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.

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Creative Iconoclasm: What To Do With Those Colonial Monuments? – Part 1

Edward_Colston_Thrown_Bristol_Harbour
Edward Colston’s statue being tossed into the River Avon , Bristol, June 7, 2020 (Image source: Wikimedia)

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.

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Some Thoughts on the Miss Lou Statue

 

Jamaica has been on a statue frenzy recently and that is, in itself, a good thing. Late last year there was the unveiling of the Usain Bolt statue at National Stadium and this will soon be followed, I gather, by the statue to Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce (we were initially told this would take place some time this summer but, unless I missed something while traveling, only the maquette has thus far been unveiled.) Statues for Asafa Powell and Veronica Campbell-Brown are also being planned, all of them as part of the Jamaica 55 legacy projects. Earlier this summer, a group of National Heroes busts was unveiled at Emancipation Park, which was organized and funded by the Rotary Club with the blessings of government, and last year there was also the very contentious unveiling of a Garvey bust, the original of which replaced by another version, at the University of the West Indies Mona Campus. (I have written another blog post on Jamaica’s public statue issues recently, and it can be read here.)

Most recently, on Friday, September 9, or the 89th birthday of the subject, a statue to Miss Lou was unveiled on Gordon Town Square.  Let me first say how happy I am that this long-overdue project has finally  come to fruition, and how excited I am that the statue was placed in the community where Miss Lou lived for most of her time in Jamaica, as her rootedness in community needed to be part of the recognition process. The placement of the statue in the middle of the square is fortuitous, although there are a few practical and aesthetic problems arising, and it is quite appropriate that Miss Lou is the one to welcome visitors to her community. So congrats and thanks (or should I say “tenky”?) to all who made it happen, the private and public individuals and the artist, and the many efforts that were made over the years.

As is now customary with any new public statue in Jamaica, the debate about its merits and failings almost immediately started and when we visited the statue to photograph it yesterday, several other persons were also seen taking pictures. So the statue is already making its mark and public opinion appears to be divided between those who absolutely love it, those who have a few reservations, and those who totally hate it. Most of it revolves, as usual, around whether the statue is an appropriate likeness but there are also concerns about the location (some would have preferred Emancipation Park), and about the politics that have surrounded its production and unveiling. It is not a major controversy at this time but there are definitely rumblings. I have a few reservations myself and thought I should share them here.

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