Creative Iconoclasm: What To Do With Those Colonial Monuments? – Part 2

josephine beheaded
Gabriel -Vital Dubray – statue of Empress Josephine (1859), La Savanne, Fort-de-France, Martinique (decapitated in 1991) (Photo: Veerle Poupeye)

This is the second part of a two-part post. Part 1 can be found here.

The Caribbean is replete with statues that represent similar ideas about White Supremacy and Colonialism. Some of these statues date from the Plantation era but others, such as the Columbus Lighthouse in Santo Domingo, which was unveiled in 1992, are of more recent dates and are associated with oppressive political regimes in the postcolonial era. Calls are mounting, as the present upheaval inevitably and necessarily resonates in the Caribbean, to remove several of those.

There is a long-standing campaign, in Barbados, for instance, to remove the statue of Lord Nelson, which stands on what is now called National Heroes Square (formerly Trafalgar Square) in front of the Parliament building and more recently there have also been calls to remove the Queen Victoria and Columbus statues in Jamaica and the Bahamas. Some are of the view, however, that such statues are part of the region’s history and should therefore remain, while others suggest that they should be moved to museums, where they can be more easily contextualized and interpreted. For the latter is one of the problems with public art, in that it is more difficult, without significant interventions, to present such works in a frame that provides a critical context which counters their original, and often still quite effective, propagandist messages.

Errol Ross Brewster - Queen Victoria
Errol Ross Brewster – Exploring Victoria’s Secrets (1981) – all rights reserved by the Artist

There is a fairly long history of protest actions against such statues in the Caribbean, including removal and defacement, which has usually occurred at times of socio-political upheaval. In Georgetown, Guyana, the Queen Victoria statue was dynamited in 1954. As Nigel Westmaas has documented, its head was subsequently re-attached and the statue remained in place until 1970 when Guyana became a Corporate Republic (the country had become independent in 1966). The statue was moved to the Georgetown Botanical Gardens, where it remained for many years. A 1981 photograph by the Guyanese artist Errol Ross Brewster captured a group of children playing and clambering on the statue, with one girl quite irreverently seated on its head, in what was surely an inadvertent but potent anti-colonial statement in and of itself, as it suggests that the Empire the statue once represented had lost its hold over them.

The dynamiting, which only partially damaged the statue – blowing of its head and left arm, along with the scepter and orb – was a protest action against colonial rule, at a time when Guyana was going through a period of leftist political radicalization which was countered with active repression by the colonial authorities (the specific trigger was the 1953 election victory of the radical, anti-colonial People’s Progressive Party). The marble statue, which dates from 1894 and was made by the English artist Henry Richard Hope-Pinker, was restored and reinstalled in 1990 in what may have been a way to suggest that Guyana had moved past its radical phase and was again “open for business” and foreign investment. Its re-installation generated its own debates, but the statue remains in place today, although it was, according to Westmaas, in 2018 splashed with red paint.

The dynamiting of the Georgetown Queen Victoria statue is the only major, politically motivated protest act against a colonial era statue in the Anglophone Caribbean to date. There is however an interesting counterpart in Fort-de-France, Martinique, where the statue of Empress Josephine was beheaded in 1991 and later on also splashed with blood red paint.

Josephine was born to a planter’s family in Martinique, and had first married Alexandre de Beauharnais, the son of the colonial governor. Her estranged first husband was guillotined in Paris during the Reign of Terror and Josephine then met the young Napoleon, who she married in 1796. This marriage, too, fell apart and she retired to the Malmaison estate in France, where she died in 1814. The Martinique statue of Josephine was carved by the French Empire sculptor Gabriel-Vital Dubray in 1859.

Martinique is one of a number of islands in the Caribbean that have not become independent states and it is since 1946 an Overseas Department of France. While this has certain economic and administrative advantages, this ambivalent neo-colonial status is a source of significant social, racial and cultural tensions. There is an active separatist movement, spearheaded by the Martinique Independence Movement, a left-wing party which is represented on the Regional Council of Martinique and the French Parliament. The beheading of the statue of Josephine needs to be seen in the context of this separatist agitation, with Josephine being targeted as a symbol of Martinique’s colonial history and continued dependence on France.

The beheading of the statue also makes more specific historic references, to the guillotining of Josephine’s first husband and to the role of Martinican planter families such as hers in maintaining slavery during the French Revolution. Slavery had been briefly abolished by the French Revolutionary government in 1794 but was re-established in 1802 by Napoleon, a decision which, it is believed, was influenced by Josephine. This makes her a contested historical figure in Martinique, even though her name and image are very present in the island, especially in the tourism industry. Slavery was finally abolished in the French colonies in 1848. The decapitation of the Josephine statue thus also references the tensions, historically and in the present, between the black majority of Martinique and the planter class.

Interestingly, there have been no attempts at restoring the statue and it has been kept on view “as is,” although it has been moved from the center of the Savanne park, where it was originally located, to a more visible location near the edge of the park. By maintaining the statue in its present, transformed form, it is allowed to make a new, subversive and very potent political statement that is dramatically different from what was originally intended, as it has effectively become a counter-monument. Perhaps it took a poet-mayor, Aimé Césaire, to see this potential.

There was another instance of politically motivated iconoclasm in Martinique last month, whereby two statues of the French Abolitionist Victor Schœlcher, one colonial and one modern, were smashed by protesters. The underlying message was that black Martinicans did not need to pay monumental tribute to a white savior and benefactor, which is an important shift in terms of how Emancipation had been customarily presented. And there have also been a few artistic interventions into colonial monuments that were orchestrated within the Caribbean. One was the 2018 commissioned intervention by Hew Locke into a photographic facsimile of Barbados’s contested Nelson statue, for the Arrivants exhibition at the Barbados Museum and Historical Society (which I co-curated with Allison Tbompson). Another was a postcard-based project for the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas by the Dominican artist Joiri Minaya, who covered the Columbus statue in front of the Government House in Nassau, The Bahamas, with colourful fabric.

Hew Locke - Nelson (2018)
Hew Locke – Nelson (2018), in front of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society, as part of the Arrivants exhibition (Photo: Veerle Poupeye)

There has also been significant local indifference towards colonial monuments and sites in the Caribbean which, as I have argued in an earlier post, is another form of refusal. The question is, however, what is to happen with these statues going forward, in the current climate of protest and campaigns for systemic change. Tossing Victoria into the Kingston Harbour, or Nelson in the Bridgetown Careenage, may give momentary symbolic satisfaction but there may be ways in which those statues, and whatever is done with them, can become part of longer-term, creative and critical conversations that engage the public more effectively with what they truly represent. And this does not have to involve them being moved to a more controlled, and controllable, museum context but can be done on site.

New commissions that stand in dialogue with the older statues, counter-monument interventions, or re-contextualizing such monuments with temporary or permanent interventions could be much more interesting and productive ways of repositioning their meaning than removal or relocation. The monument sites could also be used for performances and other events that add further layers to the conversation and give the public an opportunity to be part of and have a voice in the process. With some initiative and imagination, much more appropriate and productive narratives could be brought to life, without necessarily having to resort to destroying or muting parts of Caribbean history. It is time for some inspired creative iconoclasm in the Caribbean.

Queen Victoria Jamaica
Emanuel Edward Geflowski – Statue of Queen Victoria (1897), St William Grant Park, Kingston, Jamaica – Replica of original in Singapore

What really needs to happen, at a more foundational level, is for the narratives that are represented by these colonial statues to be challenged and there is an enormous amount of work to do in that regard. For instance, the focus should not only be on what is being said with and by these statues, but on what is not being said or memorialized. If we look at what is protected under the Jamaica National Heritage Trust, for instance, the vast majority of monuments and sites pertain to the colonial period and, quite naturally, reflect the perspective of the colonizers. And this bias is not only a matter of what physically remains to be protected, but also represents a failure to make sure that what is missing is suitably recognized and signaled. This significantly affects how “heritage” is understood by the public, as what is still largely a colonial construct.

There are vast zones of silence, things that are not or barely remembered or understood, because there are no symbolic or physical markers for us to do so. The urban and rural landscape in the Caribbean is replete with memory sites, some of them well-known and others not, and some of them are hallowed ground. Such memory sites can be preserved in other, symbolic ways, by making sure that there are interventions that make them visible and that physical memorials are created where this is appropriate. The graves of enslaved that that were so consecrated on the Seville Great House in St Ann, Jamaica, represent a step in the right direction but much more needs to be done. Some years ago, there was a competition for an Arrival Point monument on the Kingston Waterfront — one of a number of sites in Jamaica where the enslaved arrived and were sold. The competition was won by Nakazzi Tafari, with what seemed like an exciting and appropriate design, but the monument was never executed. Such projects ought to be revisited and completed. It is time, also, for Jamaica to tackle the issue of a Slavery Museum, which was so passionately advocated for by the late Donna McFarlane, of blessed memory — she is so very missed in the present conversation.

And with that, the colonial foundations of many of the Caribbean’s cultural institutions must also be questioned and the manner in which these origins are reflected in their present day governance and operations, and in the cultural narratives they generate. There have been calls for reform of organizations such as the Institute of Jamaica, and for the renaming of its Musgrave Medal, which is still named after the colonial governor who was its foundational patron. And while on the subject of naming, there is also the role of the coveted Rhodes Scholarship in the region’s public life, as being a Rhodes Scholar grants its Caribbean recipients an almost automatic high rank in the postcolonial power hierarchies of politics, the academy and business. Does this amount to reparations or does this help to perpetuate particular ways of thinking about patronage, status, and social mobility that are still embedded in colonial values? And should such scholarships be boycotted or replaced with something that is more amenable to the postcolonial world?

The very institution of “art,” and the manner in which it is understood in the Caribbean, also needs to be scrutinized, as much of it is still rooted in colonial concepts, in ways that are not always acknowledged and understood. This is for instance evident in the limiting ideas about what constitutes a “proper statue,” which must naturally be a formalized, academic-realist bronze or marble effigy on a pedestal, and this has played a role in some of Jamaica’s modern monument controversies. It is also evident in the survival of the concept of the “Master”, as an artist of a particular social status, training and standing in the art hierarchies (and usually a male artist), and in how the art world functions as a whole, with regards to its race, class, gender, and patronage dynamics.

It is time to challenge and rewrite the narrative on all these counts, in ways that are more substantive and have longer term effects than the dramatic removal of a colonial statue. And finally, and most importantly, the symbolic actions of the present moment must translate into real-life societal change, of the institutions, attitudes, conditions and perceptions that are inherited from colonialism and still insufficiently challenged. As one observer noted, when I posted one of the first media reports on the toppling and dumping of the Colston statue: “but what about Reparations”?

[Updated on June 11, 2020 with additional information on the Georgetown Queen Victoria statue – with thanks to Errol Brewster for bringing the Nigel Westmaas account to my attention.]

2 thoughts on “Creative Iconoclasm: What To Do With Those Colonial Monuments? – Part 2

  1. What I have done in my work is to use the fallen or decapitated statues to explain and illustrate the historical context of the subject. In my Caribbean People Book 3 text I use before and after photos of Empress Josephine in Martinique to explain why the statue was erected in the 19th century and why it was damaged in the 20th century. Showing how people’s perceptions had changed.

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