We Shall Overcome!
There are words that mark historic moments and echo them through new times, whenever they are evoked. They are words that are joined together with simplicity, creating short phrases that take on their own aura. Each time the meaning of these messages is called on; it is because there is a path to be carved out. To change the present and carve out new directions in the future we need to understand and learn from the past – these are the temporal bridges that make it possible to go forward over turbulent waters when it no longer seems possible to reach the other side.
We Shall Overcome! is an internationally recognised message that originated in a late-nineteenth century gospel hymn, ‘I Will Overcome Someday’. In 1948, the hymn was adapted by the North American folk singer and activist Pete Seeger, who published the protest song ‘We Will Overcome’. The song became widely known in the 1950s and, at the end of the decade, was appropriated by the civil rights movement in North America, becoming the anthem of this movement during the 1960s, with the title ‘We Shall Overcome’. The slogan was used during the Selma to Montgomery marches in March 1965; sung by Robert F Kennedy in South Africa during the anti-apartheid struggle; spoken by Martin Luther King in his last speech before being assassinated, in 1968, and then chanted by more than 50,000 people at his funeral; adapted to the Czech language during the Velvet Revolution in Prague and shouted by thousands of people in Wenceslas Square; and adopted in India in countless situations. Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Roger Waters and Bruce Springsteen are just some of those who have produced versions of this anthem.
Rita GT has appropriated the title of this historic song – the anthem of the struggle for freedom of expression, for equal social and racial rights, of pro-democracy movements throughout the world – in order to give it a new spatial and temporal dimension. Fifty years after Selma, in a museum, We Shall Overcome! finds a new form of artistic creation with Rita GT’s solo show, part of the ‘Echoes on the Wall’ programme dedicated to Portuguese artists based in other countries. Living in Angola since early 2012, Rita GT has confronted issues such as the supposed crisis generated by the fall in oil prices, the kumbu (money) dictatorship, being pula (white) or latona (mixed-race), being bumbo or not bumbo (black), issues which generate social tension. In the rest of the world, we are witnessing mass illegal migration, a rampant increase in refugee numbers, human trafficking and mass deaths. Everywhere there is a bubbling sense of discontent, injustice, of the duping of democracy by subversive tyrannies that undermine and dominate the intricacies of society, politics and economy. There is a reactivating of social drives that, in the words of the artist, ‘contaminate evolution, peace and above all Love’.
The conceptual project presented by Rita GT begins with the physical act of constructing the piece for the MNAC atrium, presented as a performance. This time, everything unfolds after the start of the opening event at Rua Serpa Pinto, in front of an empty wall that still holds part of the echo by Ana Cardoso, the previous artist in this series of exhibitions. During this part of the performance – which in a sense is the result of a consensual act of anthropophagy – a group of people, wearing overalls made of patterned African fabric designed by the artist, enter the museum carrying brooms and buckets of wallpaper paste. In front of the guests, the group will unroll rolls of wallpaper and cover the wall with a geometric pattern (also designed by Rita GT), a provocative interplay of positive and negative, of Greek or square crosses in white, and hooked crosses or swastikas created by the gaps on the black background. In the meantime, the Nigerian musician Keziah Jones will make a musical intervention marking the rhythm of the work.
His voice will emphasize the slogan for a group of dancers that move around outside and within the museum, to a marching rhythm, in a Japanese style, in a simple choreography of strong and repetitive gestures, evoking the freedom of expression of the body, of movement, of the very overcoming of our own selves: To Fall/ To Raise/ To Fall/ To Raise/ To Fall/ To Raise.
The artist will take part in hanging the wallpaper and, using spray paint, will draw signs linked to the concept of the slogan that echoes around MNAC. Once the performance is finished, the overalls will be hung on the wall. The video recording of the performance will be available in the exhibition space and online from the next day.
Thus, various aspects of the use of these words of struggle and protest are evoked, in a multidisciplinary action: music and the power of words, as they resonate within those who speak them out loud; the link established by the African fabric with black and women’s rights; the act of marching and the principle of peaceful protest; the power of the group in the importance of the struggle for rights that have been denied; the fight against entropy, cohesion through the repetition of movements and the semiotic dimension; the idea of resistance, of not giving in and having the capacity to overcome; the importance of artistic interpretation and of what should be perpetuated. As Robert Rauschenberg said with respect to ‘Signs’, his landmark work about 1960s America: ‘[The] Danger lies in forgetting’.
Adelaide Ginga 2015