The recent iconoclasm via the removal, distortion and/or defacement of statues, plaques and reliefs dedicated to historical figures who have had intrinsic connections to horrific social and racial injustices, has been met with conflicting perspectives from various factions throughout the world. Critics who advocate for the destruction of these problematic icons have cited numerous historical references, expounding a powerful argument that our history is largely written from a white supremacist point of view. Although we would like to think of ourselves as being ‘woke,’ the historical bias and propaganda involving major events throughout global history may still come as a revelation to some people across the cultural sphere. Additionally, others continue to remain willingly ignorant and outright dismissive of calls for the reflection and assessment of time-honored traditions centered around oppressive narratives of a Western civilization that was forged by slavery, cultural displacement, erasure and genocide. Their argument is that these monuments express important aspects and symbols of history and culture, and that removing them is dishonoring the past.
Is it really substantial to say that monuments are the best determiners of what is worth remembering and honoring? This statement is especially dubious to believe, particularly when these questionable objects are basically nothing more than a figurative representation of someone’s likeness. Are they really teaching us about our past and our collective culture, or are they symbolically clinging to a dangerous status quo that is threatened by an increasingly more empathetic and informed society?
Art historian, Giulia De Giorgio (2020), states that the likeness of many of the people honored in these questionable statues are fairly unrecognizable individuals to begin with. How many households are truly familiar with the likes of Braxton Bragg, Wade Hampton III, Edward Colston or Robert Miligan? Furthermore, the malevolent deeds of these individuals are never referenced, which in the case of Colston was the impetus for his noted philanthropy (using money he made from the transatlantic slave trade). When statues of King Leopold II were being defaced in Brussels, it was the first time that many individuals from the larger culture recognized his role in the murder of nearly 10 million Black people in what is now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is clear that maintaining these sculptures in public spaces does little to educate people, but their destruction can be a valid and vital teachable moment. As De Giorgio asserts, if the cultural institutions and educational curricula in imperialist nations like Great Britain, Belgium and the United States of America were adequately transparent and representative of their positive and negative global impact then “we would not have to depend on these statues to function as a reminder of our past” (De Giorgio, 2020). In fact, if the purpose of these statues and monuments is indeed to educate and remind us of our collective cultural histories, then they fall “perfectly in line with the frequent whitewashing of history to have the oppression of racial minorities be represented by the image of a white man who contributed to it” (De Giorgio, 2020).
Philosopher, Elizabeth Scarbrough (2020), writes that we should neither expect nor desire these monuments to be eternal. However, their ultimate and timely demise can have long lasting ramifications for our cultural heritage. She advocates for their overall removal and for the documentation of the statues that remain but have been altered. She explains, “the beheaded Christopher Columbus statue offers a strikingly apt representation of today’s mood. The head of the colonizer lying on the street speaks volumes. The projection of George Floyd’s image over the statue of Robert E Lee is equally potent. Projections like these and graffiti tagging/art are ephemeral. These images must be preserved to document this particular time-slice of the monument’s life” (Scarbrough, 2020).
Like De Giorgio and Scarbrough, I believe that the removal of monuments can and should be a ‘teachable moment.’ Culture is constantly in flux, which is a good thing. History has marginalized many important people, places and events, while remembering and celebrating some people, places and events that should be buried but not completely forgotten (we should never forget the sordid reasons for why history sometimes rewards unsavory individuals). I resonate with Scarbrough’s statements about why documenting the removal, alteration and ultimate ‘death’ of these monuments is necessary. As artists, art historians and art educators, we can be on the front lines of this moment in time along with our students, audience and communities, and help to ensure that these actions become ongoing lessons on how we might work towards equal, equitable and justice driven communities that better represent our collective culture. Some powerful responses to these issues have come from artists who have brought attention to the lack of equity, equality and social justice. Nona Faustine, Steve Locke, Kehinde Wiley, Kara Walker and Joiri Minaya are just some of the artists working towards re-presenting history from the lens of the oppressed communities who have not benefited from freedom of expression and the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness that has been afforded to the subjects in the aforementioned monuments.
Faustine’s My Country series, is an artistic examination of iconic, yet contested monuments in the United States. She uses photographic abstraction and mechanical distortion to shift our perspective and question who and what these monuments serve. Through Faustine’s imagery, the narratives of Black Americans’ suffering and sacrifice are re-positioned within a dialogue that universally celebrates figures from our nation’s history. She exposes the hypocrisy of the founding fathers and other ‘pioneers,’ whose monuments decree their commitment to liberation and justice, while simultaneously downplaying or ignoring their abuse of power and dehumanization of Black and Indigenous communities. In Praise of Famous Men No More, a vibrant, blood red line is drawn through the Equestrian Statue of Theodore Roosevelt, which has been installed outside the entrance to the Museum of Natural History in New York City for decades. The statue will soon be removed in light of activists like Faustine who called attention to the statue’s white supremacist symbolism (see: Loewen, 1999). Faustine’s treatment of the image is symbolism for Roosevelt’s violence against Black and Indigenous people. The grainy red line that bisects the photograph alludes to blood splatter and cardiac flatline.
Kehinde Wiley’s Rumors of War is a statue that appropriates the archetypal image of equestrian statues (a la the aforementioned Teddy Roosevelt sculpture and the statue of Gen. Lee), but bucks history by replacing the oft-white male figure with a young Black man dressed in contemporary fashion (similar to the subjects within his intricate paintings). Rumors of War is installed outside of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, where it serves as a potent rebuttal to the plethora of Confederate statues and monuments that once infiltrated the city’s Monument Avenue (only one Confederate themed monument still remains at the time of this post, which is the statue of Robert E. Lee that has been altered by Black Lives Matter activists).
Joiri Minaya, an artist of Dominican-American heritage, utilizes significant tropical patterns as a medium for art and protest in The Cloaking (2019-2020). Minaya fits colorful fabrics over statues of figures like Christopher Columbus and Ponce de León, whose brutal colonization of the Americas has been whitewashed, in order to uphold the imperialistic narrative of manifest destiny and white supremacy. The Cloaking highlights how the colonialists appropriated native imagery such as tropical flora as a commodity that exploits and blurs Caribbean identities. Minaya’s tropical motifs cite the ethnobotany, social, cultural and historical experiences and identities of Indigenous and Afro-diasporic peoples in the Americas. She explains:
“I’ve been working with existing mass-produced patterns and processing them, re-contextualizing or deconstructing them to present them in ways that questions the origin of these designs and the philosophies, fantasies and histories they represent. In 2019 I started designing my own version of “tropical” patterns, highlighting plants that as opposed to being merely decorative, were also culturally meaningful and had a rich history to Native and Black people of the Americas and the Caribbean. I’ve been particularly drawn to species that relate to (hi)stories of resistance, plants that symbolize the resilience and hope of the Caribbean people in the face of hardship and adversities, flora that speaks of transformation and healing, highlighting stories of survival but also speaking of continuity, nurture, solace and spiritual strength. I’m also interested in celebrating the botanical knowledge of our ancestors and inviting new generations to learn more about it.”
Going forward, it would behoove us to consider whether we need to construct monuments to specific individuals altogether. Alternatively, perhaps there are more equitable and relevant subjects we could focus on, which would be uplifting to diverse communities who haven’t seen themselves reflected in the oeuvre of public monuments. Good empowering examples include Augusta Savage’s Harlem Renaissance era sculptural busts of Black community members and Sherwin Banfield’s A Cypher in Queens, which is a multimedia sculpture paying homage to Queens, New York’s history as a hotbed for hip-hop pioneers. The lyrics “I never let a statue tell me how nice I am” are aptly and ironically carved into Banfield’s rendering of Phife Dawg (depicted on the right in the photograph above), co-founder and co-MC of the legendary hip-hop collective, A Tribe Called Quest. It is just one of the many philosophical musings from the duo who frequently explored, expressed and valued their identities.
Educators can bring images of these monumental artworks into their classroom, in order to raise essential questions about historical bias, collective memory and identity, such as: “What is history, who records it and what might be some reasons why certain people and events are left out?” “What is a memorial? Who decides what to memorialize and how does that affect and reflect social ideologies?” “How might our collective memory change as a result of opening up more inclusive dialogues and learning about the stories of historically marginalized people?”
References, Notes, Suggested Reading:
De Giorgio, Giulia. “Statue-gate: History or hiding?” York Art History Society, 18 June 2020. https://yorkarthistory.wordpress.com/2020/06/18/statue-gate-history-or-hiding/
Loewen, James (1999). Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. p. 45
Scarbrough, Elizabeth. “Burying the Dead Monuments.” Aesthetics for Birds, 18 June 2020. https://aestheticsforbirds.com/2020/06/18/burying-the-dead-monuments/