The MT Steyn Statue: PT 3 – The space left behind

Greg Mcqueen[a]

On the weekend of the 27th of June 2020, the statue of MT Steyn was removed from its place of prominence in front of the Main building on the University of the Free State Bloemfontein Campus. This third and final article in the series about the process or removal explores ways to think about treating spaces where statues once stood.

On Sunday June 7, 2020, a group of protestors pulled a 125-year-old statue of Edward Colston[1] from it’s plinth, dragged it along Colston Street and threw it into Bristol Harbour. Acting in solidarity with the concurrent BLM protests in the US, the protestors were acting against a statue celebrating a man who had been heavily involved in the slave trade.

In the moments after the statue was toppled, a protestor named Jen Reid climbed the plinth and stood, dressed in black with clenched right fist held defiantly aloft, in the place of a man who had once traded slaves who looked like her. Photos of Reid spread across the internet, becoming symbolic of the contemporary zeitgeist[2].

Jen Reid stands in front of the statue of her which was erected on the plinth where a statue of Edward Colston once stood. Credit: The Guardian

A few weeks later, early on the morning of the 15th of July, a new statue appeared on the plinth where Colston once stood, this time of a young black woman, afro beneath beret, clenched right fist raised.

In the intervening weeks, the artist Marc Quinn had made a resin cast statue of Jen Reid in her iconic pose[3] and arranged a secretive operation to erect the new statue. Resonating with the cultural moment, the new statue drew crowds eager to see one which looked like them. Despite its popularity, the statue had been erected without council approval and was removed just 24 hours later[4].

What do we do in the spaces afterwards?

The statue of Jen Reid may have had a short life atop Colston’s plinth, but it brought to the surface important questions about how to re-imagine newly statue-less spaces. Should we honour the moment of destruction? Should we try to embody the ideals we think are important today? Should we replace the old statue with a new one?

These questions require a compassionate understanding of specific situations and contexts. This article doesn’t proffer any solutions but rather suggests a set of guiding questions to ask when reimagining spaces of this nature.

What is the opportunity?

What we do in the space left behind by statues helps us to establish new norms and practices for the type of society we want to live in. Anything we decide to do here, even choosing to leave the space empty, says something about who we are as a society. Because statues are usually situated in public spaces, any moves we make today will be felt for a long time in the future. This is the inherent opportunity and responsibility.

Is something lost in neutrality?

Though we build monuments with an eye to the future, they also help to ‘control the past’[5] by telling physical stories of who we are and where we come from. To remove and destroy all the physical markers of our past would be a form of whitewashing – to act as if our painful history does not exist. Altering a statue’s narrative too much means it loses any historical representative value.

During Apartheid, the John Vorster Prison in central Johannesburg was the site of some of the most ghastly instances of police brutality under the regime and is the station where activist Ahmed Timol died under mysterious circumstances in 1972. After 1994, the name John Vorster was erased, and the precinct was renamed the Johannesburg Central Police Station.

The Johannesburg Central Police Station, formerly the John Vorster Prison and the site of Apartheid era police brutality. Credit: Opinio Juris

Today people interact with the building with no conception of what it used to be. While the name change was necessary, something was lost in the neutrality of the new name. Instead of retelling stories of the past, the stories have been erased.

Failing to commemorate the site of former statues runs the same risk; if we allow important histories to fade, will their lessons destined to be forgotten?

Who gets to decide?

Who chooses how we respond to the spaces vacated by offensive statues? In South Africa, most thought leaders who contribute to these decisions are products of the system which erected the statue in the first place. Should they really be the ones to make the decisions? Who should we consult? Should we only speak to those who hated the old statues? Or those who will encounter the response every day? Or the academics with learned opinions? Or the populists looking to score political points? Or those who feel hurt and offended that the original statues were removed in the first place? We probably need to speak to them all but designating the final decision maker is the more important and complex question.

Does the discussion need to continue beyond this point?

While the removed statue may be the dead canary, the underlying systems and ideals which statues represent are the gasses seeping into the coal mine. The presence of statues in the public realm give us the opportunity to talk about these issues. In the case of the statue of MT Steyn, debates around the statue’s position grew to include wider conversations around systematic racism and feelings of inclusion and exclusion on the campus, a potentially far more important debate.

The process of consultation before the statue’s removal allowed ideas which had previously existed within cultural silos to be shared in a public forum, disseminating them through the public consciousness. Understandings of exclusion and heritage value moved beyond cultural lines. When the statue was removed, this dialogue lost some of its impetus. Thought silos were resealed as different ideological positions were no longer required to communicate with one another. The underlying problems hadn’t gone away, people just stopped talking about them.

How do we choose to remember the past?

Statues contribute to the fodder of our cultural identities. They remind us who we are because they help us to remember where we come from. They are subjective however, “Memorials aren’t memories. They have motives. They are historical. They are not history itself[6]. Perhaps, it is possible to reframe a statue’s narrative so that it represents both the past and present. To tell old stories from a new perspective.

Retelling old stories must be done with care. In 1960, a statue of the Belgian King Leopold II was torn down in the newly independent Congo. In 2005 it was re-erected with a new explanatory plaque and the intention that it would serve as a reminder of the atrocities of the past[7].  Public outcry to the re-erection of the statue and the atrocities and pain it represented was so intense that the statue was removed just 24 hours later.

Direct re-use may not be the wisest course, but there may be other ways to reuse old statues. Lwando Xaso, a constitutional lawyer, suggested in the wake of the removal of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes from the UCT campus that she’d “want to melt some parts of it, create an interesting feature out of it…something that tells a bigger story than just of Cecil John Rhodes, but maybe tells the story of what Rhodes represents”.[8] Adaptive re-use to create something new out of the old is a potentially transformative action in post statue space.

Statues of Louis Botha and Nelson Mandela at the union buildings during a political rally in 2017. Credit: Daily Maverick

Another approach may be to erect new monuments as counter points to offensive statues, altering the established narrative. The statues of Louis Botha and Nelson Mandela (which incidentally replaced a statue of JBM Hertzog) at the Union Buildings are in constant dialogue with one another, weaving a new narrative around power, heritage and history. The conversation is not about destruction, but about adding new kinds of heritage which acknowledge a more representative South African history. [9]

Should we just replace old statues with new ones?

As with the statue of Jen Reid on Edward Colston’s plinth, perhaps we should simply replace outdated states with new ones representative of contemporary ideas and heroes[10]. That path requires an examination of what statues of famous people actually do. Often, they deify the person but fail to explain the complex ideas or historical moments which made them famous. Kings, queens, generals and hero’s stand on statues, framing our conception of history as a succession of personalities instead of ideas.

Unveiling of the Edward Lutyens designed Cenotaph in London in 1920. Credit: Horace Nicholls (Wikimedia commons)

When deciding how to commemorate the British soldiers who fell in WWI, Edward Lutyens chose not to build a statue but a cenotaph. The solemn, sparse column imbued with a nation’s mourning is not representative of a single soldier, but the idea of all the dead soldiers.

Consider the difference between the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin and the Motherland Calls statue commemorating the battle of Stalingrad in Volgograd. The Russian statue towers over its surrounds yet somehow feels empty, whilst the sprawling cenotaphs to the unnamed many in Berlin produce a visceral reaction in anyone who visits them. The abstraction of base emotion seems more powerful than the literal representation of a human form.

The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin Credit: CC BY-SA 3.0
Motherland Calls statue in Volgograd Credit: By

The guiding question

Dealing with spaces once statues have been removed brings complex issues to the surface. Perhaps this single guiding question would help us to design appropriately in these types of spaces:

What kind of story are we trying to tell and how should we tell it?

Once we understand that, we will be in the position to tell to tell empathetic, inclusive stories through meaningful design interventions.

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