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War over a statue and its meaning

by Tjebbe van Tijen

There are 325 million Americans. There were about 500 participants in this white supremacists rally in the small town (43.000 inhabitants) of Charlottesville, Virginia. It is significant that none of the main news sources about this incident come up with proportional numbers of demonstrators, pro and contra. My impression is that, in this sense, this event is blown up out of proportion.


It all started with a series of protests against the removal of an equestrian statue of the Confederate general Robert Edward Lee. A symbol from the past, the American Civil War (1861-1865) in the mid of the 19th century. A war, which had the question of abolishment of slavery at its core and produced on all sides approximate 850.000 dead. Lee was a pro-slavery man. This statue has been erected many years after, in 1924, in a park that bore his name. General Lee’s biography is long and complicated, but maybe it suffices to tell the story of three of his slaves who had fled his plantation in 1859, but were caught and brought back. Lee ordered them to be whipped while bound to a pole. Fifty lashes for the men, twenty for the woman. He personally oversaw the execution of the punishment.
After a long local battle in April 2017 the municipal council decided to remove the statue from the park that previously had been renamed to ‘Emancipation Park’. There were two previous protest marches this year against the removal of the statue, the second one in July was led by the ‘Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Kan.
All over the world, through the whole of history there have been clashes over statues and other monuments, from iconoclast pulling down to marches and gatherings to honor what the statue honors. As someone educated as a sculptor I always take great interest in these confrontations, as it is there that the role of sculpture gets historical significance. A statue, like an equestrian one in this case, does not evoke on itself what it stands for, it is given meaning by those who erect it, those who keep it, those who protest against it, those who remove it.
Cities are full of memorials for bad causes, from ‘war criminals’ to ‘fountain pen criminals’ … often they’re intended meaning has worn down over time, becoming an anachronism. Still they stand there in their “lost glory” in our cities, its squares and parks. There is often more meaning in their apparent loss of meaning, than in their removal, still when there is a shift of regime, old statues are there to be removed and new ones to be sculpted and inaugurated.
In the case of Charlottesville one wonders why not the third option, to construct a re-signification of a controversial statue, by adding new sculptural elements, and a public displayed historical comment, has been sought. Taking away a statue leaves a void in the readability of a town’s history in its buildings, streets, names…. ‘Damnatio memoriae’ tends to have the opposite effect. We need to reinterpret the past, not try to make it disappear.
We all know the images of the pulling down of statues at the eve of a revolutionary change. Though the French centralistic power system of the royals was never completely destroyed, we saw a new French president parading in the pompous places of a kingdom long gone. The mis-en-scène by American troops of the pull down of a Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad did not end violence in Iraq and the removal of Lenin statues all over the former Soviet Union did not diminish the central power system from the Kremlin.
Still we understand the removal of statues for conquerors of former colonial empires and even witnessed the pulling down of statues of anti-colonial national leaders who fell out of power.
Can sculptural additions help in subverting initial meaning and bringing a society beyond its cruel past?


Video by Washington Post

Facebook page of keep statue

One of the tousands Facebook pages that sees it (correctly)”
“Horrific events in Virginia today.
Racism, white nationalism, and white supremacy are not Christian or American values; and yet for too much of our history, even up to the present day, they have been values demonstrated by America, and tragically also often by those claiming the name of Christ.
Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly. Love your neighbor. Care for the poor, the refugee, the widow, the orphan, the helpless.
If you’re a white person, take some time to learn about the history of racism and discrimination in this country. These are huge problems without easy solutions, but the first step is just to be aware.”

Charlottesville: Race and Terror – VICE News Tonight on HBO

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