Artists, activists come together for “Memorials: As Monuments Fall” webinar

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Media: Diana Bravo

The Lincoln Statue is set to be taken down in the wake of the recent Black Lives Matter protests.

By Joshua Sokol

Historical monuments and who they seek to memorialize have come under harsh scrutiny in 2020. Emerson Contemporary, along with a team of professors and activist artists, came together on Oct. 14 at a virtual panel titled “Memorials: As Monuments Fall,” where they discussed the removal of outdated or offensive monuments as more are taken down across the country.

Leonie Bradbury, distinguished curator-in-residence of Emerson Contemporary, the college’s platform for showcasing contemporary visual art, moderated the panel with the intent of hosting an open conversation. 

“I wanted to feel like you were sitting at a table with these people,” Bradbury said. “This is a topic that is very challenging, but it is also very current. We really wanted to respond to this moment.”

The panel comes just months after Mayor Marty Walsh authorized the removal of the North End Christopher Colombus statue, stating that the historical meaning behind the statue will be assessed.

The once-beheaded memorial is set to be erected once again at the North Marginal Street chapter of Knights of Columbus, a Roman Catholic fraternal organization.  Mayor Marty Walsh said that in the original statue’s place, a monument “highlighting the Italian immigrants of the North End,” will be it’s replacement. 

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The plans for when this statue will be erected, as well as its design, is still undetermined.

The first speaker on the panel, professor of art history Dr. Cher Krause Knight, kicked off the conversation with a statement about claiming monuments as a place for acts of resistance. 

Knight cited two Black Lives Matter public art pieces in Washington D.C., which she said were created in response to President Donald Trump’s militaristic action against peaceful protesters.

“I wanted to point out the importance of claiming space and saying names as acts of resistance,” Knight said at the panel. “It’s an acknowledgment of public space It’s claiming a voice and a presence.”

Knight said she thinks this topic is a careful balance of active contribution and effort, but also an opportunity for everyone to hear from members of marginalized communities and think critically about their own perspective.

“Part of what I can do hopefully is recognize the expertise and knowledge that I do have to share,” Knight, who is white, said. “But then my other role is to shut up and do some deep listening.”  

In her work outside of Emerson, Knight was part of a group that listened to the testimony from activists to remove the “Emancipation Group” statue near the Park Plaza Hotel in Downtown Boston.

The statue, which depicts Abraham Lincoln standing next to a kneeling, formerly enslaved man, came under controversy in June when questions about monuments started arriving under public discourse.

The Boston Arts Commission ultimately voted unanimously to take down the statue in late June of this year. The date of removal has not yet been determined.

The panel went on to discuss the accuracy of the term “vandalism” and the role of the public and their reactions to monuments that perpetuate insensitive narratives.

“If you don’t give people a context or a meaning they can accept, they will negotiate their own,” Knight said. “We could call that vandalism, but sometimes it’s just a public response.” 

Knight said she doesn’t necessarily advocate for physical responses to monuments, citing worries about the safety of those involved.

The next member of the panel was Tory Bullock, a local artist and activist.

As a lifelong resident of Boston, Bullock said he grew up questioning the “Emancipation Group” statue he and his family often passed during trips into the city.

“I knew the guy that looked like me, who was supposed to represent me, was on his knees,” Bullock said in the panel. “I didn’t understand why and I would always ask that question to my parents.”

Bullock initially started the petition to remove the “Emancipation Group” statue on Jun. 11, which now has over 12,500 signatures as of Oct. 15.

“[The removal of the statue] is a huge moment in thinking about the public’s relationship with public art, their responsibility and what the system’s responsibility is to listen to that and create some kind of process to facilitate the change,” Bullock said.

Hungarian activist and artist Zsuzsanna Varga Szegedi presented next, highlighting a case study that was separate from the monument discourse in the U.S. She is currently working on a project focusing on the systemic erasure of legacies that contradict and challenge Hungarian national agendas, like communist ideologies opposed by the government.

The removal by Hungarian authorities of a statue memorializing a Jewish and Marxist Hungarian philosopher György Lukács inspired Szegedi’s project, called “Ghost of Lukacs,” People in Hungary, including right-wing media, were confused by the removal, due to lack of transparency in the decision to remove the statue.

The public art piece includes various projections depicting the removed statue of the Hungarian philosopher on the sides of buildings, one of which is accompanied by the words, “It is possible to grasp the innermost essence of our time,” a quote from Lukac’s work.

The work was originally presented in 2019 for the exhibition “In the Words, in the Bones,” curated by School of the Art Institute of Chicago assistant professor Magdalena Moskalewicz at the Boston Center for the Arts.

Szegedi brought the project on a global tour and said she hoped to bring with it the spirit of radical critique to the public space. The artist hoped it would provoke thought about where we stand as humans able to rely on one another.

Emerson Contemporary will host their second webinar regarding public monuments and their removal, titled “Monuments: Markers of Time?” on Nov. 18. The panel will include contributions from Quentin Stevens, associate professor at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Melbourne, Australia, as well as Eric Höweler, architect and co-founder of the award-winning design firm Höweler+Yoon.

To conclude Wednesday’s panel, artists, professors, and virtual attendees held an open discussion about the permanence of statues. Bullock took the time to emphasize the importance of getting out of a “cloud of passiveness” and how when he makes his work, there’s an expectation it has an expiration date.

“For me, it’s kind of egotistical to create a piece of work that I just assume is so amazing that it’s going to stay around for the next 150 years and that nobody is going to have a problem with it,” Bullock said.