July 9, 2020

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Can you remove a statue without erasing the past?

Can you remove a statue without erasing the past?

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When a country has statues of people that no longer reflect its values, what is the best solution? Is there a way of addressing the past without erasing it? And is doing nothing an option? The BBC’s Kavita Puri speaks to four people about possible lessons to be drawn from Iraq, Germany, India and the US.

It was a beautiful spring day in East Baghdad in April, 2003 and Ghaith Abdul-Ahad’s neighbour came to him shouting, “The Americans are here.” Abdul-Ahad went out into the street. He saw US soldiers in uniform pointing their guns. They were moving towards what was then known as Firdos Square, in the middle of which was an enormous statue of Iraq’s President, Saddam Hussein, his right arm stretched into the sky, waving to his people.

A crowd of Iraqis had now gathered in the square. “It became clear that the city had fallen,” Abdul-Ahad says. Iraqi civilians moved towards the bottom of the statue. They tried to knock down the thick, concrete pedestal, but to no avail. Then an American armoured vehicle appeared. A marine got out and put a huge rope around the statue. He climbed to the top of Saddam’s head, holding an American flag. Abdul-Ahad was watching the marine as he tried to place the flag, thinking, “No don’t do that.”

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The statue was pulled down by the crowd. It was dragged through the street. And the iconic image was then captured of men, taking their flip flops off, and using them to beat the statue of their former ruler. They were “just breaking that domination of the regime,” Abdul-Ahad says.

Baghdad’s many statues of the country’s leader had been a symbol of oppression, “the eyes and moustache of Saddam following you wherever you go” he says. The day they fell “was the moment, you realise that 30 years of oppressive rule has finally collapsed, that this person who had been dominating our lives – he was bigger than God for us – is finally gone and he’s removed.”

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Many statues were melted down, or sold to collectors. No-one really knows what happened to them all. They just disappeared. The plinth where Saddam’s statue once stood was empty for a long time. As a sectarian war raged, no-one could agree what should be in its place – would it be a Shia, Sunni or Kurdish monument? It was finally removed altogether and is now a park.

“We come here now, 2020, we don’t see any images from the Saddam era and that helps the history to disappear,” says Abdul-Ahad, now a journalist for the Guardian.

He doesn’t want the statue of Saddam to be in the centre of Baghdad, staring down at him as it used to. But he would have a liked it to be housed in a museum or a park in the country, otherwise he fears that period of history will be forgotten altogether. It’s important he says that “the young generation, the children in 100 years’ time, can look at it and say, ‘Oh, so that was the dictator who ruled Iraq.'”

If you walk around German cities you will find virtually no statues of the Nazi era. Many were destroyed by heavy bombing during World War Two – and later melted and reused during rebuilding. An order issued by the victorious Allies in 1946 decreed that any manifestation of the Third Reich, including statues, were illegal and to be destroyed.

“How can a country go on with statues of oppressors and of dictators?” asks Daniel Libeskind, the architect of the Jewish Museum in Berlin. “You have to get rid of everything that offends justice and truth. And that’s what Germany did.”

But getting rid of statues doesn’t have to mean erasing the memory of history too.

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For Germany, remembrance did not happen immediately after the war. However, in the 1960s and 70s the country began to reflect on its difficult past. Now the teaching of the Holocaust and the Nazi era is mandatory in German schools. Almost all students have either visited a concentration camp or a Holocaust memorial or museum.

Rather than maintaining statues, the country chose to focus on its crimes and their victims.

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Libeskind, the son of Holocaust survivors, originally from Lodz in Poland, believes Germany has made an “amazing statement” to the world that it’s possible to face unspeakable crimes and be a successful democracy.

In the late 1980s he entered a competition to design Berlin’s Jewish Museum. He won and felt the weight of responsibility. “It was so much more than just the design of a building,” he says. The challenge was to work out how historical truth could be communicated to generations who had never experienced that era.

He began by creating a void, “which is the centre of the museum, which is an emptiness, an empty space where nothing is really exhibited, but you feel that this emptiness speaks to you about what happened in history, that cannot be exhibited,” he says.

So difficult history can be told without exhibiting statues. Even the word “statue” strikes Libeskind as old-fashioned. “I think it’s about more than statues today. It’s about creating spaces, public spaces that can make people care about things they didn’t know about.”

In northern Delhi there is a large park. It’s slightly overgrown, stray dogs wander around, sometimes children play cricket there. In it are statues, some covered in graffiti.

After India won independence in August 1947, there was no clamour to remove the statues of monarchs and viceroys from the boulevards and roundabouts of the capital. Over time, some were sold to Britain and others moved to this place, known as Coronation Park. It had been the site where lavish ceremonies – known as durbars – took place when a new British monarch took to the throne. Today it is where effigies of former officials from the colonial era have been stored, “out of sight, out of mind”, as AGK Menon, the founder of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, puts it.

“And that’s how it got the name,” he says. “A graveyard of statues.”

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Work under way to tidy up Coronation Park in 2007

The most iconic of the statues is King George V. At around 70ft tall, it stood in the heart of Delhi, near India Gate on the road leading to the Viceroy’s House. Well over a decade after independence it no longer felt right to have the statue of a British King in such a prominent position. He was dismantled and taken to the place where he attended the Delhi durbar on becoming Emperor of India in 1911.

AGK Menon wanted to use the statues to tell the history of Delhi. During the Delhi Durbar, George V had laid the first foundation stone of the new imperial capital in Coronation Park. Menon’s aim was to open a new, refurbished version of the park on the centenary of this occasion in 2011, with plaques providing historical context. “We have to recognise the fact something happened. There was a colonial government, there was a decision to make Delhi, and this is where it took place. Let us celebrate the fact that this is where New Delhi started,” he says.

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The Viceroy’s House is now the Indian President’s House museum

Work started, but then a new government withdrew support. The park remains derelict, containing the Raj-era statues. Perhaps it’s a sign that it’s still difficult for Indians to talk about their colonial past. “Some Indians are not comfortable with it; others are. But somehow it is still a very live political fuel,” says AGK Menon. “So it does have a sort of energy that has not ended.”

There certainly still is unfinished business. The plinth of George V stands empty in the centre of Delhi.

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No-one could agree what should go there.

Scattered across southern states in America are statues commemorating Confederate leaders and soldiers, who fought in the American civil war to continue the practice of slavery. They lost the war, but decades later these monuments celebrating notable Confederate veterans started to appear in town squares.

Sarah Beetham, chair of liberal arts at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, says many statues were built on county courthouse lawns, where many African Americans would be judged. “And they very much borrow the language of victory monuments from the ancient Roman past.”

In theory, the civil war gave equal rights to African Americans, but in reality racial segregation persisted, so the South won what Beetham describes as a “sort of shadow war”. “These monuments are victory monuments to winning that shadow war,” she says. Statues such as the one of Confederate general Robert E Lee, erected in Richmond, Virginia, in 1890, were central to the continuation of the Confederate movement, and a permanent reminder of white supremacy, Beetham argues.

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These monuments were never completely accepted. Journalist John Mitchell, for example, wrote editorials in the Richmond Planet newspaper at the time, saying prophetically “that black workers had been conscripted to put the statue up and that one day they would still be there to take the statue down,” Beetham says.

The southern states defended the existence of the statues, arguing that they were paying tribute to Confederate military heroism rather than defending slavery. They also cast the war as a defence of states’ rights, against the powers of the federal government.

It wasn’t until 2015 that the movement to remove these statues really took hold. It started after the shooting of nine black parishioners at the Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The killer was later discovered with a pistol and a Confederate flag, and Sarah Beetham pinpoints that as the moment when the Black Lives Matter movement explicitly linked such violent attacks to the long history of racism symbolised by Confederate monuments.

Now, with mass protests across America following the murder of African American George Floyd, many protests have coalesced around these statues. In Virginia a number have been pulled down, including that of the former Confederate president, Jefferson Davis.

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Jefferson Davis’s statue in Richmond, the state capital, was toppled on 10 June

Sarah Beetham says: “Statues aren’t history. They are historical objects. The fact that people are attacking them today shows that we do care about them and that we see them in some ways as kind of reflection of ourselves and our own values.”

As long as there have been statues, she says, there have been people who destroy them. “There’s something about a group of people taking out their anger against much broader inequalities but focusing it on an object that looks like a human being.”

She says the statue of the British King George III in New York is a good example. It was destroyed during the war of independence and the metal was melted into 40,000 bullets, which were then used against the British.

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Horse tail from the equestrian statue of George III, found buried in Connecticut

Loyalists tried to preserve parts of the statue by burying them underground – remnants are are still occasionally unearthed today.

Virginia’s governor has said that the statue of Robert E Lee in Richmond will now be removed and put into storage. Although hundreds more statues remain, Sarah Beetham hopes the dismantling of this one, and perhaps others, means the country will now start to confront its past.

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Colourful graffiti now adorns the plinth supporting Robert E Lee’s statue in Richmond

“It says that maybe finally we’re going to have some kind of reckoning about what the Civil War was actually about. And if Robert E Lee is going to come down now, maybe we’re ready to atone for some of these things and to finally process them and figure out what they mean for us. And I really hope that that’s true.”

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We name buildings after people, or put up statues to them, because we respect them. But what if we then discover they did wrong? In what cases should the building be renamed, or the statue be removed, asks the BBC’s in-house philosopher, David Edmonds.

How do you decide when a statue must fall?

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