Monumental Misrememberings: Photographs and Statues of Contested Histories

John Adams Jackson (American 1825–1879) after Hammatt Billings (American 1818–1874), Statuette of the National Monument to the Forefathers, 1867, Brass-plated zinc with iron base plate, Gift of Henry-Russell Hitchcock in honor of Agnes Rindge Claflin, 1965.13

Kara Walker (American, b. 1969), Fons Americanus, 2019, Bronze, edition 17 of 30, Purchase, Betsy Mudge Wilson, class of 1956, Memorial Fund, 2020

The building and dismantling of public monuments has a long history that stretches across the globe. In recent years, escalating economic inequality, a legacy of systemic racism, and political divisiveness in the United States have fueled intense public debates over who belongs and who holds the majority of power. Monuments, which often convey the idea that history is made by particular individuals, are seen by some as symbols of European colonialism and North American white supremacy and have been the focal point for much conflict and political unrest. Ken Lum, an artist and visual studies professor at the University of Pennsylvania, explains that the traditional function of monuments has been “to activate or even sustain a certain narrative of memory which people of influence have deemed worthy or important to maintain. They are mnemonic devices.” 

This exhibition features two small versions of larger statues, one designed by 19th-century architect Hammatt Billings to memorialize pilgrims from Europe arriving on the shores of Massachusetts, and one by contemporary Black American artist Kara Walker that calls into question the authority and validity of monuments that celebrate imperialism. 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, Billings’s work celebrates a dominant history while Walker’s work imagines a monument that commemorates untold, hidden, or forgotten histories. The exhibition takes its name, Monumental Misrememberings, from the title plaque Walker created in ironic imitation of the linguistic flourishes that often accompany public monuments.

The Black Lives Matter movement’s protests over police brutality against African Americans and, most recently, over the killing of George Floyd, have expanded to include demands for a more honest accounting of American history. These demonstrations have fueled a national movement to remove symbols of racism and oppression in the United States. While the debate over the appropriateness of statues or monuments first focused on Confederate symbols like Robert E. Lee, it has now moved to include a broader group of figures, from Christopher Columbus to former slave traders in the U.S. and U.K., forcing a reckoning over such issues as European colonization and Native American genocide. 

Because many monuments embody the state’s official or implicit position regarding the past, and are placed in public spaces, they have become common sites for political disruption. As anthropologist Néstor García Canclini points out in his book Hybrid Cultures, when the state’s official past is incongruous with a populace’s own understanding, these monuments become sites of contest. This can be seen manifested through graffiti, defacement, and demonstration in the photographs on view. Canclini asks, “Is not the need to politically reinscribe monuments evidence of the distance between a state and a people, or between history and the present?” This exhibition is meant to promote dialogue around past events as well as current political aspirations. What would it look like to create public monuments that reckon with our past but also celebrate the diversity of our present? The national debate over monuments will ideally lead to the creation of such memorials. 

John Adams Jackson was a Boston-based sculptor who was responsible for making large-scale mockups and statuettes for monuments designed by Hammatt Billings. The statuette on view is an allegorical depiction intended to communicate pride in the heritage of Pilgrim settlement in North America. In stark contrast to Kara Walker’s Fons Americanus, this work unequivocally celebrates a particular narrative of American history. Its architectural symmetry, rectilinear lines, and smooth dark surfaces convey the narrative intention and mythologizing of power typical of such monuments. In response to this tradition, Walker intentionally rendered her figures in rough form, taking on the surface of wet or molded clay used during the genesis in the artist’s studio.

Portrait of Hammatt Billings

Hammatt Billings was a prominent Boston-based sculptor, illustrator, and architect in the mid-nineteenth century. He designed several public works, including funerary monuments and a Civil War monument in Concord, Massachusetts. In 1854 Billings started making designs for the National Monument to the Forefathers in Plymouth, Massachusetts, a commemoration of the Pilgrims who arrived on the Mayflower in 1620. It was to tower over its surroundings, originally conceived to stand 153 feet tall; when it was finished in 1889, it was a more modest yet still impressive 81 feet tall. To fund the sculpture, Billings set up a multi-tiered system of donor gifts, ranging from $5 to $1,000. If one donated $100, the gift was a 22-inch statuette of the monument created by Jackson. These were completed and sent to donors in 1867. This example was given by the Pilgrim Society in Plymouth 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.

The sculpting of "Faith" in Hallowell, Maine. Photo by James Baker

The primary figure standing on an octagonal pedestal is an allegory of Faith depicted as a classically draped female who holds an open Bible in her left hand and points skyward with her right, her gaze directed downward. Four smaller figures seated below Faith are intended to represent the principles of the Pilgrim commonwealth. The two frontal figures are Law, appearing as a bearded male in a contemplative pose with a stack of books balanced on his knees, and Morality, who appears as a woman holding a tablet. The back-facing figures are Liberty, a male wearing a helmet and cradling a sword in his right arm, and Education, a draped woman pointing with her right hand to a book in her lap. Beneath each figure a relief panel depicts a scene from Pilgrim history. Two sides of the pedestal list the “signers of the social compact of November 21, 1620” and one side lists “Female passengers of the Mayflower” while the main face is inscribed “Statuette of the National Monument of the Forefathers at Plymouth Given as the Testimonial of a Subscription to the Monument Fund.”  


Plymouth Rock, Plymouth, MA

The National Monument to the Forefathers, Plymouth, MA, ca. early 20th century

The Pilgrim Society was founded in 1820 during the 200th anniversary of the landing for the express purpose of providing “the erection of a monument to perpetuate the virtues, the enterprise, and the unparalleled suffering of the ancestors.” Thirty years later, in May 1850, with few funds yet on hand for the project, the society was still resolving to erect a monument on Plymouth Rock. Throughout the early part of the nineteenth century, there was growing national consciousness developing around the perceived patrimony created by the founding of Massachusetts by the Pilgrims. In many ways, the iconography of the monument became an attempt to demonstrate the founding, creation, and sustaining of a national union increasingly called into question by divisive incidents in the 1850s such as the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act. In the eyes of its commissioners, the monument could serve as a symbol of national unity in a period of increasing discord and solidify the Pilgrims’ prominent place in history. The National Monument to the Forefathers was finally completed in 1889 and still stands today in remembrance of some of the first European colonizers of North America.  For some, this remains a powerful evocation of founding values and a testament to perseverance, while for others it evokes white settlement’s devastating legacy for Native Americans.    

Portrait of Kara Walker

Kara Walker is a multimedia artist who boldly investigates the myriad ways in which history shapes identity. In particular, Walker probes the construction of Black identities in the wake of slavery and imperialism. She is perhaps best known for her use of black cut-paper silhouetted caricatures, often referencing the history of slavery and the antebellum South through provocative and elaborate installations, video, and photography.

Last year, Walker was commissioned to create Fons Americanus (Latin for “Fountain of America”) for the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern museum in London. Standing 42 feet tall, this monumental fountain weaves together histories of the slave trade in Africa, Europe, and America, and connects these narratives to the present. The work deliberately subverts the codified tradition of iconography used in colossal monuments around the Western world. Walker’s sculpture was inspired by the Victoria Memorial majestically sited in front of Buckingham Palace, a towering, 82-foot-tall monument that was sculpted by Thomas Brock and unveiled in 1911 in honor of the recently deceased queen. Its composition can be broken into three registers: the uppermost register contains a gilt-bronze winged Victory; just below, sit four figures—an enthroned Queen Victoria, as well as personifications of Motherhood, Justice, and Truth; and at the lowest register of the fountain there rests the water basin with various sculptures.

Victoria Memorial at Buckingham Palace in London, England

Walker appropriates this three-registered composition in her Turbine Hall sculpture. Where the Victoria Memorial contained personified ideals held by the British Crown, Walker substitutes figures that embody the colonial histories underpinning the empire. For example, in the Victoria Memorial, an enthroned Queen Victoria is resolutely dignified, orb and scepter in hand; in Walker’s work, on the other hand, the queen (whom Walker calls “Queen Vicky”) is represented by an African figure cradling a coconut to her chest while laughing. Kneeling at her feet, sheltered by her skirt is a diminutive male nude figure, which Walker identifies as Melancholy. In these pointed subversions, Walker challenges us to look at imperial histories which are still embedded into our built environment and often ingrained into our consciousness. The form of a public fountain is significant in the wake of recent public demonstrations to remove monuments that celebrate colonial histories in both the US and UK. Walker asks us to excavate the dominant history as she delivers a message about the violent, tragic beginnings of the history of the African diaspora.

On the occasion of the site-specific installation at the Tate, Walker created this bronze maquette of the larger work. This smaller version does not contain the lower register or the fountain’s water features as it represents only the two top tiers. At the top of the maquette stands a Black Venus figure presented as an Afro-Brazilian or Afro-Caribbean woman with her face and arms ecstatically raised skyward. Below Venus four allegories encircle the base of the sculpture. These are The Captain, a kneeling man, Queen Vicky, and a tree with a noose. The Captain is an amalgamated likeness of different Black figures who rebelled against colonial forces. The kneeling man represents the British colonizers who profited off of the enslavement of Africans. Queen Vicky represents Queen Victoria (and the Crown in general) in reference to the Victoria Memorial. A personification of Melancholy kneels below her. The figure of Melancholy exists in an artistic tradition representing the internal, and often unprompted, toil of human emotions. The tree with a noose is a clear reference to the history of the lynching of African Americans perpetrated by white supremacists in the United States. In adding this vivid and wrenching image, Walker looks back to the origins of the African diaspora and links the history of violence and tragedy of the transatlantic slave trade with contemporary race conflicts in the United States.

Tate Modern Hyundai Commission 2019. ©Tate

Water is a central theme in Walker’s Fons Americanus. Walker has said that the work is an allegory for the “Black Atlantic,” a term used to signify how the transatlantic slave trade shaped the development of Black identity in America and Europe. This allegory is activated in the uppermost Venus figure. Originally a Roman deity, Venus developed racial significance during the transatlantic slave trade. She began to be depicted as a black woman emerging from the water. This image was subsequently used as pro-slavery propaganda in Britain. Walker calls her figure the “Daughter of Waters.” This title acknowledges how slavery’s legacy has “given birth” to our contemporary moment, but the figure itself subverts these oppressions in its triumphant pose and placement. Another recurrent motif is the relationship between the Old World and the New World. For instance, a large-scale title card on the wall next to the Tate fountain, replicated here, imitates books’ title pages in the 17th and 18th centuries, with the corresponding rhetorical flourishes and crescendo of increasingly striking typefaces. Here, Walker writes, “We Present the Citizens of the Old World (Our Captors, Saviours and Intimate Family) A Gift and Talisman Toward the Reconciliation of Our Respective Mother-lands.” In these lines Walker acknowledges Britain’s former rule over the American colonies and the complex relations this past engenders. Using historical research and biting humor, Walker brings the past face to face with the present. She speaks to the complex nexus of identity, culture, and history that involves Africa, Britain, and America.

Released as part of Tate's weekly films, this is a behind the scenes look at Fons Americanus from its installation at Tate Modern in 2020.

Questions to Ask of a Monument

Monuments are not just about history. They are punctuations of a particular history; they signal that a moment or a person should be recognized, should be celebrated. The vast majority of monuments in the United States are to white men, a fact that should already signal something about power.  And while Kara Walker’s Fons Americanus is a counter-monumental response to a monument honoring Queen Victoria, a woman, Walker richly exposes the celebration of violent racist, patriarchal, imperial reach.  

As we look at a monument, perhaps, say, in a public square, it is always worth thinking about how it came to be there as well as what it means and for whom it was established. Some questions to ask include:

Who got to decide that the monument be placed on the square?

In other words, what were the power dynamics behind establishing the monument or memorial?

And what might the monument be asking of us?

And what is its staying power?

Who got the vote on what it should look like, or what phrasing should be inscribed on it?

What monuments would truly represent a “we the people”?  

These questions were composed by Katherine Hite, Professor of Political Science on the F. Thompson Chair and Director of Faculty Research Development. Hite is also a co-founder and member of Celebrating the African Spirit (CAS)Established in 2019, CAS is a community organization with the mission to raise awareness of and honor the contributions of enslaved Africans and their descendants to the building and growth of the city of Poughkeepsie and surrounding areas through memorials and through artistic, educational, and wellness programs. CAS also works to address the pervasiveness of racism and its effects on our communities.

Exhibition Checklist:

John Adams Jackson (American, 1825–1879)                                                                after Hammatt Billings (American, 1818–1874)
Statuette of the National Monument to the Forefathers, 1867
Brass-plated zinc with iron base plate
Gift of Henry-Russell Hitchcock in honor of Agnes Rindge Claflin, 1965.13

Kara Walker (American, born 1969)
Fons Americanus, 2019
Edition  of 30
Purchase, Betsy Mudge Wilson, class of 1956, Memorial Fund, 2020