The University of Cape Town removed a controversial statue of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes last week, after a month of student protests. Rhodes, who build the De Beers diamond empire, was an unrepentant imperialist whose wealth came from purchasing mineral rights from indigenous leaders and turning their territories into British protectorates. Under his rule in Cape Colony, many Africans lost the right to vote, a step which some scholars see as leading to enforced racial segregation in South Africa. While Rhodes made major donations to charitable causes – including the land the University of Cape Town sits on – his legacy is a challenging and difficult one for many South Africans.
A month ago, student activist Chumani Maxwele emptied a bucket of excrement on the Rhodes statue on the UCT campus. Subsequent protests against the statue including wrapping it in black plastic, smearing it with paint and covering it with graffiti. When the statue was pulled down, protesters beat it with belts and chains as it was hauled away.
Protests against the Rhodes statue received widespread support online, spawning the hashtag #RhodesMustFall, and inspiring other attacks on statues throughout South Africa. Statues of Queen Victoria and George V have been splashed with paint in Point Elizabeth and Durban. Statues of Afrikaner leaders and Boer War generals have been targeted as well. The attack that’s received the most international attention was a defacement of a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Johannesburg, part of a protest that argued that the revered activist had worked with the British colonial government in South Africa to promote segregation.
Statues are one of the oldest forms of figurative art, dating back at least to 40,000 BCE with the Lion man of the Hohlenstein Stadel. In ancient Egypt, Pharaohs were memorialized with Sphinxes, massive limestone statues that dominated the landscape – we might think of these as the first civic sculptures, public art designed to honor religious and political leaders. Fifteen hundred years later, Greek sculptors- who had previously portrayed mythological figures – began honoring political leaders in bronze and marble.
Statues erected for civic reasons are also torn down for civic reasons. Seven days after the Declaration of Independence was signed, General Washington’s troops tore down a statue of King George III that had been erected in 1770 in Bowling Green, a small greenspace at the southern tip of Manhattan Island. The decision to tear the statue down was practical as well as symbolic – the two tons of lead in the statue were turned into 42,000 musket balls for the use of revolutionary soliders. Statues of leaders who’ve been ousted are often torn down, sometimes spontaneously, sometimes with the help of conquering armies.
It’s not only political leaders whose statues fall. In the wake of revelations about widespread sexual abuse by Penn Statue football coaches, a statue of Joe Paterno was removed by the university. The decision to remove the Paterno statue has been controversial, and a crowdfunding campaign has raised funds for a new Paterno statue in downtown State College, Pennsylvania, two miles from the university campus.
While statues are one of the oldest forms of civic artwork and technology (their only rival for age is the cave painting), they still gain attention when people erect them today… especially when they are erected without permission. On April 6th, a small group of artists placed a bronze-colored bust of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden atop a pedestal in Prison Ship Martyrs Monument in Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn. By mid-afternoon, the bust had been covered with tarpaulins, and later that day, it was removed entirely. The bust took over six months to construct, and cost tens of thousands of dollars to design and deploy.
Frustrated by the brief lifespan of the Snowden statue, The Illuminator Art Collective – a group of artists not related to the original sculptors – projected a hologram-like image of Snowden on a cloud of smoke behind the pillar. The Snowden projection is part of a tradition of artistic intervention that has used projection to create provocative art in public spaces. Polish-American artist Krzysztof Wodiczko has used projections to bring statues “to life”, turning static war memorials into active spaces for the discussion of war and peace.
(Projection is a powerful tactic for civic activism – see Hologramas Por La Libertad, which is using projections of street protests against the side of the Spanish parliament to make a point about new laws that strongly restrict public protest. But this is a story about statues, not projections, so we’ll honor the effort and move on.)
A few days before the Snowden statue and projection, we found ourselves discussing civic statues in our lab, Center for Civic Media. The issue came up not because we were having a deep discussion about the nature of statuary, but because we moved a worktable revealing an open area that might students and I thought might be perfect for a statue. We began talking about the idea of a statue that could be rapidly deployed, which could change to honor different people at different times, and which would inspire discussion about why someone was being honored as a civic hero.
We built a prototype civic statue using an old projector and a sheet of optical rear projection acrylite. (The Media Lab is the sort of place where sheets of acrylite are just kicking around and folks like Dan Novy are generous enough to lend them out.) For our demo, I decided we would honor Professor Attahiru Jega, chairman of Nigeria’s election commission, which had just conducted a presidential election widely regarded as free and fair in which the incumbent president was defeated. Nigerians on all sides of the political spectrum honored Jega’s role in administering a fair election, and “Jega” began to emerge as slang for being chill, calm and avoiding conflict: “20 people showed up for dinner at his house unexpectedly, but he was totally Jega about it and sent out for chicken.”
— Ethan Zuckerman (@EthanZ) April 3, 2015
This week is the Media Lab member week, where sponsors come to visit our labs and see our projects. We decided to rapidly prototype the statue so we could show it off, with some simple design constraints:
– It should be quickly deployable, easy to set up and move
– It should be relatively inexpensive (our target is a standalone programmable statue that costs under $500)
– It shouldn’t require a specialized photo shoot – it should use available imagery
– It should prompt discussion within the group hosting the statue about who should be honored and how
As we thought about who to honor, I came across this tweet from my friend Liz Henry:
Dear whoever filmed the shooting of #walterscott that was brave and awesome of you.
— Liz Henry (@lizhenry) April 7, 2015
As it turns out, that brave and awesome man was Feidin Santana, a 23-year old Dominican immigrant who heard Walter Scott being tazed and captured footage of his shooting by police officer Michael Slager. As with Prof. Jega, we found an image online, masked it and added text to form a plaque. Savannah Niles, who is working on a project to build smoothly looping animated GIFs that she calls Glyphs, went a step further and built a statue of Santana that moves, subtly.
Niles explains what a Glyph is, showing the statue of Feidin Santana
Our prototype raises as many questions as it answers. Some are practical: Should this be a single unit, perhaps using a mirror to bounce the projection onto the screen? Will this work only in dim, interior spaces? Others focus on the community aspects: How do we decide who to honor? We held a brief email exchange about who we might feature, and quickly realized that there’s a real problem when people disagree about who should be honored. We’re working on a system that will allow people to propose candidates and select people to be honored by acclaim, rather than by fiat, which is how we selected Prof. Jega, Feidin Santana and feminist scholar and activist Anita Sarkeesian as our first three honorees.
As we work on this project in the long term, I’m interested in taking on a richer and deeper set of questions: What are statues for in a digital age? Is the rapid deployment and impermanence of these statues a feature or a bug? Can new types of statues help challenge long-standing gender and racial disparities in who we honor?
The civic statuary project is an experiment, and we may or may not continue it beyond showcasing it at this members’ meeting. But this question of how societies honor their civic heroes is a rich one, and I hope this experiment – and this blog post – opens conversations about who and how we memorialize.