Book Review – Reframing the Archive (2021)

In a moment dominated by critical investigations of the history, continuation, and resurgence of colonial thought patterns and practices – embedded in continuing interest in questions of identity, history, and memory – scholars and artists alike have rediscovered the archive as one of the places where the above issues come together and condition one another. Archives help us, among other things, to define who we are individually and collectively, who we want to be, how we became what (we think) we are, and how we want to be seen by others. However, archives are also structures of exclusion, invisibility, and marginalization and, as such, structures of power and violence that must be approached critically.   

Archives offer space for the renegotiation of archived documents and discursive reconstruction of the meaning(s) assigned to them but also, as Ana Catarina Pinho, the editor of Reframing the Archive, notes, opportunity for engagement with “archival exclusions. Such exclusions, when given visibility and the possibility to interact with official discourses, help reframe our perception of the past and contest our contemporary structures and systems of knowledge” (p. 8).

This is done in this book by means of scholarly and artistic engagements with the Portuguese dictatorship (1933–1974) in general and the colonial war (1961–1974) in particular.

Essays by Susana Lourenço Marques and Pedro Lagoa reflect, respectively, upon indecipherable images from the Portuguese National Archives, digitized and thus made publicly available despite disintegration and illegibility, and changes inflicted upon human memory resulting from digitization and digital archiving.

Paula Rebeiro Lobo explores photography’s “ambivalence between the documentary and the fictional” by analyzing the artistic work of Daniel Barroca and Manuel Botelho – two artists who render visible a “traumatic past” and, by so doing, problematize both Portugal’s colonial past and “the way Portugal today relates to its past” (p. 49).

Among the artists featured in the book, José Maçãs de Carvalho revisits his exhibition Archive and Apparatus which linked photography to “excess, memory and oblivion” while simultaneously exploring “the devices used to create and watch images” (p. 43). Botelho elaborates on the evolution of his work from inner archive to open archive to structuring archive, paradoxically witnessing the colonial war without having personally participated in it.

Barroca remembers the war through his “family’s visual history” as documented in photographic family albums (p. 65), looking in the photographs as well as in the album’s materiality, architecture, and spaces for his own relationship to a war that had ended before he was born – or, more precisely, that seemed to have ended as it continued for many, incorporated in memories: “images of a past that bursts into the present becoming present and nothing else” (p. 75).   

Paulo Mendes questions “the symbolism that is concentrated upon his [the Portuguese dictator Antonio Salazar de Oliveira’s] figure – an absurd figure – as a representative of a collective past” (p. 77) – a symbolism indicative of “a provincial, conservative country” (p. 79) where politics operated through collusion with the Catholic church. Ana Janeiro, finally, reenacts events from her family’s history as documented in family albums and photographs these reenactments as self-portraits, replicating her grandmothers’ gestures and poses to identify the “social codes” (p. 91) assigned to women in a patriarchal dictatorship.

Reframing the Archive – bilingual and attractively designed – is relevant far beyond Portugal, a country that “has not yet been able to fully inscribe [the colonial war] in [its] history,” as Botelho observes (p. 59). The book offers stimulating, thoughtful, and theoretically informed visual and textual investigations of one of the crucial questions of our time: the continuation of the (colonial) past in the present or, succinctly, the colonial present (see Gregory, 2004), determining also what the future will look like. “The archive,” as Janeiro notes, “is present and alive” (p. 91).

Reframing the Archive (2021). Edited by Ana Catarina Pinho. Archivo Press, Porto

Reference and suggestions for further reading:
Gregory, Derek, The Colonial Present: Afghanistan • Palestine • Iraq (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004)
Agostinho, Daniela, Solveig Gade, Nanna Bonde Thylstrup and Kristin Veel (eds.), (W)ARCHIVES: Archival Imaginaries, War, and Contemporary Art (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2020)
Möller, Frank, “Colonial Wars and Aesthetic Reworking: the Artist as Moral Witness,” Arts and International Affairs (Vol. 2, No. 1, Winter 2017, pp. 13–43)
Lowndes Vicente, Filipa (ed.), O Império da Visão: Fotografía no Contexto Colonial Português (1860–1960) (Lisbon: Edições 70, 2014)
Morton, Christopher and Darren Newbury (eds.), The African Photographic Archive: Research and Curatorial Strategies (London: Bloomsbury, 2016)