“Nationalisms are not innoxious speeches, they have a race and gender”, interview of Lilia Schwarcz and Nuno Crespo

Before opening the cycle “Não foi Cabral: revendo silêncios e omissões” (Feb 16th - May 24th, 2024), a yearly conference, expositions and performances program by the School of Arts (Porto), I talked with the curators Nuno Crespo e Lilia Schwarcz.   Right after the interview, the brazilian historian and anthropologist offered to a full auditorium the conference “Imagens da branquitude: a presença da ausência”, starting from the observation of images produced throughout history that evidence the structural racism in Brazil and, by extension, in Portugal. The interest in the knowledge produced by Brazilian authors, their guidelines signaling the state of the debate, was a good omen for the cycle that takes place in partnership between the Catholic University of Porto and USP, in which the artists and thinkers Carla Filipe, Denilson Baniwa, Pedro Barateiro, Dalton Paula, João Salaviza, Renée Messora, Francisco Hyjnõ Krahô, Paulo Catrica, Ayrson Heráclito, Margarida Cardoso, Francisco Vidal, Letícia Ramos, Artur Santoro, Flávio Cerqueira and Hélio Menezes participate. There will still be the exposition “Enciclopédia Negra” that will go through the Summer School (from June 17th to the 22nd) with Dino d’Santiago, Flávio Gomes, Jaime Lauriano, Keila Sankofa, Mc Carol, Sónia Gomes and Welket Bungué. The program’s ambition, according to the curators, is to build a debate space to “think about the historical narratives and the way artists from different geographies and cultures have been fundamental motors in the enlargement and transformation of that official history.”

 Lilia Schwarcz, fotografia de Miguel De Lilia Schwarcz, fotografia de Miguel De

Starting from your formulation of the subtitle “Omissões e silenciamentos”, when you say silenciamento (silencings), a word that is being very used, we need to understand what silence you’re talking about.

Lilia Schwarcz - The silences are always very loud. A lot of the times there’s music that tells us about the sound of silence. What are these deafening noises around us? They’re the sound of silence. For a long time, the silences were sovereign and now we’ve been talking a lot about silencings. One thing is to think about silence as passive concept, another is the silencing as an active concept. So, we’re talking about a process of silencing, a subjective process, conscious or unconscious, it doesn’t really matter because the question it’s not normative. It’s not like accusation, it’s a statement. That our history, mostly the official history that is taught in our schools (and also to our adults), made a number of silencings and, therefore, of omissions. History is a fundamental subject to the constitution of nationalisms, and we know that nationalisms are not innocuous speeches, they have a race and gender. So, for a long time national stories were told as impartial, universal histories. In a perspective you could call decolonial, whatever, I don’t really like the labels, today we know that those stories only told one type of narrative: a very European, very individualized, very masculine, very white, and heteronormative narrative. That’s why history was, for a long time, like Chimamanda Ngozi noticed, considered a unique history. The use of the unique history has a lot of power because you narrate and naturalize that history. And, by naturalizing, you prevent and omit other parallel histories, tense, and loud conversations. 

Lilia wrote: “a lot of the times, when the official history and the public speech go silent, the Carnival explodes.”  Of what history are we talking about?

LS- The history of the groups that were systematically silenced. In the case of Brazilian history, the Indigenous. In Afro-atlantic history, the african populations. In women’s history: for a long time, you didn’t have women as protagonists in our history. We’re talking about the history of Quilombo groups. We’re talking about the history of LGBTQIA+ groups. So, we are living in a moment that isn’t about deleting history but about putting history in the plural so they can talk in friction and with noises. 

Nuno Crespo - All this talk between the School of Arts and Lília Schwarcz started in a conversation in which Lília didn’t know how history is taught in our High Schools. In the history books, an extremely critical moment in Portuguese history continues to be taught as this glorious expansion moment in which Portugal went around, through the seas, and reached Brazil. That was a place of discomfort. There was the marine expansion but there were stilla lot of things to tell and to add to that history. As a citizen, it really bothered me that other histories, like the history of slaves, weren’t added to that history. 

So, you’re talking about history transmission through education.

NC - When you get to High School, you’re a child, you don’t have how to look. We learn that playbook. And, simultaneously, I felt that, besides inside extremely strict groups in the Portuguese Society, this discussion was not happening. The discussion about decolonialism was very limited to low viewership media and it was necessary to expand this conversation. And that’s how we got to talking, through the urgent need to cancel those silences. It’s a mutual silence: the governments’ silence that continue to silence these historical facts, but also the silencing of immense communities that continue without being able to tell their history. The histories about forced immigrations, the histories of the killing, and so on. But, as a correction, the title I came up with was stolen from MC Carol “Não foi Cabral”, and Lília contributed with “silêncios e omissões”.

I was just trying to locate the historical reference that has perpetuated this erasing. Because those communities were making their own history, they have their narratives, they were surviving, they were telling it in their own way. There have always been other ways to make history and work like Lília’s, and a lot of artists have been collaborating with histories parallel to the official narrative, deconstructing it.

NC - It’s exactly about that idea of parallel history that I think we would like to, at least, think. Is it really parallel or is it the history? When we look at artists that are telling histories that we can consider parallel of a community that from a numeric point of view doesn’t have expression, when we are telling about an artist that makes a movie about a very isolated place, that is not the parallel history. That is the history. And we need to find mechanisms to integrate those histories in what is our understanding of the world.

Precisely, but they were placing the history of regimes of authority in official history, which erases and silences. The formation of all those histories is what makes the history.

LS - But if we only worked with the idea of parallelism, we wouldn’t be politizing and showing how a certain history, which is the “whiteness” history, operated for so long. The “whiteness” transformed their history into a universal history. The idea of universal amuses me a lot. Universal to who? It transformed out geography into a universal geography. In other words, the whole classic vision, where Europe is in the centre, China is diminished and America is always there, in its corner. And thinking that we’re here in an art school, you can also consider the history of art as an arm of the imperial history. So, that history was made universal - speaking of political, power and privilege regimes - didn’t allow the emergence of those parallel histories. More than that, it tried to erase it and, by doing so, for example, we’re talking about people that have no memory, no past, because their names were taken away. And so, it’s about a lot more than remember they always kept their memories, because by doing so we are appeasing it. Maybe one of the course’s intentions is that the noise, which is a producer, brings in tension.

The presence in the absence.

NC - One of our ambitions is also the matter of perspectivism. It is necessary to find other subjects to tell the story, because history tends to be told, and our cities are always told from the winner. It’s the man that killed, that conquered, the monument. If we inverted that logic, where are the other subjects? Like Dóris Salcedo, that Columbian artist, who says “I want to tell history from the point of view of the defeated.” And if we change this point of view, what are we left with?”

Empower the defeated so they’re not a victim.

LS - I wouldn’t even use the winner/defeated category because it’s a dichotomous category. We transform the other in an agent without its own agency. It looks like its agency it’s only to react and that can’t be. 

Of resistance to…

LS - I’ve been thinking a lot about the term “resistance”. That a person resists as a reaction. Perspectivism in itself is the idea of thinking there are other worlds, other matrices. 


NC - In Portugal, as opposed to Brazil (Lília is developing an anti-monument project), we don’t have a monument that it’s not still belonging to a glorious history. We’ve been for… I don’t know how many years; you must know better than me.

The Enslaved People Memorial in Lisbon was approved in 2018, it won, the democratic process was exemplary, all well done but it still isn’t being done.

NC - It all goes well and then you can’t build. It was this irritation as a citizen that motivated this challenge to Lília. This monument doesn’t exist probably because we, Portuguese people, haven’t started asking questions yet. 

I mean, the contestation and problematization has been going on for some time, but with little public expression and direct translation in the city, look at what tourism absorbs from our history.

“It is not about reviewing or rewriting, bringing together other subjects, other bodies, other objects in order to progressively build a broader and more diverse section of the world, its inhabitants and their processes of transformation.” Wrote the curators in our program.

This program is about coloniality, a history between Portugal, Brazil, and Africa. How does the articulation between theory and art help to think about other issues?

NC - Lilia and I saw different fields, we met at a place where it’s the artists’ material production that makes us think. So I think this program is extremely motivated by the way chosen artists, with some contributions from us, of artists that Lilia didn’t know, like Francisco Vidal or João Salaviza. How these artists are thinking. Firstly, this relevance of the artistic material production as agent of a thought’s transformation about the world. Where there was this empathy between us. 

I’m always concerned about how to pass on knowledge in a broader way, but the students themselves will be the transmitters in their own way.

NC - Then I think our ambition, us the Portuguese Catholic University, School of Arts, is to put our students talking and thinking about it. What are the consequences afterwards? We can’t measure outside this strict group, but if the students that attend these sessions at least able to ask these questions I think we have been successful. Because otherwise it is a history of cinema that is canonical history of cinema. It’s a history of art that is the history of the canon of beauty, in which other regimes of visibility are not even mentioned. There are other point of views about the artistic doing, that we need to integrate or set aside.

Art moves thoughts. Sometimes the perspective of art brings up problematics that are then theorized. There is an empathy generated in artistic creation, which entails the ability to communicate and think. If it were just a theoretician speaking, it would not come out of the thesis, the monograph, a document.

LS - The curator Mário Pedrosa said: “During crisis, stay close to an artist.” I’ve been staying. Art is often signals. For a long time, we treated art as an illustration, the idea that it was a product of its context. But what if we inverted that, since we live in an image civilization, and think of an image as a production, not a product, it produces values, it produces conceptions.

And also, when you criticize internally that whiteness classification, we can go through a lot of different questions: who are the people being portrayed? They are, in general, men. Who is naked? All we have to do is look at the Guerrilla Girls movement, women are naked in museums. We need to create a collections policy, we need to create a policy to restructure the canon and our agendas, our basic curricula. And also, the classifications established in the world of arts. The place of curator, I always joke El Grand curator. In other words, is that person who organizes and speaks: this artist, this artist here. And what if we thought that the great curator wouldn’t exist without these artists who are in themselves interpreters of reality.

Daniel Ribas, Nuno, and I invited the artists that speak about that world, which bring their art but they’re also philosophers. Why imagine that the only interpreters are those who make this theory more standard, right? In other words, there are other theories. We also need to shake up this world of arts a little, and the very disciplined place of who speaks for whom, who speaks where. So, it pleases me a lot that classes are being taught by these people that are great philosophers. Dalton Paula is a great philosopher. Heráclito is a professar at the Federal University of Recôncavo. And so, we move on. The art is not just a consequence of the theories we produce; they produce that theory.

Nuno Crespo e Lilia Schwarcz a 16 de fevereiro, fotografia de Marta LançaNuno Crespo e Lilia Schwarcz a 16 de fevereiro, fotografia de Marta Lança

There does not have to be a speech from the curators that gives an order, each person is worth for themselves. When they invited you, was there a starting point? What brings together this mosaic?

NC - This program is not a thesis; it is a polyphony. What I find interesting about these programs is that everyone talks about their place and their practice, because we are talking about art, I’m talking about their world and the way they approach it, how they understand it. It’s really interesting. When we make these invitations, we deal with not only artistic but also conceptual realities, with hugely different practices. We will bring in Francisco Hyjno Kraho who comes from Tocantins, Brazil. For us as an institution is an adventure to bring him. Then he doesn’t have a CPF, so it’s not easy how to pay him. He has to catch a bus at twelve o’clock, the bus doesn’t really have a specific time, so we don’t know what time he can catch the plane from Brasília to São Paulo, and then from São Paulo to Portugal. For us, as an institution and for institutions, this learning experience is also very important, because we normalize that the artist has a portfolio, which has a thesis about his work. And we sought the opposite, to find the individuality and uniqueness of each of these subjects.

Brazilian society is very hierarchical, divided, in such polarization where the different worlds do not understand each other. In Portugal, we are also in that media model in which each trench (left and right) defends its flag. To what extent can art contribute to crossing the spheres, in a dialogue where arguments are heard, what remains of the ability to communicate, allowing some empathy?

LS - I think that, to some of those artists, which won’t be a question. And that’s great. I can’t imagine that Sónia Gomes (a mining artist that lives and works in São Paulo) makes art for neither the left nor the right. Sónia is known for doing art from fabric scraps that she casually finds, or that are offered to her. She cuts, reconfigures and transforms them into sculptures. She makes art working what with society leaves behind. Using what the capitalist society, the large metropolises give up on. In a text I wrote about her I joke when I say “Sónia Gomes came to this world to illuminate.” I have this utopic idea that perhaps art will find much more than if we make an eminently political speech that then reduces to: “look, they are on this side, they are on that side”. Denilson Baniwa will give the speech ““Tupy or not tupy, xukui purandusaua, Educação e arte como forma de fortalecimento das narrativas cosmológicas e para uma reescritura histórica do Brasil”. He is an artist who is in Venice, who gave a wonderful presentation at the São Paulo Biennale, and has just finished harvesting the corn. His speech is for nature, I don’t think nature is from the right or the left. He is a great poet and so we leave. Ayrson Heráclito is a great Pai de Santo. Candomblé, if you go to Bahia, unifies right-wing and left-wing politicians. 

He gave that beautiful performance on Goré Island (O sacudimento da Casa da Torre e o da Maison des Esclaves em Gorée, 2015). And the 2022 exposition Pinacoteca (Ayrson Heráclito: Yorùbáiano Mostra Yorùbáiano).

It’s wonderful.

LS - So, maybe it’s good to think that there is something sublime. We have abandoned the idea of ​​the sublime, but we cannot forget that the sublime was at the root of a type of art from the 19th century, the search for a language that is common. It’s not depoliticizing, in any way, because the environment is politicized and polarized, but perhaps, through art, we can say these things in a more empathetic way, as you said.

Through art and education, because there are two very strong poles here.

LS - Art perhaps has that disarming role and, on the other hand, with education. Research shows that the less countries have access to good quality public education, they tend to support more popular beliefs, easy answers. So, I think that a university with this perspective has to look for the side of affection, and affection comes from the idea of ​​being affected.

When it comes to Whiteness, it’s important to be aware of your privilege. An example here was the film by Catarina Demony (Debaixo do Tapete) about her family’s involvement in slave business, which helps to understand how a family accumulated power and advantages. In addition to the registration of underrepresented communities, it is necessary to understand how the place of privilege was established. And, within whiteness, the variants that exist.

LS - Many variants, because whiteness is not a self-defining concept, unlike the concept of blackness which is the result of years of black activism. On the other hand, it is a relative concept, because it is marked by other markers such as class, gender, sex, region, generation. It’s not absolute. But it’s interesting to think about that idea of presence in absence, because it’s a group that is absolutely present, so present that becomes invisible. Because it racializes others but does not racialize itself. We need to think about all the consequences. I think that the more information we have, the more we deal with the traumas, the better we make it ou, instead of hiding it.

The act of digging into the archive, in history and the hole of history also helps to understand a present. In Portugal, the younger generations don’t have memory of what life was like before the 25th of April. If there is no permanent memory of the fundamental points of the changes in society and this dictatorial, colonial, slavery past, this memory will be lost. Like Lilia said: “We need to remember to not forget.”

NC - This lack of memory - younger communities that have no memory of what the dictatorship was, of fascism - is what is probably causing this fascination with certain authoritarian tendencies to grow, that aestheticization of politics is very attractive if that history isn’t present and activated.

Freedoms are always threatened by the lack of Memory.

NC - We need to remember that Human Rights weren’t conquered forever. We are always at risk of losing them. Think about the history of abortion in the United States, it was possible and now it isn’t. In Italy, children with parents of the same gender could be both registered as and now they can’t. We really need to remember histories of oppression, so history doesn’t repeat itself.

Even gay marriage in Brazil was on the verge of going backwards. In addition to these rights linked to gender issues, peace itself. There is a big fallacy when talking about the post-war period, at the end of the Second World War in Europe, when afterwards there were anti-colonial colonial wars, imperialist and nationalist wars, we always live in wars. There is the universalization and how the reference remains Eurocentric.

This School of the Arts program goes way back, right?

NC - Last year we worked a lot on the figure of Ailton Krenak and on an idea of ​​ecology. It was titled “Pisar suavemente sobre a Terra,” in partnership with Ellen Lima Wassu, who is an Indigenous researcher from Rio de Janeiro, in an attempt to approach Brazilian indigenous thought. Previously, we did something about Brazil, “Cross Dynamics of Otherness” (2022), which also related to what can we learn from Brazil? We talk a lot about the Western world, about nature, about ecology and then we started reading Kopenawa and Krenak and realized that there is a vision of the world there. And also “Arte / Pensamento / Som” or the exploration of the multiplicity of intersections and contaminations between “Arte e Ciência”… But this program will end with a Summer School that starts on June 17th. And another thing that honors us very much, extremely exciting for the Catholic University. We are going to bring an exhibition curated by Lilia Schwartz, Jaime Laureano and Flávio Gomes called “Enciclopédia Negra,” which starts from the project to create biographies of historical characters from Brazil who had no face. We’ll be welcoming that exposition here at School, and the Summer School will be all about the themes on the encyclopedia of “Enciclopédia Negra.”

What is the Enciclopédia Negra, Lilia?

LS - This is a collective, militia project. We invited Black artists, they’re more than thirty-six, that delivered one or more works. The agreement was that these works would be donated to the Pinacoteca de São Paulo, which is the largest collection of portraits in Brazil, and which had almost no portraits of Black people or portraits of white people about black models. So, the idea was to racialize the Pinacoteca. And Pinacoteca received that donation, they were incredibly happy to, counting that it would make it easier for the collection to circulate. Returning to your question. The idea was that the child, the student, the young person in their adolescence would go to Google and have other portraits of Black people, not always working, or always beaten up or in situations of violence, but of all kinds. Hence the idea of an encyclopedia.

But why did they look for an organizing instrument (from the Enlightenment) like the encyclopedia?

LS - The encyclopedia became a great model for the exaltation of white culture. So, it’s to precisely subvert this structure. The encyclopedia doesn’t stop, so all images are released from rights so that people can continue to produce other encyclopedias.

And it’s going on the internet too.

NC - And what we are going to try is to work with associations. Even yesterday we talked to the representative of Lisboa Crioula to bring those communities. Because those portraits really need to enter our history of art. Since I’ve been working on this with Lilia, you go through a history of art and the absence is embarrassing. I don’t think they’ll burn histories of art, now, will they? But we need to assemble a Enciclopédia Negra, not to compensate but to rescue some faces of that invisibility.

What is the cut of these figures, besides the fact that they are black?

LS - The people need to be dead, a lot of people complained. If not, it would be endless. So, we intersect markers, so there is no Brazilian state that is not represented and there also had to be more women than men, trans people, gay people. It is an end criterion, and we always say that honoring death is a way of honoring life. In the context in which we launched; we made twenty thousand posters distributed to schools - I can see that this worries you a lot - encouraging schools to create their own encyclopedias. So, more than three hundred school have made their expositions. It was so beautiful, when the Enciclopédia Negra won the Jabuti Award, it wasn’t a three-person project but a thousand people one. 


Translation:  Mariana dos Santos Borges

by Marta Lança
Cara a cara | 28 March 2024 | History, Lilia Schwarcz, Nuno Crespo, silence