The great oblivion of Franco in a small exhibition

Our memories […] is influenced not only by who we once were, but also by who we have become, not only by the past, but also by the present, when memories are recalled.” In short, memories are by no means objective representations of the past. Professor of Psychology Douwe Draaisma expressed it this way in his Forget book (2010).

This subjectivity also has far-reaching political consequences: Whoever is able to rewrite our memory increases his power. The exhibition is about that theme Theater of Broken Memories by photographer Bebe Blanco Agterberg (1995), which can now be seen in Amsterdam’s photo museum Foam.

The work by Blanco Agterberg, who graduated cum laude from the Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague in 2020, is about her origins – and therefore also about the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco’s regime. Her mother is Spanish, who was adopted in 1964, she says in a video on the Foam site. In 2019, the photographer went to Spain looking for clues about his mother’s adoption, but found none. She concluded that this deficiency is the result of what is known in Spanish politics as the “pact of oblivion”.

oblivion pact,Pacto del Olvido‘ is an agreement from the 1970s, with which Spanish politicians tried to leave behind the black past of the Franco years. The pact resulted in an amnesty law that ended the prosecution of the regime’s perpetrators. At the same time, memories of the regime disappeared.

In the introductory video, photographer Blanco Agterberg calls it “extremely dangerous” for governments to treat history as the Spanish government did after Franco. “People began to doubt their memories, and the government also manipulated their memories.” That is why, she says, she wants the spectators off Theater of Broken Memories to challenge. “Listen to what you see and if you can decipher if what you see is the real story.” Reflecting memories of what happened – it’s an interesting theme for a documentary photographer.

Photo from ‘Theatre of Broken Memories’.

Bebe Blanco Agterberg 2020

Six photos

And then there were only six pictures, in triplicate. Three times the same six black and white images.

The ‘exhibition’ on the photo museum’s second floor is a dark room. Inside, three photo walls are arranged in a triangle. On each of the walls of the “stable monolithic structure” hangs the same series of six photographs. A bare-chested young man; the silhouette of a man; a monument; a wall with putty; four arms holding what look like sticks; a sculpted face in a pit. The only difference between the three series is the order.

In these differences lies the deepening of the problem that Bebe Blanco Agterberg raised. A female voice tells in English what to see. She does this three times, each time for almost three minutes, with a theater spotlight illuminating the associated series.

The stories differ greatly. The young man is a skater, you hear. He practices his sport at the neglected monument Arco de la Victoria. (See for yourself that Franco remembered the victory in the Spanish Civil War in 1936.) Is the skater’s name Manuel, as one version of the voice-over says? Or is his name Alex? Does he think Franco is a great man, or just a bad guy? Suddenly you think: is this man a skater?

Also read the TV section Zap from 2019: How long will the pact to forget Franco last?

Propaganda

For those who take the time, Blanco Agterberg makes them think – about the role of the messenger of information, about propaganda. If the viewer cannot confirm information, what counts as truth? So the story that is conveyed most strongly – one naturally thinks of Putin’s ‘special military operation’. Photography can then become theater, as the exhibition’s title suggests.

It takes a lot of dedication to consider that question in this space. Too much for most visitors, who leave the room within minutes. At the entrance to the exhibition hangs a TV with headphones that seems to be showing something – perhaps the enlightening video with Blanco Agterberg himself? – but it is disabled.

Theater of Broken Memories is a brave work by a documentary photographer who nevertheless casts doubt on the power of his own medium. But that vision makes you curious about more than these six pictures.

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