Tag Archives: statues
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.
If the aim of statue removal is to build a more racially just South, then, as many analysts have pointed out, putting these monuments in storage is a lost opportunity. Simply unseating Confederate statues from highly visible public spaces is just the first step in a much longer process of understanding, grieving and mending the wounds of America’s violent past. Merely hiding away the monuments does not necessarily change the structural racism that birthed them.
Studies show that the environment in which statues are displayed shapes how people understand their meaning. In that sense, relocating monuments, rather than eliminating them, can help people put this painful history into context.
For example, monuments to Confederate war heroes first appeared in cemeteries immediately following the Civil War. That likely evoked in visitors a direct and private honoring and grieving for the dead.
By the early 1900s, hundreds of Confederate statues dotted courthouse lawns and town squares across the South. This prominent, centrally located setting on government property sent an intentionally different message: that local officials endorsed the prevailing white social order.
So what should we do with rejected Confederate monuments? We have a modest proposal: a Confederate statue graveyard.
Lessons from the Soviet past
Our research as cultural geographers recognizes that Confederate monument controversies – while typically considered regional or national issues – are in fact part of global struggles to recognize and heal from the wounds of racism, white supremacy and anti-democratic regimes.
The idea of a Confederate monument graveyard is modeled after ways that the former communist bloc nations of Hungary, Lithuania and Estonia have dealt with statues of Soviet heroes like Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Lenin.
Under communist Soviet rule between 1945 and 1991, Eastern European countries suffered mass starvation, land theft, military rule and rigid censorship. An estimated 15 million people in the Soviet bloc died during this totalitarian reign.
Despite these horrors, many countries have opted not to destroy or hide their Soviet-era monuments, but they haven’t left them to rule over city hall or public plazas, either.
Rather, governments in Eastern Europe have altered the meaning of these politically charged Soviet statues by relocating them. Dozens of Soviet statues across Hungary, Lithuania and Estonia have been pulled from their pedestals and placed in open-air parks, where interested visitors can reflect on their new significance.
The idea behind relocating monuments is to dethrone dominant historical narratives that, in their traditional places of power, are tacitly endorsed.
A statue graveyard
The Eastern European effort to create a new memorial landscape has been met with mixed public reaction.
In Hungary, some see it as a step in the right direction. But, in Lithuania, people have expressed that re-erecting the statues of known dictators is in “poor taste” – an affront to those who suffered under totalitarianism.
The relocation of Soviet statues in Estonia has taken an even more interesting turn.
For the past decade, the Estonian History Museum has been collecting former Soviet monuments with the intention of making an outdoor exhibition out of them. For years it kept a decapitated Lenin and a noseless Stalin, among other degraded Soviet relics, in a field next to the museum.
The statues weathered Eastern European winters and languished in a defunct, toppled state. Weeds grew over them. The elements took their toll.
Travel writer Michael Turtle, who visited the museum in 2015, called the field a “statue graveyard.”
“Everything here seems to fit into some kind of purgatorial limbo,” he wrote on his blog. “The statues are not respected enough to be displayed as history but are culturally significant enough to not just be destroyed.”
To this we would add that these old statues, when repurposed thoughtfully and intentionally, have the potential to mend old wounds.
Confederate monument graveyard
What if the United States created its own graveyard for the distasteful relics of its own racist past?
We envision a cemetery for the American South where removed Confederate statues would be displayed, perhaps, in a felled position – a visual condemnation of the white supremacy they fought to uphold. Already crumpled monuments, like the statue to “The Boys Who Wore Grey” that was forcefully removed from downtown Durham, North Carolina, might be placed in the Confederate statue graveyard in their defunct state.
One art critic has even suggested that old monuments be physically buried under tombstones with epitaphs written by the descendants of those they enslaved.
We are not the first to suggest relocating Confederate statues.
That has proven challenging for curators.
When The University of Texas moved a statue of the Confederate President Jefferson Davis from its pedestal on campus to a campus museum, some students criticized the ensuing exhibit’s “lack of focus on racism and slavery.” One suggested that the statue’s new setting inadvertently glorified Davis, given the inherent value conferred on objects in museums.
And since statues in museums are typically exhibited in their original, upright position, Confederate generals like Robert E. Lee still tower over visitors – maintaining an imposing sense of authority.
We believe felled and crumpled monuments, in contrast, would create a somber commemorative atmosphere that encourages visitors to grieve – without revering – their legacy. A carefully-planned and aesthetically sensitive Confederate monument graveyard could openly and purposefully undermine the power these monuments once held, acknowledging, dissecting and ultimately rejecting the Confederacy’s roots in slavery.
Planning a Confederate monument graveyard will prompt many questions. Where should it be located? Will there be one central Confederate monument graveyard or many? Who will design and plan the graveyard?
Answering these questions would not just be part of a conversation about steel and stone but about the serious pursuit of peace, justice and racial healing in the nation — and about putting the Old South to rest.
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.
The link below is to an article that looks at the statues of Easter Island.