Colonialism as Flesh and Stone: On the Inextricability of Photographs and Monuments

Afonso Dias Ramos

Palavras-chave: Colonial Photography; Colonial Monuments; Visual Culture; Contemporary Art; Politics of Representation

Participação: presencial

Arguably, the two most hotly contested topics of cultural and visual culture in our time have to do with the violent photographs and innocent monuments of the colonial era, insofar as they render intolerably explicit or altogether sanitize such an historical process. Over the last decade, those photographs and monuments have simultaneously emerged as the unprecedented hotspots for an impassioned critical debate about public history, the so-called crisis of visibility and another ethics of representation, all of which urgently demand and compel renewed theoretical protocols beyond the postcolonial framework. So why have these two controversies been kept at a remove, instead of being discussed together? Why have so few theoretical consequences been derived from their mutual implication? This paper specifically addresses such a disconnect, by making the case for reading shocking colonial-era photographs against the whitewashing monuments, thus exploring the vexed relationships between excess and erasure, and further unresolved ethical issues present in the retrospective attempt to visualize colonialism. Drawing on the most important critical literature that is emerging out of this juncture and which has injected a new theoretical vigour into this field of studies (e.g. Dora Apel (2004), Wayne Modest (2016), Ariella Azoulay (2019), John Peffer (2020), Temi Odumosu (2020), among others), this paper isolates and discusses a string of decolonial questions that have been specifically posed in relation to these polarizing controversies over visual and material culture, regarding the ethical problems of curating, mediating, and displaying colonial history, taking into consideration both the mounting institutional pressures and the loud public backlash that they have involved over the last decade. In order to provide both an historical contextualization and a close analysis of the profound imbrication between sensitive photographic images and one-sided monumental efforts from the colonial era, this paper focuses on two case studies: the concurrent contestation of monuments and visual material that has had the wider and more lasting implications across the globe, the recent controversies over the remaining statues to Cecil Rhodes and the afterlife of anti-apartheid struggle photography in South Africa; but also, conversely, the increasing mobilization of photography within contemporary art as the means to actively intervene in the polemics surrounding leftover colonial monuments, with a specific focus on the works that Kiluanji Kia Henda and Jo Ractliffe have made across the Luanda-Lisbon axis.


Dora Apel, Imagery of lynching: black men, white women, and the mob, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2004.
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, Potential history: unlearning imperialism, London: Verso, 2019.
Wayne Modest, “Museums and the Emotional Afterlife of Colonial Photography”, Elizabeth Edwards and Sigrid Lien (eds.), Uncertain Images: Museums and the Work of Photographs, Abingdon: Routledge, 2016, pp. 21-42.
Temi Odumosu, “The Crying Child. On Colonial Archives, Digitization, and Ethics of Care in the Cultural Commons”, Current Anthropology, Vol. 61, Number S22, 2020, pp. 289-302.
John Peffer, “How Do We Look?,” Kronos 46, no. 1, 2020, pp. 72–93.


Afonso Dias Ramos is a Junior Researcher at the Institute of Art History (NOVA FCSH) and Coordinator of the research group Art Theory, Historiography, Criticism (ArtTHC), and is currently investigating on-going controversies around colonial-era monuments and artworks across the world. He is the co-editor, with Filipa Lowndes Vicente, of the forthcoming book Photography in Portuguese Colonial Africa (1850-1975) (Palgrave Macmillan). He was a Visiting Scholar at the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum (2020) and a postdoctoral fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien and Freie Universität Berlin (2018-19). He holds an MA and received a PhD in the History of Art from University College London. He has formerly studied history of art at Nova University Lisbon and Université Paris-Sorbonne (Paris IV). Some of his recent texts can be found in academic monographs and journals such as Sehepunkte, Burlington Contemporary, History Workshop, Journal of Contemporary History, New Global Studies, or Oxford Art Journal.