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STATUES AND POLITICS OF STATUES

Dimitri Mallik writes about Statues and why it is acceptable to topple statues of certain people.


It’s well-known that revolutions and protests possess an “iconoclastic fury.” Whether it is spontaneous, like the destruction of churches, crosses, and Catholic relics during the first months of the Spanish Civil War, or more carefully planned, like the demolition of the Vendôme Column during the Paris Commune, this outburst of iconoclasm shapes any overthrow of the established order.Recently, in June 2020, we have seen monuments and statues with racially and colonially oppressive connotations being toppled around the world, as part of the Black Lives Matter protests.


Winston Churchill was defaced, the slave trader Edward Colston sank to the bottom of the river, the Belgian king King Leopold II and the father of modern Italian journalism and former propagandist for fascist colonialism, Indro Montanelli had red paint and graffiti splattered all over him, #RhodesMustFall made a comeback and Christopher Columbus was decapitated. While most have seen these actions as speaking truth to power in public, dismantling antiquated systems, and breaking apart de facto apartheid and colonialism, a section have vouched for the existence of these statues as immutable emblems of history. Still another group has advocated for their peaceful removal to be subsequently sheltered in museums, because of their “intrinsic value as cultural artefacts ”.


Thus, the dismantling of statues as an act of protest presents before us, the colliding tendencies of human communities to preserve material and cultural heritage as well as their need to confront and obfuscate the relics of their oppression in an attempt to retrospectively assert their claim to equal socio-political rights and freedom. However, can statues- whether of living or dead personalities- that have historically existed solely for memorialising a particular past and giving credence to or symbolising the perpetuation of the ideologies of their makers, ever be considered as mere cultural artefacts and not political ones?


In my opinion, statues posited on pedestalized plinths in public spaces straddle the intersection between politics and art, their aesthetic and cultural appeal rendered almost negligible before the deeply political context of their creation and continued existence.


I, therefore agree with only the first clause of the second sentence from the opening lines from Alain Resnais and Chris Marker’s 1953 essay film Les Statues Muerent Aussi (Statues Also Die)-“ When men die, they enter into history. When statues die, they enter into art.” Statues as products of ideology and power regimes definitely die; however, irrespective of whether they are dead or still relevant, statues can never escape politics and solely belong to the realm of art and culture.


Similarly the argument that statues are immutable emblems of history, doesn’t hold ground. They are often designed to appear permanent but once, we begin exploring the connections between our symbols and systems, it will be evident that statues require resources for preservation and ideologies to hold them up. The idea that they are timeless, that they contain universal meaning, and that they are stand-alone figures of history are the truisms that must be also dismantled along with the statues, if a fruitful and systemic change is to be brought about.


Statues are not static repositories of information about the past; instead, they are, as archaeologists understand, active participants in the construction of identity in the present, dynamically continuing to shape and impinge on community beliefs and ideas of self-representation long after the makers and subjects of the statues. That is the reason they are built in the first place. The act of erecting statues is deliberate and discriminate: only those in power choose who is worth remembering or misremembering to suit a particular account. It is a way for society to forge a favourable narrative about itself and create a clinical, sanitized and convenient past. Additionally, putting up statues are a mythologising exercise in that statues erase nuances, immortalising people into icons, and perpetuating a lie by doing so.


A splendid statue of the British prime minister, Winston Churchill would propagate him as the hero of World War II and Britain’s fight against Nazism, where he led Britain to victory in “the epic battle of good versus evil; the Allies against the Nazis.” without any mention of his racist demeanour or his treatment of the colonies which proved him no different than any Nazi or a fascist. Both the Bengal Famine, which Churchill premeditated in 1943 and Hitler’s abominable “tour de force” Holocaust , for example, killed millions. Both, on some level, were a result of the politics of letting people die.


When the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison chided the Aborigines for disrespecting Capt. James Cook’s statues, he failed to realise that for many people, these statues aren’t representations of Cook at all, but symbols of the establishment of colonial Australia, and the death and destruction of thousands of indigenous communities.


On a contrasting note, San Francisco recently removed a statue of Christopher Columbus that had been installed in 1957 as a celebration of the Italian-American community in acknowledgement of his barbaric exploitation of the native Americans and that they don’t see him as a national hero or identify their existence with his arrival unlike the Modern White America.


The aforementioned examples prove that even statues of personalities which are paraded as heroic, more often than not, secretly entomb dark and violent histories in its stone; at the same time, the memories and narratives that are constructed from these are not monolithic as promulgated by nation states in their own interest , but depend almost entirely on context, varying significantly with any changes in the community relating to it.


In view of this, I agree that toppling of statues is indeed an acceptable form of protest by virtue of it being a consciously political act of refusing to ingest non pluralistic and hegemonic narratives of subjugation. Nevertheless, we must remember to not perceive these dismantling of statues that promote romanticized retellings of oppressive institutions, as an erasure of (inconvenient) history that totalitarian regimes indulge in when they come to power. Protest by toppling statues symbolic of suppression is not similar to the Talibans detonating the historically and culturally priceless Buddha statues at Bamyan out of religious fundamentalism and intolerance.


In fact, the de-pedestalizing of statues as an acknowledgement of and protest against the blood-soaked nature of those pedestals built on top of the wreckage of colonies and slaves, is more of a moment in history that reckons the previous erasure of identities and freedoms of marginalized groups, instead of being an act of erasing history. The imperative, however goes beyond taking down the vicious monuments we have inherited – to build radical visions for public art that moves us towards justice, repair, and growth, as well as correcting the elements of our iniquitous status quo that mirror the myths and histories that topple with the statues.

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