Figure 1: Taken at Decolonial Desire exhibition by Vasco Araujo (2016)
Vasco Araujo is a Portuguese multi-media artist whose first solo exhibition Decolonial Desire explores Portugal’s colonial past in Africa and addresses just how social reality and history are constructed and whose purposes are served.
Having just completed assignment 4 which focussed on an image from the 1970s Feminist Avant Garde movement I am embarking upon part 5 of the C & N course Constructed Realities and the Fabricated Image and with this in mind I have been researching potential interesting exhibitions when Decolonial Desire came to my attention.
Exhibition curator, Mark Sealy describes the artist, “Arajo is part of a generation of contemporary artists who question and critically investigate colonial histories. His work throws an uncomfortable light on the unrelenting violence, that was an inherent part of Europe’s colonial order.” (Sealy, M. 2016)
Vasco Araujo is a white male Portuguese artist undertaking this exploration on behalf of a country which has been slow to examine the full truth of their history but the first exhibit (see figure 1 above) set the tone; two old photography albums mixed into a single installation. 50% of the images are of the native black Africans who are presented as simple objects, exhibited and subjugated. The other 50% are of white Europeans who are clearly enjoying themselves and enjoying the trappings of rule and domination.
The pictures in the installation, a large photo library contained in an old dark wood cabinet, are images of the original photographs and as such appear as the image of the image created by colonisation and spread throughout Europe in order to justify white Europeans’ domination and exploitation of Africa and black Africans. The theme of the old dark wood runs throughout the exhibition and adds a sinister echo of those dark colonial days.
Figure 2: Taken at Decolonial Desire exhibition by Vasco Araujo (2016)
The second exhibit (see figure 2 above) Botanica (2012-2014) comprised of a combination of two groups of photographs presented in dark wooden frames placed on traditional dark wooden dining tables. One group were photographs of exotic botanical plants taken from the tropical gardens of Lisbon, originally called the Colonial Garden. The second group of images were framed archive photographs taken of the black Africans used in the infamous human zoos that toured European cities during the 19th and 20th centuries where black Africans were essentially exhibited as exotic human specimens, the last show actually took place as late as 1958 in Belgium.
The outcome of Botanica is the creation of an exotic forest containing examples of botanical plants and the human species alike, the artist stated, “I want people to react with emotion. I hope that they not only get passionate, but also feel like they’ve been punched in the stomach. Discomfort, that is what I want, because discomfort provokes internal questioning.” (Vasco Araújo, 2016).
There is no doubt that I felt a deep physical pit in my stomach as I viewed this exhibit where the images of the exotic plants and human individuals are placed alongside each other for show and therefore are seen as equal in status and later on when I read more about the truth of these human zoos.
“These ‘human zoos’ were seen by 1.4 billion people overall – and that they therefore played an important, and so far unacknowledged, part in the development of modern racism……….A view of Africa and its people that is still contemptuous. A certain way in the West of believing oneself superior. Above all the story helps explain how millions of westerners were manipulated into a belief in the inequality of races.” (Schofield, H. 2011)
You can read more by reading the article Human zoos: When real people were exhibits (Schofield, H. 2011) which can be accessed at: URL: At: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-16295827 Accessed on: 12 December 2016.
Figure 3: Taken at Decolonial Desire exhibition by Vasco Araujo (2016)
A final exhibit Capita is a series of self-portraits where the artist masquerades and re-enacts a number of stereotypical racial profiles including the maid, butler, farm worker, musician and dandy gentleman. Araujo attempts to subvert these stereotypes by offering his own version of the powerless objectified gaze of black Africans so often seen in archived colonial photographs. The title of the exhibit Capita relates to the financial purpose of colonialism.
These photographs were turned upside within the gallery and initially I had thought that this exhibit was not quite as successful; originally I had thought that the slightly playful style adopted by the artist (more so in certain images) seemed to conflict and jar with the stark sense of authentic truth and reality that seems to run throughout the rest of the exhibition mainly delivered through it’s use of original imagery. However as I reflected more upon this I think the idea works really well but maybe they did not need to be upside down?!
What I found most inspiring about this exhibition was to see the artist’s response to an unjustifiable structure of exploitation created by a process of colonialism that has led directly to racial discriminations to the present day.
Also we see clearly how identity, roles and stereotypes are created and become embedded in culture, social reality and eventually history itself; and how this process creates structures of control and domination exerted by those that hold power over those without it.
Figures 1-3 All taken by Allan O’Neill at Decolonial Desire by Vasco Araujo (2016)
Vasco Araujo Decolonial Desire exhibition (2016) curated by Mark Sealy, held at Autograph ABP Gallery, London.