Black Lives Matter movement: What really defines a statue? Do we need them?

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June 28, 2020 4:00 AM

Statues are being seen as controversial symbols of divisiveness in the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement. But what really defines a statue? More importantly, do we need them?

Protesters threw a statue of slave trader Edward Colston into the Bristol harbour during a Black Lives Matter rally in Bristol, England, this month (Image: AP)

Nothing looks more forlorn than a statue with a head or arm missing. Like the statue of Christopher Columbus in Boston, which was beheaded earlier this month in a call to remove sculptures commemorating colonisers, slavers and controversial figures. Since the Italian explorer is believed to be responsible for the genocide and exploitation of native Americans, his statue was defaced by protesters.

In a similar instance, the statue of enslaver and human trafficker Edward Colston in Bristol, England, was torn down, with activists updating Google Maps to reflect its new location: under water. All this started when peaceful Black Lives Matter protests turned ugly in the wake of George Floyd’s death in police custody late last month. Protesters have torn down or debased several ‘racist’ symbols of America’s past since.

Statues mostly symbolise the history and heritage of a country. For instance, the art deco statue of Jesus Christ in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, or the colossal neoclassical sculpture of The Statue of Liberty in New York are a few iconic tourist hotspots with fascinating history. Talking about the latter, the book, The Statue of Liberty by authors Christian Blanchet and Bernard Dard, aptly states, “The statue has been glorified, romanticized, trivialized, and over publicized for purposes that often have little or nothing to do with its intended meaning. Like its neighbour and contemporary the Brooklyn bridge, it has been stitched on pillows, embossed on silver spoons… Like all great events in history it needs to be seen in the context of its times, of politics, and technology and such largely forgotten and fascinating influences…”

Yet sometimes, statues are seen as controversial symbols of divisiveness, a prime reason to stir up cultural controversy in the present day. Out of the thousands of busts and portrait-carvings hammered on the streets recently, how many were regarded with great veneration? They were either smattered with bird poop or belonged in a public park honouring dead husbands, sons or officers. Do statues render timeless appeal as standalone figures of history or simply enhance surroundings? Are they built to brave the ravages of time or portray a political propaganda?

Status symbol

“Societies often need symbols and, to that extent, statues are symbols… they serve a function. They become a reference point, an inspiration, a reminder,” says Suhas Palshikar, a Pune-based political analyst and a retired professor of political science.

In a recent interview reported in The New York Times, American art historian Erin L Thompson—a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice who has spent her career thinking about what it means when people deliberately destroy icons of cultural heritage—described statues as “a bid for immortality. It’s a way of solidifying an idea and making it present to other people. So that is what’s really at issue here. It’s not the statues themselves but the point of view that they represent. And these are statues in public places, right? So, these are statues claiming that this version of history is the public version of history.”

Undoubtedly, statues have been a bone of contention for regimes, continually glorifying people and ideas. Noted Indian academic, food critic and historian Pushpesh Pant says, “Statues alone do not comprise cultural heritage. In most cases, these are vainglorious attempts by political leaders or their minions to glorify their revolutionary struggles or other contributions. Primarily exercises in myth-making, they become controversial with a change in regime and revisionist historical research.”

Markers of history

The growing disruption in countries that are inundated with such symbols of supremacy has suddenly brought forth the unforeseen power of statues. Such monuments also make us realise the permanent nature of design or the need to bring about a radical change.

In the case of Mahatma Gandhi, who was a pioneer of peaceful protesting, the inner strength is still felt in his abstract form. “Gandhi is remembered for his values. His sculptures are carved in a manner that the future generations are able to know what he did,” says Adwaita Gadanayak, director general, National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Delhi. As an artist, Gadanayak has worked on the black marble replica of Gandhi leading the Dandi March at Raj Ghat in Delhi, besides an interactive artwork at New Delhi’s Lodhi Garden and the depiction of the Gandhi household, Hriday Kunj, at Gandhi Museum in Ahmedabad. “In the artistic imagination of Gandhi, we have not only focused on the form—his short, lean body, stick, iconic spectacles—but also on recreating the entire atmosphere of the walk… Gandhi had the power to mobilise thousands in a single stroke,” he says.

Statues often symbolise the way a memory is perceived and perpetuated. Ironically, societies that are otherwise not given to ‘idol worship’ do take recourse to idolising persons and memories. “There is a thin line between society seeking to keep a memory alive through statues and society making a habit of deification out of statues either by hyper celebration or by indiscriminately erecting statues. Similarly, statues often confuse what the regime wants to memorialise and what the public genuinely wants to cherish. It is a moot question for any historian to decide whether a statue was built through public sentiment or through a plan to symbolise something other than the statue itself,” says Palshikar.

Removing a statue may not ‘erase’ history, believes internationally-acclaimed sculpture artist Subodh Gupta. “Germany physically de-Nazified after the Second World War… no one has forgotten the crimes of Hitler. The statue that went down in Bristol was not an act of erasing history, but making it,” he says.

Vandalism & violence

The recent spate of public rage unleashed against statues has brought many controversial figures into the spotlight. Statues of slave traders, imperialists, conquerors and explorers around the world, including Christopher Columbus, Winston Churchill, Cecil Rhodes, Belgium’s King Leopold II, Jefferson Davis, Robert Milligan, among others, were pulled down or vandalised. Statues of Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Winston Churchill were among those boarded up ahead of protests in London.

Hundreds of people also signed an online petition demanding the removal of a statue of Robert Clive (in Shrewsbury, western England) who played a key role in establishing Britain’s colonial domination over India. In a report published in The Indian Express, author and historian William Dalrymple argued for Robert Clive to be banished from Whitehall to a museum. “I have always thought that his statue should come down… I also do not believe that the way to do these things is to pull statues down. They should be taken down, kept in museums and should be used to teach the British about the evils of the East India Company,” he maintains.

Similarly, Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor, in response to a tweet by London’s mayor Sadiq Khan stating that a statue of slave trader Robert Milligan had been removed, called the statue “a memorial to a ruthless, dishonest, unprincipled leader of an unregulated corrupt corporation that oversaw India’s plunder & loot (a word they stole from us, along with much of our wealth).”

Back in 2001, Afghanistan’s ancient sandstone carvings, the Bamiyan Buddhas, once the world’s tallest Buddhas, were annihilated in an act of destruction that shocked the world. Closer home, a statue of social reformer BR Ambedkar was allegedly vandalised in Tamil Nadu by members of a right-wing outfit in 2019. And in Tripura, a mob of vandals toppled two statues of Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin in 2018 soon after the 25-year rule of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) ended to give way to the BJP.

According to Palshikar, vandalism and removing statues are two different things politically and conceptually, as they draw attention to the importance and hidden contestations of idolisation. “Vandalism often happens when a statue is seen as symbolising the power of a certain social section, which the adversary abhors. Removal suggests a rethinking, a change in the approach to history such as recently seen in the case of King of Belgium. Vandalism in any case intimates bad practice, while removal needs to be understood in the historical context… also in the context of how societies see and seek to redefine their histories,” he says.

Political propaganda

Statues can be built on political objectives and ambitions. Some are extraneous or even reduced to a work of art cast in stone or bronze. Others are mass-produced icons to maintain political propaganda like the 33-hectare park built by former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati in Noida at the cost of Rs 685 crore, which has been justified as ‘not a waste of public funds’. The park, which has 15 statues of Dalit icons, including BR Ambedkar, Jyotirao Phule and Kanshi Ram, suggests Mayawati’s fondness for statues and memorials.

Idolising political leaders and the subsequent vandalism holds true in history. “Idolatry can’t coexist happily with egalitarian democracy. It provides a good opportunity to look back at our own past dispassionately and think beyond inanimate figures, however imposing, carved in marble, granite or cast in metal. In history, ideas matter more than individuals,” says Pant.

For instance, the idea to build a megalomaniac-sized (the world’s tallest statue at 182 m) Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Statue of Unity on Narmada river in Gujarat was an attempt to recall his key role in uniting over 550 princely states after partition in 1947. Made at a staggering cost of Rs 2,989 crore ($420 million), it is designed by Indian sculptor Ram V Sutar and was inaugurated by PM Narendra Modi in October 2018. On the outside, the statue is plated with 1,700 tonnes of bronze, with its 1,850 tonnes of bronze cladding made up of 565 macro and 6,000 micro panels. In 2019, the statue earned a coveted spot in Time magazine’s World’s Greatest Places list.

For Anil Ram Sutar, the son of Ram V Sutar, statues conserve history. “Either in primitive or finished form, sculptures remind us of the good work done by the personality. And they help bring life to the historic facts and figures… like an upright posture of Sardar Patel depicts his stern and focussed temperament and thinking ideology,” he says.

Talking about the statue, Noida-based Ram V Sutar says, “It took around three years to begin the work to construct the giant statue proposed by the PM in 2010.” Sutar, in a six decades-long career, has designed over 50 statues. He went through over 2,000 archival photographs of the Iron Man to study Patel’s bodily and facial features. The father-son duo is now working on two projects: a Chhatrapati Shivaji statue (212 m) and Ambedkar statue in Mumbai, and a 108-feet-tall bronze statue of Nadaprabhu Kempegowda at Bengaluru International Airport.

In a recent development, Ayodhya in UP will see the world’s tallest Lord Ram statue (at 225 feet) with Hanuman made out of copper, and another one, a 215-feet-tall statue of Hanuman at his birthplace of Kishkinda, Hampi, Karnataka.

Need for change

Gadanayak of NGMA narrates an approach to build a statue. “Pilgrims worship the Kaaba (black stone) in Mecca, Jews talk and cry to the Western Wall in Jerusalem and pilgrims embrace the Garuda statue in Puri Jagannath Temple. Each layer of stone has a history. Male sculptures are made with female stones since these are strong and easy to carve and don’t need heavy ornamentation. The difference in ‘male and female stones’ lies in the texture, sound and other techniques,” he says.

Art historian Thompson, as reported in The New York Times, talks about the power of the medium. “Many Confederate statues are made out of bronze, a metal that you can melt down and make into something else. The ancient Greeks made their major monuments out of bronze. Hardly any of these survived because as soon as regimes changed, as soon as there was war, as soon as someone could steal the statue, it got melted down and made into money or cannon balls or a statue of somebody else,” the historian says.

There is a possibility, however, that any statue or monument could become a target. “The presence of statues articulates what the regime and society endorse at a given point in time. In that sense, statues do represent/define heritage and distortions in that heritage (like in the case of the statue of Manu, which was removed from the high court’s garden in Jaipur). Statues can be planned as heritage sites, which should be the other way round… that is, because a certain heritage is cherished, its ‘statufiction’ brings people to visit the site. Instead, it is possible that a regime plans a tourist attraction through a statue—this obviously belittles the greatness of the subject of that statue,” says Palshikar.

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