Moving Monuments and Considering Community

By Shantay Robinson

According to Americans for the Arts, “Public art is often site-specific, meaning it is created in response to the place and community in which it resides.” In a document describing why public art matters, Americans for the Arts states, “It reflects and reveals our society, adds meaning to our cities and uniqueness to our communities.” The Association for Public Art states, “Public art can express community values, enhance our environment, transform a landscape, heighten our awareness, or question our assumptions.” If public art is created in response to the community in which the art resides, then the community should definitely have a say in the art that graces their immediate environment. In recent years, there has been some uproar about public art, so much so that people have died and been put in jail in the act of defending their opinions about public art. The personages depicted in the monuments in public spaces, in some cases, have been heinous perpetrators of violence against humanity. These “heroes” have been memorialized, lauded, and celebrated, for centuries. If these monuments are representative of the perspectives of a community, then what are they saying about our communities today? 

In 2018, a statue of famed gynecologist J. Marion Sims that was placed in Central Park across the street from the New York Academy of Medicine, was removed because the community voiced protest against its existence. Sims made major advancements in gynecological studies, but it was to the detriment of black women. He experimented on enslaved black women without the use of anesthesia. The names of the women who he experimented on are lost to history except for three, Lucy, Anarcha, and Betsey. Inevitably there were countless others who suffered at the hands of this doctor. They didn’t have a say in the matter. Despite the major discoveries and advancements in science, these human beings were treated as less than human and tortured for the world’s benefit. They should rightfully have a monument in their names. Sims’ monument will be moved to his grave site and the true story about his discoveries including his abuse of black women will accompany the monument. 

So, while this monument and others are being reconsidered, replaced, and re-contextualized, there are still many monuments throughout the United States that exist in communities where these infamous enshrined individuals have left their heinous marks. If they exist in the community, then the community should have a say in their existence. We have seen from the Charlottesville, Virginia riot in 2017 that not only are the descendants of the victims of hate protesting for the removal of monuments, but the descendants of the alleged “heroes” who have been enshrined for centuries are voicing their opinions for the preservation of the monuments.  When it comes to confederate monuments, there is a lot to be considered. The treasured war veterans of the Confederacy were fighting to ensure the enslavement of black people in this country. They wanted to make sure that black people had no human rights. Ultimately, they lost the fight but many of their descendants still believe them to be heroes even as black people have been integrated into the fabric of American life. The battle between those who fight for the preservation of the monuments and those who oppose them is very telling of the state of our existence in the United States today. 

In response to the Confederate monuments, Kehinde Wiley erected a statue titled, Rumors of War, which was unveiled in Times Square in New York City in September 2019.  In true Wiley fashion, the personage depicted is of a modernly outfitted black man in a historical posture astride a horse. As Wiley is known for juxtaposing the urban with the Baroque, while this statue is black, the extravagance of the historical period is still present despite the lack of color. It is the flair with which the artist depicts the black man on his steed in mid-air that relates the power and prestige of his presence. In typical Wiley fashion, the young man is dressed in contemporary fashion with his hair in locs, ripped jeans, sneakers, and a hoodie, not your average depiction for a sculpture. But there is no reason this should not be an apt depiction. In fact, Wiley’s statue appropriates the posture of the J.E.B. Stuart statue from Monument Avenue. Men like Stuart, during the time of the Confederacy, were fighting for the right to enslave black people. While there were many brave black men and women who stood up for their rights as humans, monuments were not built in their honor at the time, so there is a gap in this narrative of U.S. history. Today we have the opportunity to regal those heroes and heroines. And without naming them or depicting any one person in particular, Wiley offers a symbolic personage and deems it worthy of depiction. 

While Wiley’s statue was unveiled in Times Square among a barrage of neon lights and fanfare the statue has made its home on Richmond Virginia, home to many Confederate monuments. What does positioning Wiley’s statue at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art, approximately a mile away from Monument Avenue actually do? For Wiley, as he responded to CBS, of visiting Monument Avenue he says, “I saw a spectacle that felt dreadful. I mean, it almost felt like it was designed to be menacing.” The valorization of the personages depicted in these monuments seem to be confirmation that these men were right about something, when in fact all they stood for is the negation of black people’s humanity. When asked if he wanted his statue to speak back to the Confederate monuments, Wiley states, “I want my statue to be speaking back to the people looking at those statues.” He recognizes that his statue is a depiction of anyone and no one. But when we look back at this monument in the future, we’ll be able to contextualize this image as a 21st century black man who after approximately 150 years since slavery is still treated as less than human when it comes to his rights. But this depiction of a black man in relation to the monuments should alert those looking at the monuments on Monument Avenue that Wiley has reclaimed the black man’s humanity and valorizing him affords those looking at the statue to consider not only his humanity, but his prowess in this country. 

While there is overwhelming support of the existing monuments of Confederate war heroes that exist in Richmond and other places around the United States, there are also voices calling for the removal of the monuments, replacement into other less public sites, and re-contextualization of the monuments by a telling of a fuller narrative surrounding them. The J. Marion Sims monument removal is just one of the victories already claimed by people in communities gathering together to make changes about the public art that in essence represents the communities where they reside. Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City listened to the voices of the people and responded with action. In its place, there was a call for a new sculpture to replace the J. Marion Sims monument. Several well-known artists submitted proposals for the statue to replace the Sims monument including Kehinde Wiley, Wangechi Mutu, Simone Leigh, and Vinnie Bagwell who were finalists. The panel of judges chose Simone Leigh’s sculpture, but the community rallied in support of Vinnie Bagwell. When Leigh found out about the community’s support of Bagwell she rescinded her proposal. Now, Bagwell’s statue will be placed in Central Park. Bagwell’s statue is an 18-foot woman angel with faces of black women embossed in her skirt titled Victory Over Sims. Because the community rallied around Vinnie Bagwell to memorialize the women who were used in the experiments for the advancement of gynecology, her statue will be the one erected by 2021. 

When the community speaks about their public art, shouldn’t those in power listen? Confederate monuments taunt us of a not so distant time when black people were denied their humanity, but people are speaking up about their existence. Despite the riot that happened in Charlottesville, Monument Avenue and other places like it still exist. But Kehinde Wiley’s statue and the upcoming Vinnie Bagwell sculpture are progress. The Confederate monuments speak to us about a very real time in United States history, and to deny the existence of the monuments would be to deny that time and the feelings that so many people have about their existence. Coming to terms with those feelings particularly about lauding men who would deny black people’s humanity is a conversation that needs to be had. What does it mean to continue to regal these men when they didn’t have the best interest in mind for all people? Critics of the monuments have suggested moving them to museums or graveyards. If in fact the monuments throughout our nation are public art, then when the public opposes them, shouldn’t those in power listen? If public art reflects society, then what are the public monuments saying about us?

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Shantay Robinson, BAIA resident scholar has participated in Burnaway’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, Duke University’s The New New South Editorial Fellowship, and CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring Program. She has written for Burnaway, ArtsATL, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Number, Inc. and Washington City Paper. While  receiving an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design, she served as a docent at the High Museum of Art. She is currently working on a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University.

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