How artists are bringing people together in challenging times.
Within days of the brutal killing of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis, Minn., the statues began to topple.
In Birmingham, Ala., a statue of Confederate Navy captain Charles Linn was among the first to fall amid sweeping Black Lives Matter protests, followed soon after by a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Montgomery, Ala.
At the Minnesota State Capital in Saint Paul, members of the American Indian Movement looped a rope around a bronze statue of Christopher Columbus and pulled it off its pedestal.
In Bristol, England, a statue of 17th century British slave trader Edward Colston was pulled down, jumped on, then pushed into Bristol Harbour. It was later replaced with the statue of a Black Lives Matter protester, which in turn was removed.
Across the U.S. and around the world, dozens of historical monuments were unceremoniously removed, either by protesters or city officials. Instagram feeds filled with images of formerly venerated figures laying broken and face-down on the pavement. Of those left standing, many were coated in paint and anti-racism slogans.
The removals captured the attention of millions around the globe, but perhaps none more than renowned Canadian artist and professor Ken Lum.
For decades, Lum has produced iconic public artworks that confront complex subjects including race, class, language, immigration, urban development and social movements.
In 2012, Lum, along with curator and historian Paul Farber, also co-founded Philadelphia’s Monument Lab — a public art and history studio that examines the past, present and future of monuments.
Toppling statues doesn’t solve the long-term problem of systemic racism, he said, but on a symbolic level, it provides a release.
“People understand innately that monuments stand symbolically for a whole narrative stream of unfairness, of social injustice, of racism,” said Lum, on the phone from Philadelphia with Tom Power, host of the CBC Radio program q.
“So fairly or unfairly, they see these as important markers and symbols that encapsulate a lot of the anxieties and frustrations that people are feeling at the moment.”
CBC Q VIDEO: Host Tom Power talks to Canadian artist Ken Lum about toppling statues and rethinking monuments.
Most cities and towns are dotted with statues, pillars and plaques that, for many, represent little more than urban decoration, meeting spots or fodder for tourist guides. But according to Lum, those markers reveal which figures the culture raises up.
That’s why, long before the murder of George Floyd, Monument Lab began taking stock of monuments in cities, towns and rural areas, carefully cataloguing who has been honoured — as well as who hasn’t.
“It’s almost like a board game where we pinpoint one statue, and then we start pulling up the histories — not just the history that’s apparent, but also the histories that are denied,” said Lum, who is also chair of fine arts and Marilyn Jordan Taylor presidential professor at the University of Philadelphia’s Stuart Weitzman School of Design.
When the Vancouver-born artist first moved to Philadelphia, for example, he went to City Hall, where a large bronze statue memorialized John Wanamaker — an American merchant and political figure who reportedly invented the price tag and funded a campaign to have Mother’s Day officially recognized.
The same day, Lum found himself walking past the house where jazz icon Billie Holiday lived, and later discovered the city had no statue in the singer’s honour.
“I’m not saying John Wanamaker didn’t deserve recognition, but Billie Holiday sure did. So when I started looking at the John Wanamaker statue in subsequent visits, I would always see the shadow of Billie Holiday, who's not represented,” said Lum.
In fact, until recently, there weren’t statues of any African Americans in Philadelphia, even though the city played a vital role in the Underground Railroad, and was home to activist and abolitionist icon Harriet Tubman.
In 2017, Monument Lab and Mural Arts Philadelphia mounted an alternative exhibition featuring 10 works by local and international artists. Hank Willis Thomas’ striking All Power to the People — a giant Afro pick with a Black power fist for a handle — was placed beside a statue of former Philadelphia mayor and police commissioner Frank Rizzo, whose forces were known for their anti-Black brutality.
For If They Should Ask, artist Sharon Hayes installed nine concrete pedestals that featured the names of women who made significant contributions to civic life. The pedestals were left empty to make visceral the point that, when it comes to honouring civic figures, women aren’t making the cut.
According to the Monument Lab website, in a city that boasts hundreds of sculptures of historic figures, only two were dedicated to women: Joan of Arc and Quaker Mary Dyer.
'A shock to the system'
Opposition to the removal of statues is often swift and strong, with dissenters arguing that taking down Confederate and other controversial monuments amounts to the revision of history, and that they should be left in place — if only to foster discussion.
Lum adds that people are also notoriously resistant because they grow attached to the comfortably familiar landmarks. People may have no idea a particular statue depicts a slave trader; to them it’s just the place where they meet a friend or go on a date.
“So it becomes ingrained as part of one’s nature. And when it’s removed, it becomes a kind of a shock to the system,” said Lum.
The problem is, most people don’t know the history of the statues themselves, says Lum — when and why they were erected, and by whom.
For example, many of the Confederate monuments in the U.S. were put up by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a hereditary organization looking to rebrand the Confederacy as a genteel society that treated African-Americans with dignity, as opposed to one premised on slavery and racism.
In fact, most of the statues were mounted decades after the war.
“That was all a kind of revisionism in terms of the actual history of slavery, and the brutality and trauma of slavery that was visited upon Black bodies,” he says.
“[The statues] were put up during moments when there was actually progress in terms of civil liberties and equal rights. So it was a countervailing force at the moment when they were implemented — and they were implemented 50 years after the end of the Civil War.”
What’s more, the group wanted them installed in all 50 states, adds Lum, which didn’t make historical sense.
“I'm not a great follower of American history, but I don't think the Civil War extended to Montana or Alaska or Arizona,” he quipped.
In addition to the statues that exalt problematic figures, Lum says many monuments that honour traditionally underrepresented people also miss the mark because they don’t tell the full story — and sometimes don’t even get the basic facts straight.
“Just how many Native American or how many Indigenous statues are there in Canada that aren’t kind of mythical, that aren’t inaccurate in terms of the attire for the region?” says Lum.
“There are a couple in Philadelphia and they're of Plains tribespeople — but Philadelphia is not on the plains,” he says. “So that's what we mean by a kind of reckoning in terms of giving a greater balance and voice to the unheard historically.”
► WATCH | CBC GEM
In the Making: Ken Lum
Acclaimed visual artist Ken Lum reflects on his 40-year career as he puts the finishing touches on a major new public artwork.
Put on a pedestal
Another complicating factor, adds Lum, is that history is notoriously messy. In the 1950s and ’60s, Italian-Americans faced racism and bigotry, so for that marginalized group, statues of Christopher Columbus represented a point of pride and a unifying force.
At the same time, Columbus was linked with slavery and colonization.
“So I think it’s important for people to start digging and finding out about all these histories that come attached,” he said.
Lum argues that ultimately, monuments are little more than material extracted from the ground — just metal and stone — and that we should think of them as both highly subjective and temporal.
It starts with systemic change in terms of a broader and deeper appreciation of histories — particularly the histories of the voiceless.
- Ken Lum
He believes there is value in monuments, and there are unifying people and subjects that deserve to be memorialized. What needs to change is how societies decide which people it’s going to literally put on a pedestal.
Lum points to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and Vienna’s Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial, also known as the Nameless Library, as ones that are particularly effective.
“It starts with dialogue, and it starts with public input, and it starts with systemic change in terms of a broader and deeper appreciation of histories — particularly the histories of the voiceless, the histories of the poor, and the histories of the oppressed, the histories of people who were maltreated because of their difference.”
It also means regularly revisiting which monuments are in place and why, and seeing them as more temporary rather than immovable figures — even if it means that some of Lum’s own public works could eventually come down.
“I am truly trying to express something of my time, and hopefully people appreciate that and feel it's worthy to be kept and maintained,” said Lum, whose commissioned works have memorialized historical figures and events in cities from New Orleans to Vancouver to Vienna.
“But I have no control over that,” he says matter-of-factly. “That's the nature of putting things in public.”
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