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.