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The historical dimensions of the archive

Text by Bárbara Lissa and Camille Relet
A dialogue with artist Raquel Bravo

A Spanish Salesian man travelled on a mission of evangelisation to Mato Grosso, Brazil, during the 60s and 70s. His goal was to meet indigenous populations, such as Bororos, Karajás and Xavantes, and introduce them to Christian religion. For this mission, he took a Zeiss camera with him to photograph the populations. The photographs are now in the family collection of Spanish photographer Raquel Bravo, selected and put together by Bravo’s mother, along with their family photographs.The family album is, at the same time, a document made of or by a real community as well as the visual construction of an ‘imaginary community’. The family invents itself through a visual narrative and sets itself in the world, projecting this group into the future. Through her father’s photographs, who passed away when the artist was still very young, a narrative was constructed around him and the family, based on an imagined idea of what the trips to the indigenous tribes of Brazil were like.

A few years later, Raquel Bravo appropriated the album in her visual practice, organised to give a sense of cohesion and belonging from a critical perspective. “From the discrepancies between the images and his own account of the story, negotiation of meaning begins, where my family’s foundational fantasies and their representation in our family album come into play, along with the operating power structures present in colonialism, capitalism, and the Catholic missions”, she attests on her website, thus questioning hers and her own family’s biography.

Regarding the complex discussion around identity, it is possible to say that the small family group is part of a larger, national group, which is also built from founding myths, and an alleged common originary past that creates a sense of national culture and tradition (Hall, 2006). Within the colonisation of the American peoples, European countries have created a norm based on themselves and looked at the colonised as the Other, turning them into something “less than human beings” (Lugones, 2010: 75). Faced with this, the only option of the American peoples was to accept and submit to European culture, language and religion. This structure has not changed much, since even after the end of the Portuguese colonisation of Brazil, in the 19th century, traits of coloniality remain present, as the missionary photographs of Bravo’s father from the 1970s render visible.

Throughout her childhood, the artist grew up surrounded by artefacts from Brazil and hearing stories about the lives and culture of the indigenous tribes visited by her father. Some of the images depict artefacts that were used by the indigenous population in Brazil, then taken to Spain by her father and used as decorative objects.

© Raquel Bravo, Mato Grosso, 2018.

In Potencial History: Unlearning Imperialism (2019), Ariella Azoulay proposes a non-linear temporal reading of the origins of photography, moving it from the official date of creation of the physical-chemical equipment, and going back as a political practice to 1492. For Azoulay, photography is the perpetuation of a colonial repertoire that positions the photographer as a specialist who can invade, catalogue, document, enter any territory, culture, population and register, with a camera, whatever they want, even if the photographed do not want him to. According to Azoulay, this is a “violence for everything to be shown and exhibited” (Azoulay, 2019) configuring itself in a right to see. We see a double colonial practice here: Christianisation and ethnological photography, which both construct the indigenous image as the exotic Other.

Her photobook “Mato Grosso” (2021) is a reaction to the discovery of her father’s archive. It started as an exploration, deconstruction and reconstruction of these two archives through photomontages: the archive of the indigenous people and the archive of the artist’s childhood and family life growing up in Spain through the 80’s and 90’s. Bravo shifts these photographs to a new construction: the constitution of a new archive which perceives these images from an ethical standpoint. The artist compiles the photographs of Brazilians indigenous side by side with photographs from her own family album, placing both groups not in hierarchy, but in equivalence. Who am I and who is the Other?

© Raquel Bravo, Mato Grosso, 2018.

Photographs portraying the daily life and rituals of the tribes are carefully associated with photographs capturing her own family’s rituals and events. As you look through the pages you catch glimpses of a multiplicity of histories and memories from both collections being deconstructed and intertwined, thus creating a new interpretation. Unlike what we experience in the usual family album, the photographs were associated with other images not chronologically, but through correspondents and echoes between past and present.

In order not to vilify her family, but to understand history and so to produce new futures, the project highlights the disonnances between the romancised stories her father told her as a child, what he intentionally omitted and what resurfaced with the archive. The existence and discovery of the first album as a foundation of the second one, completely transformed its meaning.

© Raquel Bravo, Mato Grosso, 2018.


I often work with family albums (from my own family and remnants found in flea markets). I find interesting the dance between the public and the private, the institutional and the personal that is produced in this kind of material. I am interested in the way in which the warmth associated with the domestic is lost in the coldness and constrain specific to the functions that the images perform and, in reverse, how, from that rigidity real relationships can be glimpsed. Materiality is also important and, above all, I am interested in the places where the narrative that the images are supposed to provide begins to crack. Archive opens up discussion: sometimes through a pleasurable formal investigation that gradually drifts into contextual studies. It is also detective work which, in my case, probably has a lot to do with the cinematographic imaginary in which some agents try to fill in the gaps, traces and evidence that happen between images and generate paths with weaker or stronger connections.


Ten years ago my understanding of photography was still very much conditioned by notions of modernity (originality, authorship, technical skill, beauty...). These are categories that I am now more critical of. Moreover, I was inclined to fall into some kind of idealistic and monistic vision. Also, as I have begun to work with archives, I have started to reflect on their material conditions, and this has consequently made me move away from too self-absorbed, too allegorical and/or excessively cosmetic or subjective work.

© Raquel Bravo, Mato Grosso, 2018.


I definitely don't have Archive Fever, as defined by Derrida. In any case, mine would be “archive passion”, which is something unjustified and somewhat arbitrary, or just the result of my life experiences and of minor and circumstantial things such as the fact that my parents have been handling photo albums since I was a child or buying me picture books to entertain me.

© Raquel Bravo, Mato Grosso, 2018.


A few years ago I participated in a photographic workshop. Between our hands passed pictures of Nazis, invasions and liberations, rites of passage, folk culture, communism, liberalism, war and death... but we also had to deal with deliberate omissions and with history written by the victors and packaged (archived) as polished narratives on a dense tangle of present, past and reality. Throughout the workshop the question hovered over our legitimacy to address one topic or the other. It was as difficult not to fall into banality as it was easy to poke our finger into wounds that nobody wanted to open. Each one of us was torn between one or the other position. Some of us, at the cost of some sleeplessness, anxiety and a lot of work. This made me appreciate how, through the archive, it is less difficult to forget about the other: whether it is the other who reads you in the present, the one who has written before you or the one who will comment on you in the future. With the archive it is impossible to become completely self-absorbed. And this is what I really love about it.


[1] Hall, 2006.

[2] Lugones, 2010, p. 75.


AZOULAY, Ariella. Potencial History: Unlearning Imperialism. 2019

LUGONES, Maria. Toward a Decolonial Feminism. 2010

HALL, Stuart. The Question of Cultural Identity. 1996


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