Extremism. Just by reading such a word various thoughts may come to mind. One might think of an ideology, maybe, linked to a violent form of conflict, but do you know how extremism expresses itself? Can we become extremists? What can be considered extremism?

A Wounded Soldier and His Comrade (1916) by Théophile Alexandre SteinlenNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Just like the atomic bomb was dropped with the intent of hurrying the end of the war and expending the loss of soldier’s lives.

A Scene from the Spanish War of Independence (after 1808) by Francisco de Goya y LucientesMuseum of Fine Arts, Budapest

Extremism, when in reaction to something common on society, may not have any bad intentions towards it.

But when in a revolt or a conflict, both parties easily resort to extremism, as civil wars and revolutions of this world so well showcase.

His France Revolution 1789 - RainheadLIFE Photo Collection

The French Revolution gives us the perfect example to understand this dynamic of political extremism and how it usually unfolds, more repressive and more extremist. While the revolutionaries bravely fought for their liberté, égalité, fraternité against the oppressive old regime, the kings they said for centuries had taken advantage of their people.

Revolution Holding the Head of Error and Striding over the Cadaver of Monarchy (circa 1893) by Jean-Alexandre-Joseph FalguièreLos Angeles County Museum of Art

The regime then instated, so contrary was it to the previous that it ended up falling into the same mistakes, in what came to be known as the Reign of Terror.

Eleven months of paranoia and extreme measures to ensure the victories of the French Revolution would not be threatened by counterrevolutionary movements.

The Martyr of Equality (1793) by Isaac CruikshankNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Revolutionary France would then witness massacres, lynchings and numerous guillotine executions of anyone that was seen as a threat to the revolution or seemly against it.

Severed head, said to be that of Maximilien-François-Marie-Isidore de Robespierre (1758-1794), guillotined July 28, 1794 (10 Thermidor, An II)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The paranoiac Reign of Terror would only end with the execution of its leader, Maximilien Robespierre, his allies and anyone associated by a counter revolution, the Thermidorian Reaction.

LIFE Photo Collection

However, it only incited more violence in the people and throughout France constant attacks against those associated with the Reign of Terror became common during a period coined as the White Terror.

Napoleon at the Great St. Bernard (1801) by Jaques-Louis DavidBelvedere

Ten years later and the France would cease to be a Republic and revert to the old ways, to be lead by a single figure, Napoleon Bonapart.

Emperor Napoleon I (1769-1821) (c. 1807) by Jacques-Louis DavidHarvard Art Museums

First a devout of the Republic, a consul, then a battle proven general and consequently, in 1804, elected the Emperor of the French. An Empire which would last for a decade, only to be instated again in 1852.

LIFE Photo Collection

A true republican France would only rise after 1870, a century passed since the first revolutionary fight. The conquests the French Revolution achieved for a democratic world are undeniable, yet for the french people it was not a century not of ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ but of fear, uncertainty and recurring violence, instead.

Unwritten #9 (2008) by Vernon Ah KeeArt Gallery of New South Wales

Extremism, above all, dehumanises people. Human beings become nothing but collateral damage, worth as much as any inanimate object. Humankind has dehumanised its own regularly, either because of their ethnicity, their religion or their status. Certain humans become nothing more than an aim to achieve an end, no other purpose for them and, certainly, no right to a life.

LIFE Photo Collection

Slavery goes beyond murder, it objectifies human beings to unthinkable extremes.

Hollandse koopman met twee tot slaaf gemaakte mannen in heuvellandschap (1700 - 1725) by anoniemRijksmuseum

As in forced labor camps, people become resources, from which you take your profit and discard, as their utility diminishes.

The Slavery of the Israelites (about 1400 - 1410) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Sadly, throughout history, it would have mostly been regarded as something completely acceptable.

LIFE Photo Collection

Slavery was a common practice, not extremist, not against what was expected of society.

Puppet - "Cotton Picker" (c. 1936) by Vera Van VorisNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

The people targeted would see their culture or ethnicity slandered as their own people were belittled...

Anti-slavery medallion, by Josiah Wedgwood (1787/1787)British Museum

Imprisoned to a life not of their choosing.

Gang chain (-100/43) by Manchester MuseumBritish Museum

Hauntingly, slavery still exists virtually in every country. Illegally, human trafficking, under force, fraud or coercion for compelled labor, spreads everywhere, with intercontinental networks. In 2016, according to the Global Slavery Index, there were more than 40 million people under modern slavery, almost 25 million of those subjected to forced labor. 25 million people… More people than those that today live in Shangai, China. 

Cotton-Mill Worker, North Carolina (1908) by Lewis W. HineThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The numbers increase substantially when regarding exploited children.

Sadie Pfeiffer, Spinner in Cotton Mill, North Carolina (negative 1910; print about 1920s - 1930s) by Lewis W. HineThe J. Paul Getty Museum

About 168 million children around the world are child labourers, almost three times more than the population of Italy.

Sleeping Boy Sleeping Boy (ca. 1774) by Philippe Laurent RolandThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

And while we may rest our heads and think it’s all happening in a world away from us, we deceive ourselves. We are surrounded by products manufactured in that world, we fuel that world, we even fuel slavery and forced labour because that world is the same as ours. 

LIFE Photo Collection

Behind our precious smartphones and their durable lithium ion batteries, stand the lost childhood of 35 000 children exploited in the Cobalt mines of the Republic Democratic of Congo.

Ready-to-Wear, Stuart Davis (American, 1892-1964), 1955, From the collection of: The Art Institute of Chicago
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Most of our clothes, for example, are factored in countries where employers have very little rights.

India's Caste System, Margaret Bourke-White, 1946, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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India's Caste System, Margaret Bourke-White, 1946, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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Where there isn’t any social control on employees conditions or welfare, no minimum wage or age to work

 Take a look at your clothing’s tags: is any of them made in Egypt, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Thailand and China? If yes, then you can, most probably, thank a child or a wronged person, with excruciatingly long working hours and miserable paycheks, for such a cheap bargain. 

By Ralph MorseLIFE Photo Collection

As you see, you as much as anyone else, have a role in this terrifying practice, as it certainly does not stop on mining and fashion. The business world does not care for such details, the human drive for profit, to earn more and acquire more, makes it easy to ignore all the people who have to suffer for it.

Green Wheat Fields, Auvers (1890) by Vincent van GoghNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

And if it does not care for humans, how much would we expect for it to care for the environment?

Landscape with the Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (circa 1520) by Joachim PatinirMuseum Boijmans Van Beuningen

Credits: Story


CURATORSHIP: Laura Fabíola Esteves Pereira (CITCEM), Lúcia Rosas (FLUP/CITCEM) & Maria Leonor Botelho (FLUP/CITCEM)

TEXTS: Laura Fabíola Esteves Pereira (CITCEM)


SPONSORS: Embaixada dos Estados Unidos da América em Portugal / US Embassy Portugal ACP - American Corners Portugal

Art Gallery of New South Wales
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The National Gallery, London
The Walters Art Museum
Van Gogh Museum
Yad Vashem


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