When asked in 2018 to consider what should happen in regards to Confederate monuments and statues — should they be taken down completely? What will take their places? Are they representative of a violent and racist American history? Will our history be forgotten and doomed to be repeated? — the response is mixed. Many artists had imaginative ideas of what should happen when the Confederate iconography is removed, while some think that these statues should be left as they are.
Ekene Ijeoma, a first generation Nigerian-American artist working in New York, reimagined the pillar that once held up a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in New Orleans as a vibrant, multi-colored spiral staircase, making the remains into a living monument for today. Ijeoma wants to transform the space into a designated area for a healthy confrontation of the United States’s tragic history of segregation and stripping away of human dignity. He envisions fallen monuments as an opportunity to acknowledge the racial injustice issues of today and open a dialogue of healing for all.
American multimedia artist, Kenya (Robinson), has a very different view of these monuments. She says that they provide a visual reminder of how Americans tend to elevate mediocrity to exaggerated heights, and claims we need these reminders so that we do not forget this problem. She compares this to textbooks that use the term “Triangular Trade” to refer to human trafficking overseas and trans-atlantic slave trade. (Robinson) claims that leaving the statues is a defensive maneuver to educate the public against obscuring racism and erasing history, and believes that this helps prevent backsliding as a country in the realm of racial injustice.
There are many sides to this dialogue regarding statues and monuments to those who are deemed to be on the wrong side of both history and morality, despite whether claims are just or unjust, and calls for statue removal can be traced back to the vandalism of a Confederate statue in Texas 5 years ago. This dialogue has not ended in 2018, but rather, in the midst of all that has happened this year, is ongoing today. At the heights of the protests following the tragic killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, many statues were vandalized or torn down in a call to remove monuments deemed to be symbols of racism and oppression. The targets of these vandalisms included Confederate statues, monuments of Christopher Columbus and a less well known target is religious iconography such as a statue of Saint Junípero Serra, a Franciscan Monk stationed in California during the time of Spanish colonialism. It is important to keep in mind that the call for removal of statues, whether Confederate, religious, colonial, etc. is not new and there is a history of at least since 2015 regarding the subject, not a spontaneous declaration that this is now an issue.
Once again, there have been many different viewpoints on what should be done about the statues as emblems of a racist history and about what monuments fall under this category. As protestors target these statues as a direct means of reckoning with the country’s past, artists involved in the conversation are alternately calling for a reimagining of these monuments such as described before. This method of reimagining aspires to open an authentic healthy dialogue of the unfortunate parts of our country’s history and where we are heading as a nation in response.
Of course, there is still the other side of this debate that wants the statues and memorials to remain as they are, in order to remind Americans of a history that we wish not to repeat. There have been some interesting new suggestions arising such as to erect statues of African American role models, such as the late Chadwick Boseman, in replacement of those of figures tied to colonialism and the Confederacy. There are talks of new waves of statue removal, and the question of what the best solution is has neither a simple nor definite answer, but new questions are in many people’s minds as the removal of monuments spread past its beginnings with memorials to Confederate figures: Where do we draw the line between removing our nation’s history and honoring those who have been wronged? And if collectively as citizens of our nation we determine that a change to these statues is necessary, how can we best imagine a commemorative landscape that is more inclusive for all?