Essay: Staring at Statues…
By Farah Ahamed
“The longer you look at an object, the more of the world you see in it. No matter how particular the scene, if you stare long enough you will see the whole world in it.” These words, from the pen of Flannery O’Connor, refer to that split second when we can “see things for what they really are” and they led me to reflect upon which “objects” could offer an understanding of the “whole world”,
Recently, monuments across the globe have become the subject of controversy. After eighty years at the University of Cape Town, the bronze of white supremacist Cecil Rhodes was removed; at the University of North Carolina, Silent Sam, a Confederate statue, was taken down and, in San Francisco, a 19thCentury monument, Early Days, demeaning to Native Americans, was uninstalled. Where for decades they had previously stood accepted as part of the landscape, now these statues outraged viewers. Altered circumstances meant they represented an uncomfortable “truth”, which some argued should not be commemorated, but also in fact, ought to be erased.
What is certain is that a monument’s power ebbs and flows with the passing of time, resonating or jarring with the past as the present changes.
Each time a viewer stops to look closely at a statue, it reveals a new meaning. Whenever it is revisited, a different significance emerges, because while the statue stays intact in its fixed location the viewer and the world continue to change. Furthermore, as history unfolds, a statue will emphasise, reveal, hide or quash stories. This makes it “a place” rich in possibilities for both metaphorical and literal epiphanies and fertile ground used by artists and writers to offer what Joseph Conrad described as “a glimpse of truth”.
Bani Abdi is an artist who uses a statue to provide a platform for an alternative narrative about the Empire. Her modern art installation Memorial to Lost Words, “a song installation based on letters and songs from the first World War” of Indian soldiers in her own words, focused on the suppressed stories of the Raj which she highlighted by changing the sounds around the imposing monument of Queen Victoria at the Lahore Museum.
Before it was dragged to the basement of the Museum on a bullock cart, the Queen’s sculpture, in widow’s veil and royal regalia, used to sit under a marble canopy on Charing Cross Road in the centre of Lahore, the cultural capital of the Raj. There, it presided for fifty years over the traffic and commercial activities on Queen’s Road. Now, the displaced Queen sits in The Armoury, bathed in a dull yellow light, surrounded by reminders that a million Indians served and died fighting for her — cabinets with newspaper cuttings, photographs, and arms and ammunition from battles fought for the Empire, including the First World War.
Abdi’s sound installation blasted the sculpture with Punjabi folk melodies sung by women who tried to prevent their loved ones leaving to fight for the Raj, and songs with lyrics drawn from the censored letters of Indian soldiers conscripted into the British Army. The effect of this was transformatory; by shining a light on the dark side of the Empire, Abdi both revealed and amplified the magnitude of the debt owed.
Like Abdi, writers have also sought to illuminate particular moments in history. Saadat Hassan Manto’s very short story, ‘The Garland’(1948), is set in the frenzied days of Partition. A Muslim mob in Lahore attacks the statue of Sir Ganga Ram, a famous Hindu architect and philanthropist, pelting ‘him’ with sticks, bricks and stones. One man smears the likeness with coal tar and another is shot by police as he places a garland of shoes around the statue’s neck. The satire closes with the injured man being rushed off, “to be bandaged at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital”, founded by the very same Ganga Ram whose image he had been wrecking. Manto allows the reader a quick apprehension of an ironic truth, but the characters remain unconscious.
A comparable story also about the early days of Partition is RK Narayan’s dark comedy ‘Lawley Road’ (1943), the central premise of the story being the commemoration of a dignitary by a monument. In the fictional town of Malgudi, a series of bureaucratic absurdities around colonial symbols illustrates the legacy of colonialism and the confusion and identity crisis after Independence.
The Chairman of the Municipal Council decides to remove the sculpture of Sir Frederick Lawley, “with breeches, wig and white waistcoat and that hard determined look”, from the Lawley Extension, after it has been renamed Gandhi Nagar, even though: “People had got so used to it that they never bothered to ask whose it was or even to look up. It was generally used by the birds as a perch.”
The twenty feet statue, “with the firmness of a mountain”, is blasted off its molten lead pedestal, “with a few sticks of dynamite”. However, it is soon discovered there had been a mistake: Sir Lawley, whose statue had been uninstalled, had always been a friend to Malgudi, not to be confused with another Sir Lawley, a ruthless tyrant. The government orders the Chairman to reinstate the monument. The effect is tragicomic as the reader is always aware that the squabbles, typical of human nature, are of no consequence against the backdrop of violence and dislocation of Partition, which were happening concurrently.
Like ‘The Garland’ and ‘Lawley Road’, Flannery O’Connor’s ‘The Artificial Nigger’(1955), is also located in a shifting political landscape. The two main characters move through an unsettling experience culminating in the sighting of a statue leading them to an awareness, of sorts.
In a rural town of Georgia, Mr Head and his grandson, Nelson, prepare for a trip to Atlanta. They argue about whether or not Nelson will recognize “a nigger”. After a stressful day in the city, Mr Head and Nelson see a plaster figurine of a black, lawn jockey on a lawn. This is their moment of reckoning.
Mr Head says, “An artificial nigger!” which the boy repeats, in the “exact same tone”. Mr Head explains the statue is there because, “they ain’t got enough real ones here. They got to have an artificial one.”
The statue elicits an emotional response from the old man and his grandson and they reach an understanding of their familial bond and “all the mystery of existence” but as the reader appreciates, they remain unaware of their racist attitude and their wider connection to humanity.
Just as Abdi, Manto, Narayan, and O’Connor shine a light on prejudices through political sculptures, so too does Ivan Vladislavic in ‘Propaganda by Monuments’. The story brings into focus a similar dilemma, but in the context of apartheid. This story, told from two points of view, contemplates the fate of discarded statues; what would happen if they were exported to another country, and how it would affect the identity of the sender and recipient. In contrast to the parochial setting of the other stories, Vladislavic’s is an international drama between South Africa and Russia.
In Pretoria, one of the protagonists, Khumalo, has a brainwave when he reads a newspaper advertisement: Moscow City Council is giving away “surplus” statues of Lenin. Khumalo reflects that apartheid has ended and his café now needs, “a change of clothes”. He writes to Moscow asking if he could be gifted, or purchase, a “spare statue” for his renamed, ‘V.I. Lenin Bar and Grill’.
In Moscow, Grekov, a “bored” translator in the Administration of Everyday Services receives the letter and sets out looking for the unwanted statues, in the “scrap heap… of history”. He tries but fails to imagine what will take the place of Lenin’s statues in the squares and reflects; “how soon people become bored with the making and unmaking of history.” This casual observation made flippantly by Grekov is in fact a profound realization: the reader recognises that ordinary citizens are disinterested in history because it makes them feel nervous, insecure and irrelevant.
When Khumalo receives Grekov’s response, he drives through a white neighbourhood, and stops to examine the monument of J.G. Strijdom, an Afrikaaner, and proponent of apartheid. Khumalo sees the sun shining through the statue’s “finely veined bronze ears”, and understands, “how, but not necessarily why, the impossible came to pass”.
However, as the reader knows, Khumalo has comprehended less than he realises, and a broader and deeper understanding of historical consequences is the reader’s alone.
Instead of a political, it is a literary monument, which prompts a personal epiphany in Julian Barnes’s novel, Flaubert’s Parrot (1984). Unlike O’Connor’s “artificial” figure, here it is a “second impression”.
The narrator, Geoffrey Braithwaite, is a retired and widowed doctor whose main pastime is travelling around France collecting Flaubert-related memorabilia and analysing the author’s novels, seemingly to write a meditative essay. The story opens:
“Six North Africans were playing boule beneath Flaubert’s statue. Clean cracks sounded over the grumble of jammed traffic…he stares south from the place des Carmes towards the Cathedral, out over the city…The head is held defensively high: only pigeons can see the full extent of the writer’s baldness.”
Braithwaite acknowledges it is not the original statue which was taken away in 1941 by the Germans and “processed into cap-badges”, but a new one commissioned by a Mayor, “keen on statues”. He wonders if this “second-impression statue will last” and realises probably not, because, “Nothing much else to do with Flaubert has ever lasted.”
Flaubert’s monument allows Braithwaite to meditate upon his personal relationships and the futility of his literary ambitions. For the reader, it highlights the transience of mortality.
Very different from Braithwaite’s deeply personal realisation in Flaubert’s Parrot, is the communal oblivion in Hilary Mantel’s dark satire Fludd (1989) set in the 1950’s where the inciting incident is the removal of religious icons in a Church.
In Fetherhoughton, the townspeople worship life-size plaster statues of obscure saints at the soot and grease covered Church of St. Thomas Aquinas. During a visit from the bishop, Father Angwin, is instructed “to keep Thomas Aquinas, St. Theresa the Little Flower and the Holy Virgin, but only try if you can get her nose repaired” and evict the plasters of the minor-league saints like the toothless Apollonia, the patron saint of dentists. Father Angwin asks what he ought to do because obviously, he could not “break them up”. The bishop agrees, it “wouldn’t be wholly decent” and suggests storing them in a garage. However, Agnes, the housekeeper, suggests they “be boarded out. With different people. The children of Mary would take St Agatha, and turn and turn…” because she feels they are like her relatives. Eventually, Father Angwin buries them in the Church graveyard!
While Mantel’s characters remain ignorant of their follies, her farce offers the reader flashes of insight into the administrative irrationality of the Church and the superficial and narrow beliefs of worshippers.
The effect of another type of missed realisation is examined in Carol Shields’s short story ‘Hinterland’, (2004). Here the fleeting nature of an existential experience of beauty is explored; the present is poised as a moment with potential but it passes without acknowledgement and the result is distance and dissatisfaction between the viewers.
A couple takes an excursion to the Cluny Museum in Paris where Meg notices the painting of a sculpture, “a particular gilded Virgin”. She exclaims the portrait will be the single object she will remember from their trip. However, her husband, Roy says he missed it, and he returns on his own to the Museum to view it. Standing in front of the painting, he reflects on its “crude approximations, but is nonetheless moved at the way a human life drains towards one revealing scene.”
A fire alarm prompts him to leave the Museum in a panic.
Later this incident is the only thing he recollects, while Meg reminisces on the expensive long distance telephone call she made to her daughter. Neither of them will think of the painting and their “remembrance of specific events” will become “worn smooth and treacherous as the stone steps of ancient buildings”.
Once more, the recognition is for the reader alone while the characters stay trapped in their limited understanding.
The Northern Irish writer David Park gives a haunting account of an epiphany arising from a monument, in his novel Travelling in a Strange Land (2018). Written in the first person, it tells of the journey of the protagonist Tom, from Belfast to Sunderland, to collect his sick son Luke from his student lodgings, and bring him home for Christmas. Throughout the journey, driving across evocative winter landscape, Tom is tormented by guilt-ridden thoughts of his other son, Daniel, who died as a result of drugs. Although he is not far from his destination, he is drawn to Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North, “this Angel that rises high above everything and whose wings exercise dominion over all below”. He gets out of the car.
“The paths to the monument have disappeared under the snow but I follow where others have walked and as I head up to it through the trees whose branches look as if they have fossilised into a white coral, its wings seem to suddenly reach out over my head although I am still at a distance …
There’s something I need to do now that I’ve not been able to do even though I’ve tried so many times before …
I take my camera and find the file that’s well hidden and open the picture I took of my dead son. My last photograph of my son. I force myself to look at it, try to think of some prayer to say, but no words come and then I press delete and let him go.”
Staying in the North of England, I will end on an altogether different note, moving from fiction to reality, and a statue of a less aesthetic nature, the proposed thirty metre high sculpture, Sausage of the North, backed by the new UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. Wearing a garland of sausages round his neck, he said the colossal monument overlooking the A1motorway, “sounded fantastic” and asked if Antony Gormley would be designing it. As in other instances put forward in this essay, the symbolic implications of the statue (those of greed, capitalistic and otherwise, in the era of obesity) would appear to lie outside the comprehension of its proponents.
It will be for artists and writers — and history — to make of it what they will.
I have set out to show how monuments, in a range of contexts, have been used by sculptors and writers to illuminate ‘truths’ about humanity. If, as O’Connor advocates, we continue to gaze long and hard at Sausage of the North, it’s just possible we might perceive the “whole world”.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the essay are solely of the writer and do not reflect the views of Kitaab.
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