Tag Archives: monuments
After 125 years in the same spot, the bronze statue of slaver Edward Colston lies at the bottom of Bristol Harbour. Unsurprisingly, many were unhappy with the move by Black Lives Matter protestors. Only a day later a group of dissenters attempted to fish the heavy statue from its watery grave.
It would seem that such attempts at retrieval are as futile as resisting the long-awaited reckoning on the nature and meaning of public monuments across Britain. Colston’s removal has featured prominently in the international press and sparked debates about history and erasure across the world. It has also prompted widespread conversation around which statues and monuments should be scrutinised for their celebration of violent colonialism and white supremacy.
The significance of this moment cannot be overlooked by art historians. Monuments demonstrate how visual and material culture can be weaponised to obscure the violence that characterised British colonial expansion. From single statues to elaborate multi-figure designs, monuments represent a visual culture that has been mobilised as a means to celebrate and justify white supremacy throughout history. To this end, they did not solely rely on sculptural statues of colonial “heroes” such as Colston, but also other types of visual communication to misrepresent empire as a noble and heroic pursuit.
Artistic state propaganda
Sculptures of allegorical figures are the omnipresent artistic symbol of state propaganda and oppression on sculpted monuments. Fictional female figures such as “Victory”, “Peace”, “Justice” and “Britannia” gained popularity during the most aggressive period of British imperial expansion in the 18th and 19th centuries.
It is important that the role of these figures is not forgotten in this current moment. Firstly, because they demonstrate how monuments enabled sculptors to not only commemorate the deceased, but also to propagate the message of British colonialism and white supremacy for future generations. Secondly, because understanding them enables the public to recognise how visual culture can obfuscate state oppression. The “Victory” figures that appeared on British monuments in the 18th century were reused en masse for Confederate monuments over a hundred years later.
It was not a coincidence that, ahead of the civil rights protest, Bristol City council decided to cover Colston’s statue under a canvas. Much like history as a discipline itself, monuments are not neutral records but revisionist objects that mobilise art as a means to oppress. Acknowledging them as state-sponsored attempts to transform slavery and genocide into palatable subjects for public consumption exposes them as a visual accompaniment to Britain’s violent programme of colonisation.
Campaigns for removal
More statues commemorating white perpetrators of colonial atrocities are coming down daily, such as that of Leopold II outside Antwerp Museum in Belgium. New resources are also being developed to identify which should be next. The statue of slaver Robert Milligan has already been removed from outside the Museum of London Docklands. The decision was made by the Canal and River Trust in response to to petitions calling for its removal, showing that institutions can and should take decisions into their own hands.
However, those advocating for removal are increasingly met with the now-familiar argument that such moves represent an erasure of history. It’s an argument that has been firmly established in debates around Confederate monuments in the United States. Its an argument that has become louder in the UK over the past few days.
Over the coming weeks, figures from British history will be scrutinised and judged in an unprecedented way. This process will educate more people on the real history of Britain and bring new meaning to the monuments people walk by daily. This will hopefully, as the historian David Olusoga has argued, achieve tangible results where previous campaigns have failed.
London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, has announced that he will be establishing a Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm to review London’s landmarks. But the move echoes the move by New York City mayor Bill de Blasio in 2017 to establish a Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments, and Markers, which recommended only one removal. This was monument to the torturer James Marion Simms, who in the 19th century performed horrific experiments on enslaved black women. Rather than being fully removed, it was relocated to a public cemetery in Brooklyn. There are fears that there will be similar outcomes in the London review.
Bolstered by the recent protests against anti-Black racism and state violence, public art continues to be reckoned with across the world, with ongoing campaigns such as #RhodesMustFall in Oxford and Take Em Down Nola in New Orleans, US.
Allegorical figures are one of the ways that monuments fictionalise history through visual culture. Understanding the role art played as a sanitiser of violence shows that destroying or removing monuments from public view does not erase history. Instead, monuments were designed to do just that by obfuscating state oppression and white supremacy through a thin veil of sculptural order.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at new monuments discovered in Ireland.
War memorials are a feature of the Australian landscape. Obelisk and arch, broken pillar and stone statue remind us of the crippling loss a young nation faced in campaigns overseas. But where are the monuments to conflicts fought in our own country – a brutal war of dispossession that left deep and enduring scars on countless communities?
As the recent debate over Australian statues demonstrates, sanitised symbols of violence and dispossession have long stood unchallenged in the heart of our towns and cities. By occupying civic space they serve to legitimise narratives of conquest and dispossession, arguably colonising minds in the same ways white “settlers” seized vast tracts of territory.
Stan Grant has called for a Sydney statue of James Cook that claims Cook “discovered” Australia to be corrected. Others have called for the renaming of buildings and public spaces named after Lachlan Macquarie and people associated with Queensland’s slaving (known as “blackbirding”) history.
In debating the place “explorers” or “blackbirders” might occupy in civic space, Australians face a choice in how we engage with a past that is painful, multivocal and complex. White Australians raised such memorials as tributes to their colonial pasts; other than as subjects, there was no place for Indigenous peoples.
Should politicians, bureaucrats or the apologists for our country’s racist past decide the fate of these memorials today? Or can this debate empower previously displaced voices? These monuments have maligned and marginalised first nations’ peoples from the first day they were erected. And they stand, after all, on land whose sovereignty was never surrendered.
Indigenous communities have confronted such challenges before. And they have acted with courage, wisdom and generosity. In Fremantle, Western Australia, a monument that celebrated the racism that mars Australia’s past has today become a symbol of dialogue and reconciliation.
Revising the past
The Explorers’ Monument in Fremantle was unveiled in 1913 to commemorate three white explorers – Frederick Panter, James Harding and William Goldwyer – who were killed in the far northwest in 1864. For generations it stood unquestioned in the centre of the Esplanade Reserve in Fremantle, enshrining a pioneer myth writ deep in Australian history.
A series of plaques circling the monument claimed that the explorers were attacked at night and “killed in their sleep” by “treacherous natives”. The land where they died is portrayed as hostile and alien: a “terra incognita”. Aboriginal people are described as savages, the whites as “intrepid pioneers”.
Other features of the monument are stridently belligerent. An imposing bust pays tribute to Maitland Brown, “leader of the government search and punitive expedition” who carried the explorers’ remains back with him to Fremantle. Brown’s expedition ended in the massacre of around 20 Aboriginal people; mounted and well armed, none of his party were killed or wounded.
In 1994, the United Nations Year of Indigenous Peoples, a counter-memorial was set in the monument’s base. Elders from Bidyadanga (formally La Grange) unveiled a new plaque outlining the history of provocation that led to the explorers’ deaths. It was a striking instance of what scholars call “dialogical memorialisation”, where one view of the past takes issue with another and history is seen, not as some final statement, but a contingent and contested narrative.
Equally importantly, the plaque acknowledges the right of Indigenous people to defend their traditional lands and solemnly commemorates “all those Aboriginal people who died during the invasion of their country”. The dedication service ended as Aboriginal people scattered dust from the site of the massacre and two white children laid wreaths of flowers decked in Aboriginal colours.
The Explorers’ Monument carried the same inscription chiselled on war memorials the length and breadth of our country. “Lest we forget” was the chilling phrase chosen to commemorate Panter, Harding and Goldwyer in 1913, and those words back then were an incitement to racial hatred.
Over 80 years later, the people of Bidyadanga and the Baldja network in Fremantle added “lest we forget” to their counter-inscription. This invites us to widen the ambit of remembrance and recognise the common tragedies that attended the so-called settlement of Australia.
Authorised and unauthorised history
In the United States, symbols of the nation’s racist past have been the flash points of violent confrontations, such as in Charlottesville. Protesters demand the removal of statues that celebrate slave owners and white supremacists. Right-wing militia groups rally to their defence.
Similar debates have emerged elsewhere. Should great centres of learning like Oxford pay tribute to Cecil Rhodes, a man who pioneered the policies of apartheid?
Can a democracy enshrine the advocates of racial, sexual or religious discrimination, or peaceful communities honour those who carpet-bombed Europe? In each case, statues and memorials stand at the heart of these controversies. Once the meanings of monuments were thought to be set in stone; now they crumble in the relentless critique of history.
Read more: Fair Game? The audacity of Héritier Lumumba
Would those opposing the altering of Australia’s colonial statues have also opposed the demolition of the Berlin Wall, or the toppling of statues of Saddam Hassein? In monuments, as in written histories, some narratives are authorised, others denied or disputed.
And such critique raises deeper questions, interrogating the very nature of history as a scholarly discipline. Does history cease to exist when a memorial is removed from public view and civic sanction – or is that act of removal, a forceful repudiation of the past, itself an act of choice and agency in history?
Ray Minniecon was an Aboriginal student at Murdoch University who led the liaison with Indigenous communities. “Monuments,” he said on the day Fremantle’s counter-memorial was unveiled, “are not just a window into our past; they are a window into ourselves.” We can choose. We may cling to the racism and hatreds of the past or make our own commitment to what the constitutional convention at Uluru aptly dubbed “truth telling”.
Perhaps, at this critical juncture in our history, Fremantle suggests the way forward.
Recent events in the US have seen Confederate Civil War monuments pulled down and painful histories revisited. Comparing these acts to those of the Islamic State terror group, Spiked editor Brendan O’Neill evocatively called this an “Orwellian war on history” and a “Year Zero mentality” on the march.
O’Neill also took aim at Australia’s Yarra Council for its recent decision to no longer celebrate Australia Day on January 26. This a result of ongoing calls from Indigenous groups to change the date of the national day. This is because it marks the 1788 arrival of the First Fleet at Botany Bay and is thus, in their view, “invasion day”.
O’Neill is wrong. It is not a matter of erasing history but a question of whose history is told. In Australia, it has been called the “the Great Australian silence”, following W.E.H. Stanner, as we stubbornly refuse to tackle these issues.
Yet as events in the US demonstrate, there is significance in what is deemed worthy to cast in bronze and erect in public spaces. It matters what events are commemorated and celebrated. It may mark power and domination or it may mark diversity and inclusion.
The events in the US have made some look at Australia as a similar settler-colonial state, and ask which of our monuments might come down. From First Dog on the Moon to the ABC’s Indigenous affairs editor and Wiradjuri man Stan Grant, Australians are asking themselves questions. This follows ongoing debates about Australia Day and whether the date should be moved.
The concept of “dissonant heritage” describes this situation well. Academic Harvey Lemelin and his colleagues argue this refers to:
… the perpetuation of grand colonial narratives in Australia, North America and elsewhere which have resulted in the general omission of Indigenous [and other marginalised peoples’] narratives from discourse about, and interpretation and development at, many sites
These include monuments, memorials and other forms of public commemoration. Sabine Marshall claims:
Commemoration manifests itself, among other ways, in the (re)naming of streets, cities, and public buildings; the construction of new museums, documentation and interpretation centres; the reenactment of battles and historical events; the identification and official marking of new heritage sites; and the installation of memorials, monuments and public statuary.
Monuments are as much about forgetting as they are remembering, and they can certainly communicate power and dominance.
This recent discussion concerns memorials that glorify men or events that brought direct harm to others, in the case of Australia through invasion and dispossession.
But there are several manifestations of this issue in public space. For example, there are recent memorials to events telling the experience of invasion from Indigenous points of view. There is incorporation of Indigenous contributions to national attainments such as military service. But there are also memorials and acknowledgements yet to be accomplished as well.
Australia is awash in memorials glorifying settlers and colonists, some of whom did quite heinous acts. One example is the statue of John Batman erected on Collins Street in Melbourne. Batman was an explorer and settler who participated in the “Black Line” violent removal of Tasmanian Aboriginal people in the 1830s.
Tasmanian colonial governor George Arthur observed that Batman “had much slaughter to account for”. But Batman is not alone in being celebrated despite a dubious history; this applies to place names as well as monuments.
In recent decades, Indigenous advocacy has brought about increasing recognition of and commemoration at massacre sites. An illustrative example is the case of Myall Creek, New South Wales. In 1998, Sue Blacklock, a descendant of a massacre survivor, collaboratively formed a Memorial Committee to see the Myall Creek massacre commemorated. In 2000, the Myall Creek Massacre Memorial was opened and attended by descendants of the victims, survivors and perpetrators of the massacre.
Since that time, annual remembrance and healing ceremonies have been held. Recent research adds to the body of evidence on massacre sites making ongoing silence impossible to maintain.
The first monument acknowledging Indigenous diggers who served in Australia’s wars was opened in 2013 in Adelaide. It was the result of community fundraising and activism to ensure that Anzac commemorations no longer overlooked the service that Indigenous people have given in Australia’s wars, despite not having full citizenship rights in many cases.
Australia does not yet appear ready to extend this recognition of military valour to the wars of resistance to invasion and the “frontier wars” that followed. As Grant noted:
… there is still no place on our War Memorial wall of remembrance for those Aboriginal people who died on our soil fighting to defend their country.
The continuing refusal of many non-Indigenous Australians to empathise with this perspective may be a gauge of how far we are from reconciling our past.
I am reminded of a short film based on the Archie Weller short story Confessions of a Headhunter. This work communicates the dissonant heritages of Australia in a 30-minute film.
Two Noongar men are angry at the repeated beheading of a statue embodying resistance warrior Yagan along the Swan River near Perth. They cut a swathe from Perth to Botany Bay, taking the bronze heads of statues honouring murderous settlers encountered along the way. At Botany Bay, they melt these down and recast the metal into a statue of an Aboriginal mother and her children looking to sea evoking hope and resilience.
This is a metaphor for our moment. It remains to be seen if we reconcile our past across dissonant heritages to derive a shared present and build a future together.