The triumph of anti-racist iconoclasm – Il Sole 24 ORE


PROTESTS and memory

As the statues of “racist” colonists fall, it reflects on the power of images and the protection of monuments

by Giuditta Giardini

In support of the protests, the Italian artist Ozmo created a “Monument in memory of the child bride, in Montanelli”, the 12-year-old girl whom Indro Montanelli married in Eritrea, appeared on Monday 15 June in Via Torino in Milan.

As the statues of “racist” colonists fall, it reflects on the power of images and the protection of monuments

4 ‘of reading

It all happened very quickly, last week anti-racist marches descended the streets for the death of George Floyd marching against the police and government and now the target has become the statues of the main European and American squares. In the United States, in Minneapolis, the heart of the protests, the first head to fall was that of Christopher Columbus, another statue of the explorer ended up in the water in Richmond and others, between Massachusset and Virginia, were vandalized or destroyed . In England, the monuments of Edward Colson of Bristol, merchant, philanthropist and slave trader, Robert Milligan of London, also enriched with the slave trade, were hit and the statues of Queen Victoria at Woodhouse Moor were vandalized , Leeds, and President Winston Churchill in London Parliament Square. British protesters have compiled a sort of sillana list, called the hit list, with 78 target statues, according to them praising racial hatred, which must be torn down. Everything seems to have started from the statement in Sky News by the member of the British parliament, Nadhim Zahawi, of Iraqi origin and a member of the conservative party: “slave traders should not have statues in their honor” and again “shooting down those statues should not be a break-in of the law, but it should take place through a democratic process “. Controversial bronze giants are also breaking down in Australia and South America; in Belgium, the statue of King Leopold II was smeared with “racist” or “forgiveness” for the atrocities committed in the Congo.

The blood-stained Christopher Columbus statue with the “enough to celebrate genocide” sign in San Francisco, California

Historical reasons
The anti-racist iconoclasm of these days is debating and public opinion is split: there are those who bless the attacks to the point of suggesting not to use washable sprays, but to throw blunt objects to bend the bronze; others say that the real goal of the protest is being lost; and still others condemn historical relativism which is the purpose of these – defined by them – barbarism. The question we all ask ourselves is: why statues? In order to answer, we must consider the so-called “power of images” which is the subject of the work of Columbia University professor David Freedberg. According to Freedberg, iconoclastic controversies travel through cultures and religions and are a cyclical and recurrent phenomenon. From the great iconoclastic movement of Byzantium, passing through the Protestant Reformation, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, to the demolition of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad in 2003, with the destruction of a statue we try to destroy the evocative power of the spirit of the person who is enclosed in the simulacrum. This idea is also shared by the most ancient religions, from the Greek, to the Buddhist and in the Exodus, in the tables of the law, it is God who says to his people: “you will not make yourself an idol, nor any image”.

For and against
The reasons for those who oppose the “hit list” are above all fears from historians and academics, Sir Geoff Palmer, black professor of Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, in an interview with Euronews says “my fear is that in one hundred years one will ask: who is Edward Colston? ”. Scholars of Roman history know well what Palmer talks about, with the penalty of damnatio memoriae, with which the Romans erased every effigy of the traitors of the homeland, the memory of some historical figures has been forever removed, fundamental to understand the path of the ‘humanity. In the United States the statues and their symbolism fall within the so-called government speech, through the statues scattered in the squares and parks the government speaks to the people without applying the doctrine of the first amendment of the Constitution that protects freedom of speech and the press and other times it limits it. Among the various statues that over the years had caused discussion, the case of the obelisk of the Battle of New Orleans (1874) was famous, erected in memory of the “fallen white fighting” that praised the triumph of “white supremacy”. The monument was removed in 2017. Next to the racially hated monuments, there is a set of statues that are not so openly “hate speech” and controversial, but which offend a part of the community that has been the victim of abuse. What do you do today with those statues? Destroying them does not seem the solution because you would end up in the vicious circle of historical relativism, you could change the narrative with educational panels that explain how that statue is perceived in 2020, others advance the hypothesis of re-collocation in museums.

Equestrian statue of King Leopold II in Brussels, Belgium

In today’s Europe, purged of the images of Nazi and fascist leaders, these controversies are not new. In Italy, where there is often debate about whether to “keep or destroy” monuments or buildings of the twenty years, today, riding on the international trend, there are those who ask for the removal of the statue of the journalist Indro Montanelli from his gardens in Milan, pointing to it as a thread – fascist and fake resistant. On Monday 15 June, a sticker “Monument in memory of the child bride in Montanelli” appeared on Via Torino in Milan in condemnation of the alleged marriage between the Italian journalist and a 12-year-old Eritrean girl, at the time when Eritrea was a colony Italian. Getting rid of a statue is not so easy, the simulacra of women and men scattered throughout the national territory, the regional one or the local public bodies are state property in accordance with article 10 of Legislative Decree 42/2004. The state can also acquire ownership of private statues which, for example, are dedicated to the exercise of worship by their owner or placed in public places, therefore by facta concludentia, or by means of a dicatio ad patriam formal. As assets of the cultural state property, the statues have a patrimonial value, but are inalienable, subject to the care and custody of competent state bodies, as well as immovable and unalterable without the authorization of the competent superintendent.

On the Stop Trump website in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, a map of the 100 “racist” statues to be demolished appeared

We leave it to posterity to judge whether it is correct to knock down the commemorative statues of slave traders, conquerors or merchants, or whether we can change the narrative with which the statues are presented to the public even by placing them in museums. The lesson for contemporaries is that of not taking for granted anything that surrounds us because, as the Renaissance events of the Florentine Davids teach us, public art is political as the voice of the state that speaks to the people by choosing its heroes and his victories. Still in 2020, the statues, which we thought were silent or having only a mere celebratory or economic value, enclose a political force and a power to warm the undisputed crowds.

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