When statues of people become statues of people

When statues of people become statues of people

Ownership is no longer the sole status it used to be. When the royal family visited Rotterdam for King’s Day earlier this year, the city was decked out not only with lots of orange, but also with the “We are all kings and queens” poster campaign. The transformer’s homes and poster areas are plastered with official photographic portraits of ordinary Rotterdamers with the message that everyone, including them, has the same privacy as the King.

Skeptics wondered what this campaign really meant. Was it really a monument to “ordinary” people, or was it essentially a symbolic policy to hide inequality? Why do you call people “kings and queens” in a poor city where children go to school without breakfast, Hasna El Maroudi asked in a critical article about fresh concrete Marie Antoinette allegedly said, “Let them eat cake.”

It is not surprising that this campaign took place in a public place. It is precisely there that the call for vision and inclusivity is great. Spurred on by postcolonial visions and human rights movements like Black Lives Matter, statues have been dismantled around the world in recent years as outmoded symbols of inequality. This is especially the case in areas with a lot of racism. In this era of totalitarianism, there is no longer room for privacy—exclusion—of which the gnomes are an example. That is why the old symbols must be replaced, and the collections supplemented with new symbols of equality, such as the new statue incoming moments By British artist Thomas J Price at Station Square in Rotterdam. The nearly four meter high bronze statue shows a young woman of swarthy standing on the nix and looking towards Westersingel’s sculpture terrace where visitors walk past sculptures by internationally renowned sculptors.

incoming moments By Thomas J Price (in striped shirt, next to Minister of Culture and Information Gunay Oslo)
Photo by Aad Hoogendoorn

Although Rotterdam is not a city that honors many notable people on stilts. Admittedly it contains the oldest statue in the Netherlands, of Erasmus, but it mainly contains traces of dock workers, folk singers, and the well-known statue of Oswald Finkbach who posed the smug bourgeois (Mr. Jack) and sometimes a union leader or deserving community worker. In 1991, the American artist John Ahern, who exhibited at Witte de With, presented exquisite sculptural portraits of a very diverse local population. They hung in the neighborhood for years, but then got renovated. In fact, this is the perfect time to get them out of the warehouse again.

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War memorials

Iconoclasts sharpen proportions in public in order to show their point of view on cast-in-bronze dating. After all, history is written by the winners and rewritten by the losers. We are at that point now. And although there are not many statues in the Netherlands, it has more than four thousand memorials of the Second World War. There, too, the need for rewriting is obvious, because this number has been increasing for years. This is because the first memorials of the last century mainly honored dead soldiers and heroes of the resistance, with heroism befitting victory.

Normal civilian casualties were not discussed until much later. And there are still forgotten stories told by the descendants of eyewitnesses of that time. For example, Rotterdam, which already has more than eighty war memorials, will receive a monument designed by Anne Wenzel this year. Blitz Monument 1944, when 52,000 men were deported for forced labour.

In a sense, memorial lobbyists have something in common with iconoclasts: they put on the agenda histories that they themselves did not experience, but whose consequences live on, whether they stem from family traumas (wars) or from institutional racism (slavery). This action, as in intergenerational suffering, is the reason why losers rewrite history. It is about recognition. Art of the people, not of the people.

The enthusiastic response to the Nelson Mandela memorial in Amsterdam’s Bijlmerpark two years ago showed that this could work well. Designed by Mohau Modisakeng. Giant bronze plaques adorn the plinth, but not Mandela himself. They are the faces of the locals. It doesn’t make sense when you understand why memorials are erected: it’s not necessarily about a person and all their possessions, but about what that person stands for. Mandela was a human rights activist who fought for equality. And what better way to express equality than to put ordinary, non-famous people on a pedestal — a low pedestal in this case.

empty pillars

The latter is not said about those pillars. Iconoclasm around the world is leaving empty plinths filled with new performances and arts. So does the empty pedestal in Bristol, the remains of a statue of 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston pushed into the River Avon in 2020. The remaining pedestal has been filled in by sculptor Mark Quinn with a sculpture by BLM activist Jane Reed. It was thought by some as a sign of solidarity, but Thomas J. Price called it “a votive picture of the takeover.” A colorist himself, Price would rather see white artists like Quinn take a stand against whiteness than use the lack of dark hues in art to make themselves fit.

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According to him, Price’s sculpture from 2022, now on display in Rotterdam, is about representation: about who can be seen anywhere. This role has not traditionally been reserved for women as it is in this work of art, and she radiates this awareness: with her clenched fists she defends herself against the gaze of others. You might wonder how far this is an image of an “ordinary woman” or if it is symbolic about the iconoclasm discussion.

Sculptures disappear (“to the people”), and other arts return (“to the people”)—thereby public space becomes accessible to all again. And because “everyone” is not a homogeneous group, this calls for more art for different target groups (good news for artists, that is). This makes it necessary to learn to understand outside art differently. The lack of understanding comes—in this paper, too—from people for whom this art is not intended, especially from white people for whom another art already exists. Because the success of Price’s sculpture depends, just as with memorial monuments, on one factor: whether or not it will be embraced. Time will tell. In any case, you will not be spared indifference. “There is nothing in this world so invisible as a monument,” the Austrian philosopher Robert Musil sighed in 1927. But at that time, the gnomes weren’t wearing Knicks yet.


Those unseen times are now gone as antiquities stir opinions and new artistic reactions emerge, ranging from temporary displays to … new sculptures. Somehow this is amazing. Should you continue to nurture such a tainted tradition, even if it backfires? The person who thinks so is the American Kehinde Wiley, best known for being Obama’s state portrait painter. In his paintings, he quotes the images of white Renaissance royalty to those of modern Americans—everyone Kings and Queens. He also makes sculptures, and even equestrian statues. One, with a contemporary black man as a heroic knight, is unveiled in New York in 2019, bound for Richmond.

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Another sample was the exhibitor in Wiley’s solo exhibition at the Venice Biennale last year. It was beautiful and cool, and at the same time the show felt a bit dated. The historical masculinity I quote here exploded at this time, with many artists now looking for softer forms. It is precisely those who work on the basis of human rights and LGBTQI ideas who advocate for a harmonious world – again seen as an example.

It will be interesting to see if something like this, from inner art, seeps into outer art with all its power struggles and cruelty. Maybe not. Or maybe those statues don’t look the hardest, but the pillars do. Because they put someone on a pedestal, both literally and figuratively. Prices for plastic Rotterdam are simply at street level. It has long been known in Rotterdam that plinth is not just stone. With Erasmus, it not only has the oldest statue in the Netherlands, but also the oldest pedestal that corresponds to it. Standing in a flower bed at Erasmus University, packed in a clear box for heritage reasons. Oddly enough, the plinth is surrounded by more holiness than the statue of Erasmus himself, which stands outside the city on a new pedestal.

Artist Katherine Schlegel also noted this holiness when she created the artwork for Erasmus University Der Stein de Weizen Designed exactly for that base. Her idea was that visitors could stand on this historical base, reflected in a bright intellectual cloud, and relate to the ideas of Erasmus.

This did not happen. The statue came, but no one was allowed to stand on that pedestal. So exclusive. This rule no longer raises anyone.

Read also: Women artists dominate the country pavilions at the Venice Biennale

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