What can history teach us about what to do with racist sculptures and images?
The movements that have called for the destruction of statues of racists have raised several questions about how efficient these gestures can be in the fight…
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Statues and monuments reflect the values of the times in which they were erected. They are traces of the ideas and ideals we leave to future generations and their materials, proportions and forms reflect the kind of relationships we want to project towards these figures.
In the groups of people who have intervened or pulled down slave-owning statues - both in the United States and in England - there is an exercise in collective catharsis and a call for urgent change.
In reaction, we have heard voices of protest and questioning. Among the protests have been the claims of the extreme right, for example, the major clash in London between the police and right-wing protesters outside Parliament on June 13.
The questioning, more academic than revolutionary, comes from whether symbols are enough to change society and what are the dangers of disappearing them.
Iconoclasm, as the destruction of images is called in art history, can have consequences such as the forgetting of history. Although it is true that in the ocean of information that we are living thanks to the digital era the idea of forgetting history is difficult to imagine, it also happens that when something is no longer present in the imagination it falls into oblivion even if the information is available.
An example: Colombia had its first black president in 1861. Juan José Nieto Gil (1805-1866) had a very short government, but it happened. Only in 2018, as an act of restoration, the then president Juan Manuel Santos commissioned and hung an oil portrait of Nieto Gil in the presidential palace, as was his right as former president.
Even today most Colombians are unaware of this historical fact because at the time his image was erased, even though the name was still written.
Likewise, the exercise of removing the Confederate statues and portraits runs the risk of forgetting the severity of the actions and ideas defended by the slave traders. Even more problematic would be the belief that the expiatory act of removing the images resolves the tensions that remain in society.
The removal or intervention of the figures is necessary to stop seeing them as ideals when we are faced with values that our society seeks to eliminate - racism, in this case - but this is only the beginning.
For Sebastián Mesa, an artist and art historian who, as part of his work, has intervened the Museum of the Bank of the Republic of Colombia in workshops with members of the trans and afro community in Bogotá, the problem in these iconoclastic exercises is in using the same tools that the system has used before to oppress others.
"Historical subjects are made of contradictions," recalls Mesa, "and using the same weapons that were used in the past to avoid dialogue gives the same results."
Indeed, The Economist points out, some of the characters depicted in the statues now on trial are as much blamed for their racism as they are appreciated for their political and historical legacy in other fields. Two surnames provide a telling example: Washington and Jefferson.
Addressing the problem of racism in the United States goes beyond attacking sculptures or removing paintings because neither action invalidates the fact that this is a country built on a land that was taken from its original inhabitants and built by people who were taken away from their land.