There Must Be a Better Way to Make a Monument

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As a teenager living in Los Angeles, Joel Garcia passed by the city’s Christopher Columbus memorial almost every day. Garcia, a Huichol artist and cofounder of the Indigenous cultural collaborativeMeztli Projects, was born and raised in East L.A. and still lives and works there today. On his way to school he switched buses at Grand Park, where a statue of Columbus stood for 45 years.

The monument served as a daily reminder of the things that radicalized Brown kids like Garcia in high school, he says — forces such as Proposition 187, a ballot measure that made undocumented immigrants ineligible for public benefits in California in 1994, or California GovernorPete Wilson’s whole career. For years, Natives and their allies organized in Grand Park to protest the presence of the Columbus statue.

In 2017, the city acceded to years of activism and decided it would stop recognizing Columbus Day, and the first official Indigenous Peoples Day celebration was held in Grand Park in October 2018. Hosting a party for California Indians under Columbus’s gaze (the statue washidden during the event) was the last straw: Garcia and others in the community started focused negotiations with Los Angeles County officials on taking down the monument, a process that ended with the statue’s removal in November 2018.

But that wasn’t the end of the activists’ campaign against L.A.’s colonial monuments. Downtown, a statue depicting Junípero Serra, the Spanish founder of an 18th-century Franciscan mission, was toppledby demonstrators in a Juneteenth action this summer. Even though some of the same organizers were involved in both actions — and even though neither statue had any historical or artistic value beyond its status as a memorial — there was a reason why the Columbus statue was formally removed by authorities, not pulled down by protesters.

“Since the county dug in and said, ‘No, we value this thing,’ it was important for us for them to be the one to remove it,” Garcia says. “With the Serra statue, we just knew that the community needed to do this. The community needed to take control of that conversation and not let go of this from start to finish.”

As a fresh wave of protest actions targets controversial public monuments across the U.S., activists, city leaders and artists like Garcia are wrestling with a difficult national dilemma: Who gets to decide what to memorialize, and how? While Jim Crow-era monuments to the Confederacy are the most frequent focus of this debate (more than 100 have been removed or toppled since the police killing of George Floyd in May), demonstrators have also targeted monuments to colonialism — such as the statue of Serraknocked down this week in Marin County. Sweeping anti-racist and decolonial efforts have lately expanded to include monuments to figures with more complex histories. In Portland, Oregon, this week, demonstrators felled statues of Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln just before Indigenous Peoples Day. Both presidents oversaw atrocities against Native Americans.

The federal government is devoting a lot of attention to the topic as well: President Donald Trump, who hasrushed to the defense of controversial memorials, signed an executive order in July commemorating aNational Garden of American Heroes, a sort of generic Social Studies Hall of Fame.

Earlier this month the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation announced a $250 million initiative to fundamentally reimagine monuments. The first grantee under the initiative — Monument Lab, a public art and research studio based in Philadelphia — will receive $4 million to pursue its mission. Paul Farber, director of Monument Lab, says that the studio will use the grant in three ways: to complete a nationwide audit of monuments, to put $1 million toward funding 10 field research offices and to hire a first full-time staffer.

This work involves more than just swapping out bad statues with good statues. Garcia, who is a Monument Lab fellow, is one of the artists working on the ground to give communities more weight in discussions about the past and future of the built environment. While advocates hope to see greater diversity and inclusion in the monuments that do get built, they are increasingly focused on breaking up the rigid processes that produce those monuments — and normalizing the often scattershot tactics that advocates use to bring them down.

That might mean taking a bigger-picture approach to the whole concept of memorialization. In Los Angeles, for example, Garcia has criticized Los Angeles City Council member Mitch O’Farrell, a lawmaker and member of the Wyandotte Nation who has been vocal on this issue, for focusing on replacing the statue with another statue. “By immediately trying to swap that figure out for another figure, it’s like we’re replicating the same thing,” Garcia says.

Last week, Monument Lab convened a town hall conference to talk shop — in this case, best practices for marking the past in public spaces. Some of the concepts that emerged don’t bother with traditional busts or plaques. Channupa Hanska Luger (Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Lakota), an artist who was raised on the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota, spoke about a proposal for a memorial to North American buffalo herds. His multi-disciplinary projects often tie together politics and protest: For water activists in Standing Rock, the artist created mirror shields inspired by images of Ukrainian womenholding up mirrors to riot police in Kiev.

During the town hall, Hanska Luger and others talked about the responsibility of artists and leaders who make monuments for communities that have suffered historical traumas.

“As artists as we begin to work with communities, there’s an extractive quality to that — extraction of story,” Hanska Luger said during an Oct. 8 panel. “Even if our intention is to amplify and help and support, we are drawing from and extracting from those communities. It’s important to put more in than we take out of those spaces.”

Farber pointed out how the Columbus statues that have gone up across the U.S. over the last 120 years illustrate how the meaning of monuments can shift over time. These memorials emerged when newly arrived Italian immigrants faced violence and discrimination; they proliferated and endured as Italian Americans came to be seen as white and assumed political and economic influence. While Columbus statues were built in the service of representation, they now show who has power in the U.S. and who doesn’t. “There’s a way in which statues stand in for a much more complex conversation,” Farber says. “There’s a call for recognition and representation, but the way that it functions in the United States is to send messages, especially to Indigenous people, that their stories are not as significant.”

Just as colonialism was a global project, cultural collectives across the world are working together to undo colonialism. For example, Monument Lab has partnered with the Goethe-Institut (a German cultural nonprofit) and Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung (Germany’s Federal Agency for Civic Education) for a mutual project between North America and Germany called “Shaping the Past.” Garcia’s Oct. 14 talk for this project tackles “unmonumenting.”

There’s no consensus about how to proceed with former memorials to Columbus or Serra. But decolonization — a contested cultural and political movement, an ongoing historical reckoning, an endeavor to pursue restitution and reparations — is a much bigger project than toppling statues. Stephanie Mach, a Diné (Navajo) doctoral student in museum anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, spoke to The Philadelphia Inquirer about howmarkers to land theft and Native oppression can be found everywhere in the built environment. Establishing the civic infrastructure to identify and take action to remove or remedy these signs and symbols is very different work from persuading the public that a bronze figure of a long-dead general needs to be trucked away.

In Los Angeles, in the run-up to the removal of the Columbus memorials, activists asked the county to agree to atask force on decolonial initiatives. Garcia says they also showed the county an alternative: Activists put together a DIY guide on how to bring statues down by force. That veiled threat caught the attention of lawmakers. Garcia says that the strategy for making ongoing change involves three factors: a formal inquiry, a creative process, and public pressure.

And while their negotiations with L.A. officials have led to successes and disappointments, activists now have a more reliable partner in the form of aninter-departmental working group tasked with developing citywide policies for monuments, memorials and other symbols and honors. The hope is that the next cultural flashpoint won’t require years of exhausting protest to get local leaders to even acknowledge the problem.

Garcia says that it’s been frustrating — but not surprising — to see committees, institutions and lawmakers who resisted Native efforts for so long rush to come up with a replacement for the Columbus statue in Grand Park. He says the community doesn’t necessarily want to see anything take its place.

“Moving away from the European approach to commemoration and people, at least here in L.A., means bringing back or uplifting ways of memorialization of California Indians,” Garcia says. “We need to pivot our framing of honoring and anointing heroes in a different way.”

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