Colonial Wars and Aesthetic Reworking: The Artist as Moral Witness

Frank Möller

Frank Möller is a Senior Research Fellow at the Tampere Peace Research Institute, University of Tampere, Finland, and the co-convenor of the European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR) Standing Group on Politics and the Arts. He is the author of Visual Peace: Images, Spectatorship, and the Politics of Violence (2013) and the co-editor of Art as a Political Witness (forthcoming). His most recent publication is Politics and Art, Oxford Handbook Online Political Science (Oxford University Press).


In this article, I analyze Manuel Botelho’s post-factum work on the Portuguese colonial wars and ask whether the artist qualifies as a witness, a political witness or even a moral witness as defined by Avishai Margalit. First, I sketch the historico-political context of the colonial wars and their commemoration in monuments in Portugal. Secondly, I discuss Botelho’s aesthetic engagement with soldiers’ subject positions during the wars. Thirdly, I review Margalit’s approach to being a moral witness. Finally, I think about both Botelho’s work in light of Margalit’s approach to being a witness and Margalit’s approach to being a witness in light of Botelho’s work. I argue that Botelho, without being himself a moral witness as defined by Margalit, is an intermediary between the moral witness and the moral community, present and future, helping the members of this community to move from what it is like to what it feels like to live in extraordinary conditions. Extending the understanding of being a witness by decoupling it from co-presence and contemporaneity will enlarge knowledge and help better understand what it means to witness such highly complex and ambivalent forms of social interaction as independence wars.

DOI: 10.18278/aia.2.1.2

Introduction: “During the war, I suffered most from things I didn’t witness” 

In the quotation that opens this article(Couto 2008:102), not being a witness does not imply the lack of awareness of what happened. Indeed, the protagonist continues by exclaiming: “The atrocities that happened!” What atrocities exactly the protagonist is referring to remains slightly opaque—atrocities committed either during the independence war or the following civil war in Mozambique. Although not having been a witness, she suffered. Being a witness here refers to a conventional understanding in terms of eye-witnessing. A witness is a spectator, someone “who is or was present and is able to testify from personal observation.”1  A typical example of such an understanding of being a witness is the following line: “In 1949, the African American scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois traveled to Poland, where he witnessed firsthand the rubble left behind by the Nazi occupation and war” (Rothberg 2009:111). In order to be a witness, you have to be on location, witnessing—seeing with your own eyes—that to which you can subsequently testify from own observation.

Recent writings in the social sciences and humanities, however, have expanded the concept of being a witness by critically engaging with four elements: co-presence, contemporaneity, materiality, and eventness (Lindroos and Möller, forthcoming). Being on location when something happened to which one could testify based on own experience is not seen as a precondition for being a witness any more. Furthermore, contemporaneity is no longer required. It is possible to be a witness of something that happened a long time ago. Thus, spatial and temporal distances do not mean that a person cannot be a witness. The third element in the current further development of the concept of being a witness is the identification of material objects, for example photographs, as witnesses. Being a witness has also been de-connected from tragic events and given an everyday dimension, a dimension, however, that I will largely ignore in what follows.

In Mia Couto’s story, the protagonist suffers from the atrocities that her husband, “behaving just as the enemy he called devils,” committed on the battlefield, atrocities communicated to her in the form of rumors only. At that time, the reports of massacres seemed to “ha[ve] taken place in another world” (Couto 2008:102). “War,” however, “leaves wounds that no amount of time can heal” (Couto 2008:125)—wounds from which not only those against whom atrocities were committed continue to suffer but also those distant witnesses for whom these atrocities were only rumors.

This article is an engagement with the idea of the artist as a witness. It is located in the independence wars fought by then Portuguese colonies in Africa, and it discusses artworks that were produced a long time after these wars ended. But, in a sense, these wars did not end—“war leaves wounds that no amount of time can heal.” This open-endedness—“the event-as-aftermath” (Roberts 2014:107)—is one way of understanding the post-factum artist as a witness.2  The article discusses artworks that were produced by a Portuguese artist, Manuel Botelho, an artist who did not participate in these wars; nevertheless, he suffered from them or, more precisely, from his nonparticipation in wars in which he was supposed to participate. Artists like Botelho may be witnesses of atrocities they were supposed to commit but didn’t, of suffering they were supposed to inflict on others and endure themselves but didn’t, and of experiences they were supposed to make but didn’t.

I refer to this artist as a witness, and it is one purpose of this article to try to understand what kind of witness he is. All the things he did not do render difficult a conventional understanding of him as a witness. Another purpose of this article is to get engaged with the dichotomy victim–perpetrator aiming, without belittling the suffering of the victims, to show its inadequacy in this particular historical case. I do not make any claims beyond the case I investigate in this article. The third, and final, purpose of this article is the investigation of the idea of the artist as a moral witness, derived from Avishai Margalit’s work. While this seems to be an ambitious objective for an article, I would argue that these three objectives are inter-connected and that engagement with all of them in one article is not only possible but, indeed, necessary.

The first step is to sketch the historico-political context of the colonial wars and their commemoration in monuments in Portugal. In a second step, I present and discuss Botelho’s aesthetic engagement with soldiers’ subject positions during the wars. In a third step, I review Margalit’s concept of being a moral witness. Finally, staging a kind of imagined dialog between a scholar and an artist, I think about both Botelho’s work in light of Margalit’s approach to being a witness and Margalit’s approach to being a witness in light of Botelho’s work. By doing so, I hope not only to be able to understand what kind of witness Botelho is but also to engage critically with such categories as risk, co-presence, and contemporaneity, all of which are central to our understanding of what it means to be a witness. I present first the works of art and the historical context without which they would not exist and then the theoretical framework within which I discuss these works of art. I have chosen this order to respect the interpretative openness that every work of art carries with it and to invite readers to engage with Botelho’s art on their own terms. Beginning this article by establishing a theoretical framework would almost inevitably have predetermined readers’ engagement with the following artworks and thus infringed upon the variety of meanings readers may assign to them.3

“To what deaths, what miseries you condemn / Your heroes! What pains you inflict on them …” (Camões 2001:96)

From 19614  to 1974, the Portuguese authorities fought wars in what they, in accordance with the Portuguese constitution of the time, referred to as provincias ultramarinas or Ultramar, overseas territories or provinces (Afonso and Gomes 2010; Cann 2012; Venter 2015). The purpose of these wars, following the logic of sovereignty, territorial integrity, and portuguesismo (Portugueseness), was to prevent these territories from becoming independent states. The “overseas territories” were indeed seen as integral parts of Portugal rather than as colonies and the Colonial Act of 1930 was replaced by terminology revolving around the idea of Ultramar. This understanding was expressed in slogans such as De Minho a Timor somos todos portugueses (from the Minho to Timor we are all Portuguese) and in concepts like unidade da nação pluricontinental portugues (Portugal as multicontinental nation) (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Portugal adjacente e ultramarine (mapa escolar) by Joao Maria Carlos Moreira da Silva (detail); photograph taken at the occasion of the exhibition RETORNAR: Tracos de Memoria, Galeria Ay da India, Lisbon, February 2, 2016

Based on this understanding, the 1955 Bandung conference condemning “colonialism in all its manifestations” and the United Nations Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples of December 14, 1960 (resolution 1514) were considered irrelevant for Portugal. With the revolution of April 25, 1974, the wars were, from the official Portuguese perspective, lost. Mozambique, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde and São Tomé e Príncipe were internationally recognized as independent states. Portugal established what Graham (2009:75), before the current economic crisis and its political ramifications, calls a “noisy, messy, healthy democracy.” The memory of the overseas wars is institutionalized in Portugal across the country in various monuments featuring strikingly different approaches to design and architecture (see Figures 2 and 3). These monuments are maintained by the Combatants League (Liga dos combatentes) which was established after the Great War as the Great War Combatants League to support the soldiers and their families. The name was changed into Combatants League on December 16, 1975 so that the organization could extend its activities to include soldiers from what the League still refers to as Overseas Wars, despite the term’s profound de-legitimation due to its association with the dictatorship.

The purpose of these memorials is to honor the soldiers who died in the service of Portugal (Figure 4), those who died while defending the overseas territories (Figure 5), and those who died in the overseas campaigns (Figure 6).

The purpose of these memorials is to acknowledge the suffering that the Portuguese soldiers endured during the wars; especially those who died are remembered and honored. Their death may be regrettable. However, linked to a noble cause—“serviço de Portugal,” for example—death is at least acceptable. Anonymous death, however, is not acceptable. Anonymous death, however, is not acceptable.6 The central monument in Belém, inaugurated on January 15, 1994, is impressive by dint of its architecture (Figure 3) but primarily owing to the huge number of what Simpson (2006:41), in a different context, calls “names cut in stone” (Figure 7). As I explain elsewhere (2013:141), these names are “arrayed—disciplined—in columns, their military ranks added, resembling and reproducing military forms of organization and arrangements in line, pretending order, denying the chaos of war.” The dead “can offer no resistance to being referred to as ‘combatants,’ although they or some of them might have wished to be remembered in subject positions other than that of combatants.”

Occasionally, the range of people remembered seems wider. Some monuments are dedicated to both the Great War and the Overseas Wars. The Monumento aos combatentes do ultramar in Belém also honors those soldiers who died in peace and humanitarian operations. As the name indicates, however, the monument’s main focus is on the colonial wars. The alleged aim of this monument is to contribute to “the unification of all the peoples involved in the Overseas Wars” and this may seem to invite people other than Portuguese soldiers to contribute to this unification. A closer reading of design and inscriptions, however, shows that this is not the case (Möller 2013:132–151).

Figure 2. Monumento aos combatentes das guerras do ultramar, Elvas
Figure 3. Monumento aos combatentes das guerras do ultramar, Belem

“… poor cornered animals filled with evil and terror” (Antunes 2008:205)

The colonial wars are remembered not only in monuments but also in art including visual art. Photography, for example, has had a long and complex relationship with colonialism. This relationship is explored in a recent publication analyzing such issues as anthropological modes of classifying and registering colonial subjects, olonial subjects, othe production of knowledge by means of photographs, and the circulation, dissemination, and reproduction patterns of colonial photographs (Vicente 2014). The timeframe of this publication largely excludes the colonial wars (see, however, Laranjeiro 2014). The atrocities committed by European colonial powers on African subjects and photographically documented are well known and critically discussed in international studies (see Patrick 2014). The context of Portuguese colonialism, however, is under explored (see, however, Ramos 2014). Portuguese colonialism collapsed before soldier photography emerged as a widely disseminated mass phenomenon (Struck 2011). Thus, the visual material available is limited.7 It was also an era of censorship by the Portuguese authorities, the Estado Novo. The analysis of the state’s attempts to shape the image of Portuguese colonialism in films has established that those films that escaped censorship focused on the idealization of colonial life, depicted modernization as resulting from colonization, and cultivated portuguesismo while ignoring social realities and showing very little interest in the living conditions of local populations (Piçarra 2014). Just as filmmakers, during the dictatorship, tried to correct the official view by means of diverse cinematographic strategies aiming to circumvent censorship (Piçarra 2014), artists nowadays critically engage with representations of the colonial wars and their remembrance in monuments and memorials.

Portuguese artists do not necessarily incorporate into their work the suffering inflicted by Portuguese soldiers on local populations. They share with the monuments emphasis on the suffering of the Portuguese soldiers. Their approaches to victimhood, therefore, may be criticized as Eurocentric. However, they are different from the approaches underlying the monuments. First, works of art lack the pathos and solemn language characteristic of the monuments. Artists are not searching for the meaning of the deaths of the soldiers; on the contrary, they visualize precisely the lack of meaning, the senselessness, and absurdity of these deaths and suffering. Secondly, monuments focus on those soldiers who died during wars (Winter 1995:78). Works of art acknowledge that survival does not mean the absence of suffering, as the quotation that opened this part indicates just as does the following quotation from the same book (Antunes 2008:241): “months upon months of perplexity and suffering. […] maybe so many months of war had transformed us into indecisive, useless creatures, into pitiful drunkards waiting for the paleness of dawn, to later wait for afternoon and night in the same disinterested surrender.” Elsewhere, Antunes (2012:141) has his protagonist hallucinate as follows:

We weren’t mad dogs when we arrived here, I said to the lieutenant, who was seething with anger and indignation, we weren’t mad dogs before the censored letters, the attacks, the ambushes, the mines, the lack of food and tobacco and cold drinks and matches and water and coffins, before we were told that a Berliet truck was worth more than a man and before we found out that the death of a soldier merited just three lines in the newspaper.

Those who stayed at home—families, friends, and loved ones—also suffered despite the lack of personal and physical involvement in the wars. They suffered from being aware of the dangers the soldiers were exposed to and, as the discussion that opened this article shows, also from the awareness of the atrocities the soldiers, or at least some of them, were likely to commit during the war. And the young soldiers, “drafted originally for two years, but often serving for up to four” (Chabal 2002:14), were “disillusioned” (Chabal 2002:14) and unprepared for guerilla warfare. Having been dispatched as conscripts by an authoritarian regime, they could not normally themselves decide whether they wished to participate in the wars or not: the option not to participate in a seemingly unwinnable and hopeless war existed for only a minority of young people. Dictator Salazar’s “own personnel commitment” to the Portuguese presence in Africa and “his propensity to brook no opposition” dominated “any voice of reason” and made “retreat or compromise over African affairs” impossible (Cann 2012:47). Opposition was translated into an ever more intransigent position on Portugal’s presence ultramar up to the 1974 revolution, backed by a powerful secret police operating both in Portugal and in the colonies.8

Thus, without ignoring or minimizing the suffering inflicted on local populations by Portuguese soldiers and without denying the power discrepancies between colonizers and colonized, the suffering inflicted on Portuguese soldiers and their relatives by their political and military leadership should not be ignored. After all, the soldiers soon realized that “the generals in air-conditioned Luanda invented a war in which we would die and they would live” (Antunes 2012:150). They understood that one objective of the war, waged “in the name of a lot of cynical ideas no one believe[d] in,” was “to defend the wealth of the three or four families who shore up the regime” (Antunes 2012:141). I am fully aware of the dangers inherent in discussing what might be seen as the victimization of the perpetrators. I am certainly not arguing that the “real” victims of colonialism are the soldiers sent from Europe to defend the colonial project.9 That would be absurd, even obscene. Addressing the suffering of the Portuguese soldiers does not imply the denial of the suffering they inflicted on others or an attempt at “ranking” suffering. Rather, it offers the possibility to see both the suffering inflicted on them by a dictatorial political regime and the suffering they inflicted on others; it thus addresses a double dimension of suffering and enables a more differentiated understanding of suffering than does the crude binary perpetrator–victim that, as every binary, hides as much as it reveals.10 It not only renders possible analysis of the inter-relationship between these two dimensions, but also complicates our understanding of victims and perpetrators; perpetrators can, to some extent, be victims, too, “transformed … into people we weren’t before, that we’d never been, into poor cornered animals filled with evil and terror. In the depths of our yellow eyes wailed a panicked childhood fear, a mute timid panic clouded by hesitation and shame” (Antunes 2008:205). The reduction to two opposing subject positions—victim versus perpetrator—in such dynamic, ambivalent, chaotic, and complex social interactions as independence wars offers only limited satisfaction. As noted in many contexts, a strict dichotomy perpetrator versus victim is analytically insufficient. Rothberg (2009:95), for example, notes “the permeable relation, in cultural texts as well as in history, between enemies ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ of empire as well as between ‘perpetrators’ and ‘victims’ and ‘enemies’ and ‘friends.’”11  Fujii, in her micro-study on the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, shows how pre-conceived notions of “survivor” and “perpetrator” can collapse when scrutinized thoroughly in light of empirical evidence (2009:36–37). It is in this context that art can assume an eminently political character—not by taking sides and simplifying but by complicating and showing the complexities of human interactions. Indeed, Camões (2001:96), writing in 1572, was aware of these complexities when he included in Os Lusíadas (The Lusíads)—the famous epic critically celebrating the Portuguese overseas expansion—the voice of the Old Man of Belém who warned against the fallacies underlying the politics of expansion:

O pride of power! O futile lust

For that vanity known as fame!

That hollow conceit which puffs itself up

And which popular cant calls honour!

What punishment, what poetic justice,

You exact on souls that pursue you!

To what deaths, what miseries you condemn

Your heroes! What pains you inflict on them!

You wreck all peace of soul and body,

You promote separation and adultery;

Subtly, manifestly, you consume

The wealth of kingdoms and empires!

They call distinction, they call honour

What deserves ridicule and contempt;

They talk of glory and eternal fame,

And men are driven frantic by a name!

And his fellow writer, Pessoa (1996:292), writing in 1916, had his alter ego, Bernardo Soares, declare: “No empire justifies breaking a child’s doll. No ideal is worth the sacrifice of a toy train.” Such insights provided by poets were ignored by the state authorities.12 However, this ignorance has not deterred artists from continuing to engage critically with the colonial wars.

Figure 4. Monumento aos combatentes do ultramar, Belem
Figure 5. Homenagem aos militares naturais do concelho de Sintra mortos em defesa do ultramar, Sintra
Figure 6. Mortas nas campanhas do ultramar 1961-1974, Faro
Figure 7. Monumento aos combatentes do ultramar, Belem

Matchbox, Christmas messages, aerograms and diaries—Manuel Botelho’s work

One of the artists who has dedicated a huge portion of his work to the memory of the colonial wars and the suffering of the soldiers during these wars is, paradoxically it seems, a person who had, and used, the option not to participate in the wars. Born in 1950, Manuel Botelho belongs to the very generation that experienced the colonial wars directly and personally. Botelho, however, was not one of the “men of [his] generation” who, in the artist’s words, “set sail such a long time ago for Angola, Guinea and Mozambique, hidden behind a camouflaged uniform and a G3” and with whom he increasingly wishes “to be identified.” At the time of the 1974 revolution, Botelho was a last-year student of architecture and thus “didn’t have to endure the experience of being involved in a live war. But I lived through it intensely, in a state of obsessive anticipation that lasted throughout my youth.” Botelho, while “march[ing] through the streets shouting ‘no more soldiers to the colonies,’ began to have guilt feelings about not having shared in this period of abnegation and self-sacrifice” (quoted in Porfírio 2010:73–74). He translated these guilt feelings into the role of “an artist–witness,“ gathering “objects and images, memories and fears, both his own and those of others” (Porfírio 2010:72).

In one installation, maps project the outlines of Portugal’s colonial territories on a European map. The installation titled Matchbox: Portugal is not a small country (2009) can be read as an ironic engagement with the empty pomposity and shallow grandiosity of the official rhetoric in terms of portuguesismo—the attempt, by all possible means, to stick to the myth of multicontinental Portugal so as to “to preserve the Salazar regime” (Cann 2012:45) which found itself internationally increasingly isolated, and to avoid Portugal’s reduction to a small, and ultimately politically irrelevant, European state. At the same time, the map projection shows the absurd discrepancy as regards size and territory and, with it, the futility of the colonial wars, bound to failure.13

Another installation titled Inventário: Mensagens de Natal (2008) features a number of television screens endlessly repeating original footage of Christmas messages the soldiers had for those at home. These messages were transmitted by Rádio e Televisão de Portugal (RTP) from the theaters of war, intended to document the soldiers’ wellbeing. In the installation’s loop, however, the standardized texts the soldiers were permitted to utter prove exactly the opposite (Figures 8 and 9).

Aerogramas para 2010 (Figures 10–13) engages with a free transport system for messages from the colonies, offered by Transportes Aéreos Portugueses (TAP). Anticipating terminology to be introduced in the next section, it can be said that this transport system served as a link between those who had knowledge-by-acquaintance of suffering and those who had not; between those who personally experienced actual suffering and those who did not; and between those who took risks and those who did not. This system is alluded to in a fusion of drawings and handwritten texts reproducing letters or instructions for use from the original aerograms (Porfírio 2010:73). The texts include statements by nowadays rather well-known figures such as Antunes whom I quoted above. More important than the current celebrity status of some of the letters’ authors are two things. First, as Rothberg (2009:203) notes in his discussion of Charlotte Delbo’s Les belles lettres, “memory in the form of letters (understood broadly) can take part in the necessary task of re-forming what counts as public and, therefore, what is politically thinkable.” Secondly, the letters were written by people who, in contrast to the artist, were on location when something happened to which they could—and did—testify based on own experience; they were eye-witnesses of both the suffering they inflicted on others and the suffering inflicted on them. These texts increase both the authenticity of the artworks and their emotional and affective power. They strengthen what I would like to call the artworks’ having-been-there-ness.

Figure 8. Manuel Botelho, Inventario: Mensagens de Natal (2008); photograph taken at the occasion of the exhibition Professores, Centro de Arte Moderna, Fundacao Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon, December 2, 2010
Figure 9. Manuel Botelho, Inventario: Mensagens de Natal (2008); photograph taken at the occasion of the exhibition Professores, Centro de Arte Moderna, Fundacao Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon, December 2, 2010 (detail).
Figure 10. Manuel Botelho, Desculpa as cartas brutais que porvezes te mando (inclui excerto de aerograma de Mario Beja Santos) (Forgive the brutal letters I often send you; with a quote from an aerogram by Mario Beja Santos), 2009, pencil and watercolor on paper; 66 x 50.5 cm2 (Courtesy: The artist)
Figure 11. Manuel Botelho, Despedida (inclui excerto de depoimento de Mario Graça Abreu) (Farewell, with a quote from a statement by Mario Graca Abreu), 2009, pencil and watercolor on paper, 66 x 50.5 cm2 (Courtesy: The artist)
Figure 12. Manuel Botelho, TMD-8, 2009, pencil and watercolor on paper, 66 x 50.5 cm2 (Courtesy: The artist)
Figure 13. Manuel Botelho, Aqui não ha absolutamente nada (inclui excerto de aerograma de Manuel Beca Murias) (There is absolutely nothing here; with a quote from an aerogram by Manuel Beca Murias (2009)), pencil and watercolor on paper, 66 x 50.5 cm2 (Courtesy: The artist)

As Bleiker (2009:4) explains, even in a world dominated by images “we ultimately need words to make sense of our world. Language … is the process through which we represent and make sense of ourselves and our surroundings: the cultural crystallization of who we are as people.” Words, incorporated into drawings, speak to us together with the drawings. This “speaking together” may capitalize on what Gilgen (2003:56) calls a mutually supportive “intellectual stereoscopic effect: the image gains in profile through the verbal information conveyed in the caption; from the accompanying image this information gains persuasive power.” The texts are important because they link the works of art with what happened “such a long time ago [in] Angola, Guinea and Mozambique” (Botelho) to which the artist cannot himself testify from own experience. They are important as integral parts of the drawings communicating with the drawings and also as testimony in their own right. Here, then, are English translations14  of the texts reproduced in the artworks:

Forgive the brutal letters I often sent you

sorry about the violent letters I sometimes send you. I admit that at times I feel very hurt that you don’t understand what is happening here but then I come to my senses and realize that it is very difficult to accept that there’s another war going on when it isn’t included in newspapers or on the radio and TV.


Yesterday, Saturday, a lot of white soldiers were bidding farewell to Guinea, in search of their final pleasures. The prostitutes of Pilão were doing a heroic job.

Bissau December 16, 1973.


this separation is one of the most heart-rendering things I’ve ever experienced. Because it is total.

My longing for you is overwhelming. I still haven’t managed to convince myself that we are separated …

There is absolutely nothing here

… this is utter desolation,

believe me,

it’s desolating …

what we have here is sand …

and more sand

… I’d like to get you a present but

here there isn’t

absolutely anything

Recent writings in the social sciences and humanities have decoupled the concept of being a witness from personal observation. In its most radical reformulation, the concept of being a witness does not refer to people anymore but to material objects. Photographs, for example, appear as witnesses in Azoulay’s work (2014:129) and as “social agents … bearing witness to past events” in Lowe’s work (2014:213). It is in this context that another Botelho installation, appropriately titled Contagem Descrescente 1967–1969 (Countdown), is important: soldier diaries, but particular diaries largely devoid of text (Figures 14 and 15). These diaries are, as Porfírio (2010:73) explains, “immediately recognizable by anyone who directly experienced that prison which was also the war.” They consist of nothing else than numbers indicating the amount of days a soldier had still to serve, and survive, until the end of the commission (o final da comissão). Collected from flea markets, these documents communicate pain, terror and boredom (“there is absolutely nothing here”; see Figure 13); they symbolize the seeming endlessness of each and every day that had to pass before yet another number could be crossed. The artist’s approach is minimalistic. No additional language is required, just numbers from 1 to 732 or lists of years, months, and weeks. Despite their materiality, these documents cannot be limited to materiality; they are “inextricably connected with individual people.” At the same time, they show “the shared experience of a generation”—the men of Botelho’s generation (Möller 2013:156). Are these diaries witnesses, perhaps even moral witnesses?

Figure 14. Manuel Botelho, Contagem Decrescente 1967-1969 (1). Photograph: Manuel Botelho. (Courtesy: The artist)
Figure 15. Manuel Botelho, Contagem Decrescente 1967-1969 (2). Photograph: Manuel Botelho. (Courtesy: The artist)

The (artist as) moral witness

Wieviorka (2006), writing about Holocaust memories and the politics of these memories, characterizes the 1970s and early 1980s as the “era of the witness.” The era of the witness is one conditioned by visual culture. Audiovisuality, used in particular by Claude Lanzmann, not only helped systematize the collection of survivors’ testimonies, but it also gave survivors the feeling that someone was listening—and watching. An audience listening to survivors’ testimonies is what survivors need, and this audience was largely absent prior to the era of the witness. Wieviorka does not address the question of whether or not such artists as Lanzmann can be witnesses of events they did not personally experience but she notes that survivors’ testimonies can be transformed into artworks. She does not ask whether or not this is what survivors want. However, this transformation does not seem to have undermined the evidentiary qualities of the testimonies. These testimonies are not watched and listened to because of the aesthetic quality of the film that presents them or because of the ingenuity—including occasional ruthlessness—of the film’s director or because of the way the film thinks.15  It is ultimately the testimonies that matter, not their transformation into film, although the director’s cinematographic approach, problematic as it may be, may help spectators to think about what they saw and listened to. It may help spectators to believe the witnesses despite the seeming incredibility—in the sense of beyond belief—of the testimonies.16  This is what survivors need, too. Wieviorka (2006:xiv) concludes that discourses and practices revolving around the Holocaust and the memory of the Holocaust have “become, for better or for worse, the definitive model for memory construction.” The use of audiovisuality helped establish these discourses and practices as models (and this assessment does by no means call into question the power of such testimonies as Primo Levi’s books that do not rely on audiovisual culture).17 

Rothberg has demonstrated that the era of the witness would hardly have come into existence in the way it did without the preceding and parallel era of decolonization and the discourses both revolving around it and making it possible. Rothberg emphasizes cross-fertilization, interrelationships, and interactions among different discourses. Rothberg (2009:113) stresses “the need for a comparative approach to the multidirectionality of collective memory that considers questions of politics, aesthetics, and the public sphere in a nonreductive, transnational framework.” In light of Rothberg’s argumentation, it makes sense to analytically decouple concepts that have been developed in connection with the Holocaust from the Holocaust (without denying the uniqueness of the Holocaust or relativizing it) and to think about the question of what these writings—altered, further developed, specified in light of specific cases—tell us about other cases and other memory constructions as well (just as it makes sense to proceed the other way round and ask what other memory discourses reveal about the construction of Holocaust memory). Margalit’s (2004) concept of the moral witness, referenced in international studies in Danchev’s work on the artist as moralist (2009:3), is a case in point. What can we learn about the memories of the independence wars in Africa by thinking about them in terms of Margalit’s suggestion in the context of the Holocaust? Does such thinking produce new knowledge on these wars? What can we learn about the artist as a witness? What, then, does Margalit write about being a witness and, in particular, how does he understand the moral witness?

In his most rigorous definition, Margalit (2004:149) defines the (paradigmatic) moral witness as a person with “knowledge-by-acquaintance of suffering.”18  Knowledge-by-acquaintance refers to both personal experience and actual experience of “suffering inflicted by an unmitigated evil regime” (p. 148). Being a moral witness refers to the experience of suffering, not just the observation of suffering. If this were all Margalit had to say about the moral witness, then I could stop my investigation here. However, an observer can be a moral witness on condition that he or she is “at personal risk.” This risk can come in two variations: the one defined as “belonging to the category of people toward whom the evil deeds are directed” and the other defined as attempts “to document and record what happens for some future use” (p. 150).19  The use of the present tense here links Margalit’s definition to the conventional understanding of being a witness with its emphasis on contemporaneity discussed earlier just as does his emphasis on the eye witness; indeed, “the authority of a moral witness comes from being an eye-witness” (p. 173).20 Artists documenting or recording the suffering of others for some future use would seem to qualify as moral witnesses but, again, there are two conditions: first, their “testimonial mission has [to have] a moral purpose” (p. 151) and, secondly, they have to take risks. “To be a moral witness … is all about taking risks” (p. 157). The idea that the risk-taking observer documenting what happens “for some future use” qualifies as moral witness thus needs specification: the future use cannot be separated from the testimonial mission’s moral purpose. But the very idea of a future use is hard to reconcile with Margalit’s emphasis on the “intrinsic value” of testimony, its noninstrumentality: testimony is not a means to an end and this is especially true with regard to the paradigmatic moral witness (p. 167). Ultimately, the subject position of moral witness cannot be thought of without “hope: that in another place or another time there exists, or will exist, a moral community that will listen to their testimony” (p. 155).

Margalit does not only differentiate the witness from the moral witness and the moral witness from the paradigmatic moral witness, but he also differentiates the moral witness from the political witness. While the one’s testimony has an intrinsic value, the other “believes that the incriminating evidence that she gathers is an instrument in the war effort” (p. 167). This differentiation is puzzling for two reasons. First, an “unmitigated evil regime” can display evil without being engaged in a war effort. Secondly, gathering incriminating evidence as an instrument in a war effort would seem to be in accordance with Margalit’s understanding, quoted above, that a moral witness is he or she who documents and records what happens for some future use; gathering evidence as an instrument in a war effort is surely in accordance with the moral purpose of a testimonial mission, which is the precondition for being a moral witness. Another reason for differentiating the moral witness from the political witness lies in the difference between “telling it like it was” and “telling it like it felt.” Margalit (p. 168) writes:

The political witness, by temperament and training, can be a much better witness than the mere moral witness for the structure of evil and not only for episodes of evil. And thus he can be a more valuable witness in uncovering the factual truth. The political witness can be very noble in fighting evil against all odds. And yet as an ideal type, although his features partly overlap with those of the moral witness, the political witness is still distinct, not to be confused with the moral witness. Both are engaged in uncovering what evil tries to cover up. The political witness may be more effective in uncovering the factual truth, in telling it like it was. But the moral witness is more valuable at telling it like it felt, that is, telling what it was like to be subjected to such evil. The first-person accounts of moral witnesses are essential to what they report, whereas political witnesses can testify from a third-person perspective without much loss.

If we apply this conceptualization to artists, then the following, not altogether coherent, picture emerges. An artist is a moral witness, even a paradigmatic moral witness, if he or she possesses “knowledge-by-acquaintance of suffering,” that is, in order to qualify as a moral witness, an artist has to have the actual and personal experience of suffering caused by an evil regime. In the absence of such experience, an artist can be a moral witness if he or she is at personal risk, either because he or she belongs to the same group of people which is targeted or because he or she tries to document what happens, or both. This documentation envisions future use, but not any use; rather, future use has to be coupled with a moral purpose, ultimately addressing a moral community, present or future. The emphasis on future use is difficult to reconcile with testimony’s noninstrumentality: the testimony of a moral witness is intrinsically valuable; it is an end in itself. It is intrinsically valuable although, or because, it is not dependent on factual truth. Reporting factual truth is what political witnesses do; moral witnesses testify to what it felt like to be subjected to evil. Such testimony possesses intrinsic value independent of the question of whether it is factually correct or not. Thus, journalists, owing to their dedication to factual truth, would seem to be inclined toward the subject position of a political witness; artists, on the other hand, might be expected to be closer to the subject position of a moral witness because works of art do not normally claim factual accuracy. Indeed, as Bennett (2005:3) explains, with regard to works of art “faithful translation of testimony” is not what matters; rather, what matters is art’s use of its “unique capacities to contribute actively to [the] politics [of testimony].” There is, however, an overlap between the political witness and the moral witness.

The artist as witness and intermediary

Elsewhere, I analyzed Botelho’s work in light of the question of what it does to transform spectators into participant witnesses who self-critically engage with a work of art and the conditions depicted in it, including their own involvement in and responsibility for these conditions (Möller 2013:155–160). In the present article, I am interested in both reading Botelho’s work in light of Margalit’s understanding of the moral witness and thinking about Margalit’s understanding of the moral witness in light of Botelho’s works of art. Obviously, Botelho does not qualify as a paradigmatic moral witness as he does not possess knowledge-by-acquaintance of suffering. It is precisely the lack of such knowledge that motivated his work on the colonial wars in the first place. But observers can suffer, and they can be moral witnesses, too, on the conditions outlined earlier. To begin with, then, I need to make two alterations in Margalit’s concept extending what it means to be a witness. First, I want to detach his concept from cases of unmitigated evil and suggest that it be used to theorize any political regime inflicting major suffering on people. I have three reasons for doing so. I am not an expert on the religious and philosophical background from which Margalit derives his understanding of unmitigated evil; I think that his concept is too important to limit its application to such cases; and I am interested in the question of what we can learn about cases of lesser evil when we look at them through approaches and concepts developed in connection with the unmitigated evil of the Holocaust. Remember that the Holocaust nowadays serves as the model for memory construction in other cases as well (Wieviorka); concepts developed in light of the Holocaust should therefore have some relevance also in connection with cases other than the Holocaust. Secondly, I want to challenge Margalit’s emphasis on contemporaneity. Such a challenge is in accordance with recent writings in the humanities and social sciences decoupling the act of witnessing from presence on location when something happens to which a person subsequently testifies from own experience.

The risk element of Margalit’s concept is probably the most difficult one when applied to Botelho’s work. Taking risks is essential for the moral witness; Botelho, however, avoided risks.21  Yet, he was supposed to be exposed to the risks and dangers of “the men of [his] generation” (Botelho) and thus to some extent “belong[ed] to the category of people toward whom the evil deeds are directed” (Margalit). That he avoided risks disqualifies him as a moral witness, although it can be argued that his work documents what happened for some future use. Without risk-taking, however, an artist cannot be a moral witness. As an artist, he cannot be a political witness, either, because the core of political witnessing is dedication to factual truth. But dedication to factual truth is not what art is about.

If we think about Botelho’s work in light of the terms suggested by Margalit, then the following picture emerges. As stated above, Botelho does not qualify as a paradigmatic moral witness. He does not have the actual and personal experience of the suffering he engages with in his work. He did not take personal risks during the wars; on the contrary, he avoided such risks. Risk avoidance indeed triggered his engagement, or even obsession, with the colonial wars. However, he belongs to the generation that was made to suffer (and make others suffer) in the wars and he artistically engages with what happened for present and future use. He does so, not as a journalist in search of factual truth but as an artist. Arguably, he is not primarily interested in what it was like but in what it felt like; the texts incorporated into his drawings have an affective and emotional dimension irreconcilable with the mere reporting of facts. His is an artist’s work, not a journalist’s or historian’s work. While the texts reproduced in the artworks may have an intrinsic value as testimonies of people who endured suffering, Botelho seems to share the hope, specified by Danchev (2009:3) as regards the artist as moralist, “that there is, or will be, an audience of sentient spectators, viewers, readers, absorbed in the work: a community, a moral community, for whom it stands up and who will stand up for it.” “Witnesses,” Margalit (2004:181) concludes, “are vital not just for enlarging the scope of observational knowledge but even more for elucidating the significance of human actions, symbolic acts, his work is vital: it can serve as an intermediary between moral witnesses and the moral community, present and future, enabling the members of this community to move along the trajectory from “what it is like” to “what it feels like” which, however, is unattainable for those who did not personally participate in the wars.


Artists—in contrast to photojournalists—often arrive on location only after an event or they might prefer altogether to avoid the location where something, usually something tragic, happened. They—and their works of art—nevertheless qualify (i.e., they are socially-discursively constructed) as witnesses not only of the aftermath of this event (which would be in accordance with the conventional understanding of being a witness) but also of the original event. It affects our, the recipients’, understanding of what happened. Art does not necessarily produce new knowledge in an academic, scholarly sense but it “articulates a vision of the world that is insightful and consequential” (Danchev 2009:4). Recipients of works of art also become witnesses, distant witnesses, remote in space and time, not only of the work of art and that which it depicts but also of the original event referenced in the artwork, an event without which the artwork would not exist. Thus, testimony can be transferred from one person to another—from an artist to a spectator; this transfer transforms the beholder of an artwork into a witness of the original event referenced in the artwork.

Furthermore, such an artist as Manuel Botelho, without being himself a moral witness as defined by Margalit, can be an intermediary between the moral witness and the moral community, present and future, helping the members of this community to make the move from what it is like to what it feels like. Texts from original letters embedded in the artworks do not only increase the artworks’ having-been-there-ness but also link their future use to what Rothberg (2009:203) calls “re-forming” of what qualifies as public and political. Such re-forming can be seen as an ingredient of the moral-political tasks of the witness when giving testimony for future use, in particular in political circumstances that favor silence—“Why the hell doesn’t anyone talk about this?” (Antunes 2012:79)—rather than engagement. 22 Finally, even material objects such as diaries can be witnesses: they were on location when something happened; they testify from own experience; they do so for future use; and they are social agents. None of the above devalues Margalit’s understanding of a moral witness. It shows, however, that extending our understanding of what it means to be a witness and decoupling it from co-presence and contemporaneity will enlarge “the scope of observational knowledge” (Margalit) and thus help better understand such highly complex and ambivalent forms of social interaction as independence wars.



1 The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles, Vol. II, prepared by William Little, H.W. Fowler and Jessie Coulson. Revised and edited by C.T. Onions. Third edition, completely reset with etymologies revised by G.W.S. Friedrichsen and with revised addenda. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973, p. 2562.

2 For “the post-factum witness,” see Lowe (2014:228).

3 I would like to thank the reviewer for Arts and International Affairs for their constructive engagement with an earlier draft of this article and especially for encouragement to go beyond merely “applying” Margalit’s concept to Botelho’s work. I would also like to thank Manuel Botelho for permission to reproduce his works of art in this article and Carole Garton for wonderful translations from the Portuguese.

4 As Piçarra (2014:92–93) explains, the first organized uprising against Portuguese rule in Africa, an attack on a prison in the neighborhood of Sambizanga, Luanda, took place in 1961 and is referenced in Sarah Maldoror’s film Sambizanga (1972).

5 Figures 1–9: author’s photographs; Figures 10–13: artworks by Manuel Botelho, reproduced by permission; Figures 14 and 15: artworks and photographs by Manuel Botelho, used by permission.

6 One ingredient of the Memorial ao Combatente, inaugurated November 11, 2015, is the reading of the names of the Portuguese soldiers who died in the context of the Great War.

7 However, in recent years, several autobiographies on the colonial wars have been published, many of which include photographs. The analysis of these writings and photographs is beyond the scope of this article just as is the evaluation of the material, visual and otherwise, collected in the Arquivo Histórico Ultramar in Lisbon.

8 In 1974, 65% of the political police force worked in the colonies. Overall, the political police force had 3530 agents (Aljube—a voz das vítimas; see note 22).

9 See Rothberg (2009:66–107) for “Eurocentric pitfalls” (p. 87) in selected anticolonial discourses.

10 In his psychoanalytic approach to perpetrator trauma, LaCapra (1998:41) argues that such trauma, “while attended by symptoms that may be comparable to those of victims, is ethically and politically different in decisive ways” from victim trauma. I acknowledge these differences.

11 See also Agamben (2002:20–21) and Levi (1989:36–69).p. 87) in selected anticolonial discourses.

12 On the power of poetry in the context of international relations, see Bleiker (2009).

13 See the artist’s website–mensagens-de-natal–matchbox (accessed July 28, 2016).

14 Translated from the Portuguese by Carole Garton; translations used by permission.

 15Shapiro (2009) explores how films think.

16Korhonen (2008:115) argues that testimony “relies on an act of faith: we must choose whether we believe the witness or nor.”

17Rothberg (2009:175–198) connects audio-visual technologies with the emergence of the survivor as a public figure in his discussion of both the Eichmann trial and its televisual broadcast and Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s film Chronique d’un été (1960–1961), i.e., years before the Lanzmann film.

18 The following page references in the text are for this book.

19 As will become clear shortly, the issue here is not for “some future use” but is a very specific one.

20 Such a strong focus on the eyewitness might be irritating given the notorious unreliability of eyewitness reports observed by, for example, Levi (1989:23). The moral witness, however, is not primarily interested in the factual truth (see below).

21 The young men of his generation who actually fought the war are also said to have been “disillusioned and unwilling to take risks” (Chabal 2002:14).

22  For example, the first major exhibition in Portugal dedicated to retornados (Portuguese people who returned from the colonies to Portugal after the independence wars) took place more than 40 years after these wars (RETORNAR: Traços de Memória, Galeria Av. da Índia, Lisbon, November 4, 2015–February 29, 2016). Likewise, it took almost 40 years to transform the former Aljube prison in Lisbon into a museum. In its original condition, the former prison, operated during the Estado novo by the political police, was open to the public in 2011 at the occasion of the exhibition Aljube—a voz das vítimas.


Afonso, Aniceto, and Carlos de Matos Gomes. (2010) Os Anos da Guerra Colonial—1961–1975. Lisbon and Matosinhos, Portugal: QuidNovi.

Agamben, Giorgio. (2002) Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive. Translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen. New York: Zone Books.

Antunes, António Lobo. (2008) Knowledge of Hell. Translated by Clifford E. Landers. Champaign, London and Dublin: Dalkey Archive Press.

Antunes, António Lobo. (2012) The Land at the End of the World. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa. New York/London: W.W. Norton & Company.

Azoulay, Ariella. (2014) Infra-Destructure. In The Violence of the Image: Photography and International Conflict. Edited by Liam Kennedy and Caitlin Patrick, 125–138. London/New York: I.B. Tauris.

Bennett, Jill. (2005) Empathic Vision: Affect, Trauma, and Contemporary Art. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Bleiker, Roland. (2009) Aesthetics and World Politics. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

Camões, Luís Vaz de. (2001) The Lusíads. Translated with an Introduction and Notes by Landeg White. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cann, John P. (2012) Counterinsurgency in Africa: The Portuguese Way of War 1961–1974. Sulihull: Helion.

Chabal, Patrick. (2002) Lusophone Africa in Historical and Comparative Perspective. In A History of Postcolonial Lusophone Africa. Edited by Patrick Chabal with David Birmingham, Joshua Forrest, Malyn Newitt, Gerhard Seibert, and Elisa Silva Andrade, 3–134. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Couto, Mia. (2008) Under the Frangipani. Translated by David Brookshaw. London: Serpent’s Tail.

Danchev, Alex. (2009) On Art and War and Terror. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Fujii, Lee Ann. (2009) Killing Neighbors: Webs of Violence in Rwanda. Ithaca/London: Cornell University Press.

Gilgen, Peter. (2003) History After Film. In Mapping Benjamin: The Work of Art in the Digital Age. Edited by Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and Michael Marrinan, 53–62. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Graham, Philip. (2009) The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches from Lisbon. Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press.

Korhonen, Kuisma. (2008) Narrating the Trauma: Georges Perec’s W ou le souvenir d’enfance. In Terror and the Arts: Artistic, Literary, and Political Interpretations of Violence from Dostoyevsky to Abu Ghraib. Edited by Matti Hyvärinen and Lisa Muszynski, 113–128. New York/Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

LaCapra, Dominick. (1998) History and Memory after Auschwitz. Ithaca/London: Cornell University Press.

Laranjeiro, Catarina. (2014) Etnografia visual da Guerra Colonial. Luta de libertação na Guiné. In O Império da Visão: Fotografia no Contexto Colonial Português (1860—1960). Edited by Filipa Lowndes Vicente, 435–446. Lisbon, Portugal: Edições 70.

Levi, Primo. (1989) The Drowned and the Saved. Translated by Raymond Rosenthal. New York: Vintage.

Lindroos, Kia, and Frank Möller. (Forthcoming) Witnessing in Contemporary Art and Politics. In Art as a Political Witness. Edited by Kia Lindroos and Frank Möller. Leverkusen-Opladen, Germany: Barbara Budrich Publishers.

Lowe, Paul. (2014) The Forensic Turn: Bearing Witness and the “Thingness” of the Photograph. In The Violence of the Image: Photography and International Conflict. Edited by Liam Kennedy and Caitlin Patrick, 211–234. London/New York: I.B. Tauris.

Margalit, Avishai. (2004) The Ethics of Memory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press.

Möller, Frank. (2013) Visual Peace: Images, Spectatorship, and the
Politics of Violence. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan

Patrick, Caitlin. (2014) Ruins and Traces: Exhibiting Conflict in Guy Tillim’s Leopold and Mobuto. In The Violence of the Image: Photography and International Conflict. Edited by Liam Kennedy and Caitlin Patrick, 235–255. London/New York: I.B. Tauris.

Pessoa, Fernando. (1996) The Book of Disquietude by Bernardo Soares, Assistant Book Keeper in the City of Lisbon. Translated with an Introduction by Richard Zenith. Revised paperback edition. Manchester: Carcanet.

Piçarra, Maria do Carmo. (2014) Azuis ultramarinos: Imagens-clarão do colonialismo português no cinema. In Imagens coloniais: Revelações da antropologia e da arte contemporânea. Edited by Nuno Faria, 71–96. Guimarães, Portugal: Centro Internacional das Artes José de Guimarães.

Porfírio, José Luís. (2010) Manuel Botelho—Aerograms for 2010. In Professores. Edited by Isabel Carlos, 71–76. Lisbon, Portugal: Centro de Arte Moderna, Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian.

Ramos, Afonso. (2014) Angola 1961, o horror das imagens. In O Império da Visão: Fotografia no Contexto Colonial Português (1860—1960). Edited by Filipa Lowndes Vicente, 399–434. Lisbon, Portugal: Edições 70.

Roberts, John. (2014) Photography and Its Violations. New York: Columbia University Press.

Rothberg, Michael. (2009) Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Shapiro, Michael J. (2009) Cinematic Geopolitics. New York/London: Routledge.

Simpson, David. (2006) 9/11: The Culture of Commemoration. Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press.

Struck, Janina. (2011) Private Pictures: Soldiers’ Inside View of War. London/New York: I.B. Tauris.

Venter, Al J. (2015) Portugal e as Guerrilhas de África: As guerras portuguesas em Angola, Moçambique e Guiné Portuguesa 1961–1974. Lisbon, Portugal: Clube de Autor.

Vicente, Filipa Lowndes, ed. (2014) O Império da Visão: Fotografia no Contexto Colonial Português (1860—1960). Lisbon, Portugal: Edições 70.

Wieviorka, Annette. (2006) The Era of the Witness. Translated by Jared Stark. Ithaca/London: Cornell University Press.

Winter, Jay. (1995) Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.