Sex, gender, race and ethnicity in contemporary protest art
On June 26, 2020, The New York Times published an op-ed by Caroline Randall Williams that begins with a line now permanently seared on my memory: “I have rape-colored skin.” In the piece, Williams describes her personal history as the descendant of slave-owning (and other) White men and the sexually victimized Black women they enslaved or, later, employed as domestic help. The essay’s title, “You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body Is a Confederate Monument,” though obviously meant as a bitterly ironic metaphor and clapback to defenders of Confederate statuary, also makes a deep and serious assertion: that the living body of a BIPOC woman can be deployed by her to simultaneously memorialize historical crimes and embody resistance to them.
It will surprise no one to learn that monumental art in the United States consists overwhelmingly of depictions of White men, created by White male artists. BIPOC, and White women, are almost entirely absent both as subjects and as creators. In the U.S., there are fewer than 400 statues of real women (not metaphorical often half-naked depictions of virtues like Liberty, Justice, or Beauty); in New York City, just five of 150 statues are of real women, and none of the 23 statues of historical figures in Central Park honors a real woman.
The reflexive way to address this exclusion is to put up statues of women. The all-volunteer group Monumental Women, created in 2014, sought to do just that, beginning in New York City. After years of fund-raising and a design contest, their memorial to founding suffragettes Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Sojourner Truth, paid for by donations from, among others, the Girl Scouts, will be unveiled August 26, 2020, the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment.
But what has already been completely scrubbed from their website is that their initial proposal included Stanton and Anthony alone (below, at left) — Stanton, who said about Black male suffrage, “It becomes a serious question whether we had better stand aside and let ‘Sambo’ walk into the kingdom first,” and Anthony, who once said of the Fifteenth Amendment, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work for or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.” In fact, the group’s original name was The Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony Statue Fund, Inc. Nor do they mention that the original commission was for a monument to those two women only (it was not sculptor Meredith Bergmann’s choice).
After months of objections by Gloria Steinem and others, the piece was redesigned in 2019 to include Sojourner Truth (above, at right). But how, in this decade, in New York City, was a monument to women’s suffrage designed and approved with no thought to whether it perpetuated a White supremacist narrative about the struggle for women’s rights? “Ain’t I A Woman?,” indeed.
J. Marion Sims, the physician-torturer of enslaved Black women
While the Central Park monument to women’s suffrage will endure, offend (almost) no one, and no doubt be seen by many of the 38 million people each year who visit the most-visited urban park in the U.S., it does not compare in power and artistic bravery to the J. Marion Sims protest put on by the Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100).
J. Marion Sims (1813–1883), the “father of modern surgical gynecology,” and president of the American Medical Association from 1876–1877, is now notorious for the numerous operations he performed on unanesthetized enslaved women, particularly early in his career in antebellum Alabama, where he practiced after leaving South Carolina, his home state. The names of just three of these women are known to us — Betsey, Lucy, and Anarcha, the last of whom he he operated on no fewer than thirty times. The enslaved women who were his patients also served as his hospital staff, performing nursing tasks as well as cooking and cleaning.
Sims was a loyal Confederate throughout the Civil War, most of which he spent in Europe, before returning to New York in approximately 1871. Among the surgeries he successfully pioneered was a procedure to repair a vesicovaginal fistula; the first successful gallbladder surgery; and the first artificial insemination to result in a pregnancy. His statue — the first of any physician in America — was erected in Bryant Park in 1894, and moved to 5th Avenue and 103rd Street bordering Central Park in 1934.
Sims continued to be honored as a physician throughout the twentieth century. The sanitized Norman Rockwell-esque painting above, depicting the “great moment” in 1845 when Sims first examined Lucy, in a backyard “hospital” built by enslaved people, was created around 1952. The kitschier “Medical Giants of Alabama,” below, was commissioned in 1982 and hung at the University of Alabama Center for Advanced Medical Studies until 2006.
In addition to his medical crimes against enslaved women, Sims also contributed to and perpetuated the myth of Black people’s relative imperviousness to pain, something nearly half of White medical students and residents still believed as recently as 2016.
The BYP100 protest photos were taken at a live event organized by medical student (now doctor) Seshat Mack, following years of activism by East Harlem Preservation, El Museo Del Barrio, and the New York Academy of Medicine. It took place on August 19, 2017. The event itself was well-attended and covered in New York City — but the photos have an impact that reaches far beyond the city itself.
Whether in full color or in color-pop/desaturated format, the images are incredibly powerful and arresting. The women’s faces are mournful and solemn, a wordless reproach to the viewer. Their hairstyles, skin tones, and features are unique and individual; from the neck down, though, they are uniformly the bloodied victims of Sims’ knife, arisen from the operating table to stand before us. The bloodstained section of the gowns is deeply, viscerally, transgressive; with its evocation of both menstrual and obstetric bleeding, it displays in public what is almost never seen, but now, cannot be unseen.
In January, 2018, a few months after this protest, the New York City Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments and Markers finally voted to remove the statue of Sims to the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, where he is buried. It is in storage there, due to ongoing protests. The pedestal remains, to the continuing objections of many. According to the plaque, “Plans are being developed to commission a new monument on this site.” Only the photographs recall the horror.
Indigenous reappropriation of monuments to Christopher Columbus
In Detroit, Michigan, a large bust of Christopher Columbus by Italian sculptor Augusto Rivalta stood on Washington Boulevard at Park Avenue, from its original dedication on October 12, 1910, until it was moved to East Jefferson Avenue and Randolph Street, near the entrance to the Detroit-Windsor (Canada) tunnel, in 1988. Bust, statues, and memorials to Columbus are very common in the United States — there are more than 150 of them, about 100 erected after 1950.
Most Americans over the age of 40 probably were taught little in elementary school beyond 1492, the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. Few learn that in the Caribbean, Columbus and his men engaged in viciously brutal practices towards the indigenous people of Hispaniola and the Taino people. They practiced child rape and murder on a large scale, involving girls aged no more than ten, and consigned at least 5,000 people to the early Atlantic slave trade. On one occasion Columbus and his men killed 3,000 indigenous people in a day, with a brutality that shocked the conscience even of his contemporaries. Between 1493 and 1496, the Taino population in the area now including Haiti and the Dominican Republic dropped from 8 million to 3 million. Just 100,000 remained by 1504, reduced to 32,000 by 1514. The more that is known about Columbus and this period of colonization, its greed, cruelty, and genocidal violence, the less appropriate it is to “honor” him, as important as it is to remember these events.
Beginning in the 1980s, the movement began to replace “Columbus Day” with “Indigenous People’s Day,” in recognition of the Native American genocide associated with the “discovery” and settlement of North America by Europeans. South Dakota was the first state to change its holiday, and the current name was first used in Berkeley, California, in 1992. In the same year, the quincentenary of his arrival, about forty new monuments to Columbus were erected. The change of focus, and the backlash against it, reflect an ongoing critical reappraisal of Columbus himself, and resistance to the revision of the received history of conquest and the values associated with it.
The Detroit Christopher Columbus monument was a target of critical vandalism as far back as 2015. Red paint, signifying blood, was poured on it, along with an ax affixed to the forehead.
More recently, in the run-up to its removal, a cardboard sign was attached to the back, reading, “LOOTER RAPIST SLAVE TRADER/DEBWEN MAADASH GE GWAYA DA WIINDMAGE.” The second phrase appears to be Ojibwe, intended to mean, “Tell the truth or someone will.”
The bust was finally removed on June 15, 2020, setting the stage for a visually striking act of reappropriative public art.
On July 1, 2020, a demonstration took place at the pedestal site, organized by The Waawiiyaatanong Resurgence, an activist collective focused on reclamation of indigenous land, associated with an indigenous group known as the Anishinaabe. (The Anishinaabe include the Ojibwe and other tribal groups local to Michigan and the surrounding area.)
As with the BYP100 protest, the live event was seen by passers-by. But photographs, like the one at left, taken by Resurgence member Rosa Maria Zamarron, are the more enduring remembrances, visual traces of a powerful but inherently transitory event. This static and fixed image, Zamarron’s photo, is susceptible to analysis like any photographic still or painting.
Because its subjects are colorfully dressed, live, indigenous women, everything about the picture “pops” and subverts our expectations about a monumental statue. Because bronze and marble are dichromatic, even full-color photographs of traditional statues are dominated by the dark taupe of metal and the white-gray stone it stands upon. But here, the colors are vibrant, accented by the vivid green of summer plants and brown soil. The pedestal, by contrast, shares its inorganic shape, its hard, sharp edges, and its colors, with the built environment of road and buildings.
Although it is a surprising juxtaposition to our eyes, in bringing color to the marble, the monument as reconceived by The Waawiiyaatanong Resurgence may actually more closely resemble Greek statuary as it looked in its own time. Good evidence suggests that ancient marble statues were gaudily painted, in bright colors and with complexions more like indigenous people than pale Europeans.
In their stances, their dress, and their facial expressions, the indigenous women communicate an aspirational and historical truth — “we are still here.” The statue meant to honor in perpetuity a man who committed mass atrocities against indigenous people throughout the hemisphere, is gone — and the descendants of some of those people, still live.
The Waawiiyaatanong Resurgence event is also reminiscent of the “living statue,” a form of tableau vivant, a real-life enactment of a famous work of art.
Of course, there is no “real” statue in the place the The Waawiiyaatanong Resurgence created the image of one. Zamarron’s photo is a record of a thing that does not exist, and is, in Baudrillard’s sense, a simulacrum, a copy of which there is no original, a snapshot of an alternative Detroit, Michigan, one where indigenous tribes, not their conqueror and murderer, are honored and remembered.
As the BYP100 and The Waawiiyaatanong Resurgence protests show, simply adding new statues (as Monumental Women has done in Central Park) is the least radical — but perhaps most lasting — response to the absence of monuments to women, including BIPOC women. Its utter conventionality is both the strength and the limitation of this approach: the statues will take their place in this canonical location, leaving all other statuary undisturbed. They may politely add to the conversation, but they hardly interrogate the history of Central Park, New York, or the United States.
By contrast, the BYP100 protest is a wordless scream of rage, directly in dialogue with the statue of Sims himself, those who erected it, and all who walk by. Today, with the statue gone, only the photograph remains, tinged red with horror, a vivid reminder of Sims’ legacy and what it meant to memorialize him for more than a century. The Waawiiyaatanong Resurgence protest feels more hopeful, exuberant, if not triumphant; the collective’s program of land reclamation seems much less likely to succeed than the replacement of statues of Columbus with those of indigenous women.
Shall we cast all these women in color-blind bronze, efface their “rape-colored skin,” and set them also upon marble? Flesh suffers, decays, bleeds, feels pain, passes away. Bronze and marble endure. That is why we make monuments out of them; they are funerary materials. Do we suffer from such poverty of artistic and moral imagination that our only notion of equality is to force upon living BIPOC the colonizer and slaver’s idiom of remembrance? Surely, the redemption of public monumental art demands much more.
Agree? Disagree? Please share any thoughts about intersectional responses to racist art with me at firstname.lastname@example.org or @lawprofDiane.