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Statue wars: what should we do with troublesome monuments?

Sep 26, 2018 by

Mrs Lonnie Holley, her daughter Janalee and Mrs Benjamin T Whitfield place a wreath in 1957 at a Mississippi monument honouring the Confederate dead.

In 1957, dressed in civil war-era clothing, Mrs Lonnie Holley, her daughter Janalee and Mrs Benjamin T Whitfield place a wreath at a Mississippi monument honouring the Confederate dead. Photograph: AP

The global protest movement to tear down urban memorials that reinforce racism is rewriting the very story of our cities. Should any monument be safe?

by Tyler Stiem –

Cape Town was the first. In March 2015, a student named Chumani Maxwele brought a bucket filled with shit to the University of Cape Town, where there stood a statue of Cecil Rhodes, the British diamond magnate, colonial politician and avowed white supremacist. “There is no collective history here – where are our heroes and ancestors?” Maxwele announced. He splashed the contents of the bucket over the monument.

The incident attracted national attention and within days had grown into a full-scale protest. Students covered the Rhodes statue with graffiti and plastic bags, and promised to demonstrate until it was removed. The statue had drawn criticism before, but none of such sustained anger, even though there was no mistaking what the Rhodes monument represented. Erected in 1934, it occupied the very centre of the campus, the bronze Rhodes gazing out over the city as though contemplating creation: his and, perhaps, God’s.

Rhodes believed black Africans were a “subject race” and that white rule was the natural order. The setting and the figure’s obvious stylistic debt to Rodin’s The Thinker symbolised the “civilisational” ambitions Rhodes harboured for the colony he governed, ambitions made plain by the inscription from Kipling along the plinth: “I dream my dream / By rock and heath and pine / Of empire to the northward / Ay, one land / From Lion’s head to line.”

But there was an air of fragility, of the elegaic, at work too: the figure that looks out from its seat in photos from before the protests is bare-headed, middle-aged, mortal. It is Cecil Rhodes near the end of his life. (He died in 1902.) He contemplates his life’s work, and with it, the future that will come to pass without him. The monument didn’t satisfy itself with celebrating Rhodes; it lamented that he did not live long enough to enjoy the white-ruled South Africa he helped to create.

When the statue was installed in the pre-apartheid era, white rule couldn’t be taken for granted – not yet. The suffering of its black residents needed to be naturalised first, and to that end the monument cast Rhodes’s life’s work as a noble struggle, with his supposed civilisational achievements implicitly justifying his policies and the pain they caused. If black Africans were admitted into this anxious reality, it was so their suffering could be diminished and finally negated. They were the obstacle Rhodes surmounted. In place of their suffering we got, obscenely, his suffering.

Source: Statue wars: what should we do with troublesome monuments? | Cities | The Guardian

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