Statue of the Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, in Rome (Stephen Townsend)

Statue of the Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, in Rome (Stephen Townsend)

Changing landscapes, politics and world views have had an impact on statues around the world, writes Stephen Townsend.

Motsaathebe Serekoane and Francis Petersen’s opinion piece, “Finding the middle ground in the statue debate”, refers:

First, we need to recognise that monuments, memorials and statues placed in the public realm are always deliberate and self-conscious socio-political statements with, initially at least, clear socio-political intentions and meanings underpinned by interpretations of the past in the present (often, though not always, a relatively short time after the event or death of the personage being memorialised); and we need to recognise that these actions of memorialisation are, at least in part, how national identities are negotiated and created.

Over time, these meanings fade into the background of public consciousness and the monuments, memorials and statues themselves become simply physical relics of the past. In many cases, their meanings are forgotten and/or these relics assume new meaning, sometimes even generating affection as familiar figures or elements in the landscape.

Also, over time, the nature of the places where these relics are positioned changes and the memorial or statue must be moved, sometimes to a less important place, sometimes to one giving greater visual presence and greater historical (and political) significance.

Marcus Aurelius

For example, the great bronze equestrian sculpture of emperor Marcus Aurelius, made in about 175 CE and positioned in central Rome, was saved only because it was mistakenly believed to be of the first Christian emperor, Constantine, and moved during the Middle Ages to near the palace of the bishop of Rome on the outskirts of the city; and then, finally, in the mid-1500s it was placed at the symbolic centre of Rome in Michelangelo’s design of the Capitoline.

The equally large bronze equestrian statue of Charles IV of Spain erected in the Zocolo, the central square of Mexico City, in 1803 was removed for its safety in 1822 and hidden as Mexicans fought for their independence; later in 1852 it was moved back into public view but on the then outskirts of the city and then, much later in the 1970s, back to a square in the centre of Mexico City, but with a plaque saying that it is conserved as a monument to art, and not as a sign of respect for a Spanish king.

And the memorial to Paul Kruger has its own very movable history: a gift to Kruger, it was designed in 1899 in Pretoria and made in Italy, held up in Mozambique and only arrived in South Africa in 1906; it was first erected in a park in 1913 (but without its four accompanying Boer soldiers which had been taken to England by Kitchener), then moved and reunited with the returned soldiers in 1925 in front of the station, and only positioned in Church Square in central Pretoria, now Tshwane, in 1954.

And we would do well to remember that the University of Cape Town’s statue of Cecil John Rhodes (now hidden in a secret place) was first positioned in 1934 on the very edge of the campus (for fear of offending Afrikaans students); and then, when the passing road which it overlooked was widened, it was moved without controversy or even interest in 1964 to a new position closer to the centre of the campus.

Interpretations of our world

So, it seems self-evident that memorials and statues must move about the world as the ordinary and continual process of interpreting the past in the present (history) unfolds, underpinned by new interests, values and knowledge, and as the places that harbour them are transformed. None of this seems new or even unusual, even if many such a repositioning or displacement is contested and raises greater or lesser controversy.

What is different in these times is the wide range of the controversies being raised in many parts of the world, not all of which have gone through the kinds of political changes experienced in South Africa since 1990. Indeed, it is surprising that these contestations and controversies did not arise here sooner; and the annual recognition (on Bastille Day, 14 July) of perhaps the best remembered revolution of modern times and its violence should underline the socio-political significance and meanings of iconoclasm.

So, while, as noted by Serekoane and Petersen, “(r)ude or violent behaviour rarely serves to change how people think about any particular issue – on the contrary, it polarises views and makes it harder to listen to one another”, it seems that the proactive and responsive stance of the University of the Free State initiated in 2010 by Jonathan Jansen (then vice-chancellor) and described by Serekoane and Petersen (the current vice-chancellor), is generating thoughtful and meaningful change to the character of the campus there.

Though, contradictorily, the violent tearing down of the statue of the 18th century slaver and its drowning in the docks has antagonised many (and I note that a photograph of protesters rolling the statue along the quay showed every one of them to be white), the very witty replacement of the slaver by a young very black woman giving a black power salute as dawn broke just weeks later is a stroke of genius.

– Dr Stephen Townsend is an architect and conservationist who established and ran the Masters degree in conservation of the built environment at the University of Cape Town for 10 years.

Disclaimer: Naijtimes encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on Naijtimes are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Naijtimes.

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