This is the first of the two-part post. Part 2, which can be found here, examines the implications for the Caribbean.
As an art historian and curator, I am supposed to be beholden to the preservation of art and my response to any incident whereby an art work is deliberately damaged or destroyed is expected to be abhorrence and denouncement, with appeals for more conservative approaches such as removal to a museum. There are, however, moments when the destruction, alteration or violent take-down of a work of art has significant symbolic potency, particularly when it involves public art, and may in fact be called for. And in some cases, such interventions become symbolically powerful, performative creative acts in and of themselves, which is the main reason why I am interested in them.
Public monuments, because of their collective symbolic value, their fundamentally propagandist nature and association with power, and their visibility and accessibility in the public domain, often serve as a lightning rod for the social and political frictions that trouble the societies in which they stand. And, irrespective of their historical value and artistic merit (which varies significantly as public statues are often among the most uninspired and conservative works of art), many are indeed very problematic representations that publicly propagate oppressive and obsolete ideas, historical narratives, and power structures. Such monuments are a form of symbolic and representational violence, that is met with retaliatory counter-violence when they are defaced or torn down.
A number of racist and colonialist public statues have been forcibly removed or defaced in recent days during the increasingly widespread Black Lives Matter uprising. Initially, the protests were limited to the US, where several Confederate and colonialist statues have been targeted, but the take-down of such statues has spread to other parts of the globe along with the unrest. Along with the forcible removals, there are also numerous new and revived campaigns and petitions to have certain problematic statues removed and replaced. This widespread iconoclastic fervor — and I do not see that in a negative light — suggests that we are presently dealing with epochal, potentially revolutionary changes. In such contexts, symbolic actions matter a great deal and careful attention has to be paid to what is being said and negotiated in the process.
By far the most publicized and visually eloquent of these take-downs has been the dramatic removal, on June 7, of the statue of the pioneer slaver Edward Colston in Bristol, England, which was taken down from its base, splashed with blood red paint, rolled down the streets, and dumped into the River Avon by a group of protesters — as several observers have noted, this hauntingly paralleled the manner in which ill or rebellious enslaved persons were thrown overboard on slave-ships, resulting in a kind of symbolic justice.
The Colston statue take-down attracted significant attention in the international media and may have spurred actions and campaigns against other statues. Soon after, the Art Newspaper announced that “Statues of Slavers Around London Could Be Pulled Down Under Mayor’s New Diversity Plan,” in one of those instances where the headline said it all. And in Oxford, protesters were today demanding the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes, which is particularly interesting case given the very prestigious Oxford scholarship that is named after him.
In Antwerp, Belgium, a statue of King Leopold II, of Congo Free State infamy, was removed by the authorities after it was splashed with paint, covered with graffiti, and damaged by fire, and there is a well-supported petition campaign to remove an equestrian statue of Leopold II in Brussels, which had already in 2018 been splashed with red paint — major developments in a country (my home country) that has been very reluctant and slow to tackle its troubling colonial history. While I was writing this post, the news reports about statue take-downs in various parts of the world came up at such a dizzying rate that I could barely keep up.
It is worth taking a closer look at the Colston statue removal, as this statue is historically relevant to the Caribbean and exemplifies the deeply problematic nature of many colonialist monuments. The wording on the dedication plaque of the Edward Colston statue, an 1895 work by the Victorian artist John Cassidy, reads as follows: “Erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city AD 1895.” That a person could be involved in the brutal Transatlantic slave trade and related exploitative mercantile activities, as the main source of his wealth, and still be lauded as an exemplary citizen and philanthropist, well illustrates the blind spots of history, as it has been conventionally narrated and understood in the West.
The statue had been a source of contention for many years, in a city with a large, politically active and restive black population, and there have been many calls for its removal or re-contextualization. A municipal decision to replace its dedication plaque to one with wording that would speak to his role in the development of the slave trade was delayed for years, because of disputes about the new wording and who should appropriately write it.
There have also been several artistic interventions into the Colston statue, including guerilla interventions at the site of the monument. Perhaps the earliest one was a large-size photograph of the statue was the basis of a 2006 work by the Guyanese-Scottish artist Hew Locke, who overlaid the image with symbols of the fabled riches Colston accrued. In 2018, the statue was yarn-bombed with a-red ball-and-chain attached to the figure’s legs, in a clear reference to Colston’s role in slavery, which also draws subtly humorous attention to the figure’s improbable pose and expression. That same year, an installation consisting of life-size figures laid out in the familiar shape of a slave ship diagram appeared at the base of the statue — many felt that this intervention should have been kept. And soon after its June 7 removal, Banksy, who is from Bristol, suggested in an Instagram post that the discarded statue could be repurposed in a monument to its removal — it was not clear whether he was serious, but he may in fact be onto something.
I admittedly have a weak-spot for yarn-bombing, or guerilla-knitting, as a form of street art whereby sculptures and other objects are covered, in full or in part, with knitted or crocheted surfaces and objects. While rarely destructive and usually impermanent, such gendered “craft” interventions use visual humour to talk back to power and patriarchy (which also needs to be questioned in the present context) in ways which are very clear and effective In doing so, they also question and subvert the stodgy, masculinist “high art” status of monumental sculptures. Perhaps it is not wise to say things like this right now but our Queen Victoria statue here in Kingston, Jamaica, would be an excellent candidate for some clever yarn-bombing.
What these examples illustrate, however, is that the meaning of colonial and racist statues can be questioned, subverted and altered with creative interventions that do not always have to involve destruction or permanent removal, as it is not necessarily advisable to silence what has been a momentous part of history, no matter how problematic and contentious. What matters more, however, is to give voice to those parts of history that have been silenced., which remains a major issue in the Caribbean context.
Read part 2 here.
I do find a lot of the dialogue around these subjects very interesting. I suspect that part of the problem that occurs with this subject is the fact that we almost always seem to have this discussion when there are people in the streets. This is a very difficult time to have the discussion, primarily because tensions are high, and in any argument snap judgments are often made. Usually when the dust settles we tend to find several mistakes on either side of the argument. This is a difficult one, because there can be several desires to retain these monuments and place these works in proper contexts to give the viewer a full understanding of the same. However, context itself is such an immaterial thing and it can very easily change at a moment’s notice, given the political climate. When Saddam Hussain’s statue was being toppled the argument of “giving proper context” may seem less meaningful to some under those political conditions. While, as the Taliban destroyed centuries old sculpture the world collectively wept. Here is another more recent and local example, just a few days ago a local protester was calling into question the validity of Laura Facey’s monument at emancipation park. I was looking to see what the art community would say in the form of tweets and other various posts, after all, so many of us have exhausted or BLM slogans…. the radio silence was deafening…..now, I would think that a public monument serves the public, and not a collective of art enthusiasts. As we all know, that particular monument is not short on its share of controversy. Are we to then go down a list of monuments and choose which ones to save and which ones to deface? Which ones to give new contexts and which ones to simply leave alone because of the power dynamics involved? I propose that that body of judges who were assigned such a task would come under as much scrutiny as the sculptures themselves, and we haven’t even gotten to the list of works just yet. There are several other figures that have come under this similar scrutiny and I suspect that those “contextualizations” would be viciously contested here in Jamaica. Folks like Gandhi, Nanny of the Maroons and others don’t necessarily enjoy the unchallenged praise that we imagine. Like I said at the start, these are very complex issues being discussed under much social strain and pressure and it is very easy at a time like this to make gross errors in the fog of war. One thing is certain. Something has to be done to give the viewing public a full understanding of what it is that they are looking at when they look at a monument.