Colonial Melancholia and Critical Nostalgia. The Visuality of Empire in Portuguese Culture

Tuesday, May 22, 2012
12:00 PM - 1:30 PM
Encina Ground Floor Conference Room
  • Isabel Gil

Seminar Synopsis:

The memory euphoria of the past half-century has, if anything, raised awareness of the constructed or invented nature of national memories and their complexity. Because the articulation between the normative rules of public memory and the at times politically incorrect claim to a right to private memory is representational and discursive, cultural artefacts, such as literary texts, films, photographs, videos or monuments have seismically materialized as go-betweens in the memory wars. The memories of empire in the Portuguese cultural tissue have been over the past 40 years after independence of the former colonies contentious sites, where a certain colonial melancholia clashes with a critical nostalgia that has been growing particularly amongst a generation of artists born after decolonization. Colonial melancholia is not simply a result of recent traumatic events, but spreads over two centuries in a pathological inheritance filled with resentment, humiliation, violence, denial, myth and mystification. This melancholic vision of the past has been mediated and disseminated by several media from texts to monuments, photos and films, which have either become accomplices in this regime of power, or have sought to subvert it and have finally created spaces of ambivalence and hybridity. A notorious example of the mediation of the colonial regime was of course photography.  Visibility was pivotal to the image world of the imperial regime, that not only needed to dominate the reality portrayed in the new medium, but which also made use of it for the sake of its own assertive self-representation. The talk inquires into this regime of visibility and seeks by means of a practice of interference to unravel the colonial discourse that used the perceived essentializing of reality supported by visual ‘objectivity’ to create a structure of feeling based on melancholy and nostalgia that would become the dominant  memory of empire in Portuguese culture.  Arguably, in this practice of interference resonates a practice of cultural literacy that allows for the reinterpretation and re-contextualization not only of what the images showed, but  what they meant. Then again, it is precisely a regained cultural literacy in the reading of the visual that lies at the root of the project of critical visual nostalgia enacted by contemporary video artists in the fragmented deconstruction of the imaginary wholeness of nostalgic thinking embedded in home movies.