MUST THEY ALL FALL?
New Rochelle, New York, 1 November 2018
Interesting talk yesterday- my first art talk since arriving in New York a few weeks ago- at The European Fine Art Fair, TEFAF, on the issue of public monuments and representations across public spaces in the city. Which ones "must fall" a.k.a which ones should be removed from public view and "buried" in some cemetery for banned monuments, or hidden somewhere where only the most courageous will see. Which criteria should determine who "must fall" and who should not. Black, white, and lots of shades of gray.
The city has had its share of “falls”, among others surgeon J. Marion Sims.
Because we are in New York, let’s take Columbus- yes that Christopher: many across the city are pushing for his statue to be removed- his contribution to society, American history, world history, they say, is questionable, does not past today’s test. It is here at TEFAF that I heard for the first time the word "presentism"- putting on today’s glasses to evaluate, judge things of the past. Once we remove the statue of Columbus, does it end there or do we also need to remove all the Columbus streets and avenues across the city? Do we also de-name squares and parks that bear that name? Where does it end?
Closer to DR Congo, the country I just left behind, the famous cartoon Tintin has been caught in controversy. A few years ago, Tintin and his charming, clever white dog Milou had to battle critics for being racism- and this is not the first time.
This morning, a German gallerist contributed to the discussion from the perspective of his home country, and most specifically from….. a Hitler point of view: should there be squares, sculptures, streets name after Hitler? In sum he said “no” but nuanced his comment by arguing that by removing Hitler from the Germany public sphere, the country was in a sense erasing its history.
Let’s leave New York and travel to West and Central Africa.
Should French-speaking West and Central African countries debaptize their buildings, universities, boulevards and other public infrastructures that were named after French, British, Belgian white men who led the colonisation?
Back in my hometown Abidjan, we still have Boulevard de Marseille, Pont De Gaulle, Boulevard Valery Giscard d’Estaing, and many more roads, cities named French colonized. The famous neighborhood of Treichville is named after Marcel Treich-Laplene, Côte d’Ivoire first colonial administrator who died at the young age of 30. But next to the french, we also have Pont Houphouet-Boigny, named after the first president; avenues Jacques Anoma, Jacques Aka, local politicians. In my second hometown Kinshasa, there are still some Belgian names around although Mobutu’s Zairianisation philosophy started back in the 70s to do away with Belgian names and figures.
Is it the same criteria that determines who “must fall” that determines who should stay or who needs to be elevated to the status of being worthy of having a public representation?
And where does education fit into all of this? Should all these representations be teaching moments for the young, for communities as a whole? The German gallerist, the only Black woman in attendance, and one of the panelists agreed that they form part of both the painful and positive history. By removing all these figures that somehow a group has deemed unworthy, aren’t we in part erasing part of our history?
Fascinating debate that each family, community, nation needs to address on its own terms.