Decolonising the Public Space

The public space is a place of conflict and negotiation by definition. It should be property of the ones who inhabit and experience it, instead it has always been a place for the authorities to exercise power and perpetrate social inequality.

In April 2018 the South African artist Tony Gum presented in Milan “Rock Cause Analysis”. It was an actual analysis about special rocks that inhabited her environment: the monuments in Capetown. Tony found those monuments being bulky presences both literally and symbolically as they always represented white men depicted and glorified as models.

Tony decided to work on a possible alternative. She photographed herself depicted as a statue realising four different monuments of archetypical women from Xhosa heritage. She celebrated her roots and womanhood at the same time, by embodying in her work few of women’s countless virtues. This remarkable series aimed to raise few simple but paramount questions: why monuments celebrate just one part of the population? Why they tell just a side of the (hi)story? 

It’s December 2019, we are in Richmond, Virginia, just few kilometres apart from Monument Avenue, the symbol of the Confederates. Kehinde Wiley, a renowned Afro-American artist, inaugurates his monumental sculpture Rumors of War: a black guy wearing a sweatshirt and a pair of jeans, with his dreadlocks in the wind, while riding a horse in a pose that imitates the confederate’s aesthetic. Here the artist’s comment:

“today we say yes to something that looks like us. We say yes to inclusivity. We say yes to broader notions of what it means to be an American.”

Kehinde Wiley, Rumors of War, 2019

June 2020, the statues began to fall. The Black Lives Matter movement is inflaming the whole world asking us all to understand how deep goes racism in society, how the very essence of our culture is based on white supremacy and, overall, it’s asking to take action against inequality and to rethink the structures of power. The battleground for these claims is, of course, the public space.

The public space is a place of conflict and negotiation by definition. It should be property of the ones who inhabit and experience it, instead it has always been a place for the authorities to exercise power and perpetrate social inequality. The power is exercised in public space in subtle and apparently harmless ways. I think about the fences around public gardens which allows people in on a preset schedule, video surveillance, pay parking zones and of course I think about the repression of subcultures and minorities: all over the world they have been pushed toward the cities’ borders from administrations who want spotless downtowns, lavish mirages of perfection builded only to attract wealthy consumers, where there is no space for “real” people.  

It is inevitable that, as a cornerstone in the exercise of power, the public space is also the core of the resistance which is expressed through a multitude of languages and activities. Every single thing that happen in the public space acquired, therefore, a political meaning whether it is wanted or not. Graffiti are, for example, a form of resistance, monuments are an expression of power. 

The monuments attacked by the BLM movement are the ones of slavers, confederates generals, imperialists and other symbols of white supremacy. Those are not objective representations of historical facts, they are romanticised narratives which aims to celebrate a political idea in order to impress it in history, as if it was an unquestionable truth. It is propaganda disguised as history. It is our duty to unveiled this manipulation and fight it. It is not difficult to expose the ideology hidden behind this statues, it just takes few simple questions: Why almost the totality of monuments across the world is dedicated to white men? Why history itself seems unwilling to recognise the achievements of women and people of every gender who are not white? Can we tolerate the imposition of a narrative which concerned just a small part of society? Can we celebrate the people who are responsible of inequality and racism? Can we glorify the people who committed obnoxious crime against humanity?

To revise history is a healthy and necessary exercise for progress in society and the public space is obviously the starting point. The demand is simple: we have been asked to free the public space from a political agenda which shouldn’t belong to us, nobody is asking to erase history we have been asked to give history is right identity. If those statues were in museums they could fulfil an educational purpose but in public space they are not educating, they are oppressing. 

The empty pedestals as well as the statues covered in slogan and tags are now a precious testimony of the controversy. As subjects of performative acts they became new artworks which interact with the previous ones, changing or adding meaning. It doesn’t matter that sooner or later the authorities will surely clean the traces of the uprising, the ephemeral is an intrinsic value of public art and erasing the alterations of those monuments will only contribute to legitimise the artistic and cultural value of contesting them. 

We are far to know what will happen to monuments in the public space but Tony Gum and Kehinde Wiley gave us two options and it is my opinion that we should think about it. Decolonise both history and the public space are necessary steps toward social equality. It is time for the white West to acknowledge its crimes and make amends. The whole situation is obviously extremely complex and touches the very basis of economy, politic, and sociality globally. It is going to be a long and difficult journey but something is finally changing.

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