The Collective Memory Exhibition aims to highlight the role of visual culture in recording narratives shared by social communities. Its significance resides mainly in the effort to bring together artworks from five different countries, each presenting visual self-concepts shaped by collective memory. The communities of people are represented here by young people of different nationalities who study art or art education at university or are recent graduates from universities (young professionals). Hence it can be assumed that they share a cultural identity as members of a social group defined, for example, by nation, generation, milieu and occupation (art students). Such groups are characterised by historical narratives constituted by shared memories of events, otherwise known as collective memories (Heersmink, 2021). Those events are not necessarily directly experienced by the group members who interpret them through collective memory.


It was the French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs who first investigated the role of collective memories in his books published in 1925 (Les cadres sociaux de la mémoire) and in 1950 (La mémoire collective). He claims that every person has not only her/his own memories, but also shares group memories. As Grundlingh & Huigen (2011, p. 2) explain: “The environment in which one grew up and in which one lives forms a framework which determines the shape and content of memories and helps to codetermine identities. Groups can even produce memories in individuals which they never ‘experienced’ in a direct sense.”


According to Halbwachs, the identities and memories of individuals are formed by social groupings. Furthermore, it is in the nature of collective memories to change as time passes by. What is remembered depends on the interests and pre-occupations of the present (Grundlingh & Huigen, 2011, p. 2). Cultural identity is multi-faceted because individuals form part of various social groups based on nationality, geographical location, gender, race, class, political orientation, religion, profession, hobbies, generation, family, etc (Heersmink, 2021).


Belonging to the field of cultural history, the study of collective memory has become enormously popular during the last decades, even though it has been plagued by methodological problems and conceptual shortcomings. For the purposes of this essay, we prefer to quote Wulf Kansteiner (2002, p. 180) who describes the conceptualisation of collective memory “as the result of the interaction among three types of historical factors: the intellectual and cultural traditions that frame all our representations of the past, the memory makers who selectively adopt and manipulate these traditions, and the memory consumers who use, ignore, or transform such artifacts according to their own interests.”


Clearly the cultural traditions of the past play an important role in the process of collective memory construction. These cultural traditions may also be referred to as cultural memory which consists of “objectified culture, that is, the texts, rites, images, buildings, and monuments which are designed to recall fateful events in the history of the collective” (Kansteiner, 2002, p. 182). What precisely was recorded and preserved of those cultural traditions was decided by what he calls the “memory makers” – distinct from individuals who are relatively powerless in the process of collective memory formation (Kansteiner, 2010, p. 3). The “memory makers” are the agents – social, political, institutional, etc – responsible for writing/narrating/visualising the events and for sharing communications about the meaning of the past (Kansteiner, 2002, p. 188).


When looking at the individual artworks in the exhibition, it becomes clear that the artists express in the first place their personal memories, but these have already been shaped by social and political forces and events surrounding them. Depending on the social group with which the artist identifies most intimately, the artworks will reflect the collective memories of that particular group – be it her/his family, gender, generation, ethnic group, church, nation, etc. The events or narratives that characterise the particular group form the subject matter of the artwork which the artist can manipulate to present a new interpretation. For example, artists who feel strongly about their cultural legacy can engage with ritual objects, oral tradition, customs and indigenous knowledge of the past to enforce their allegiance to that group/nation/continent.


What is remembered from the past is determined by interests of the present. For example, incidences that took place a long time ago and are remembered by means of monuments can be re-imagined and subverted in an effort to bring along transformation. Art becomes a means to deal with trauma and envisage a better future. Art can also be used to express feelings of exclusion from a dominant cultural group. Considering themselves as ‘others’ by birth and upbringing, artists wrestling with a sense of not belonging can use their art to shift the parameters of identity. In this way, artists of the present can in turn become ‘memory makers’ while the viewers of the exhibition are the ‘memory consumers’ who can choose to use, ignore or re-interpret the artworks according to their own interests.



Our analysis of the works selected for this essay demonstrates that the artists draw on memories from a variety of collectives that transcend the boundaries of conventional social groupings (see section A). Apart from the formal groups, we identified groupings focused on the spiritual as well as unconscious or hidden collectives, the relation to which is a kind of implicit belonging. These distinctions refine the general understanding of the ‘collective’ in collective memory.


It has also been shown that a broad range of different kinds of ‘memory’ (from a single event, a historical fact and an interpreted experience to general narratives – see section B) shapes the works. Coming back to Kansteiner’s theory, this means that we have to differentiate his concept, especially when it comes to artworks that are understood as agents in the perception and creation (consuming and making – see section C) of collective memory. What we can deduce from the section on artistic strategies is that the transition between simple representation or expression on the one hand and active creation on the other is fluent and flexible. We can even find examples that use more than one strategy simultaneously.


This means that we have to understand the artists as “memory makers” (Kansteiner, 2002). They are presenting their interpretations, their positions. The viewers then become the “memory consumers” who can identify with, subvert or reject the positions proposed in the artists’ works. Their decision how to posit themselves in relation to the artworks depends on their own memories of the subject depicted. The artworks, as artefacts of cultural tradition and as carriers of meaning, serve as conduits to trigger and to sharpen collective memories within the viewer.



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