It isn’t often that you can watch the public conversation on a politically divisive issue change in real time, but the topic of monument representation is in such a moment. On June 18, Mayor Lightfoot said she did not favor removing the Christopher Columbus statues in the city, which at that point had been graffitied with tags: “genocide,” “killer.” The statues were soon swaddled in coverings, briefly receiving their own police security details. All three were gone by July 24, at least temporarily. In August, the mayor’s office announced the formation of a committee to assess public art across Chicago, “confront the ways in which that history has and has not been memorialized” and develop systems to commission public art and include residents in a dialogue about city history.
The speed of that change is notable, although horrific that it had to come after dozens were injured when police interrupted a Black and indigenous solidarity rally on July 17. The time for a public reckoning with our public monuments is here, forcing us to confront the question of what monuments say about a society. Are they tributes to the past or guideposts to a just future? How did we get here, and is Chicago ready to lead the way to greater equity in public art?
Neysa Page-Lieberman is a curator and educator who is knowledgeable about public art, but wasn’t always interested in monuments. “In my mind, and I think to a lot of people, monuments had become almost invisible,” she says. “We walk right past it. They all look the same and they disappear into your surroundings.”
But as the art world began to address representation and access, she realized why she had so little interest in the standard neoclassical, “white supremacist, patrilineal narratives” of many statues. “What I wanted to do was to bring new stories, new histories into the public realm and also have these works envisioned by BIPOC people, LGBTQ people, bring in all of these other ideas for representation.”
The tradition of erecting commemorative figurative statues originated in Europe. As Northwestern art and art history professor Rebecca Zorach wrote recently, the monuments “created visible reminders of who held power” and served as signs of conquest. The same followed in our country. The United Daughters of the Confederacy was founded in 1894 to fund and erect monuments to confederate soldiers. Gutzon Borglum, the original sculptor of Georgia’s Stone Mountain and Mount Rushmore, itself a desecration of Lakota Sioux land, was a white supremacist who was deeply involved with the Ku Klux Klan.
As it stands, monuments across the nation do not accurately reflect the demographics and contributions of the country’s inhabitants. As of 2018, out of 152 national monuments, only three honored women, and just one of those honored a Black woman. Michelle Duster, great-granddaughter to the abolitionist, journalist and activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett, has worked locally to correct that imbalance through her efforts to erect a monument to Wells, who lived in Chicago for much of her life. Duster and a team of collaborators have worked on the project since 2008, with hopes to unveil the work, created by the celebrated Chicago sculptor Richard Hunt, next year. While conducting research on why this monument was so necessary, Duster was struck by the statistics of monument representation.
“Once I got involved in learning that level of information, the more I started feeling like, ‘Whoa there’s a lot of work to be done here,’” she says. “There are around 5,500 statues in the whole country, and around 570 are of women. Just to give another perspective, out of those 5,500 statues, 700 of them are to the Confederacy. So you have more statues to the Confederacy than there are of all women.”
For Duster, it’s imperative that our monuments reflect the truth of what our country is and has been. “The way things are right now is a false narrative. It doesn’t reflect our true history. It doesn’t reflect our true demographics,” she says. “When you break down the numbers, it’s abysmal when it comes to women and especially women of color. Considering how long we’ve been in this country and how much we’ve contributed to the country, it’s important for the public tributes, commemorations in these various forms to be of greater reflection of reality. That erasure or omission gives people of color, there’s a void for us of seeing ourselves in these public spaces. There’s a false impression that Black people or people of color haven’t contributed as much as we actually have.”
WBEZ reported in 2015 that out of Chicago’s 580 parks, there was not “a single statue or bust of a historically significant woman.” There are nonfigurative moments to women, such as Louise Bourgeois’ “Helping Hands” sculpture in the Chicago Women’s Park and Gardens, which commemorates Jane Addams. A bust of Georgiana Simpson, the first African-American woman to receive a Ph.D. in the United States, was installed at the University of Chicago in 2018. That same year, a statue of the poet Gwendolyn Brooks was unveiled in Kenwood’s Brooks Park.
Page-Lieberman believes the city has a long way to go in reckoning with monuments and leveling the playing field to provide a greater diversity of narratives. Nor does she think it’s a good use of public time or money to add nuance to existing, contested monuments, as Lightfoot offered. In June, Lightfoot told the Tribune the Columbus statues should be used as teaching tools, and that she seeks “to not try to erase history, but to embrace it full-on.”
“When are we going to get to stories of BIPOC people and women, when are we going to get to these stories if we are going back and saying, wait a minute, let’s talk a little bit more about these guys?” Page-Lieberman asks. “Let’s put more taxpayer money, time, attention, scholarship, let’s reinvest it into these guys, taking away all of those resources from honoring other people and moments and accomplishments.”
Contested monuments like Mount Rushmore aren’t actually about remembering history, but instead require “spectacular acts of forgetting,” Zorach says. She argues that it’s useful to continue discourse around these historical figures, but the statues don’t have to remain standing. “White people in particular need to take a good long look at what Columbus did, both directly and indirectly, and at the personal and institutional relationships George Washington and other Founding Fathers had to the enslavement of African people, which was far from incidental to the founding of the United States,” she writes. “White people must accept the challenge of moving past nostalgia for the simplicity of our elementary school understanding of history, tainted as it almost invariably was with white supremacy.”
I would argue that the city should follow the lead of the remarkable artists who are already working to challenge dominant, white-supremacist narratives. Kelly Kristin Jones’ work healing the city’s landscape of contested monuments, by photographing them camouflaged into their surroundings, is one such project. Another is by Santiago X, who has designed two earthwork mounds that aim “to promote environmental literacy, visibility of Indigenous peoples past and present, and appreciation of neighborhood histories connecting the Chicago Branch and Des Plaines River along Irving Park Road,” where the monuments will be located.
As public art, monuments belong to all of us, they speak to who we are as a people. It matters who we choose to commemorate, who we commission to create the works, where the works are placed and who has access to those place. As Page-Lieberman observes, “There has never been a time when so many people cared about public art. It’s a moment we can’t let pass.”
“We all agree it’s time for a reckoning on an exclusionary history that props up symbols that just erase other people and cultures,” she says. “I love the fact that we can act and discuss questions and ideas that we were never able to challenge before. The idea that we’re able to discuss everything from the physical object that inhabits space and inspires conversation in our public spaces to permanence and ephemera and the idea that there’s innumerable stories that are going to influence our education, our shared history and our investment in our people and our culture. It’s an explosively wonderful time for the trajectory of public art and monuments.” (Kerry Cardoza)