Remembering makes us wiser. The words Never Forget takes us back to the events of 9-11. Years later, the site of the Twin Towers has been rebuilt as a memorial with two reflecting pools marking where the two buildings once stood. The memorial not only marks the spot where innocent people lost their lives but also becomes a place for introspection. Many millennials will not remember 9-11 but have been exposed to the aftermath of Islamophobia and twenty-years of military reprisals. This is part of their world – so, remembering is important.
Unless we confront our collective histories, we cannot tackle today’s challenges. Late August, the statue of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John MacDonald, was pulled down by demonstrators in Montreal. A leaflet circulated by the group calls MacDonald a white supremacist who is responsible for the genocide of indigenous people and the creator of the brutal residential school system in Canada. The protests following the killing of George Floyd by police forced us to critically look at our historical leaders. School textbooks gloss over MacDonald’s role in the brutal treatment of natives. He is also attributed to placing a head tax on Chinese workers and shamelessly pandered to prevailing anti-black sentiments. MacDonald also advocated for the execution of Louis Riel – who fought for the rights of the indigenous Metis people.
Vandalizing statues does not fix racism. Jason Kenney, the Conservative premier of Alberta, is wrong to suggest that MacDonald’s statue be brought to his home province for safekeeping. In suggesting this, Kenney is drawing a distinction between “white and indigenous” histories. Jagmeet Singh, leader of the New Democratic Party, is more constructive when he tweeted, “Taking down a statue of him (MacDonald) doesn’t erase him from history any more than honoring him out of context erases the horrors he caused.” Statues should challenge prevailing and founding myths. As such, adding the figure of a dead Louis Riel at the feet of MacDonald with an inscribed plaque is far more evocative and educational.
Statues, like other forms of public art, bring life to our streets and plazas. Over the twenty-plus years working as an urban planner I have identified many areas in different cities where public art should be located. Effective public art makes cities more inclusive. From 2009 to 2014, I worked on a masterplan for the cities of Makkah and Madinah. Over the years, Saudi Arabia’s conservative monarchy and clerics went to great lengths to destroy Makkah’s historical artefacts. Islam does not permit idolatry so in Makkah there are no statues. I would argue with no public art program Makkah has run rampant with unsustainable development. If public art had been permitted, I believe, there would be an opportunity for Muslims, worldwide, to better understand their faith instead of succumbing to a highly-curated State narrative.
In Europe, Bucharest had succumbed to Communism after the War – leaving the City with decrepit art nouveau villas interspersed with brooding, concrete-block towers. In 2004, I was participating in efforts to revitalize Bucharest’s Historic City Core. At the time, the country was feverishly removing all remnants of its communist history – statues of Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin were being pulled down at every opportunity. But, as seen elsewhere, removing these monuments made people forget – allowing them to rewrite history instead of keeping it as a salient reminder. As a result, Joseph Stalin is experiencing a popularity bump with many young people venerating the Soviet leader’s populism and political longevity. They are unaware that Stalin was responsible for the death of millions. In Russia, President Vladimir Putin is actually leveraging this ignorance to justify sweeping constitutional changes to ensure his hold on power.
Unsavory statues should be modified but not removed. Satirical artists often take regular images and subvert them using irony. Andy Warhol would alter mundane objects using different materials to change its visual impact. Duchamp, Braque, Picasso all took ordinary objects and changed its public perception with insidious alterations. Appropriating, sampling, and remixing elements of popular culture is now common practice in the art world – so why not with our unsavory statues?
On June 8th, an image of George Floyd was projected on to the statue of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general, in Richmond, Virginia. Days later, a colorful Pride flag was projected onto the statue. Contemplate a Confederate general, the embodiment of white supremacy, is now subjected to a lifetime of irony. So much wiser than pulling down a relic and storing it away. Powerful stuff!