Toppled Monuments and the Struggle For Symbolic Space

Outrage and anger directed at monuments, religious imagery and art itself is nothing new in humankind’s chequered history. Usually we think of iconoclasm as the smashing of religious images, relics and stained glass windows. The Tudor period in English history epitomizes this state-administered intention to smash the icons. Tabitha Barber and Stacy Boldrick (Art Under Attack: histories of British iconoclasm [2013] identify the different dimensions of iconoclasm: the “iconoclastic zeal of 17th century Puritan reformers, whose violent actions were enshrined in legislation; the symbolic statue-breaking that is an aspect of political difference and which accompanies political change; the targeted attacks on cultural heritage at the beginning of the 20th century, and attacks on art by individuals stimulated by moral or aesthetic outrage.” Barber and Boldrick make two things crystal clear: iconoclastic attacks are not the on-off act of a crazy person and they have purpose and intention.

Some photographs of men with sticks beating a toppled statue of Cecil Rhodes in South Africa or cracking a fallen Lenin statue into many pieces suggest that iconoclasts are swept up in strong emotions. But this venting on a loathed symbol of an oppressive regime does not explain the motive, strategy or goal of iconoclastic acts. Essentially, the act of toppling a statue is bound closely with the political struggle, often fierce, to overthrow the existing regime and replace it with something new.

Regimes use different instruments to establish hegemony. On the streets of cities around the world images of heavily armed police or army confront protesting and angry demonstrators. That’s one way to control the masses. The other way, recognized intuitively by the people, is to occupy public space with monuments to celebrate the triumph of a particular race, regime and set of cherished values or the destruction of a valued way of life.

In recent times after the death of American George Floyd, an anti-racist raging fire erupted, sweeping through many countries in the world. The US-based Black Lives Matter movement wanted policy changes in their societies. But they also targeted public monuments honouring slavery or white supremacy. In the US, fights broke out in some southern cities like Richmond, Virginia and Birmingham, Alabama where anti-racist activists tried to topple statues symbolizing the Confederacy. In Britain, Edward Colston, a major figure in the 18th century British slave trade, was toppled and tossed in a river. Students called for the removal of Cecil Rhodes’ statue at Oriel College at Oxford University. The university refused.

Recent turbulent protests have occurred directed against unequal income distribution and lack of access to basic goods in Santiago, Chile. The Mapuche indigenous people have participated, expressing their longstanding oppression by the state by raising the once-repressed Mapuche flag on top of the monument of General Baquedano, a military hero from the War of the Pacific in downtown Santiago. The Mapuche also launched attacks on the statue of Pedro de Valdivia, a ruthless conquistador murderer. His monument is in Santiago.

In Canada, First Nations (and other) protestors succeeded in removing a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister (1867-73; 1878-1891), in Victoria, BC’s capital city—for severe critics of the genocide associated with residential schools, Macdonald was the instigator in the late 19th century. Other protestors tried to get a Sir John statue removed in Regina. So far they have not succeeded. Even famed Methodist educator Egerton Ryerson (his statue was unveiled in Toronto in 1889), considered the founder of the public school system in mid-19th century Ontario, has been the object of racist defamation and statue removal, even before the residential school system was even institutionalized in the late 19th century. Most recently, on July 19th, Black Lives Matter protestors splashed pink paint on the monument.

All of these political iconoclastic actions are part of contestation for whose narrative will be present in public squares and spaces. What history is remembered? What are we forgetting? Whose narrative prevails on the plagues in the parks, with the parliament buildings visible across the river? Who is invisible or erased in the visual and textual representations in public spaces? And are we getting our interpretations right?

I live in Ottawa, Canada’s capital city, the location for many different kinds of monument. But the other day I noticed that Ottawa was proceeding with a memorial for the “victims of communism.” This memorial has stirred up much controversy. So it should—given that most public monuments do not push so blatantly a particular ideology. Why not a memorial to “victims of US imperialist wars”? Or “victims of British colonialism”? This project has Stephen Harper, authoritarian and anti-democratic ex-PM and rabid anti-communist (and Russophobe), written all over it.

When we gaze down history’s corridors, we quickly learn that toppling statues and monuments has occurred through the centuries. These political iconoclastic acts often signal “turning points” in global history. In the Stuart regime in 17th century England, on August 18, 1642 the house of royalist Sir Richard Minshell in Buckinghamshire was plundered. The enraged crowd targeted the King’s picture. They pierced it with swords. They wounded it. They even verbally assaulted his image. M.G. Sullivan (“Politics and public space: making and breaking public sculpture 1688-1929,” in Art under attack) comments: “Anti-Stuart feeling was an important dimension to the iconoclasm of parliamentary troops, on which royalist propaganda capitalised in their exaggerated and carefully crafted reports.”

Erected in 1837, the 100’ tall statue of the Duke of Sutherland, stands gazing out upon the sea in Ben Bhraggie, Scotland. The Duke was closely linked with the Highland Clearances. Scottish farmers were forced from their land to make way for large sheep farms. Many had their modest cottages burned to the ground. In 1994 a group attempted to blow it up. Residents in the area are in unresolved dispute over whether it should be removed. Some think that: “It is part of history. If you take away history nobody will ask questions.”

Cleared from Kildonan, some settlers arrived in Canada in the early nineteenth century. Turned away from Fort Churchill, they found their way into Selkirk, Manitoba. Named “The Exiles,” a striking monument of a bare-chested Highland man, his daughter holding tightly to his cloak and a harried wife looking back, stands at the mouth of the strath of Kildonan in Scotland. A replica of the statue was unveiled in Winnipeg on September 7, 2008. Look at this monument: you will start asking hard questions.

During the extended period of struggles for Irish independence, attacks on public statues were frequent. Nelson’s Pillar laid its foundation stone in Dublin 15 February 1808, the anniversary of Viscount Nelson’s anniversary of his victory at Cape St. Vincent in 1797. It was offered as a “permanent proof of respect” for the great warrior of the British Empire. It generated ill-feeling through the years. Somehow Nelson even survived the turbulence of 1916, remaining steadfast in this stormy political sea (he suffered only a small bullet hole on his lower lip). Even when the Irish declared their independence in 1922, Nelson escaped considerable animosity and desire to topple him. However, on 8 March, 1966 the IRA beheaded Nelson. A famous photograph shows five black masked men, arms folded, viewing Nelson’s head in front of them on the ground. This event was greeted with gaiety and laughter. They finally got him.

Cataclysmic regime change releases pent-up iconoclastic energy. If we had been on the streets of central Moscow in 1917, we could have watched the mighty Caesar-like head of the Russian tsar Alexander III dismantled. A photo shows the massive head on its side, wrapped around with rope. The revolutionaries also tore down and removed a double-headed eagle monument from a space near the Kremlin. It was replaced with the communist red star. In the post-1989-90 collapse of the Soviet Union, plenty of Lenin statues were demolished. For instance, activists pulled down the Ukraine’s largest Vladimir Lenin monument in the city of Kharkiv, after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. That’s but one small example. Tens of thousands of busts, statues, you name it, were crafted in the old Soviet Union and its allies. Some are still hanging on. My favourite are the statues, side by side, of Lenin and his wife Krupskaya seated on a park bench in Gorki. Yes, Russia does have a “Lenin park.”

A photo captures the statue of Enver Hoxha just as it was about to fall, long wires attached to his arm, smoke rising in the distance. The statue of the Albanian dictator toppled after the country’s anti-communist revolution, which began in 1992. In the Hungarian revolution of 1956 a sentimental marble statue of flower-bearing children presenting flowers to Josef Stalin was heaved unceremoniously to the ground. Many statues of Stalin lost their heads in the anti-communist rebellions. Nobody seems to like old Joe very much.

In our own time who can forget March 29, 2003 in Basra and Baghdad where the world watched the statues of Saddam Hussein toppled? The British troops destroyed two monuments to Hussein in Basra, southern Iraq. Six metres high, made from black cast-iron, the Iraqi leader was cast in a great coat with his right arm raised in the air. One tank commander said the monument “sort of crumpled. There was a big flash and sparks everywhere and it disappeared, it was gone. I wish it were the real thing.” This sort of image was great for television and gave the false impression that the war was over before it really got rolling. Shocked, in awe of US military might, the Iraqis were supposed to embrace Bush and the purveyors of freedom. They didn’t.

Many people in our “time of troubles” want statues of the likes of Rhodes and King Leopold to be decisively removed from public view. They were nasty pieces of work who caused immeasurable harm to millions of blacks. Public spaces cannot be occupied by one perspective or one set of values. Public space cannot be monovisual. There must be room for many different voices and visions of how we can all live together and flourish. It may be that a vibrant public art must replace the old tradition of putting great men on very large horses for all to see. There is already evidence of this happening.

We need to create public spaces where citizens can wrestle with the meaning and future significance of reprehensible acts committed by the country’s elites. We need to learn about the victims hidden from view. These spaces must evoke dialogue as our unsettled consciences are awakened into reflective thought. Public art (or simply art anywhere) carries the special power of shaking us out of lethargic thought and attitude. We can honour the fallen and affirm that we will do everything in our power to end war. God deliver us from the repellant and deadly trenches of Ypres.

This latter idea (of replacing monuments with public art) was, in fact, triggered by several monuments in Ottawa. If you wander around the streets near the parliament buildings you will notice the “Women are persons!” monument. The five bronze figures of Emily Murphy, Irene Parlby, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney and Henrietta Edwards are set on the sidewalk. You can shake their hands as you pass by. They fought for women to be legal persons and eligible for appointment to the Senate.

Only a stone’s throw away is the tomb of the unknown soldier, a tall war monument of 22 servicemen pressing ahead on the bottom level, topped by mythic figures of peace. Walking past these illustrious women of great deeds, one’s memory is triggered. “You mean, women didn’t become legal persons until 1925? How could that be?” The juxtaposition of war memorial and the five women provokes other questions. “How could we, as Canadians and the allied troops, have entered such a horrific war of mud, muck and meaninglessness?”

The second dazzling monument is located about three blocks from the women and just across from the National Gallery of Art on the corner of a street. Haida artist Jim Hart has sculpted a totem pole called “The three watchmen.” Three figures watch for danger flowing from the supernatural and the everyday worlds. They are often positioned atop tall cedar totem poles in the villages of Haida Gwaii. Their task is to warn of approaching threats. The brilliance of the sculpture and its positioning in Ottawa between church (The immense Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica) and the Canadian parliament buildings speaks to Canadians of the on-going desire for reconciliation between Indigenous peoples and the government.

It also powerfully symbolizes that the mistreated and oppressed peoples of the world will always have their eye on the actions of state and church. The Indigenous peoples are visibly present in public space, pressing their fellow and sister citizens to step back and reflect on Canada’s history and future from inside their worlds. Whose stories will we tell? Whose will we raise from the grave?

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.