Williams Carter Wickham was a Confederate general and owner of several plantations. His statue was erected in 1891 Richmond, the capital of the US state of Virginia, to commemorate his legacy. But, almost 40 years later, that same legacy is disputed: his figure ended up on the ground during the protests of the movement Black Lives Matter. After him Christopher Columbus collapsed in Boston. Shortly thereafter, in other cities the seventeenth-century slaver Edward Colston and Leopold II, masterminds of the greatest genocide committed in the Congo at the end of the nineteenth century, fell.
The monuments were one of the targets of anti-racist protests following the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis. Banners, paintings and hammer blows were the weapons of protesters who years later fought against the past to re-signify the present. Because, although the effigies look like inert bodies situated in the middle of the squares, their political and even propaganda implications are evident.
That is precisely the main thesis of Beheaded (Editions B), a story against the monuments to racists, slavers and invaders. It is the last work of the journalist, art historian and elDiario.es collaborator Peio H. Riaño, also the author of The invisible ones, where he reviewed the presence of the patriarchy in the art of the Prado Museum. “Both books are an exercise to count the lack of sovereignty that we have as citizens when looking at our surroundings. Museums are not inviolable, just like monuments on the street are not, and they need a context to neutralize propaganda of a slave owner or dictator who is still active, “he explains to this newspaper.
The link between politics and monuments is not new, hence the story begins by traveling to the past, to a time when praise for the powerful was made in stone and bronze. They were sculptures present in every corner of the city, from public porticoes to baths or mausoleums. The Romans were experts and pioneers in using art to form an image of an impeccable politician, since at that time sculpture was the best channel of mass communication. This is the case of the bust of Caracalla that is kept in the Capitoline Museums of Rome. His pose, his serious face, the cape around his neck … His image is that of an authority in which there is no margin for error.
However, the Romans also understood that these monuments and inscriptions had an expiration date even though they aspired to eternity. That is why what they called Damnatio memoriae, by which they proceeded to eliminate everything that remembered an enemy of the State after his death. “They made it very clear that we do not need to inherit propaganda from other generations or be submissive to the ideological lessons of the past. And that we are qualified and legitimized to end everything that does not represent us, but we have intentionally forgotten because we refuse to understand that a monument is advertising “, considers the author.
“History cannot be changed”
One of the frequent arguments to denounce the demolition of effigies is that a statue in public space is part of the historical narrative, as Donald Trump said on his Twitter account in August 2017: “It is sad to see how history and Our great country’s culture is torn apart by the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You can’t change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, who will be next? Washington? Jefferson ?! What a stupid thing!”. But, according to Riaño, the interests would not be precisely historical, since when a statue is removed from public space, the story “is not altered one iota.” “Faith in a propaganda is altered,” he adds.
In addition, the historical thesis with the monuments loses even more value if one takes into account that many statues were not raised during the mandate of these leaders, but afterwards. As cited in Beheaded, an important investigation in the American magazine Smithsonian revealed that in the decade from 2008 to 2018, 40 million dollars were invested in monuments and confederate heritage organizations. Much of the statues of slavers did not appear during the Civil War, in the same way that those of Christopher Columbus did not appear in the golden age of the Spanish Empire.
“The monuments arise to reinforce a weakened position. This is what happened with the confederates after losing the Civil War, which symbolically armed themselves in the states that defended white supremacism. Or Spain at the end of the 19th century, when it was about to lose all the colonies and to stop being an empire. It rearms to declare itself what it is no longer “, the historian details.
Nostalgia for a non-existent past continues to this day. Both Vox and Isabel Díaz Ayuso have recently defended the evangelizing work of the Spanish Empire during the conquest of America in response to Pope Francis, who asked Mexico for forgiveness for the sins of the Church in this regard. “They do it from the nostalgia of an empire that no longer exists and of which there are many shadows. They defend an immaculate history of the Spanish passage through America,” says Riaño.
It is not the first time that speaking of “colonization” instead of “conquest” has raised blisters. It also happened when the Peruvian artist Daniela Ortiz had to explain in a Spanish television program why colonial monuments should be demolished for claiming white supremacy. It did not go well: after his statements came a storm of aggression and harassment that caused Barcelona to return to his native country. So perhaps it is that Spanish society is not prepared for the demolition of the statues of Columbus?
“I do not believe that the lynching describes the majority of the Spanish citizens. It is the denial of a debate that has not been had so far,” Riaño explains. “The reaction to this approach only indicates that it is a taboo subject about which we still do not know what Spanish society thinks and that we must begin to question. To continue acting as if the population did not exist to impose your gaze, the only thing that generates is confrontation” , Add.
Not all monuments should be treated in the same way. According to Riaño, there is a big difference between who demolishes a statue of Robert E. Lee and who, for example, vandalizes a feminist mural like the one in Ciudad Lineal (Madrid). “Citizens who stand up against a monument want society to progress and show their faces because they have nothing to hide, since what they propose is an act of justice and reparation. But whoever attacks a feminist mural launches a threat against women. people who fight against justice. One movement is vanguard and the other is reactionary, “he observes.
For this reason, the author considers it important to build a committee like the one that was chaired by the politician Ramón Jáuregui during the term of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, whose decisions were filed in the trash when Mariano Rajoy arrived. This is the only way to assess what to do with three of the most important monuments of the Franco regime: the Valley of the Fallen, the Arch of Victory in Madrid and the Monument to the Fallen. “The monuments in Spain are not an apparatus for dialogue, but rather have the last word to say that some events were in such a way. And that is what has to be questioned by society: the imposition of an image that does not want to be contested, “concludes the journalist.