The Defacement of Racist Statues Is a Renegotiation of Power

An interview with art curator Chaédria LaBouvier

A photo of a vandalized statue of King Leopold II in Belgium. It is covered in red paint and graffiti.
A vandalized statue of King Leopold II in Belgium. The statue was vandalized in early June — and several times in the past in Ghent — and was removed on June 30, 2020. Photo: Jonathan Raa/NurPhoto/Getty Images

Ever since the George Floyd protests have rippled across the world, we have been experiencing reckonings with the past and present on a daily basis. Whether it’s networks removing blackface episodes, executives resigning after allegations of racism and silencing in the workplace, or white people losing their jobs due to their predatory natures on Black and Brown people caught on film, each news report holds a mirror to what marginalized people have been whispering behind closed doors for years.

But another interesting element to this historical moment is the tearing down of statues that are happening around the globe. In Belgium, a statue of King Leopold II, who committed genocide against millions of Africans in the Congo, was vandalized and eventually taken down. In England, a statue of Edward Colston, a slave trader and shareholder of the Royal African Company, was toppled and thrown into a river by local citizens. In America, several states from coast to coast reported statues of Confederate soldiers, slave traders, and colonizers either vandalized, toppled, or officially removed.

We spoke with Chaédria LaBouvier, the first Black creator and first Black woman to curate an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, about the significance of these removals and her projections on what’s to come.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

ZORA: How do you feel about all these racist statues being taken down all over the world?

Chaédria LaBouvier: You know, I don’t think that they should be in the context that they’re in, which is a celebration and a veneration, right? At the same time, I think as complicated as museums are, they should be somewhere in which the public can engage with what they stood for properly contextualized. Taking them down doesn’t stop that process. They just don’t need to be in public squares or parks as something that should be admired or in a civic aspiration of any sort. We shouldn’t be aspiring to any of John Calhoun or Robert E. Lee’s ideals. They should be treated as the traitors and murderers and affronts to human dignity that they are.

“The western world does not do a good job or has very little interest in telling the truth.”

What would you say to the individuals who believe that taking down these statues is historical erasure?

I acknowledge that fear because I think that the western world has not done a good job or has very little interest in telling the truth. But I also don’t think that they need to be in the center of cities as the representations of the hearts of those cities unless there are these huge plaques to say like, “At one point, Robert E. Lee is a traitor and enslaved people. He led to the division of the Union and at one point, he was celebrated. One hundred and fifty years after he surrendered, a portion of the country believes that he’s a hero. This is a part of our history that we need to reckon and deal with.” There’s a great argument that there should be a prominent addendum to those statues that explain the history of what they represent.

Do you think that on a psychological level, onlookers may automatically venerate these monuments because of their scale, which is why proper addendums are needed?

Yeah. Humans have been playing with proportions in order to inspire awe since the beginning of time. The ancient Egyptians created the pyramids as such for a reason. And then there’s the obelisks — the Romans learned about proportions and scale and stance. It’s all working to create a desired effect, which is awe and wonder. It’s even more so when we don’t actually tell people what it means.

“In the beginning years of the Reconstruction era, statues were meant to intimidate a burgeoning free Black class and Black middle class.”

Just what is the process like for a statue to be erected in the first place? Who makes these decisions, and are these people usually white?

Yeah, these people are usually white. I can’t speak to the European statues, but for the American South, a lot of those were due to interest groups like Sons of the Confederacy or Daughters of the Confederacy raising funds to create these statues. We know that those politics and groups that support white supremacy have always been intertwined. In the beginning years of the Reconstruction era, statues were meant to intimidate a burgeoning free Black class and Black middle class. You see these statues rise right alongside the creation of the KKK. They go hand and hand.

What type of message do you think it sends?

It’s a form of psychological warfare. It’s the same thing with the Great Wall of China. It’s a fort and border, but it’s also meant to show its enemies the resources and might that can be corralled if need be. I think that’s the same thing with these statues. When those statues were erected during the Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction periods, it was meant to reaffirm a social order that should never have existed in the first place. When that is in the DNA of its creation, it is meant to exude in perpetuity and intimidation a message that you do not matter. You should be enslaved; you should be subjugated. We are not equal.

What do you think is the deeper significance of statues being defaced?

There are so many meanings with that. I’m interested in a scholastic standpoint of what defacement of works mean. I tend to think of it in that vein as part of a journey of a work, an afterlife of a work. For better or worse, these statues are works that exist in many different ways in social history as objects of the civic life of a city. They exist as a perverse chapter of art history. To me, watching all of this defacement is a renegotiation of power, meaning, and the civic fabric of a city. It’s interesting to watch it.

Do you think that after all these statues are removed that the powers that be will just replace them? Or do you think a tide will change?

I think it’s really early to tell. It’ll probably be something like an overcorrected gesture. But I think the lasting impact is how these works are taught because as a child of the South and growing up in Texas, you take state history. You are taught what these figures mean. It’s a living history. I’m more interested in how the teaching in the public sphere will shift about these statues and how they will teach what comes next.

Morgan Jerkins is the Senior Editor at ZORA and a New York Times bestselling author. Her debut novel, “Caul Baby,” will be published by Harper in April 2021.

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