I first used the word “juxtaposition” in middle school, when I was taught to place two opposing things side-by-side to tell a story. Like a detective, I would juxtapose two conflicting characters of the same novel and uncover the greater underlying significance. In a similar vein, Vassar’s Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center’s new Focus Gallery exhibit, “Monumental Misrememberings: Photographs and Statues of Contested Histories,” juxtaposes two well-known statuettes that expose the contested realities of U.S. history: glossy and bronzed versus harrow and molten.
The Loeb’s new exhibit contrasts two statuettes with similar configurations, at least from afar: Kara Walker’s 2019 Fons Americanus at the Tate Modern in London and Hammatt Billings’s 1889 National Monument to the Forefathers. Both are erected on a rectangular base platform with four figures on each side, symbolizing the four pillars of society. Both feature a main figure poised at the top, illustrating either the absence or totality of power. Both attempt to set forth their own versions of U.S. history concerning the morality of the nation.
Instead of a Queen Victoria figure gracing the top of Fons Americanus, Walker replaces her with Venus, a priestess of Afro-Brazilian or Afro-Caribbean religion. Below her, “Queen Vicky” cradles a coconut to her chest while laughing. A smaller man, Melancholy, personifies her sorrow, crouching next to her. A tree with a noose stands alone as one of the memorial’s pillars. Haitian Revolution leader François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture represents another pillar. The result is a counter-monument personified; images of slavery, lynching and the Black Atlantic in this piece punctuate a very different version of history than its counterparts. “This is a piece about oceans and seas, traversed fatally,” Walker said in an interview with Tate Modern. “My work has always been a time machine looking backwards across decades and centuries to arrive at some understanding of my ‘place’ in the contemporary moment” (Kara Walker’s Fons Americanus, 2019, Tate Museum).
The allegories present in Fons Americanus reflect Walker’s bold and suggestive art style. Walker, an African American multi-media artist based in New York, is known for her silhouette cutouts, drawings and films that explore domination and resistance related to Black history and identity. Hammatt Billing, on the other hand, was a prominent Boston-based sculptor who designed huge national monuments commemorating nationalist American ideals in the nineteenth century. Among the National Monument to the Forefathers’ iconography are figures symbolizing Faith, Liberty, Education, Law, Mercy, Justice, and Morality, celebrating the Pilgrims’ arrival in Plymouth as a heroic version of history.
“While both maquettes draw on the visual conventions and motifs of Western European art and feature heroic and allegorical figures meant to symbolize the power of a particular view of history, the earlier work celebrates a dominant history while Walker’s work imagines a monument that commemorates untold, hidden, or forgotten histories,” described Loeb Deputy Director and the Emily Hargroves Fisher ’57 and Richard B. Fisher Curator Mary-Kay Lombino.
Facing the statuettes on the opposite wall are “Questions to Ask of a Monument,” a plaque written by Professor of Political Science on the Frederick Ferris Thompson Chair Katherine Hite. “I had a chance to visit the sculpture last year, and I was blown away by its depth, pain and power,” she recalled. “Who got to decide that the monument be placed on the square? What monuments would truly represent ‘we the people’?” Even a glance at her thought-provoking questions can help guide discussions toward the space to which Walker opened the door, a space meant for remembering the misremembered.
Hite’s involvement with “Monumental Misrememberings” stems from her own scholarship and personal interests. She has studied and written about how states do or do not address their violent political pasts through truth-telling, symbolic reparations and prosecution. Most of her work focuses on Latin America, but she has recently begun to shift to the U.S., specifically to Texas, where Confederate monuments are increasingly contested. “Most of my writing focuses on memorials, on the different ways that memorials can open up important, albeit difficult, fraught conversations,” she said. “It is up to us as visitors to engage with the pieces and with one another, to take the art seriously, to process it toward imagining otherwise—that the deep racist violence of the Transatlantic slave trade and its ongoing repercussions here in U.S. economic, educational, housing, criminal-legal institutions must go.”
Hite is also involved with Celebrating the African Spirit: Honoring Enslaved Africans and their Descendants in Poughkeepsie (CAS), a Black-led community organization whose mission is to represent and educate people regarding the historical contributions by enslaved Africans and their descendants in Poughkeepsie and how to address current issues facing the local Black community. It grew from the longstanding Black History Project Committee of Poughkeepsie, which embraced a proposal based on Community Engaged Learning (CEL) research by Sarah Evans ’18.
Political organizing and Black leadership are also important elements of the exhibit itself. Complementing the two statuettes are images and media from this summer’s Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests displayed on screens in the Focus Gallery. The resurgence of protests has renewed fervor around dismantling monuments all across the globe—the same monuments that Walker challenges and criticizes—making the exhibit exceptionally responsive and relevant to today’s political climate. “Museums certainly are not neutral spaces, which is one reason the Loeb is interested in mining its own colonial history to tell a more inclusive story. I believe that The Loeb can best serve its communities by examining critically its own history and working continually towards dismantling systemic racism and discrimination,” Lombino said. “We can do that by using our position on campus and in the community to amplify the voices of underrepresented artists and present alternative narratives that promote dialogue in and around our exhibitions and collections.”
Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Academic Programs at the Loeb Elizabeth Nogrady added, “The politics of a museum are most visible in the selection of works they choose to display. In this instance, I personally see the Loeb as serving as a platform for the complexity of Kara Walker’s work. When paired with the earlier 19th-c. sculpture by Hammatt Billings and contemporary photographs of BLM protesters removing and reimagining monuments, Walker’s work makes the Loeb a place to have conversations about contemporary politics and other issues brought out by the works of art.” By being transparent to museum visitors about how their collection was formed and about their goal of increasing the number of works by Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) artists, Nogrady hopes that visitors will recognize the historical failings of museums as institutions as well as their potential for constant growth and greater inclusivity.
Estella Zacharia ’23, who visited the exhibit for a class with Hite, has always believed that art is a form of radicalism, whether that means challenging existing perceptions or constructing entirely new ones. “I think museums have a responsibility to show the dark side of history and rise to the challenge of facing the horrors that many of us do not confront ourselves,” Zacharia shared. To Zacharia, the Loeb’s new exhibit is a small step towards decolonizing their collection and ending exclusionary museum practices. She is hopeful that the Loeb’s significant influence on campus and ability to shape classroom curricula will continue to encourage dynamic conversations among students and professors.
“I’ve always been fascinated with [Walker’s] work and the way that she as an artist combines her knowledge of history with her ability to tell stories. She is very much aware of the way she subverts traditional American conceptions of history, hence her description of herself as an ‘unreliable narrator,’” Zacharia said. “On a national scale, Walker’s piece and her art overall holds paramount importance, especially in the context of the BLM movement and modern lynchings of African Americans by police. Before we can heal as a country, we must first open our eyes to the darkest periods of our history and acknowledge the systemic consequences of slavery and our treatment of African Americans throughout history.”
Statuette of the National Monument to the Forefathers, 1867 was given by the Pilgrim Society in Plymouth, Massachusetts to the grandfather of architectural historian and former Vassar professor Henry-Russell Hitchcock, who inherited it and donated it to Vassar’s collection in 1965. Fons Americanus, by Kara Walker, was offered to The Loeb and purchased from Walker’s New York Gallery with funds earmarked for art acquisitions (Mary-Kay Lombino).
“Monumental Misrememberings” will be on display in the Loeb until Jan. 10, 2021.