Marcio Carvalho: The Smoke That Thunders - Which Heritage is at Risk?


Lozi: Mosi-oa-Tunya ("The Smoke That Thunders") is one of the world's largest waterfalls located on the Zambezi River in southern Africa, on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. In 1855, the waterfalls were named Victoria Falls. The tradition of Europeans naming African territories can be traced back to the 14th century, when sailors set course to the global south. This process of naming was always made regardless of the traditions, customs, stories, meanings or technologies of knowledge that indigenous communities might have applied to relate themselves with their surroundings. Mosi-oa-Tunya,("The Smoke That Thunders") is one of the seven wonders of the world, the largest single sheet of flowing water in the World. Once the falls were named after the British colonial monarch, a part of world history was sequestered. A name carries culture, history, hope, forms of thinking, ways of commemorating.

The spelling and pronunciation of Mosi-oa-Tunya never came to be a world common currency. Through naming, the colonial enterprise was deliberately involved in erasing indigenous knowledge and its longstanding participation in the past, present and future of the world.

My project focused on two memorials situated in Newcastle city. The Boer War memorial (South Africa War Memorial) and the memorial to Queen Victoria. 

The Boer War memorial received recent criticism in the wake of Black Live Matters protests and public space reports in 2020 and 2021. The monument - which lists the names of 370 fallen soldiers from North East UK - did not reflect the colonial nature of the Boer War, nor the impact of the War on black South Africans, many of whom died in concentration camps under British control, or were armed in the conflict, including Zulu, Xhosa, Swazis, Basotho and Sothos peoples. However, despite criticism of the memorial for the Boer War (which took place during Queen Victoria’s reign), the memorial to Queen Victoria remains unquestioned in its physical and historical forms. After being re-analysed, the city decided to recontextualize the Boer War memorial. What does it mean to recontextualise a colonial memorial that commemorates and grants impunity to colonial wars? Is a plaque sufficient?

During my one month residency at D6 for CONTESTED DESIRES, I decided to work on two large-scale drawings that could somehow contest the permanence of both memorials, while trying to develop strategies on how to make the process of recontextualisation open, transparent and participatory. Most of the research I did on site was at the Lit & Phil Library, and through interviews with officials from National Trust and with Newcastle City Council’s Planning department, which has been entrusted to recontextualise the Boer War Memorial, a process which is still in-progress.

In the Lit & Phil Library, I found many records, books, magazines and articles describing the atrocities that English monarchs, leaders and troops, such as Baden Powel, inflicted in communities such as the San peoples or Zulu peoples during the Boer War, and throughout the colonisation of South Africa.

I also found many links between the UK’s industrial development (specially trains and railways) with colonial dreams and inspirations of Empire expansion and the colonial exploitation within territories in the African continent.

Throughout the residency, I questioned why the National Trust is preserving the material remains of Romans, when the Romans were the oppressors who took the sovereignty of peoples throughout the world, including UK territory? I wondered how prominently these narratives feature in the texts that accompany these remains in heritage sites? During the interviews with the commission responsible for the recontextualisation of the Boer War memorial, I wondered whether these texts were being produced through a collective and participatory process.

Adding plaques on monuments and memorials for the sake of recontextualizing them could work only if the plaque was the same size as the commemorative object. Or else, it will always be a footnote, something small, invisible. Further on, a new context for the memorial should be provided as a collective act, a long lasting participatory project, in which different communities from Newcastle’s civil society come together and debate. Decolonial narratives that go beyond the romanticised and reductive colonial narratives of ‘heroes’ and the old messianic projects of civilization, are still missing at the core of British society. Unlocking these narratives is where future stories about the city can lie.

The exhibition in the Lit & Phil was a way to inspire conversation across individuals to consider how we read, occupy and decolonize our shared public space, amongst the colonial and empirical artefacts and statues that remain dominant across the city. But how does this go beyond the exhibition timing and how do we collectively endure such conversations?