Turning the Dismantling of Monuments Into Teachable Moments, Revisited

Kara Walker, Fons Americanus, on view at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall from late 2019 to early 2020. Photograph by No Swan So Fine, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Since I wrote Turning the Dismantling of Monuments Into Teachable Moments so much has happened, so I figured that a follow up would be apt.

In the initial post, I discussed the zeitgeist during the Summer of 2020, which led to massive civil rights marches and the defacement of monuments featuring Confederate soldiers and other historical figures who upheld and promoted racism, inequality and injustice. I questioned whether monuments dedicated to bigots and oppressors actually teach us about our past and our collective culture, or whether they symbolically cling to a dangerous status quo that is threatened by an increasingly more empathetic and informed society.

Spoiler alert: they do not and their time is up!

While it is crystal clear that these statues do not deserve to see the light of day within public spaces (a majority agrees that they should go), the question of what should become of them in their “afterlife” poses a unique quandary. This issue has been discussed by many, including scholars, politicos, civic activists, artists and educators.

In my previous post, I reviewed literature by Elizabeth Scarbrough (2020) and Giulia De Giorgio (2020), that suggest meaningful approaches to dismantling statues dedicated to racists and racist ideology. They both argue, and I agree, that the fervor around removing these monuments has significant educational value. De Giorgio argues that many of the figures represented in these monuments are unfamiliar in today’s cultural lexicon. In fact, these monuments do more to obscure history than actually represent it. She asserts that, “the defacing of these statues has done more to bring their history to public attention than anything else” (De Giorgio, 2020). It has revealed ways in which their likeness portrays a skewed and whitewashed historical record that upholds the narrative of settler colonialism. By not acknowledging the harm these individuals have caused, paying tribute to them negates the histories of millions of marginalized and victimized groups. De Giorgio explains in her essay that the political symbolism these statues depict have significant ramifications for our cultural heritage at large. As long as these statues remain intact and unchanged, “we are sending a brutal message to Black individuals about how (countries) view and value their place in society” (De Giorgio, 2020).

On that note, James Lowen’s book, Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1999), is a fantastic resource for identifying the breadth of the markers, plaques, statues, monuments and other historic sites throughout the United States, and understanding the lies, misinformation and omissions that are reflected and supplemented through them.

Scarbrough posits that the demise of these deceitful monuments can have long lasting positive pedagogical ramifications. She advocates for their overall removal and for the documentation of the statues that remain but have been altered. For example, she explains that the iconoclasm committed during the civil rights protests offers a contemporary exposé of changing moods and understandings around unbalanced historical recording and present social injustice. She writes that examples such as the beheading of the 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).

Nearly a year after the mass civil rights protests of 2020, the Robert E. Lee monument, which became one of the centerpieces of the iconoclasm, was finally removed by the city of Charlottesville. Its transfer outside of the public realm has actually opened up a unique opportunity for collective healing and learning. The City Council voted unanimously to donate the statue to the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, where it will be melted down into raw material that will be used to create a new public artwork.

There have been many prior artistic responses that expose troubling monuments and bring awareness to their harmful aesthetic and contextual symbolism. Some of these examples, such as Kehinde Wiley’s Rumors of War and Kara Walker’s Fons Americanus were mentioned in the initial post. Also previously mentioned is the work of Joiri Minaya and Nona Faustine.

Both Wiley and Walker created an entirely new monument by appropriating the style of neocolonialist and classical art. Their work utilizes visual archetypes of colonialism and Eurocentrism, in order to dismantle white supremacist hegemony and elevate the Black diaspora. Wiley’s Rumors of War does this by presenting an equestrian sculpture depicting a powerful and poised Black man in a grandiose pose which is generally attributed to historical white figures.

I didn’t really get into the vision and concept behind Walker’s work in the earlier post, so I will now. Fons Americanus took the opposite approach to Wiley’s optimistic rendering. Instead of a celebratory depiction, her monument symbolically narrated the spoils of European imperialism, most notably via its exploitation of Africa and the Caribbean. The sculpture, albeit delicate and beautiful in its design, exhibited a very graphic scene of the Atlantic slave trade and the horrific legacy of slavery in the British colonies.

At the end of its yearlong display at the Tate Museum in London, Fons Americanus was destroyed (the materials used to make the artwork were all recyclable). The act of dismantling it communicates several enduring messages. First, that Black men, women and children who lose their lives at the hands of white supremacy will never get true justice because past and present history continues to devalue and erase them. And if they are portrayed, it is typically in a negative or stereotypical manner, which characterizes them as weak, menacing and/or inferior. Additionally, the destruction reflects the defining attitudes of social justice activists and the plurality of the populace, who believe that the ideals behind the monuments dedicated to racist and oppressive figures should not be memorialized.

Minaya and Faustine use preexisting monuments as the basis for creating artworks that distort and obstruct the subject matter. By covering up the likenesses of figures in monuments, they are raising our awareness to a forgotten history. This other history is representative of the marginalized, exploited, and victimized individuals whose fate was often decided by the very figures and ideologies represented in historic monuments.

Philosopher, Susan Neiman, writes that “Monuments are not just a matter of heritage; that’s why we don’t memorialize everything. Monuments are values made visible, embodying ideals we choose to honor.” We cannot call ourselves a civilization that values freedom and opportunity for all if we display statues of slave owners in our streets, parks and plazas. The work of the aforementioned artists, as well as the latest developments regarding the transformation of the Robert E. Lee monument into a future work of community-based art, present a framework that can inspire collective responses to wrongful events and ideologies from our past and present history.

Artists, educators, students and the public at large have an important role in shaping and elevating the values of our diverse communities. We can work together and give an empowered vision and voice to the memories and lived experiences that are too often muted and traumatized by systemic oppression. I think that the following quote in a recent CNN article (see: Williams and Simonson, 2021), from Andrea Douglas, the Executive Director of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, summarizes this objective the best: “The goal for us when we started this process was to take something that has been traumatic in our community, a symbol of racism, and turn it into something that can cause our community to heal. We are hoping that this process will be the complete antithesis to the process that put the [Lee] statue in our community to begin with.”

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

Neiman, Susan. “Germany confronted its racist legacy. Britain and the US must do the same,” The Guardian, 13 June 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jun/13/germany-confronted-racist-legacy-britain-us

Scarbrough, Elizabeth. “Burying the Dead Monuments.” Aesthetics for Birds, 18 June 2020. https://aestheticsforbirds.com/2020/06/18/burying-the-dead-monuments/

Rooney, Sierra, Wingate, Jennifer and Senie, Harriet F (eds.). 2021.Teachable Monuments: Using Public Art to Spark Dialogue and Confront Controversies, (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021).

Williams, David and Simonson, Amy. “A Black museum plans to melt down Charlottesville Robert E. Lee statue to create new art,” CNN.com, 8 December, 2021. https://www.cnn.com/2021/12/08/us/charlottesville-lee-statue-melted-trnd/index.html


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