 2015 was particularly suffocating in Budapest. After the first year of the second mandate of the Orbán government, the so called “European migrant crisis” further fueled the racist propaganda of state media. Thousands of migrants had been waiting for trains at Budapest’s Eastern railway station. At the end of August, Austrian police discovered an abandoned truck on the motorway near the Hungarian border, at Parndorf, with 71 dead bodies of refugees from Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. Soon afterwards, Hungary finalized the construction of its Southern border barrier, separating itself from Serbia and from the Balkan’s migrant routes with razor wire. The first section of the barrier was constructed near a small village, Ásotthalom, whose mayor, László Toroczkai, an extreme-right agitator and founder of ethnicist movements, was a spokesperson of anti-migrant forces. Toroczkai argued for an even more drastic intervention against refugees crossing the green border. In a YouTube video he presented the militia of his village, ready to track migrants, to defend the fatherland, Europe, and Christianity against the barbarians. Hungary has a long tradition of depicting itself as this type of warrior. One of the iconic images of national liberation movements since the end of 17th century is the warrior of the border castles, cutting the enemy into pieces even with an axe in his head, fighting to the last breath. Even socialist Hungary has kept alive this patriotic tradition and it has become the norm with succeeding regimes. The work Our Rogue State interrogates this tradition of fighting the Other, the non-Christian, the invader, the archenemy, omnipresent in European painting. This phrase is a pun on “rogue state,” a special US expression dating from the Reagan era to label “non-obedient,” “outlaw” countries that happen to be almost always “non-Latin script-based” cultures. “Write Latin or die,” one might read on a T-shirt of Ásotthalom’s militiamen.


Catherine Baker is Senior Lecturer in 20th Century History at the University of Hull. She has been researching the politics of nationalism, media and popular culture in the post-Yugoslav region since her doctoral research on popular music and narratives of identity in Croatia in 1991 (PhD University College London, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, 2008). She also studies the everyday politics of peacekeeping and peacebuilding.

Ana Sladojević is an independent theorist from Belgrade. She worked as a curator at the Museum of African Art – the Veda and Zdravko Pečar Collection and the Museum of Yugoslavia. She contributed to the following projects: Southern Constellations: The Poetics of the Non-Aligned, Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova/Museum of Modern Art, Ljubljana (2019)/ Asia Culture Center, Gwangju (South Korea, 2020); Tito in Africa: Picturing Solidarity, Museum of Yugoslavia (2017)/ Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford (2018)/ Wende Museum, Los Angeles (2019); NYIMPA KOR NDZIDZI, One Man No Chop, (Re)conceptualisation of the Museum of African Art – the Veda and Zdravko Pečar Collection (2017); Non-Aligned Modernisms, Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade/ERSTE Stiftung (2016).

The Post-Yugoslav Region and Theoretical Concept of Race

March/April 2020

Upon being invited by the editors of this issue, Ana Sladojević, the author of the book The Museum of African Art, Contexts and Representations, and former curator of the museum of the same name in Belgrade, talked to Catherine Baker, a historian from the University of Hull. In her research, Catherine Baker focuses on the region of former Yugoslavia, approaching it from the perspective of international relations and cultural studies. The conversation addressed numerous issues regarding the particular status of the term “race” within studies in Southeastern Europe, which, despite a growing academic interest in SFRY’s role in the Non-Aligned Movement, are still largely disregarded or marginalized in terms of interest, analytical approach and interpretive reaches of contemporary researchers. The issue of translating theoretical terminology such as “blackness” into the Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian language, which occurred while editing this interview, presented itself as the quintessential symptom of a critical epistemological deficit in regards to local reception and application of race as a theoretical term.

In her book Race and the Yugoslav Region, Postsocialist, Post-conflict, Postcolonial? (Manchester University Press, 2018), Catherine Baker argues the need of increased application of the theoretical term “race” in the context of Southeastern European studies;

At a time when the juncture of ‘postsocialist’ and ‘postcolonial’ lenses for making sense of ex-Yugoslavia, ‘the Balkans’ and ‘eastern Europe’ has been inspiring reinterpretations of the region’s transnational and global history that multiplied even as this book was being written, it is no longer possible—and never should have been—to contend that the Yugoslav region stands somehow ‘outside’ race. The question is where it stands, and why that has gone unspoken for so long.

Ana Sladojević Catherine, a really strong impression that I had while reading your book for the first time was of your writing as a necessary intervention into your own academic field. How much resistance and, perhaps, misunderstanding did you actually encounter from the colleagues in the field, and how much support for that matter, when you embarked on this particular research?

Catherine Baker So far I’ve encountered much more support than resistance. Reviews are only just starting to come out, but those I’ve read so far have been enthusiastic in their praise and constructive in their critique—Dafina Paca’s review in Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, for instance, added some important context, from her own experiential knowledge, about Kosovo Albanians’ identifications with African-American hip-hop traditions when they had been targets of dehumanising ideology and Milošević’s police. By chance, since 2018 I’ve been presenting less at large international conferences, which is where outright resistance to research based on critical race studies (and to the researchers who do it, especially when they’re scholars of colour) is probably most likely to emerge—sometimes in abusive ways that our scholarly associations and leaders need to take strong stands against. The challenge I’m giving deepest thought to at the moment is the argument that “whiteness,”[1] as a concept theorised in the US, can’t be exported into the study of central and south-east Europe without committing the kind of cultural and intellectual imperialism that we are trying to resist. Personally, I’d argue that the cultural aesthetics and knowledge politics of “whiteness” had already been globalised so far that they had already become grounded in south-east Europe before we as researchers started to employ the critical tools for studying them—and ultimately I hope research on race in, and just as importantly from, south-east Europe will play a part in changing how race is theorised in the “core” societies for critical race studies as well.

AS From the point of view of someone not as directly involved in historical research, the overlapping relations between notions of ethnicity and race are not as self-explanatory as perhaps they are when you are already deeply rooted in contemporary historical research of Southeast European Studies (SEE). Both Aniko Imre and Miglena Todorova write about this, but looking back at your writing, and perhaps the reception it received in the meantime, what would you say particularly contributed to this kind of normalization of substituting ethnicity for race, and would you say that it still represents an issue within the SEE studies?

CB One reason would be the way of thinking that sociologists call racial exceptionalism—the belief that race and racism aren’t important for understanding a particular region, nation, and so on. Perspectives which take it as their point of departure that frameworks of ‘race’ have already been spread and translated all around the world start from the opposite assumption: race is relevant, the question becomes how. Since there’s evidence all the way from representations of Africa in early 20th century Icelandic textbooks to the aesthetics of consumerism in postcolonial Ghana of race being salient far beyond the societies where racism has been most conventionally studied, I find those perspectives on race as global more convincing. By racial exceptionalism I don’t just mean individual wilfulness (though that exists) or active choices to identify with a Western kind of whiteness (though those often exist too) so much as structural and historical factors that have kept the study of south-east Europe separate from the study of race in a global sense. Instead, history and anthropology have primarily interpreted the region’s collective identities in ethnic, or ethnonational, terms (and religious terms as well where religion is a symbol of ethnonational identity, especially in Bosnia-Herzegovina). Those very ethnic nations were themselves interpreted in racial terms by scientists and anthropologists involved in the nation-building projects of the first half of the twentieth century, as Tomislav Longinović has argued for Yugoslavia and Nevenko Bartulin has detailed for Croatia—the Croatian nation and the syncretic Yugoslav nation were both being distinguished from neighbours with reference to racial science. So the ideas of ethnicity and race had been blurred long before scholarship in the last few decades blurred them. When race was brought on to the agenda for studying south-east Europe, it was typically by way of analogy: as is blackness in the USA or Britain, so is being an ethnic other or “Balkan.” This helped to diagnose strategies of stigmatisation and Othering, and yet the next step is to ask specifically about (for instance) meanings of blackness in the Balkans too.

AS A general shift of the field towards questions of race in the last couple of years corresponded with a long overdue academic interest in the history of the Non-Aligned Movement, in particular its cultural implications. I myself am deeply convinced that the obscuring of the history of Non-Aligned Movement, as basically anti-colonial formation (all its shortcomings aside), was in direct relation to the obscuring of colonial history, and its legacy, that continued to work through education, cultural stereotypes and representation, as you formulated through questions of “why is my curriculum white?” or “why isn’t my professor black?” when engaging with your students. Would you agree with this to a point?

CB The questions “why is my curriculum white?” and “why isn’t my professor black?” were the slogans that a campaign group at University College London (UCL) led by students and researchers of colour chose to organise around in 2014 when they were struggling for black, indigenous and Global South knowledges to be more central to their curriculum and for racial justice at the most senior and secure levels of the academic profession. (I’d studied and taught at UCL, at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, so following their campaign online challenged me to reflect on what I’d have done in response if I’d still been working there.) One of the major issues they raised was the obscuring of colonial history, which was particularly glaring in a built environment like UCL’s (where the eugenicists Francis Galton and Karl Pearson are commemorated in prestigious places).[2] That was a UK-based struggle, which drew many connections with similar movements in South Africa[3] and the US. In a post-Yugoslav context, I agree with Vedrana Veličković that the history of the Non-Aligned Movement fell into a “postcommunist oblivion” amid determination to be recognised as more European, and indeed we can see from studies like Konstantin Kilibarda’s that intellectuals and Party officials in Slovenia and Croatia were already pulling away from the anti-colonial solidarities of Non-Alignment in the 1980s. It’s fascinating that the question of race in state socialism, which the transnational encounters involved in the Non-Aligned Movement let us explore, is what seems to have allowed the wider project of researching race in south-east Europe to be crystallised.

AS Your book represents a valuable repository of examples, researched first hand, or cited from other researchers’ very recent writing (which shows how the field has already readily embraced the importance of such research). In building the case towards the importance of a theoretical notion of race being introduced into research on SEE, would you say that perhaps you may have focused on the more obvious examples that above all confirm that race, and its implications as phenomenon, did and still does exist in the region, but perhaps allowed some more understated and nuanced examples (of both racism and anti-racism, which can also be further analysed beyond its declarative or political role) pass through the sieve?

CB I quite agree that many of the examples I used in the book could have been book-length studies of their own, and some of them I somewhat consciously included as a wishlist—topics that the framework of ideas behind the book invited more studies of, but that hadn’t been written yet. I hoped the book would make some of the potential paths towards theorising them more possible, and I was excited to see what further nuances they would add. One section of the final chapter for instance raised some suggestions about the place of transnational jihadis in the Bosnian conflict within histories of the Yugoslav wars, sketching out some links with the security politics of the world after 9/11; since then Darryl Li’s book The Universal Enemy, based on years of interviews and ethnography, has built a masterful edifice on a similar scaffolding. I accept that there is still more scope, in particular, for reconciling a critical apparatus on complicity with the structures of racism which stems from the anglophone global North with the intellectual and material marginalisation of south-east Europe and its knowledge producers. One challenge as research on race and south-east Europe progresses will be not to lose sight of the region’s histories of anti-colonial and transversal solidarity while examining (often unconscious) attachments to the structures of thought and feeling that critical race studies calls whiteness, since we need sight of the potential for alternatives that those histories contain to recalibrate the social and global order today.

AS Would you say that the affirmation of racial “blindness”[4] that was propagated during the socialist Yugoslavia still bears consequences as a historicized discourse,[5] one way or another? Because, even if the socialist Yugoslavia, as with many NAM countries, failed in developing a more thorough, coherent cultural collaboration among the NAM members, and definitely lacked self-reflection in terms of race and racism, this “color-blind” socialism did leave a trace within public memory, as its legacy in terms of once-felt solidarity—perhaps very vague, and not always properly understood— seem to continue to exist?

CB The colour-blindness has lasted longer than the socialism—perhaps because it did not unsettle postsocialist nationalisms (or rather the nationalisms that had started to take over the space of legitimacy that socialism had vacated before the administrative structures of state socialism finally collapsed) in the same way that socialism itself did. Slovenian and Croatian nationalisms had to react against the Yugoslav idea as it had become in a system exploited by Milošević, and Serbian nationalism had to react against a Yugoslav ideal that had made it possible to imagine a Yugoslavia with more than one centre of power, but none of those national projects at the end of the 1980s needed to directly react against the idea that Yugoslavia existed outside “race” as a circuit that bound the capitalist, imperialist West together with the exploited Third World. While one can read attachments to Europeanness and therefore (to the extent that the idea of Europe as a “white” space goes unquestioned) to whiteness throughout postsocialist national identity-making projects, none of those needed to dismantle the colour-blindness even though they often dismantled the solidarities that state socialism had celebrated.

AS As much as exceptionalism was generally embraced as a strategy to exempt oneself from even considering one’s place in a more global circulation of stereotypes that had to do with race, the activation of relations within the NAM exposed some Yugoslavs to experiencing racialization. Here is an example of Oskar Davičo, writer and correspondent who visits West African countries in 1960/61, and laments in his travelogue:

The former white man. – It is pointless, but, alas, I am ashamed. The people I belong to and the class that brought me up have never tortured, enslaved (or) killed. For centuries, we were living as slaves ourselves. Yes, but I am white, that is all the passers-by see. If only I could carry a digest history of my country on my lapel.[6]

CB That passage of Davičo’s has taken on new life in recent years. I first heard it read out by Nemanja Radonjić, who researches Yugoslav travel writing about Africa, at a conference (Re)Thinking Yugoslav Internationalism that we both attended in 2016, while I was drafting Race and the Yugoslav Region. Jelena Subotić and Srđan Vučetić mention it as the text[7] that “comes closest to a sustained critique of racism” out of all those they studied for their article on whiteness and the “status-seeking” of approaches to development in the Third World among Yugoslav leaders (who they would argue certainly did not possess Davičo’s reflectiveness towards all the historical legacies that came to bear when Africans perceived Yugoslavs as white). And yet at the same time, British diplomats in West Africa during the 1960s were concerned that Yugoslavia would become a rival to British trade interests there because Yugoslavs had the industrialisation experience without the colonial baggage—so to those British eyes, some of those Yugoslavs’ history was already written on their lapels more than Davičo thought it could be written on his own.

AS As early as 2004, Dejan Sretenović, then Chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade, wrote a book that accompanied the exhibition of the same title Black Bodies, White Masks, paraphrasing Frantz Fanon. He critically addressed the position of Yugoslavia before World War Two, in terms of race and racism, and set the exhibition within the Museum of African Art—the Veda and Zdravko Pečar Collection in Belgrade, that was contextually and nominally related to the Non-Aligned Movement. This way he superimposed the excerpts of colonial imagery that circulated this region before World War Two on what was considered an anti-racist and anticolonial statement of Yugoslav socialism, introducing the questions of race, racism, colonial legacy, blackness and whiteness within a museum that successfully meandered around them since its inception. In one sentence, Sretenović sums up the relations of the socialist Yugoslavia towards African counterparts:

Tito’s political figure of Africa is not the figure of an absolute Other, isolated and distant, but the figure of a partner and ‘younger brother’ on his way to socialism, who traded his leopard skin for worker overalls.[8]

CB This kind of paternalism is something that Jelena Subotić and Srđan Vučetić in the article I mentioned suggest often characterised Yugoslavia’s relationship with the Third World—and, as Sretenović’s quote suggests, it ultimately stemmed from a racialised understanding of “Europe” (a space with which they identified themselves as Yugoslavs) as a place that was inevitably going to be more advanced than “Africa.” Those are the kinds of assumptions that, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva argued, produce “racism without racists”—they are baked so far into popular understandings of the global order that even the many individuals struggling for racial equality are likely to reproduce them. Talking to some social historians of labour in socialist Yugoslavia recently, we have become curious about how far those attitudes also characterised the everyday workplace, particularly in enterprises which were exporting to or trading in Africa, so I hope we can continue that work.

AS The ignorance with which some current media or political personae speak in bluntly racist terms betrays some deep societal problems that have to do with all kinds of violence that is perpetuated in everyday situations. How do we, then, distinct racism from other forms of discrimination and violence?

CB Critical race scholars see racism not just as an ideology or a prejudice but a structural historical legacy—a historical consequence of the ways in which European imperialism, settler colonialism and the enslavement of Africans were made to seem natural and predestined in the times when they occurred. Our modern ideas about gender, sexuality, the body, hygiene, development, science, morality, even modernity itself were all forged in interaction with frameworks of “race”—though the specifics of categories and characteristics differed from place to place. Today, that means racism can’t be separated from other forms of discrimination and violence—the context of racism is always relevant to understanding forms of discrimination and violence, even when racial difference does not appear to be a factor in them. When I experience discrimination as a queer woman, the way I experience it is influenced by being a queer white woman—I’m exposed to misogyny and homophobia, but not to the extra racialised silencing, disbelief and structural disadvantage that a queer woman of colour would be experiencing at the same time. Of course, I’m saying that as an Anglophone, which means society treats my whiteness as unconditional—whether or not south-east European nations count as “white” in the West has been much more fraught, because of the Romaphobia, orientalism and class hierarchies that Westerners have projected on to the region.

AS Catherine, your approach to writing this book showed a thorough self-reflection in terms of your own previous academic work. Apart from introducing new angles in interpreting what was already a well-known topic for you, namely popular music, in particular in Croatia of the 1990s, you have introduced some (inter- or transdisciplinary) methodological changes to your approach.

CB They probably do seem like changes if one moves straight from Sounds of the Borderland (my first book, on popular music and national identity in Croatia) to Race and the Yugoslav Region, but from my perspective it doesn’t feel as if I changed my approach specifically to write this book, more that my approach had already changed because of the different academic and intellectual spaces I’d been part of in the years in between. Sounds of the Borderland itself was interdisciplinary, just based on disciplines that scholars of music in south-east Europe are very comfortable putting together, so the dialogue between them was already ongoing. The main academic change in between is that since 2013 or so, when I’d just finished a project on peacekeeping and translators/interpreters in Bosnia-Herzegovina, I’ve become much more involved with feminist and postcolonial International Relations, which were important for understanding peacekeeping but which were also starting to turn to questions about popular culture and militarism. The first set of notes I made for what became Race and the Yugoslav Region came after I’d just been at the International Feminist Journal of Politics conference in Sussex, where the global politics of race and whiteness were high on the agenda, and was then at a workshop on gender and citizenship in south-east Europe – during a presentation by Julija Sardelić on post-Yugoslav Roma and the politics of multiculturalism, I started trying to list other major themes in researching south-east Europe that would have to be rethought if we posed the same kinds of questions about them I’d been hearing in Sussex as well. Writing this in the middle of the UK lockdown, I’m conscious of how far the way in which my intellectual framework has evolved in the last decade has depended on being able to bear the financial and temporal costs of travelling for research networking during academic term time – and both of these are inequitably distributed resources. So that deserves to be part of my self-reflection as well.

AS In the book, you point out (at least) three modes for relating race to the Yugoslav region, some of which we’ve already mentioned: a mode of “colour-blindness” (of indifference or “white innocence”), a mode of “analogy,” and a mode of “connection.” I would be interested in how, from the distance of two years since your book was published, you would further elaborate the mode of connection, as the most engaged one.

CB For the sake of a brief answer, perhaps I’d say that the mode of connection is one that refuses the conventional delimitation of the post-Yugoslav region, and indeed the rest of postsocialist Europe, as an area which has been outside the global history of coloniality and race—since they have had repercussions there and have even influenced the forms of domination that have been most immediately manifest in the region. By looking across those boundaries, we are more able to see manifestations of global phenomena at work within the region, and ways in which the region is part of global phenomena even when their most concrete manifestations are elsewhere. But of course these connections were being researched, and even more importantly lived, before anyone put an academic name on this way of thinking about it.


Endnotes

[1] Whiteness as a theoretical concept does not apply on someone’s skin color, as the word would be otherwise colloquially used, but on knowledge structures, emotions and, above all, power, through which the idea of racism is naturalized. According to Charles W. Mills, a philosopher of race and whiteness, “whiteness” is “a set of norms and assumptions […] which insures the legitimacy of white domination […] and the injustices that arise from the interrogation [of that domination]”. Charles W. Mills, “Piercing the Veil”, in: Unveiling Whiteness in the Twenty-First Century; Global Manifestations, Transdisciplinary Interventions (1st ed.). V. Watson, D. Howard-Wagner & L. Spanierman (eds.), Lexington Books, Lanham-Boulder-New York-London, 77-88.

[2] “UCL denames buildings named after eugenicists”, University College London, 22nd June 2020. URL: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/headlines/2020/jun/ucl-denames-buildings-named-after-eugenicists (accessed 24th November 2020).

[3] Another, earlier struggle, Rhodes Must Fall, which moved from South Africa to the University of Oxford, is mentioned in the text “The Unbearable Lightness of Anachronism: Practices of Monumentmaking and the Guardians of Historical Consensus”, also published in this issue.

[4] The term racial “blindness,” or later in the text “color blindness,” is used to convey that one’s racial affiliation does not limit his/her life possibilities.

[5] The term “historicized discourse” was used to point out that “racial blindness” in the collective memory was associated with socialist Yugoslavia and its role in the Non-Aligned Movement, i.e. its discourse on anti-colonialism and solidarity. It still appears today as an “inherited” approach to issues of race and racism, and those who use it are often unaware of the negative connotations it carries (such as denying or relativizing the impact of one’s racial affiliation on his/her life opportunities), but because of its historical contexts are considered affirmative.

[6] Oskar Davičo, Crno na belo, Prosveta, Beograd, 1969, 13

[7] Jelena Subotić, Srđan Vučetić, “Performing solidarity: whiteness and status-seeking in the non-aligned world”, In: Journal of International Relations and Development (2017), 22:722-743. DOI: 10.1057/s41268-017-0112-2

[8] Dejan Sretenović, Black Body, White Masks, Museum of African Art, Belgrade, 2004; English traslation taken from: Nyimpa Kor Ndzidzi, (Re)conceptualisation of the Museum of African Art – the Veda and Dr. Zdravko Pečar Collection, Museum of African Art, Belgrade, 2017, 148.


Minna Henriksson is the co-editor of Art Workers – Material Conditions and Labour Struggles in Contemporary Art Practice (Helsinki/Tallinn/Stockholm 2015). Henriksson has exhibited her work broadly in international exhibitions, among others in the 3rd Actually, the Dead Are Not Dead, 3rd Bergen Assembly; Stasis – Taking the Stand, 7th Thessaloniki Biennial; Time Is Now, 2nd Wuzhen Contemporary Art Exhibition; Tunnel Vision, 8th Momentum – Nordic Biennial for Contemporary Art; The Lenin Museum in Tampere; History Unfolds in the Swedish History Museum, and at the online platform of Documenta studies in Kassel.

Painted Image of the Nordics

As a visual artist I am interested in how concepts such as nation, people, or culture are represented. Who determines these representations? Under what kind of circumstance are they produced, and what ends do they serve? How do they continue to exist after their original cause has been forgotten?

The Nordic countries are usually promoted as pro human rights, egalitarian, open minded, and democratic, innocent of colonialism and free from Nazi atrocities. But how does this positive image suppress their sometimes violent and oppressive history?

In 2015, I engaged in a research of the pseudo-scientific race science history practiced widely in the Nordic countries, from mid-19th century to 1945. I had been commissioned to do an art project about the topic in the Swedish History Museum, where I was working together with archaeologist and researcher Fredrik Svanberg in the context of the exhibition History Unfolds curated by Helene Larsson Pousette in 2016–2017. This project brought to my awareness the deep history of scientific racism embraced by state institutions in the Nordic countries, which has been hidden since the end of the Second World War, but not very well.

When researching the topic, it felt at times that there had been a collective agreement among the ruling class to silence this history and that there hadn’t been many attempts at challenging this order. In 2016, statues commemorating the main protagonists practicing racist science were still in place and their legacy was continued in research institutions.

The bust of Anders Retzius at the Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm. Photo: Minna Henriksson (2106)

Sweden has clearly been a pioneer in the field of race science within the Nordic countries and internationally. Already in 1735, Swedish botanist, zoologist, and physician Carl Linnaeus in his book Systema Naturae had developed a racial taxonomy system dividing humans into four varieties based on continent and skin colour, assigning characteristics to them that were clearly hierarchical. The second major Nordic contribution to race science was in the 1840s with anatomy professor Anders Retzius inventing the cephalic index and classifying human crania into dolichocephalic (long skulls) and brachycephalic (short skulls). According to Retzius, Western Europeans were in general long skulled and Eastern Europeans short skulled. The dividing border in the North was placed between Finland and Sweden, leaving the Finns and the Sami people outside of the region of the long skulled Western Europeans.

Anders Retzius’ theory, and other similar theories popular in the 19th century—such as the Mongoloid theory or the Turan theory—promoted by German physician and anthropologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, French aristocrat Joseph Arthur de Gobineau, and French naturalist and zoologist Georges Cuvier, defined the location of the “master race” in North-Western Europe, which came down to the “Germanic race.” Scandinavians, who in these assumptions were direct descendants from Vikings, were perceived as the victorious warrior-race of the North. Although there is no scientific proof of this relatedness, the assumptions of the ancestral lineage of today’s Swedes and Norwegians to the Vikings are still prevalent, for example in representations of blonde, blue-eyed men, and women dressed up in blue and yellow as in the Swedish flag, wearing Viking-horned helmets. Right wing groups draw from the Norse myths in their naming and visuality, for example there is an international right-wing group called Soldiers of Odin, whose logo portrays a man with a Viking helmet. The hammer of the Norse god Thor is a common symbol among the neo-Nazis who employ the runic alphabets, as did the Nazi paramilitary organization Schutzstaffel for their acronym SS. Recently, scientific discoveries have brought into question the mythologization of the Vikings as a Nordic warrior race that represents pure European and pre-Christian values. One of these discoveries caused a stir recently when researchers presented findings of Islamic text in ancient Viking garments.[1]

Another important milestone from Sweden, next to Linne’s and Retzius’ categorizations, was the founding of the world’s first biological race institute in Uppsala, The Swedish state-institute of race biology. It was founded by race biologist Herman Bernhard Lundborg in 1922 with a focus on physical anthropology and human genetics in Sweden. The institution ran a massive project of measuring approximately 100 000 Swedes and collected an abundance of data and material on the Sami people. The institution was never really closed down, but in 1958 it was renamed as the State Institute for Human Genetics, and to this day it continues as the genetic centre of Uppsala University.

Street signs at the Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm. Photo: Minna Henriksson (2016)

Whereas Anders Retzius and Herman Lundborg are known as notorious figures of racist pseudo-science, the reputations of many others who were involved in it in Sweden remain unaffected. Furthermore, of all Nordic countries, only the Swedish scientists are known for their involvement in race science. Still today, predominantly researchers in Finland argue that Finns were themselves the subjects of racialization, and that they only employed race science in their defence, in order to prove that they were also European. It is rarely mentioned, however, that the Finnish researchers too practiced such methods, aiming to come up with a scientific reasoning for oppressing the Sami or for gaining new territories in the East.

Click to explore Minna Henriksson’s visual map of Nordic Race Science.

Cranial Collections

The three cranial collections, the one at Lund University, the already mentioned Uppsala University, and Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, were founded in the 17th or 18th Centuries.[2] At the University of Oslo, the Department of Anatomy started their collection in 1815. At Helsinki University, the cranial collections started a bit later, in 1839, by Evert Julius Bonsdorff. Having studied under Retzius at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm in 1838, Bonsdorff initiated his collection only a year later, clearly inspired by Retzius’ comparative research methods, as well as by the anatomical collection.[3]

Skulls were exchanged among researchers in these institutions, as well as with cranial collectors in the USA, Great Britain, France, Germany, Estonia, and other places. Via Bonsdorff and his followers in Finland, many indigenous Sami skulls that had been dug up from graveyards despite the resistance from local people, ended up in various collections around the world. There are skulls of members of various indigenous communities in Finland today, among them in Indonesia, Australia, and Hawaii.

Many Nordic state institutions still keep enormous human remains collections. At the University of Helsinki, a special committee was established in 1998 consisting of three medical researchers, a forensic doctor, a forensic dentist, and a theologist, as well as representatives from the Board of Antiquities, the Natural History Museum, and the Ministry of Education. The task of the committee was to create guidelines for the human remains collections in their possession, which included some 1500 skulls and hundreds of skeletons, other individual bones and catalogues, photographs, and glass negatives. The report of the committee, dated December 17, 1999, recommended the repatriation of the remaining 160 Sami skulls and 61 skeletons in the collections, but not of their reburial, so that they might still be kept accessible to researchers. The rest of the collections, it was suggested, should be kept as a whole, due to the uniqueness of the collection in Finland and its outstanding size on the global level. The committee recommended that the collections should also be kept accessible for researchers in future, that new research methods should be developed, and that some parts of the collections could be further expanded.

Therefore, in 1999 the committee still regarded human remains relevant for research and defended their collection. The committee also expressed their concern that when word about the collection was spread, indigenous communities would perhaps start claiming back the skulls, which could put the rare collection in danger of dispersing.

In Finland, most of the Sami skulls had been repatriated from the anatomical collection in Helsinki University to the Sami Museum Siida in 1995, and the rest of them in 2001. Similar repatriations have been done in Norway. The process of repatriations of looted objects has slowly begun over the past few years in the ethnographic collections of the National Museum and the Helinä Rautavaara museum regarding the objects belonging to Australian Arrernte-peoples and the Mesa Verde in North America. But to my knowledge, there have not been similar international processes at the human remains collection as there have been in the ethnographic collections. Of the human remains collections, only the Sami skulls have been repatriated, and even those with the condition that they are still kept available for research and not buried.[4] In 2019, the Swedish History Museum finally repatriated 25 Sami skulls, but it was a late start and a small step as even today eleven state-owned museums in Sweden have Sami skulls in their possession, regardless of the continuous repatriation demands by the Sami Parliament. The relations with the indigenous Sami people are hindered in both Finland and Sweden by the failure to ratify the ILO 169 Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, established in 1989, which Norway has ratified already in 1990.

Art and Science

“Race science” was a pseudo-science. In craniology, the more measurements that were taken, the less solid the theories became.[5] The total absurdity of the field was made apparent by professor Aurel von Török of Budapest University who in 1890 took 5371 measurements of a single skull. Such attempts caused craniology to gradually fall out of fashion. In the early 20th century living populations were measured on a massive scale. In Finland, for instance, over one third of the Sami population was measured while the common practice was that the researcher would select the subject based on the desired conclusions. For example, if the aim was to prove that the Sami people are short and dark, men from Sami villages who looked this way were selected while tall, blonde men from the villages were not included in the study. Thus, the empirical results would prove that the Sami are short and dark. From this, further assumptions were made of their “primitiveness.”

Art surely had a reciprocal relationship with this so-called science. In Stockholm, anatomy professors involved in race science taught anatomy to students at art academies. Anders Retzius taught anatomy at the Royal Academy of the Arts in Stockholm from 1839 to 1860, followed by Gustaf von Düben, another anatomy professor of the Karolinska Institutet. Carl Curman, who was a student of Retzius, took over the same position after Düben. Furthermore, the Royal Academy of the Arts in Stockholm received one corpse every year from the Karolinska Institutet. In the archives of the Royal Academy of the Arts in Stockholm one can find drawings and paintings dating back to 19th century. Students had to repeat the four skull categories, which had been devised by Retzius. The influence the race scientists had on aesthetics and art practice is clear, but to what extent did artists influence the scientists’ visions of the “ideal human types” as well as those considered “more primitive?”

An example of artists’ involvement in race science is the competition held in Finland in 1926, titled the Finnish Female Type. It was announced by the Suomen Kuvalehti independent weekly periodical, but the jury of the competition was headed by Helsinki University anatomy professor Yrjö Kajava along with professor of ethnology U. T. Sirelius, painter Vilho Sjöström, sculptor Gunnar Finne, and writer Jalmari Finne. The jury—consisting dominantly of artists—made their decision based on photographs submitted by the 1268 applicants, along with requested information of eye and hair colour, as well as a clarification of the ethnic origin of the applicants’ mother and father. They even determined the skull index of the winner based on her photograph and concluded that she is of “Finnish brachycephalic race.” The applications, which had to be addressed to the Anatomy department, are today in the archives of Helsinki University and one can still browse through them and occasionally find small hair samples attached to the letters.

In 19th century Finland there was no higher education in art, and most of the notable artists, who came from upper class families, went to study abroad, often to Stockholm or Paris. Such were the von Wright brothers, who are today among the most praised painters in Finland. While almost everyone in Finland knows their illustrations of birds, it is not acknowledged that they had a deeper involvement in science as well. Two of the brothers assisted anatomists in illustrating their works: Magnus von Wright illustrated E. J. Bonsdorff’s works, and Wilhelm von Wright made race-scientific illustrations for Anders Retzius. Bonsdorff’s name also appears in the records of the Finnish Art Association’s drawing school as its anatomy professor in 1863, when Magnus von Wright was the drawing teacher.

Some of the most celebrated painters in Sweden, Carl Larsson (1853–1919) and Anders Zorn (1860–1920), who studied art in the Royal Academy of the Arts in Stockholm and without a doubt learned anatomy from racist anatomists, also were involved in race science. Zorn, who became very wealthy from his paintings, was known for depicting racial types and he even financially supported the exhibition organized by Herman Lundborg, titled Swedish People’s Types, which toured in five Swedish cities in 1919 and was extremely well visited. In that exhibition, Lundborg categorized Sweden geographically into dozens of areas consisting of different people types. The best types were portrayed as being in areas where the Swedish nobility and upper-class lived. He picked as examples of the “master race” racist scientists and their families, whose portraits were displayed in the exhibition. Swedish speaking Finns, categorized as Eastern Swedes, also found their place at the exhibition and within the categorization of Swedish types. These photographs were provided for the exhibition by the Florin’s Committee, which was a coming together of various researchers in Swedish-speaking minority in Finland, who were united by the concern of degeneration of the Swedish minority in Finland.

Carl Larsson dedicated his work to depicting Swedish upper-class life. Included in this work were portraits Larsson painted of several people central to race science in Sweden and he applied the race science education into his own work. Especially problematic is his work Midwinter Sacrifice (Midvinterblot, 1915), which he regarded as his main work. The Swedish Nationalmuseum first rejected the painting, but since then it has been temporarily displayed there in 1916 and from 1925 to 1931. Since 1992 it has been permanently displayed in the hall of the Swedish Nationalmuseum, where Larsson had intended it. A previous chief curator at the Swedish Nationalmuseum, Per Bjurström pointed out in 1995 that the painting is displayed always during increasingly chauvinistic periods.

Midwinter Sacrifice depicts a Norse myth of Swedish king Domalde being sacrificed to avert famine. King Domalde is clearly depicted as the “highest race,” similar to the idealized bodies characteristic of Nazi art. In his analysis of the painting, Bjurström accused Larsson of portraying the Sami in a derogatory manner, and, as the Jews have been portrayed as responsible for the murder of Jesus Christ in Ecce Homo, similarly in Larsson’s racist narrative, the Sami wizard and the ecstatic dancing Sami women become those bringing the mythological king to his death. Thus, typical of the period, the painting presents the Sami as an “inferior race” responsible for cruelties, and presents the Swedish people, by contrast, as noble and humane, and as a group that would find these cruelties unimaginable even in their mythology.

In Finland, the most appreciated national artist, Akseli Gallen-Kallela, who was central in Finnish national romanticism, also combined Finnish mythology and “racial types.” In his painting Sammon puolustus (The Defense of the Sampo, 1896), part of the series of paintings depicting scenes from the Finnish national epic Kalevala, we see a gray haired and long bearded Viking-type old man (the mythological figure of Väinämöinen) in a boat with several young blonde men holding spears. They defend a magical artifact, the Sampo, from an evil harpy type of figure and her clearly darker, evil-looking warriors. Ludvig Wennervirta, one of Finland’s most powerful art critics of the first half of the 20th century, wrote about the painting, noting that it depicts the struggle between the Kalevala people and the Northland people. Comparing a woodcut from 1895 and the final version of the painting from 1896, he points out that the alteration which the artist has made is: “[to change] the appearance of the man striking with the axe from an ugly Sami [sic] to a blonde Lemminkäinen-type, thus highlighting the stark contrast between the Kalevala people and the Northland people.”[6]

Another work in which Gallen-Kallela’s racial focus is especially visible is in his famous Aino-triptych (1889, second version in 1891). In the first version of the painting (1889), he had to use Parisian models, as he lived in Paris at the time. He complained about having to draw on Parisian models to depict Finnish women and was dissatisfied with the results. Upon returning to Finland, he repainted the painting using real Finnish-blooded models. Thus, the figure of Aino, the young woman in the triptych can be seen as a depiction of a race. And when taking into consideration theories about the non-Europeanness of the Finns, which were prevalent in those days, it is clear that Gallen-Kallela wanted to intentionally introduce the swastika as a symbol of Finnishness. He used it in the frames of the painting to signify that the authentic Finnish woman is at the same time also Aryan. After all, since 1870, and increasingly in the 1880s, the swastika had been used by ariosophists, armanists, and other völkisch groups in Europe as a sign of the “superior” Aryan race. Famous German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, who made excavations in Hissarlik of Turkey and thought he found the ancient Troy, had found swastikas on many ancient objects. Because of this and the fact that swastikas had been found in ancient objects in Germany as well, he concluded that the peoples of Troy—who were the originators of European civilization—were of the proto-Aryan Teutonic race. With this he brought the swastika into imagery pertaining to the Aryan race discourse. Schliemann’s friend and his collaborator, the orientalist and race theorist Emile Burnouf, stated in 1872: “the swastika should be regarded as a sign of the Aryan race.”[7]

Detail of an ornamental gate at the former administrative building for the state electrical company in Olso. Photo: Minna Henriksson (2015)
A detail of the ornament at the main entrance of the Stockholm City Library. Photo: Minna Henriksson (2016)

Considering that the swastika was adopted in the 1870s by the Aryan race discourse, and has continued in that purpose until these days, first by the Nazis, then the neo-Nazis, it is jarring that we can find swastikas in prominent public spaces in the Nordic capitals of Helsinki, Stockholm and Oslo, in buildings erected in 1920s and 1930s. The common argument in defence of the presence of the sign in these capitals is that the building or the gate in question was built before the Nazis, so it cannot have anything to do with them. In addition, in Finland one commonly hears that the swastika became part of Finnish emblems designed by aforementioned national painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela because of an aeroplane, which the Swedish count Eric von Rosen donated to the Finnish air force. But it is not usually mentioned in this context that Eric von Rosen was also one of the main figures in the Swedish Nazi movement and close friend and relative of Hermann Göring, the second-in-command of the Third Reich.

Swedish researcher and critical race scholar Tobias Hübinette said in an interview in 2012, “Talking about Swedish whiteness and the Nordic whiteness is to talk about the whiteness de luxe, the whiteness that is the most white of all whitenesses in the Western world. There are historical reasons for this, but it is not just about history. It is also still very strongly the imaginary world of the nation.”[8] In the same interview he continues, about beauty contests:

You can call it economy of desire, where the Swedish and Nordic white bodies, both female and male, are idealised as the perfect bodies. You can see that even in such a profoundly multicultural society as the US where the white bodies that are privileged, for example in beauty contests and in cinema, and in the world of commercials and ads are the white bodies that resemble the Nordic white bodies.[9]

The so-called Nordic type, the parameters of which were defined a long time ago, is still the dominant representation of the people, the citizens in the Nordic countries. The less one fits the image, the more one experiences structural racism, racial harassment, and ethnic profiling.

Endnotes

[1] Tharik Hussain, “Why did Vikings have ‘Allah’ embroidered into funeral clothes?”, BBC News, 12th October 2017. URL: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-41567391 (assessed 14th August 2020).

[2] In Lund the collections were started by Arvid Henrik Florman (1761–1840). In Karolinska in Stockholm the collecting had started from mid-18th Century, but it was Anders Retzius, a teacher at Karolinska from 1824 and later a professor, who founded the museum. In Uppsala human bones were collected ever since 17th Century during Olof Rudebeck’s position there. Eva Åhrén, “Fredrik Svanberg. Människosamlarna. Anatomiska museer och rasvetenskap i Sverige ca 1850–1950”, Nordisk Museologi (2016)1:159-163. DOI: https://journals.uio.no/museolog/article/view/3071

[3] Ibid.

[4] Stated in the Memorandum of the Bone Collection Advisory Board to the Rector of the University of Helsinki, December 17, 1999. Helsinki University Central Archive.

[5] Craniology is a disciplinary field of studying the shape and size of the head and skull of humans, apes and other animals by comparative analysis to assess evolutionary changes, functional adaptations and genetic formation of individual phenotypic traits of the skeleton or soft tissues of the head. Craniology was especially popular in the 19th century and preferred method of ranking inferior and superior “races.”

[6] Ludvig Wennervirta, Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Werner Söderström  Osakeyhtiö, 1914.

[7] “Letter to H. Schliemann from Emil Burnouf, 29 January 1872” in: Quinn M., The Swastika: Constructing the Symbol, Routledge, London and New York, 1994, 23.

[8] Quoted in: Sezgin Boynik and Minna L. Henriksson, Counter-constructivist Model – La Fontaine Stories for Immigrants – Paper-film in nine acts, Labyrint Press, Botkyrka, 2012.

[9] Ibid.


Behzad Khosravi Noori is a PhD, artist, writer, educator, playgrounder and necromancer. His research-based practice includes films, installations, as well as archival studies. His works investigate histories from The Global South, labour and the means of production, and histories of political relationships that have existed as a counter narrative to the east-west dichotomy during the Cold War.

In the Disguise of a Dervish—a Short Story about an Unconcious Colonial Memory

This article undertakes a historical analysis of archival images produced by a working-class immigrant community in Tehran between 1956 and 1970.

The images, captured by a local itinerant photographer, Gholamreza Amirbegi, reveal diverse subjects within the context of urban life in the southwest of Tehran, at a time when the city had just seen a major influx of working-class immigrants from the country’s smaller municipalities—the outcome of the Second World War and the ensuing economic devastation that accompanied the Anglo-Soviet occupation of Iran.[1]

By re-narrating the archival materials, and thus re-signifying subaltern histories and dormant memories, I explore possible correspondences between (and within) societies that share interconnected histories, traces of unconscious colonial memory and proletarianism.

An Itinerant Man of Images

Gholamreza Amirbegi was an itinerant photographer. From the close of the Second World War until 1956, he narrates the life of a proletariat that migrated to Tehran. They found a place to live in District 10, in Tehran’s southwest. Situated near Emamzadeh Hasan, a sacred mausoleum of one of the sons of Imam Hasan (the second imam, according to Shia belief), it is the most populous district in Tehran, with four times the population of any other.

Central to Gholamreza’s tiny, peripatetic business were acts of imagination and reenactment—in particular, ones based on the desire to travel to other places or to inhabit other bodies. Importantly, the imagined place presents itself not in the subject of the image but via the medium of backdrop painting. Dissimilar to earlier studio portraiture in Iran, in which the common backdrops were European-inspired interiors or romantic landscapes, he used a backdrop of Emamzadeh Davoud—a sacred mausoleum in the northwest of Tehran that has become a popular holiday destination among the working class.[2] The storyteller, in Benjamin’s sense, finds freedom in such itinerancy; it is a form of emancipation, allowing him to move to other places and to reimagine himself.

One photo is especially eye-catching: perhaps taken in the middle of summer, when the shadows are short and the smell of sunshine on the beach beneath the street is pungent, Gholamreza sits in front of a pinhole camera. He is a young, masculine laborer; a peasant. He is smiling, wearing a hat and attire resembling that of a dervish, an oft-stereotyped Sufi order. Perhaps he has borrowed the costume to test out the concept; in fact, it was to become his most repeated theme, and the basis of a successful business model.

In the background is a naive painting: an airplane, bearing the name Nastaligh (Iran) in Old Persian typography, whose wings have been drawn out of perspective, in a melee with reality. The plane is flying above another sacred mausoleum, the Shah Abdol-Azim in Rey, south of Tehran. The image is again an amalgamation of belief and desire, mobility and playfulness.

The appearances of the mausoleum and the plane are both based on a similar desire—one for objects that transport you, that lead you somewhere else. One of these images in the backdrop does so physically, while the other accomplishes this spatially. Other elements in Gholamreza’s photographs suggest the desire for mobility and itinerancy through the use of props—either intentionally or unintentionally. For instance, airplanes, bicycles, and motorbikes frequently appear in his images as signifiers of a modern lifestyle characterized by mobility and speed. Anthropologist Shahram Khosravi interprets such use of diverse mobile machines as perhaps an unconscious gesture. He argues that by framing his subjects as mobile, Gholamreza demonstrates not only their urbanity, but also their class position: “Indeed, spatial mobility and social mobility are interrelated; they alter one another.”[3] Moreover, the desirability of mobility is notably present in the bricolage of diverse subjects: the airplane, the sacred mausoleum, and the man in the dervish costume.

Black and white portrait of a man holding dervish props: beads, a bowl, an axe, and a decorated hat. He sits in front of a painted backdrop of an airplane.

How is it that the figure of the dervish became the subject of his itinerant photography business? And why did the working-class peasant immigrants of southwestern Tehran become interested in dressing up as one of them?

An Unconscious Colonial Memory

Dervishes have a long history in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Ottoman Empire, serving as an iconography of emancipation and salvation from the substantive challenges of the material world. The dervish attempts to liberate himself by crossing into the spiritual realm. Running through the city with his Sufi bowl, the kashkool (literally, “to carry on the shoulder”), he sings the song of truth, orienting people in their lives and enlightening them about abomination, hate, and obscenity. He is, in fact, a man of the truth.

The stereotypical image of a dervish is that of an old man who lives the life of an itinerant, begging for food in the street. He breathes in another world. He is a Sufi; a Muslim ascetic following a particular tarighat, a concept for the mystical teaching and spiritual practices of such an order whose aim is hagighat: ultimate truth. They are identifiable by their tremendous insufficiency and austerity. Their emphasis is on the comprehensive values of love and provision, and desertion of the illusions of the ego in order to reach God.

The term “dervish”—the most common term in the West to designate the Muslim mystic or Sufi in the Orient—appeared for the first time in the book dedicated to the Ottoman Empire by the traveler Georges of Hungary, in 1481, in the form dermschler/durmishlar.[4] According to historian Thierry Zarcone, the word has a Persian derivation (drigu, driyosh, daryosh), and in the Zoroastrian culture before the emergence of Islam, it refers, on one hand, to a poor and impoverished man, and on the other, to a man searching for moral comprehension.[5] The original meaning of this term was not lost with the collapse of Zoroastrianism; but its sense has become more ascetic and mystical.[6]

Zarcone begins his discussion of the history of the dervish’s European representation in the second half of the sixteenth century, when they were pictured in travelogues about the Ottoman Empire.[7] In Europe, the figure of the dervish exemplifies the Muslim Orient, and it is repeatedly pondered as an embodiment not only of mysticism but also of religious extremism or Oriental despotism. The word appears in this capacity in the writing of renowned French authors like Molière, Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Hugo, as well as in various paintings, drawings, photographs, and postcards.

The Orientalist fever at the turn of the nineteenth century, followed by “Orient tourism” in the 1820s, and the subsequent appearance of the Ottoman Empire in photography beginning in 1839, generated attentiveness to the dervish in newfangled aesthetic realms.[8] According to Zarcone, the dervish was viewed through the paradoxical lens of beauty and fear; the figure’s portrayal, he notes “embodied not only their latent beauty, but also a sense of dread.”[9] Their mystical identity signified the explicit pleasure taken in the other. For instance, Victor Hugo, without ever visiting the Orient, gave the title Darvishe to a chapter of his 1829 Les Orientales.[10]

In nineteenth-century iconography, the dervish served as a virtuous example of a figure who carried all the aspects of the other in the eyes of the Western traveler: frail, fragile, and eccentric, taking shelter in a narrow alley in a crowded part of the city, or in the corner of a bazaar. His whirling and howling represented the queerness of life and history. He was visible in the banality of everyday life, and hence easy to capture. At the same time, he was a spectacle that aroused desire in the Western tourist. European travelers drew, painted, and photographed the dervish.[11]

From the perspective of Western Orientalist photographer, the dervish has been presented and perceived as a pure “other,” representing another mode of existence. The appearance of dervishes, however, represents a different world entirely—though it does hold a relationship to nineteenth-century European romanticism, if unconsciously. Desperation, poverty, a gaunt body, a haggard face, and a deep gaze led to an association between Orientalism, othering, and nineteenth-century romantic paintings of ruins—reflecting the unconscious simultaneity of what they knew and what they had just discovered.

The notion of identity, of “them and us,” was closely related to a sense of place—a relationship between here and there. But there was no uncontaminated meaning of here and there, as isolated and disconnected territories; rather, one always engages in a discursive relationship of inclusion and exclusion, attraction and repulsion, acceptance and rejection—the fundamentally agonistic relationship between what we call here and there.

Such narratives located these representations of other territories and other people within the insignificant relationship between fact and fiction; the desire to discover the fantastic in other lands and claim it as the reality. In the mid-nineteenth century, the exploration of a dreamland of the other became a field of visual ethnography, and visual ethnography became documentary. The fictional capacity of documentary, in turn, proposed a new reality.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Western photographers, as they applied the new technology of photography, reiterated this historical pattern. And what began as historical curiosity eventually became an industry of image reproduction, with one minor distinction: some photographers were more attracted to making realistic pictures and providing visualization. The new industry of image production demanded a permanent and stable relationship to place in order to illustrate the day-to-day lives of the dervishes for travelogues, postcards, and studies by the first European researchers. And the visual ethnography and phantasmagoria of otherness only became more concerted. By 1840, one enterprising Western photographer opened a studio in Istanbul, and immediately after, another one in Tehran. The new technology disseminated the European traveler’s interest in both the West and the East. The metamorphosis of the dervish from a social phenomenon into a photographic subject took place against the backdrop of an East that was emulating a European desire for technological innovation. Indeed, Easterners began to observe the banality of their portrayal from behind the lens of the new technology. Could it be that the process of internalization and subjectification of their own lives departed from here—a juncture at which a colonial body projected a new mode of valuation onto their lives? Or did it appear as a form of hospitality, an accommodation of the guest’s desires and needs? Or perhaps it was an amalgam of technological fascination and Eastern hospitality?

European readers, who had read and seen so much about dervishes in magazines, paintings, illustrations, and photographs, eventually sought to bring them to the West. And so, in 1899, an event was organized in Paris, coinciding with the zoological and ethnographic exhibition at the Jardin Zoologique d’Acclimatation.[12]

In the heyday of French colonialism, the curiosity of Parisians was piqued by the customs and lifestyles of foreign peoples; indeed, they exhibited ‘primitive’ tribes in a human zoo. Among them was a “pavilion of the dervishes,” with about twenty Sufis, which also included the Theatre of Dervishes (Théâtre des derviches).

The representation of the dervish as a desirable subject continued into the beginning of the twentieth century. Large numbers of postcards, mainly arriving from Persia, were produced and sent to Europe.[13]

Black and white portrait of a man holding dervish props: beads, a bowl, an axe, and a decorated hat. He sits in front of a painted backdrop of a temple between mountainous paths..

An Object in the Mirror Is Closer Than It Appears[14]

Western travelers in the late eighteenth century had sought the origins of their identity. Their primary aim was to discover European identity, to undertake an archaeological excavation of the self by looking at the ruins of the past: specifically, ideas about the origins of humans and nature based on Greek mythology. This view forms the foundation of European identitarianism in today’s politics—an assertion of the right of European peoples to a distinct cultural identity based in white supremacy.

As historian Robert Lacey explains, “It was the Spaniards who gave the world the notion that an aristocrat’s blood is not red, but blue. At the time, a nobleman demonstrated his pedigree by holding up his sword arm to display the filigree of blue-blooded veins beneath his pale skin—proof that his lineage had not been contaminated by the dark-skinned enemy.”[15] The metonym stemmed from the notion that the elite had enough power and wealth that they could afford to have peasants and the urban poor do their dirty work for them—and thus could stay inside, avoiding the sunlight.

Victor Kiernan, in his Marxist history of Eurocentrism, argues that much of the talk of barbarism and darkness of the outer world, which it was Europe’s mission to rout out, was the transmutation of its fear and distress about the masses at home.[16] He thus discusses the representation of peasant spaces, such as the slum or the fairground, as having much in common with that of colonies. He uses a similar narrative, and even the same terms, to describe both groups: the other on the outside, and the other on the inside. Such comparisons of here and there, insider and outsider, constructed a “space of otherness,” as researcher Irvin C. Schick defines it[17]—a heterotopic place that lies in between utopian identification and dystopian materialization. This is akin to Michel Foucault’s fifth principle of heterotopia, which he describes as a guest room in one of the large plantation houses of the Portuguese colonial era, which offers merely the illusion of an entrance to the main living area, but in fact remains fully isolated. He emphasizes a process of exclusion where inclusion also takes place: The entry door did not lead into the central room where the family lived, and every individual or traveler who came by had the right to open this door, to enter into the bedroom and to sleep there for a night. Now these bedrooms were such that the individual who went into them never had access to the family’s quarter the visitor was absolutely the guest in transit, was not really the invited guest.[18]

Correspondingly, anthropologist George W. Stocking Jr. writes that among those who traveled overseas, as well as those at home who encountered the other through literature and images, the experience of others abroad was framed in terms of their own experience of shifting class dynamics in Britain.[19] Thus, he argues, the same shifts obtain within the hierarchal structure of British society in relation to changing class identity. The “dark” other came to be equated with the “dark” part of their own society.

Such developments in class relationships are an important factor here, for they show how the darkening of the lower classes followed the same logic applied to “savages” and barbarism on the “dark” African continent and in the Orient. This process of “domestic self-othering” took place at the same time as the institutionalization of race and whiteness studies in the late nineteenth century, and the otherization of various geographies and agencies. The irony is, however, that white privilege didn’t pertain to the lower classes; rather, it was an attempt to redefine the privileged subjectivities of those who ruled over them.

Alastair Bonnett, in his wide-reaching geographic research on whiteness and working-class identity, brings forth the historical evidence regarding how the British working class became white.[20] He elucidates how and why the British working class, in the shift from being marginal to gaining white identity during the nineteenth century, came to adopt and adapt to this identity in the twentieth century.[21] He argues that white identity arrived in working-class politics when, and because, people of color arrived in Britain.[22] Working-class racism thus developed out of a perceived competition between “white residents” and “nonwhite immigrants” for access to resources such as housing and jobs.[23]

In his book The Meaning of Race, Kenan Malik examines the way Black people and the English working class were routinely characterized with reference to each other.24 Bonnett brings another example to draw attention to the relationship between inside and outside. He quotes the Daily Telegraph from August 21, 1866, as referring to white working-class rioters as “negroes”: “There are a good many negroes in Southampton, who have the taste of their tribe for any disturbance that appears safe, and who are probably imbued with the conviction that it is the proper thing to hoot and yell at a number of gentlemen going to a dinner party.” He further discusses that “[t]he Daily Telegraph’s attack was not a case of misguided identity, nor merely one of harsh language, but rather the self-consciously ironic obedience of an increasingly influential metaphor of social difference—namely, color—in relation to two divided entities.” Bonnett thus argues that the process of whitening the working class is related to the fear of the rise of a politically rebellious, foreign-influenced proletarian culture.[25]

Representations of plebeian spaces such as the slum or the fairground, in forms ranging from image production to literature, had much in common with those depicting the colonies. In fact, the representation of outside and outsider was an attempt to represent inside and insider. The creation of this dichotomy entailed a similar defiance toward the representation of the suburban in contemporary Western multicultural urban life today, which makes it all the more likely Western adventurists will prepare further explorations for the investigators traveling to an unknown land to prepare for even further itinerancy and exploration.[26]

Black and white portrait of a young man holding dervish props: beads, a bowl, an axe, and a decorated hat. He sits in front of a dark backdrop.

In his adventure into otherness, the explorer ignores the resilient relationship between the Orient and the West that is imbedded in the European historical context, instead attempting to reposition himself by othering the other. The other became otherized in the process of the formation of European self-identity. Eurocentrism begins to erase this relationship to the other by actively obliterating not the history of the Orient, but the history of Europe’s own deep-seated entanglements with Western Asian culture prior the eighteenth century. It is not merely a process of recognizing the enemy, but one of reducing the identity of the other to the subhuman; indeed, it is this same identitarian notion that undergirds explicit espousals of xenophobia in recent times.

Identity represents itself through enactment, through performativity, through action and reaction. Technologies of identification production enter the long history of the dialectic between self and other, or I and not-I, from the eighteenth century. In this conception, othering and colonialism go hand in hand; representation of the other and othering was not just an intellectual arm of the colonial enterprise to represent the others from far-off lands, but part of a process of self-representation and self-reidentification within the Western context.

Did Gholamreza the itinerant photographer attempt to reidentify himself—to embody the essentialism that “to be yourself, you need to be the other”? Or was it a historical act of play, snatched from its context—a reenactment of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the streets of Tehran of the late ’50s and early ’60s? Or was he, rather, an unconscious storyteller, obliviously shadowing the history of image production via his street-performative business model? These acts took place during a time of urban modernization and new identity formation in Iranian society, giving way to a Tehran-centric mentality in the post–World War II era.

A light red cube resembling an old camera sits atop a black pedestal.
Gholamreza Amirbeigi’s camera Soul Catcher. Built by Rajab Akbari, mid-’50s. Center of Photography (CFF), Stockholm, 2018. Photo: Anna Zimmerman.

The Poetics of Politics

During Tehran’s modernization and the development of its new urban identity, the presence of the dervish gradually faded. His tiny body and tattered clothes came to serve as icons of premodernity; in effect, the old other began to be replaced by new others. Society began to distinguish itself from “barbarism” via the claim to modernity, reproducing the history of Orientalism as a means to purify itself from a “ferocious” past; to become modern was thus to see oneself through the Western gaze.

Gholamreza had no education or knowledge regarding the history of photography, Orientalism, or post-colonialism. He couldn’t read—so what was the source for this reinscription and reproduction of colonial memory? His was a family of peasants; they had no option but to immigrate to Tehran after the Second World War. They left home because of drought, famine, and poverty, ending up on the fringes of Tehran as migrant workers—a docile, cheap, flexible, and disposable labor force on which the emerging middle-class Tehrani lifestyle would come to depend. Gholamreza and his brothers were among the unlanded peasantry, subalterns who lived day to day without any modern urban expertise, migrant workers.

The modern Iranian nation-state needed to construct a primitive domestic other. This self-identification was thus built on a prototypical act of partition: here and there, us and them. It is a classic strategy, calling for a scapegoat who is to be condemned and kept at a distance.

Black and white portrait of a child holding dervish props: beads, a bowl, an axe, and a decorated hat. He sits in front of a dark backdrop.

Social reproduction of the stigma didn’t stop with their rhetorical classification as migrant workers but extended into their visualization in popular culture. For instance, they were portrayed as foolish and backward in the Iranian films known as “Film Farsi,”[27] as well as in the newspapers. It seemed that history was repeating itself. The same discourses that had formed the initial relationship between East and West (and Eurocentrism) now pitted center against margin once again—this time as a mechanism to preserve hierarchy in the urban labour market.

But these images do not serve merely to document an incipient modern society. They are also playful: a form of entertainment that explores what it feels like to be the other; a distraction from the banality of the everyday. Gholamreza’s photographs are an amalgamation of street amusement and urban memory. Perhaps they reflect an unconscious desire of the lower-class community to become dervishes, a continuation of down-to-earth working-class identity. Indeed, to adopt the costume of the dervish signified a strong desire to represent poverty as an acceptable form of social participation. In the south of Tehran, poverty and inequality were integral elements of urban identity. To impersonate a dervish had a different meaning here, as compared to the colonial history and the relationship between East and West; why would a commoner want to represent himself as a commoner? Such an urge to become a dervish, if only for a moment, in the streets of Tehran, and to etch this image forever in the silver photography paper, suggests an ironic playfulness. It is a performativity that connects the unconsciousness of twentieth-century working poor identity to nineteenth-century colonial memory. Narrative plays an important role in this self-creation and reproduction of identity. It is a signifier, the channel through which Gholamreza tells himself and others the story of their location in the world.

What Happens to Narration when It Crosses the Border?

In a series of lectures on the importance of place in fiction, the twentieth-century novelist Eudora Welty argues that every story could be another story entirely—and unrecognizable as art—if its character and plot were displaced somewhere else.[28] It is an act of translation that re-creates another cultural phenomenon in the process of translation. And it is not only the artistic and fictional characters of a story that are important. The historical fact of ethnographical representations of the dervish holds fictional capacities: although photography was still in its nascency, and visual ethnography and its representations of reality supported some of the latter’s early claims, it would be incorrect to consider those images as straightforward documentation of everyday life. They were in fact a manipulation of the spectator, using elusiveness and conversion by photomontage to combine all the aspects of the Orient that seemed likely to satisfy the Western gaze. Some postcards, for instance, ascribed different names to the same photograph of a dervish; others mixed the paraphernalia of more than one Sufi order (Kalenderi, Bektachi, and Rifai), portraying all of them as borne by the same person.[29] Some of the people costumed as dervishes in the photos were not even locals, but Western tourists, seemingly posing for an exotic souvenir. Hence, Gholamreza’s dervish photos reflect a process of fictionalization of that which is already fictional; they effect the displacement and translation of one fiction into a second context. They are artifacts of a place that lies between the visible and the invisible, the seen and the unseen. The photos serve as a missing link between what is visible and what is intelligible, the place of imagination. Itinerancy, or even escapism, is an aspiration to change one’s conditions through an act of imagination—to become someone else, still poor, but in a way that is acceptable; to depart permanently for the land of amusement, preserved for eternity on museum walls, or as a postcard, able to travel elsewhere. It is the urge to attain immortality, not by being oneself, but by adopting an image or narrative that is deemed acceptable in the eyes of the beholder. Where is the site of discourse? Where is the site of practice? And what happens to both when they cross the border?

Black and white portrait of a child holding dervish props: beads, a bowl, an axe, and a decorated hat. He sits in front of a dark backdrop.

Endnotes

[1] The Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran or Anglo-Soviet invasion of Persia was the joint invasion of neutral Imperial State of Iran by the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union in August 1941. The invasion, codenamed Operation Countenance, was largely unopposed by the numerically and technologically inferior Iranian forces. The multi-pronged coordinated invasion took place along Iran’s borders with modern Iraq, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan with fighting beginning on August 25th and ending on August 31st when the Iranian government formally agreed to surrender, having already agreed to a ceasefire on August 30th. Steven R. Ward,  Immortal: A Military History of Iran and Its Armed Forces, Georgetown University Press, 2009, 169.

[2] Shahram Khosravi, The Life of an Itinerant Through a Pinhole, Exhibition Catalogue, ed. Behzad Khosravi Noori, Arran Gallery, Tehran, 2016, 53.

[3] Ibid., 52.

[4] Klauss Kreiser, “Die Derwische im Spiegel abend-ländischer Reiseberichte”, In: Istanbul und das osmanische Reich. Derwischwesen, Baugeschichte, Inschriftenkunde, Isis Verlag, Istanbul, 1995, 2.

[5] Thierry Zarcone, “Western Visual Representations of Dervishes from the 14th Century to the Early 20th”, In: Kyoto Bulletin of Islamic Area Studies 6 (March 2013): 43–58.

[6] See: Mansur Shaki, “Darvîš,” In: Encyclopaedia Iranica, vol. 7, Mazda Publishers, Costa Mesa, CA, 1996, 72–73.

[7] Zarcone, “Western Visual Representations of Dervishes”, 43.

[8] Ibid., 45.

[9] Ibid., 50.

[10] Victor Hugo, Les Orientales, Vol. 3, Charles Gosselin, Paris, 1829, 151–156. See: Georges Thouvenin, “Le ‘Derviche des Orientales’. Les sources de Victor Hugo”, in: Revue d’histoire littéraire de la France 37 (Fall 1930): 347–367.

[11] Zarcone, “Western Visual Representations of Dervishes.”

[12] From 1877 to 1912, the park was called l’Acclimatation Anthropologique.

[13] Among the photographers who were discovering the Orient via the subjectification of human bodies were Charles Harvey Stileman, an Anglican clergyman who became the first Anglican bishop of Persia from 1912 until 1917; the German Ernst Hoeltzer, one of the pioneering photographers during the Qajar period (indeed, he worked for Shah Qajar for close to twenty years, until his death in 1911); W. Orden; Dmitri Ivanovich Ermakov from Tiflis, Georgia; Antoin Sevruguin; and Joseph Papazian, a royal court photographer of Armenian origin during the Qajar period. Papazian was one of the first photographers to have a studio in Tehran, which he opened in 1875. All of them produced and reproduced the image of dervishes while they documented other aspects of Oriental life. It seems that for them, the images of the dervish served as a means of financial security—their market value was all but guaranteed.

[14] The phrase “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear” is a safety warning that appears on modern cars. According to US Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards Section 571.111, convex mirrors are required to have the message indelibly marked at the lower edge of the mirror’s reflective surface, in letters not less than 4.8 mm nor more than 6.4 mm high.

[15] Robert Lacey, Aristocrats, Little, Brown & Company, New York, 1983, 67.

[16] Victor Kiernan, The Lords of Human Kind: European Attitudes towards the Outside World in the Imperial Age, Zed Books, London, 2015, 316.

[17] Irvin C. Schick, The Erotic Margin: Sexuality and Spatiality in Alteritist Discourse, Verso, London – New York, 1999, 25.

[18] Michael Foucault, “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias”, (Jay Miskowiec, translator), in: Architecture/Mouvement/Continuité, October 1984; first published in March 1967, as “Des Espace Autres.”

[19] George W. Stocking Jr., “What’s in a Name? The Origins of the Royal Anthropological Institute (1837-71)”, New Series, 6, 3, September 1971, Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland: 370.

[20] Alastair Bonnett, “How the British Working Class Became White: The Symbolic (Re)formation of Racialized Capitalism”, in: Journal of Historical Sociology, 11:3 September 1998: 316–340.

[21] Ibid., 316.

[22] Ibid., 317.

[23] Theodore W. Allen, “The Invention of the White Race”, Vol. 1, in: Racial Oppression and Social Control, Verso, London, 1994. It is worth noting, in this respect, the influence and effectiveness of novels and journalistic accounts concerning the ‘color divide’ in American society that appeared in Victorian Britain. Consider, for instance, that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly—which made direct comparisons between American slaves and the English working class—was the best-selling novel in nineteenth-century Britain.

[24] Kenan Malik, “The Meaning of Race”, Macmillan, Basingstoke, 1996; Charles Masterman, “A Weird and People”, in: Peter Keating (ed.), Into Unknown England, 1866–1913: Selections from the Social Explorers, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1976.

[25]Bonnett, “How the British Working Class Became White,” 323.

[26] One extreme example took place in 2009 when the Swedish military used the center of Rynkeby, a suburb in Stockholm, as a training field for six soldiers. They were supposed to walk around the neighborhood fully armed, say hello to the inhabitants, and become familiar with brown faces before they were sent to Afghanistan. “Kritik mot militärövning i Rinkeby”, Dagens Nyheter, February 2nd 2009. (assessed Feb 15, 2021) <https://www.dn.se/sthlm/kritik-mot-militarovning-i-rinkeby/>

[27] Film Farsi is a term used to describe popular films in Iran before the 1978 revolution. They usually included the same familiar themes: heroism, masculinity, love stories, and erotic encounters.

[28] Eudora Welty, “Place in Fiction”, in: Collected Essays, House of Books, New York, 1957.

[29] Zarcone, “Western Visual Representations of Dervishes,” 50.


Doplgenger art collective focuses on the relationship between art and politics by questioning the regime of moving images and ways of their reception. Their works have been featured at festivals and institutions such as the Tallinn Contemporary Art Biennial, National Gallery of Macedonia, Celje Art Salon, Moscow Museum of Modern Art (MMOMA), Museum of Contemporary Art of Vojvodina, Bonn Art Museum, Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb, Centre Pompidou, International Film Festival Rotterdam, Seattle International Film Festival, Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam, etc.

Beneath a Starless Sky as Dark and Thick as Ink*

Doplgenger’s video intervenes into the footage of Yugoslav television that covered the processes of Yugoslav labour migration to Western European countries in the 1960s, as well as the Yugoslav export of technology to the Capitalised countries in the early 1970s. Different approaches in the media representation of these processes reveal different subtexts, which contributes to the understanding of the broader economic, historical, and ideological context.

In the 1960s, Europe encountered a new type of migration—temporary economic migration. The bearers of the process were labelled as immigrants, emigrants, foreign workers, economic migrants, Gastarbeiters, workers on “temporary work” abroad. Western European countries were in need of labour power due to economic growth, but they stressed the temporary nature of the immigration of foreign workers. From the very beginning of the process, foreign workers were accepted as a hired force that was hired—and fired—as needed.

The liberalisation of the Yugoslav economic system and adoption of the market economy created a surplus of labour force. With the economic reform of 1965, the Yugoslav state bodies liberalised the migration policy and maximised emigration. Yugoslavia signed the Agreement on the Employment of Yugoslav Labour Force, first with Austria, France, and Sweden, and then also with the Federal Republic of Germany in 1968. More than one-sixth of the working-age population lived and worked outside Yugoslavia. In the early 1970s, amidst the oil crisis and changes in global economic relations, new models of labour migration emerged.

From the moment the state agreements were signed, Yugoslav Television started covering the processes of temporary economic migration.

New Images for New Times

Beneath a Starless Sky, as Dark and Thick as Ink — New Images for the New Times

Final Remarks

1 Dujaila agro-industrial complex was built between 1973 and 1987. Irrigation canal systems were upgraded withnew infrastructure, including regulators and pumps for the distribution of water to agricultural areas and many canals were coated with concrete to reduce water losses and drainage issues. The government maintained this infrastructure until the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988). Further neglect continued during the UN sanctions period (1990–2003). In 2003, USAID initiated and maintained the reconstruction
and development activities called ARDI—The Agriculture Reconstruction and Development Program for Iraq.

2 As a tire manufacturer, Continental was founded in 1871 after the Franco-Prussian War. In 1904, Continental became the first company in the world to manufacture grooved tires. Like many other German companies, during the Second World War Continental also used forced labour in their factories provided by the Nazi Party during the 1940s. Today, Continental is a German multinational automotive parts manufacturing company and one of the four largest tire manufacturers in the world.


* Émile Zola, Germinal (1885)


Inês Beleza Barreiros is an Art and Cultural Historian, currently working as an integrated researcher at ICNOVA (Nova University of Lisbon) and editor at La Rampa. She has a PhD in Media, Culture and Communication, New York University.

Rui Gomes Coelho is an Archaeologist and Assistant Professor in the Department of Archaeology, Durham University, UK.

Pedro Schacht Pereira is an Associate Professor of Portuguese and Iberian Studies at Ohio State University, USA.

Patrícia Martins Marcos is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Department of History and the Science Studies Program at UC San Diego, and the incoming UC Chancellor’s Postdoctoral fellow with UCLA’s History Department and the Bunche Center for African American Studies.

The Unbearable Lightness of Anachronism: Practices of Monument-Making and the Guardians of Historical Consensus

In 2015, activism that was initially centered around the Rhodes Must Fall protest movement in South Africa triggered a larger movement calling for the toppling of racist statues used to represent colonial figures or events. This vindicating gesture—with roots in the African independence movements—has not only gained momentum in the last three years, but has also found transnational echoes in racial and social justice movements like Black Lives Matter. As calls to decolonize knowledge, institutions, and curricula have coalesced with demands to develop effective antiracist practices, the challenge of forging new imaginaries and shaping new narrative futures has come to hinge heavily on ‘the past as problem’. This article highlights how these dynamics have converged in contemporary Portugal, particularly since 2017.

In Portugal, as decolonial and antiracist movements demanded a reassessment of national heroes and the reopening of historical narratives to new protagonists and perspectives, such demands were frequently met with charges of “anachronism.” This debate was emblematized in a statue inaugurated in 2017, in Lisbon, dedicated to a 17th century Jesuit missionary in Brazil, Father António Vieira. However, as we will argue, this debate was informed by a double-anachronism. On the one hand, by dismissing the possibility of a reassessment of the historical past, agents of historiographical orthodoxy were advocating for a colonial vision of history that actively perpetuated the rhetoric of Portugal’s fascist regime (1926-1974).[1] On the other hand, in their desire to laud heroes and instrumentalize national figures, the same agents of orthodoxy, themselves, relied on a plethora of anachronistic terms. As such, we argue that rather than being borne out of a concern with historical and analytical rigor, the charge of anachronism constitutes a smokescreen levied to silence and suppress the emerging voices of historically marginalized communities.

Protest poster from 2017 with an image of the statue of Father António Vieira. Text reads, "Tribute to Africans and American Indigenous people. Bring flowers, signs, and candles."
Protest poster (2017)

The Luso-tropical consensus

Over the past few years, and especially since 2017, various occurrences intimated the waning of a dominant narrative consensus crystalized around the meaning and legacies of Portugal’s colonial empire. This consensus, moulded in the late 1800s, was partially anchored in the exaltation of the era of maritime voyages and colonial expansion of the 15th and 16th centuries, traditionally known as “discoveries.” Concomitantly, the imperial project fantasized by Portuguese elites was accompanied by the fabrication and dissemination of a discourse proposing an interpretation of this past as “exceptional” within the European context, given its alleged moorings in a humanist, ecumenic vision. Such discourses, inspired by the Brazilian anthropologist and sociologist Gilberto Freyre (1900-1987) and his thesis known as Luso-tropicalism, suffered circumstantial adaptations over time. Freyre articulated in essentialist terms a defense of Portugal’s exceptionally benign colonial enterprise—thereby crafting a mythos that acquired particular strength in Portugal, at the start of the 1950s, as the Portuguese dictatorship (1926-1974) faced a mounting tide of international criticism aimed at the heart of its “civilizing mission.” In desperate need of arguments capable of legitimating the colonial order imposed onto the territories known today as Portuguese-speaking African countries, Salazar’s elites turned to Freyre.[2]

This colonial order predominated in Africa while a dictatorial regime reigned over the metropolis. In the context of the Cold War, the survival instincts of Salazar’s colonial and fascist regime hinged largely on the weaving of a Luso-tropical fable. This fantasy, in turn, was used to naturalize its own power and spin a mythological yarn about the exceptionalism of its purportedly benign civilizing mission. None of these fictions remain only in the past. To this day, the legacies of colonialism reverberate uncritically throughout the Portuguese public sphere. As such, neither the shattering of fascism emblematized by the 1974 Carnation Revolution, nor the pivotal role played by African independence movements were able to chip away at the Luso-tropical, ideological consensus forged under Salazar’s rule. Yet, despite the nominal, political decolonization that has taken place since 1974, in the consciousness of many, Portugal remains an empire. Decolonization is an unfinished project and continues to create critical problems for citizenship and democratic representation.

Statue of a man holding a sword. The statue is leaning against a wall with markers in the photo for scale.
Overthrown colonial statue at the fortress of Cacheu, Guinea-Bissau. Photo: Rui Gomes Coelho.

Despite systematic criticisms sustained by this hegemonic narrative since the 1950s in the form of critiques of benevolent colonization and imperial expansion, only fragments of this debate have seeped into public opinion. This remains true despite the emergence of new social actors—notably, racialized subjects whose interventions in Portuguese society always existed, albeit without the recognition afforded by the gatekeeping circles capable of legitimizing novel cultural actors and historiographical narratives. Still, these disruptive brokers of socio-cultural change proved decisive in breaking with the dominant Luso-tropical consensus. Yet another contribution made towards the unsettling of ossified narratives and hegemonic representational tropes stemmed out of the increased mobility gained by Portuguese scholars, the growing internationalization of academia, and the heightening international interest engendered by Portuguese colonial archives.

The guardians of historical hegemony

Most recently, events like the inauguration of António Vieira’s statue or the proposal for a Museum of the Discoveries have brought about interventions critical of the hegemonic, historical consensus. Such interpolations have provoked strong reactions from those who often play the role of guardians of the old historical mythos: academics and various retired intellectuals, not to mention the traditional panoply of conservative commentators — predominantly male, white, upper class, urban, and concentrated in Lisbon. A key criticism aimed at those who dare to question their so-called consensual version of the past is the charge of anachronism. In the critiques relayed, afro-descendants and other newly emerged actors are accused of imposing their vision of the present—described, in their caricature, as ideological and “politically correct”—to how past events ought to be read and interpreted. According to these guardians of national, historical consensus, all of us currently inhabit a temporal dimension in which past, present, and future exist in totally discrete, unrelated temporalities. However, after only a superficial glance, the alleged anti-anachronism avowed by these guardians reveals itself to be nothing more than a false intuition. After engaging in a more scrupulous analysis, any observer can detect an endless maze of rationalizing logics and incoherent dead ends.

Presently, when these guardians puff up their pride to praise “grand feats,” extraordinary “discoveries,” and tremendous “revolutions” carried out by their so-called national heroes, they do so in precisely the same temporality—the same present, that is—that they share with us. In spite of this, their instrumental visits to the historical past are performed with the sole purpose of extracting “grand feats” used to emblazon and valorize only certain moments, dates, and/or protagonists at the expense of others. These silencing choices are not only editorial in nature, but also constitute powerful curatorial acts. Nevertheless, what these guardians do not explain is that these omissions constitute choices too. In their minds, only oppositional perspectives appear tainted with the great sin of “ideology.” Our guardians, in contrast, are believed to be the authors of a universal and eternal history: forever valid, immune to reinterpretation, and impervious to debate. Thus, the fraud enforced by their so-called historical consensus emanates precisely from this fallacy and their respective attempts to naturalize one single interpretation of “History” as the only possible reading yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

In doing so, these guardians not only seek to naturalize their own power, but also to neutralize any challenge to their prized Luso-tropical consensus by accusing any inquiring minds of promoting an anachronistic historical account moved by ideology alone. However, similar concerns never seem to emerge when the time for celebrations arises. Strangely, neither the “grand feats” of the “great men” involved in the violent process of colonization, nor the accolades lauding the “civilizing” role of the great Portuguese nation, ever appear to these guardians as ideological choices. Such contradictions become all the more revealing when the purported value-neutral account of History promoted by these guardians, so perfectly overlaps with the historiography sanctioned by Salazar’s fascist, colonial regime. However, the arguments paraded by these guardians do not require any coherence. In the eyes of these Luso-tropical wardens, anachronism occurs only when their ruling vision is suddenly questioned and the mythology of a benevolent colonial enterprise is brought to its knees by contributions from representatives of historically excluded, marginalized, and oppressed communities. Given these dynamics, an important question arises: if acts of resistance led by historically oppressed and marginalized peoples were contemporaneous to the deeds these guardians celebrate under the banner of heroism, why then is it anachronistic to reveal, acknowledge, and analyse acts of resistance to colonialism but not acts of so-called “imperial heroism”? In other words, why is only resistance to colonialism destined to be ideological, while imperial expansion is rendered as an absolutely “objective” state of nature?

Three men stand in front of the statue of Father António Vieira surrounded by three Indigenous children.
Inauguration of the statue to Father António Vieira, Lisbon, June 2017. From left to right its sponsors: António Vaz Pinto (Society of Jesus), Fernando Medina (Lisbon’s mayor), Pedro Santana Lopes (Santa Casa da Misericórdia). Municipality of Lisbon.

Anachronism in action: the statue to Father António Vieira

Anachronism implies a chronological or factual error, an event or position attributed to a time that seemingly is out of step. Today, many projects of monumentalization promoted both in Portugal and around the globe are anachronistic in nature; while posturing as objects from the past, proclaiming to speak about history, these monuments either also endured throughout time and still exist today, or were produced in the present. As such, they are projects of illusion and ambition. By trying to, in 2020, perpetuate a narrative forged to serve the political desiderata of Portugal’s fascist-colonial regime, self-appointed guardians of the unison past propose to conserve an ossified vision history that is at odds with the ethos of a plural and democratic society. Thus, recent monuments, such as the statue to Father António Vieira (1608-1697), inaugurated in June 2017 in Lisbon, materialized nothing more than a fanciful version of history. Vieira, a Jesuit missionary and important Baroque preacher, used his sermons to oppose the dominant practice of indigenous enslavement. However, what the guardians often omit is that Vieira was a proponent of Black, African slavery. By stressing only the former rather than the latter, their hegemonic historical narratives produced a hagiographic tale in which Vieira emerged as a so-called defender of Amerindians and an “emperor of the Portuguese language.”[3] It was precisely within this mythological conceptual space that the statue’s sculptor and official sponsors found themselves at the time of its inauguration, in the summer of 2017.

The statue epitomizes an effort of disguise and dissimulation. The distressed verdigris patina impressed upon this novel bronze feigns the veneer of old age. Posing as an ancient artifact, or a family jewel passed down through generations, the statue, upon closer inspection, reveals to be no more than a facsimile ordered, paid for, and inaugurated today. As such, it constitutes no more than an esoteric archaism conjured by a Luso-tropicalist worldview, still dominant among Portuguese elites, and disseminated within the public sphere. Hence, this statue proves that historical time is not linear, but rather a process saturated by different temporalities. Moreover, it also shows that the construction of colonial “visuality”—the sensible and aesthetic manifestation and naturalization of the status quo[4]—and its continuous reproduction in time, is a resilient discursive practice that disciplines the modes of its own apprehension and naturalization by virtue of its investment in history.

Detailed photo of the three Indigenous children in the statue that surround Father António Vieira. An activist has given bouquets of flowers to the children.
Anonymous activist intervention. July 2018.

After weighing these considerations, one vital question arises: who needed this statue in 2017, and why? Any response must necessarily begin with an inquiry into its symbolic roots and origins. Above all else, this statue was borne out of an equivocation; an attempt to intentionally prolong a fabulation concocted about empire, systematically materialized in Lisbon’s public space. The eagerness to perpetuate the narrative of great men, to legitimate an exceptionalist view of Portugal’s colonial telos premised on the fiction of racial harmony, and of praising Vieira as a “defender of human rights”—during the 17th century, at which time this concept did not even exist—are premised on the instrumental deployment of anachronistic terminology attempting to characterize Vieira in terms both inconsistent and unfamiliar to the conceptual worlds he inhabited. Such attempts at rhetorical sleight of hand, in the words of Ananya Chakravati “speak of the Church without empire.”[5] By severing Church from empire, and the Jesuit order from the Portuguese colonial enterprise, the role played by ecclesiastical institutions, like the Company of Jesus, in pursuing, enabling, and expanding enslavement and colonization is not only elided, but entirely whitewashed. Yet, by 1759, when the Portuguese Crown outlawed and expelled the Jesuit order, no other group—secular or ecclesiastical—owned as many slaves in the Americas.

Upon reflection, we are led to conclude that the statue’s sponsors—the Lisbon municipality, the Company of Jesus, and the Santa Casa da Misericórdia, a powerful Catholic, lay brotherhood—deemed historical accuracy to be only a secondary concern. This is why Manuel Clemente, the Cardinal and Patriarch of Lisbon, sought to attest to the statue’s historical veracity by declaring that it was “faithful to what the engravings reproduce.”[6] In doing so, he appealed to a disconcerting and anachronistic implausibility, given how the engravings he referred to were produced decades after Vieira’s death. In other words, the Cardinal insinuated that a vision of Vieira constructed in the 18th and 19th centuries was and is what the Portuguese of the 21st century still need and deserve. Given how those early modern engravings were produced in a context of imperial reconfiguration and expansion, it is worth inquiring what sort of imperial projects, in the mind of the Cardinal, still shape a secular, democratic, and at least nominally, a post-colonial 21st century Portugal. At a historical moment marked by the emergence of traditionally marginalized and silenced voices (protagonists all too often consigned to the margins of the Portuguese public and political sphere) Vieira’s statue provides an unequivocal declaration of allegiance to an anachronistic, albeit powerful, consensus about who is worthy of historical representation and what images fit within and represent the body politic.

The narrative framing Vieira as the great “hero of indigenous peoples,” reproduced in the statue, crumbles when analyzed within the context of its own time, the 1600s. Accounts stressing Amerindian abolitionism are designed to lull audiences into believing that Vieira was unique, exceptional, and unparalleled. However, the enslavement of Amerindians had already been abolished in the Spanish empire in 1501. Conversely, the ultimate legal initiatives outlawing indigenous enslavement in the Portuguese empire came only in the 18th century.[7] Notwithstanding, according to the tale relayed by the guardians of the Luso-tropical consensus, Vieira all but invented abolitionism. This rendition is highly disingenuous because it presents Vieira’s opposition to indigenous slavery as unique or even ahead of its time, when debates on Aristotelian natural slavery were a well-established scholastic genre for centuries. In other words, Vieira, whom the guardians portray as the creator of a novel worldview, was, in fact, merely a representative of an ancestral tradition. This abolitionist depiction of Vieira becomes all the more disingenuous when taking into account the historian António José Saraiva’s work from 1965, which not only challenged this thesis, but also laid bare the Jesuit’s rhetorical and political commitment to African slavery.

But the pedestal of the statue exhibits even more anachronisms. For instance, when it says that Vieira was a “Jesuit, preacher, priest, politician, diplomat, defender of Indigenous [Peoples] and of human rights, [and] a fighter against the inquisition.” It is quite interesting to note how the guardians of Luso-tropical consensus, always so ready to accuse others of anachronism when talk of racial justice and slavery arises, found no anachronisms at all in this choice of words. Since Vieira never defined himself as either a “politician” or as a “defender of human rights,” it is worth questioning who did, why, and with what intentions. Both terms, as they are exhibited on the pedestal, are deployed in their 20th and 21st century meaning. Hence, not only were they imposed by posterity, but also in a manner entirely foreign to Vieira. However, once the statue was inaugurated, these guardians saw no anachronism at all in the words chosen to describe the Jesuit. Rather, such charges came only after, as the dissonant voices rose to challenge the Luso-tropical hegemony emblematized in this monument. Strangely, the question of anachronism only emerged when novel voices challenged the naturalized dominance of these political, cultural, and religious actors in Portuguese society.

History deals with change and contingency. Neither Vieira, nor any other protagonist or moment are immune to this dynamic. Yet, this statue, which only poses as a historical object, is, at heart, no such thing. If the grafting of this bronze onto Lisbon’s public space had occurred in the 17th, or 18th century and not in 2017, it could, admittedly, be treated like a historical source fit to be contextualized by historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists. However, because this statue dates back to 2017 and not the 1700s, it is unambiguously “ours.” Not only was it produced in our own time, but it was also paid for by contemporary public agents. Considering this context, it becomes clear that the statue can teach us nothing about either the history of Portugal, Portuguese models of colonization and racial relations, or even about Vieira himself. Rather, what this statue can do is to illuminate the endurance of the Luso-tropical myth and its legacies in the second decade of the 21st century. Thus, the statue’s only “success” is the recreation of a sentimental image of the Portuguese colonization of Brazil, its treatment of indigenous peoples, as well as of the role of the Catholic Church in that process. All this teaches any observer nothing rigorous about the past, but everything about our present— namely, about the role that a discredited version of historical events still plays today.

 Vieira’s statue is, therefore, doubly anachronistic. While it belongs to our very own time, it also represents an understanding of Vieira tethered to a hagiographic and nationalist narrative space swayed by the sugarcoating of colonial violence. Thus, to present Vieira as a precursor to human rights constitutes a “prospective anachronism.” That is, the mode of engaging with Vieira, as a historical figure, is shaped by a knowledge of events and expectations about their value that only the future would grant. Yet, not only would concepts like “human rights,” that only arose in the late 18th century, be entirely incomprehensible to Vieira, but by impressing them onto the statue, its promoters also imposed their uniquely anachronistic, wishful-thinking vision of history onto all of us, and in the public space. This latter mode of engaging, in turn, constitutes a retrospective anachronism, seen as it enforces a doctrinaire narrative of the past onto the present. The account articulated in the statue shares the same vision promoted both in the 19th century, during the height of Portuguese colonial expansion in Africa, and during Salazar’s dictatorship. Unfortunately, these are narratives whose durabilities were hardly deconstructed by 45 years of democracy.

In 2018, the same Lisbon municipal government and its Mayor doubled down on the fantasies of empire to promote a “museum of discoveries.” However, this space is entirely redundant. Such a museum already exists in broad, open air; and it is called Lisbon. All throughout the city, the ghosts of colonial violence and imperial expansion can be found lurking. From the touristified neighborhood of Belém, to various monuments, statues, and a deluge of coffeeshops, palaces, and botanical gardens, Lisbon is a flourishing colonial palimpsest. Notwithstanding its superfluous nature, the idea of a museum moored to the Luso-tropical mythos was taken up by conservative sectors who, true to their role of guardians, used it to assuage concerns about their waning Luso-tropical hegemony. Such anxieties spring from demographic changes in contemporary Portuguese society, its growing social and cultural diversity, the cosmopolitan nature of its youth, and the burgeoning public visibility of formerly marginalized agents, such as people of African descent, Romani people, and the working class.

Monuments to anachronism must fall

Statue of Father António Vieira with his face spray painted in red, and red hearts added to the Indigenous children's chests. A spray painted message reads "Desire ionizes."
Anonymous activist intervention, June 2020.

Hegemonic accusations of anachronism are not only disingenuous, but also ill-founded. Such critiques intentionally muddle the labor of historiographical reassessment inherent to history writing with ideological, and political instrumentalization. However, these efforts constitute nothing more than a feigned attempt to preserve a placid, homogeneous narrative premised on the exclusion of formerly colonized peoples. It is not only pertinent to study all statues produced before 1974-75, it is also important to debate every monument manufactured under the auspices of a lingering strand of contemporary, Luso-tropical thought. Similarly, just as there is no anachronism when the prerogatives of analysing, debating, and critiquing the notion of a “museum of discoveries” are exercised today, it is also not erroneous to discuss the possibility of issuing official apologies or paying reparations. To debate the role played by the historical legacies today, and to consider how to remedy such shattered bonds constitutes no chronological error. During their lifetimes, many formerly enslaved people presented and saw their petitions for reparations denied. As such, rather than a phenomenon of the present, current requests should be duly historicized and studied in their longue durée trajectories. For that reason also, contemporary debates around reparations are not anachronistic.[8] To discuss how the past structured and still informs the present represents no puritan refusal of historical knowledge, but a vehement refusal of the instrumentalization of memory to occlude, silence, and exclude.

Anachronism is, we submit, to propose that the continuity of the Luso-tropical ethos is not only desirable, but the only pathway possible—as the guardians of historical consensus continually advocate. Vieira’s statue is the most recent and powerful signifier of that anachronism in action—and that is precisely why it remains the systematic target of activist interventions. Indeed, since its inauguration, this monument was never consensual. On more than one occasion, the statue appeared covered with red carnations, a symbol of Portugal’s 1974 revolution and democracy—and white flowers, a symbol of abolitionism in Brazil. In the most recent intervention, on June 10th, the official Day of Portugal, Camões, and the Portuguese Communities, Vieira’s statue was marked with red graffiti hearts, and the simple, imperative inscription: “decolonize.”

It is urgent to interrupt the violence performed by Luso-tropical anachronisms, and to extricate the tacit perpetuation of colonial durabilities, along with the numerous exclusions they still produce in the present. These durabilities are enabled by the historical and structural nature of racial violence and its uncritical naturalization both in public space and intellectual debates. Breaking with the current anachronistic consensus will allow for novel critiques capable of recognizing heterogeneous temporalities, those both ongoing and forthcoming. Ultimately, the forging of new narrative spaces can also foster the reinvention of extant past and present materialities—and, by reimagining the past anew, can create new, hitherto unimagined futures, futures in which the only worthy fate for all statues grafted from the Luso-tropical imaginary, such as that of Father Antonio Vieira, is a return to the foundry.


Endnotes

[1] In 1926 a military putsch overthrew the republican regime in order to institute the Military Dictatorship, which in 1928 was renamed the National Dictatorship. In 1932, António Salazar, who until then had only occupied cabinet positions in both dictatorships, became the central, commanding, and centralizing figure of a regime named the  Estado Novo, or New State. A new constitution was proclaimed in 1933 establishing the basis of the regime that ended on 25 April 1974, with the Carnation Revolution. Salazar governed as dictator from 1932 until he became gravely ill in 1968, being replaced by Marcelo Caetano.

[2] Cláudia Castelo, “O Modo Português de Estar no Mundo”: luso-tropicalismo e ideologia colonial portuguesa (1933.-1961.), Afrontamento, Porto, 1998.

[3] M. Ramon, C. A. Faraco, “História sociopolítica da língua portuguesa”, Comunicação e sociedade, 34(2018), URL: http:// journals.openedition.org/ cs/679

[4] Nick Mirzoeff, The Right to Look: a Counterhistory of Visuality, Duke University Press, Durham, 2011.

[5] Ananya Chakravarti, “Architects of Empire”, Aeon, 2020. URL: https://aeon.co/essays/how-the-jesuits-cultivated-the-idea-of-european-empire [accessed 20th August 2020]

[6] Our translation. “Padre António Vieira: Estátua de um dos «maiores símbolos da cidade» inaugurada em Lisboa”, Agência Ecclesia, June 23, 2017. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kQF59sWKvjs

[7] Previous decress outlawing Amerindian slavery were approved in 1609 and 1680, but exemptions such as “just war” were passed shortly thereafter. These legislative initiatives never effectively stopped native enslavement.

[8] Ana Lúcia Araújo, Reparations for Slavery and the Slave Trade: A Comparative History, Bloomsbury, London and New York, 2017.


Work by Jasmina Cibic from the series Ornamental Rash (2018).

Jasmina Cibic has exhibited extensively, including solo shows at the Venice Biennale, BALTIC Gateshead, Kunstmuseen Krefeld, MG+MSUM Ljubljana, CCA Glasgow and Ludwig Museum Budapest, along with group shows at MOMA NY, Whitechapel Gallery London and Guangdong Museum of Art China.

Filed Under: Roundtables

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Iva Kovač has worked as a program director at the City of Women in Ljubljana, Slovenia since 2021. She has been a visual artist at Fokus Grupa since 2012. She was the curator at PM Gallery in Zagreb, Croatia from 2010 to 2012 and at SIZ Gallery in Rijeka, Croatia from 2013 to 2015.

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Sanja Horvatinčić is an art historian and a Research Associate at the Institute of Art History in Zagreb, Croatia. Her research focuses on the WW2 heritage through the production of monuments and commemorative culture in socialist Yugoslavia and beyond.

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Ferenc Gróf is a graduate of the Hungarian University of the Arts, Budapest, and since 2012 he has taught at the École Nationale Supérieur d’Art (ENSA) in Bourges (FR). His work considers ideological footprints, at the intersection of graphic design and spatial experiences.

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Ana Sladojević is an independent theorist from Belgrade. She worked as a curator at the Museum of African Art – the Veda and Zdravko Pečar Collection and the Museum of Yugoslavia. She contributed to the following projects: Southern Constellations: The Poetics of the Non-Aligned, Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova/Museum of Modern Art, Ljubljana (2019)/ Asia Culture Center, Gwangju (South Korea, 2020); Tito in Africa: Picturing Solidarity, Museum of Yugoslavia (2017)/ Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford (2018)/ Wende Museum, Los Angeles (2019); NYIMPA KOR NDZIDZI, One Man No Chop, (Re)conceptualisation of the Museum of African Art – the Veda and Zdravko Pečar Collection (2017); Non-Aligned Modernisms, Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade/ERSTE Stiftung (2016).

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Catherine Baker is Senior Lecturer in 20th Century History at the University of Hull. She has been researching the politics of nationalism, media and popular culture in the post-Yugoslav region since her doctoral research on popular music and narratives of identity in Croatia in 1991 (PhD University College London, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, 2008). She also studies the everyday politics of peacekeeping and peacebuilding.

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Minna Henriksson is the co-editor of Art Workers – Material Conditions and Labour Struggles in Contemporary Art Practice (Helsinki/Tallinn/Stockholm 2015). Henriksson has exhibited her work broadly in international exhibitions, among others in the 3rd Actually, the Dead Are Not Dead, 3rd Bergen Assembly; Stasis – Taking the Stand, 7th Thessaloniki Biennial; Time Is Now, 2nd Wuzhen Contemporary Art Exhibition; Tunnel Vision, 8th Momentum – Nordic Biennial for Contemporary Art; The Lenin Museum in Tampere; History Unfolds in the Swedish History Museum, and at the online platform of Documenta studies in Kassel.

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Behzad Khosravi Noori is a PhD, artist, writer, educator, playgrounder and necromancer. His research-based practice includes films, installations, as well as archival studies. His works investigate histories from The Global South, labour and the means of production, and histories of political relationships that have existed as a counter narrative to the east-west dichotomy during the Cold War.

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Doplgenger art collective focuses on the relationship between art and politics by questioning the regime of moving images and ways of their reception. Their works have been featured at festivals and institutions such as the Tallinn Contemporary Art Biennial, National Gallery of Macedonia, Celje Art Salon, Moscow Museum of Modern Art (MMOMA), Museum of Contemporary Art of Vojvodina, Bonn Art Museum, Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb, Centre Pompidou, International Film Festival Rotterdam, Seattle International Film Festival, Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam, etc.

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Inês Beleza Barreiros is an Art and Cultural Historian, currently working as an integrated researcher at ICNOVA (Nova University of Lisbon) and editor at La Rampa. She has a PhD in Media, Culture and Communication, New York University.

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Rui Gomes Coelho is an Archaeologist and Assistant Professor in the Department of Archaeology, Durham University, UK.

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Patrícia Martins Marcos is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Department of History and the Science Studies Program at UC San Diego, and the incoming UC Chancellor’s Postdoctoral fellow with UCLA’s History Department and the Bunche Center for African American Studies.

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Pedro Schacht Pereira is an Associate Professor of Portuguese and Iberian Studies at Ohio State University, USA.

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