A Mighty Woman with a Torch

Even if the I am Queen Mary monument in Copenhagen is only installed temporarily for now, the monument has already memorialized a time in history that Denmark has been trying to forget.

Inauguration of the I Am Queen Mary monument in Copenhagen, created by La Vaughn Belle and Jeannette Ehlers. Photo: Thorsten Altmann Krueger.

We have been invited to attend the official reception arranged to celebrate the inauguration of the memorial called I am Queen Mary produced by the artists LaVaughn Belle and Jeannette Ehlers. We are also invited to join a commemorative procession that begins on the corner in front of the Danish bakery Lagkagehuset on Christianshavn and proceeds to the site of the official unveiling of I am Queen Mary near the Royal Palace in Copenhagen.

We were asked to wear white or African fabric head ties as a sign of solidarity. We are five minutes late and I can’t see any group gathered on this corner, the site of a former women’s prison. It was here that Mary Leticia Thomas, known as Queen Mary, together with Axeline ‘Agnes’ Elizabeth Salomon, Matilde McBean and Susanna ‘Bottom Belly’ Abrahamsson, known as the Queens, were incarcerated in 1878. On October 1, 1878, the Queens led the Fireburn revolt in the Danish West Indies. It was a rebellion against the contractual servitude that kept African workers in the plantation system long after slavery had been abolished in 1848. They were calling for better working and living conditions. Fireburn became the largest labor revolt in Danish colonial history. The women were arrested and sent to Denmark to serve their prison sentences. The sentences were later commuted and they were returned to St. Croix.

We still don’t see a group gathered outside, so we go inside where I see three women of color going into the washroom. I think “this can’t be the whole group. Maybe I misunderstood something.” We wait. A white middle-aged male tourist keeps trying to open the door to no avail. About five minutes pass. I think to myself that they must be in there to put their head ties on. They finally come out and sashay towards the door without having changed anything about their appearance. I wonder, dismayed, if they might be the whole group and had have decided to start the procession on their own. We wait a bit longer and a woman comes in wearing a beautiful tall African head tie. I summon my courage and ask her if she is here to attend the I am Queen Mary procession. She says yes, and I ask if there are others. She points diagonally across the street where there is a group of around two hundred people gathered with banners, music and a few head ties. We join the procession from Christianshavn, the ground zero for Danish mercantile colonialism in Denmark under Christian IV. It is a blistery cold Saturday afternoon, March 31, 2018, one hundred and one years after Transfer Day, when Denmark sold St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. John to the United States for $25 million.

The commemorative I Am Queen Mary procession in Copenhagen – walking from the site of a former women’s prison in Christianshavn to the the official unveiling of I am Queen Mary near the Royal Palace. Photo: Yvette Brackman.

The music starts and the procession begins. We start walking; pulling our bicycles, pedaling with families sitting in Christiania bikes, kids perched up on their parents’ shoulders as they walk. We walk for a while with Choko, the woman with the beautiful head tie, and discuss the significance of this event. Along the way I gain courage seeing the other women wearing their beautiful head ties and I pull my scarf from Surinam out, a gift from a dear friend. I don’t know how to make a proper African head tie, so I make a triangle and tie it like a kerchief with a knot at the back of my neck. All the way up front is my dear friend Patricia and others carrying a banner for Black Lives Matter Denmark.

As we round the corner past the Danish National Bank and move toward the monument to Niels Juel (1629-97) – a Danish admiral who stands high above our heads on his pedestal, making a great stride forward with his left foot, proud of his achievements – I suddenly hear a man’s voice yell “White Lives Matter!” When I turn to see from which car the voice has emerged, all the windows are rolled up and the culprit has vanished.

The West India Warehouse with the two sculptures in front – Michelangelo’s David and I Am Queen Mary by Ehlers and La Vaughn Belle. Photo: Henrik Plenge Jakobsen.

Our destination is Vestindisk Pakhus, the West India Warehouse, that stands on the harbor right next to the current Mærsk Industries headquarters. For 250 years of Danish colonial rule in the West Indies, this was a warehouse used to store Caribbean sugar and rum.

The first thing we see as we approach the warehouse, now home to The Danish National Galleries’ Royal Cast Collection, is a full-size, more than five meters tall bronze copy of Michelangelo’s David, depicted with stone in hand just before the battle that we know he will win, and then beyond we see Queen Mary at the same scale as David, reclining and poised in her throne-like chair. Like David, she is holding a potential weapon, a sugarcane cutting knife called a cane bill. In the other hand she holds a torch. Her colossal figure is seated on a pedestal built up of large pieces of coral cut by enslaved Africans in the Danish West Indies to erect the foundations of colonial government buildings. These vestiges have now been transferred home to Denmark after many years of ossified silence.

Jeanette Ehlers og La Vaughn Belle, the artists behind I Am Queen Mary.

The sight of these two titanic figures, each flanking the West India Warehouse, is overwhelming. David, our uncircumcised biblical hero of the European Renaissance, cautiously yet boldly turning toward Queen Mary, who takes the iconic position of ancient Egyptian royalty, one foot forward. Traditionally this would be the left foot, but I am Queen Mary is a ground-breaking monument, not a traditional one; she extends her right foot into a new era. David is turning toward Mary, and I’m thinking “is David scrutinizing Queen Mary as he did when he measured up Goliath before casting his stone?” Yet, Queen Mary gazes straight ahead in calm, determined observance high above the multitudes; she looks ahead into the future.

I am Queen Mary was made using 3D scanning technology to create af hybrid of the bodies of the two artists – La Vaughn Belle, who grew up in the Virgin Islands, and Jeannette Ehlers, who is based in Copenhagen. It is modeled on the iconic photograph of the leader of the Black Panther party, Huey P. Newton, seated in a peacock chair holding a rifle and a spear – the reference is intended to connect various resistance movements and center them in the figure of Queen Mary.

I Am Queen Mary, Copenhagen, 2018. Photo: Nick Furbo.

If one is filled with fear of loss and guilt, one might mistake Queen Mary’s presence as menacing, but she does not disguise her tools as David does. And she is still in the process of creation, as yet a unique prototype, as opposed to David’s ubiquitous posture. As I stand looking up at her while all those involved gave speeches, I keep looking at her torch as it sways in the wind. The symbol of light and guidance is precariously poised and nonetheless vulnerable to the elements and vandals because the existing sculpture is a 3D polystyrene rendering that is coated in layers of sealant and black paint. The artists are currently working on getting the funding and permissions required to create a permanent monument. I’m thinking to myself, hoping that this public event will take place without drama so that the media can send the message and the artists’ intentions can be delivered intact and spread, connecting people to our past and overcoming those who crusade for fear and ignorance.

In the days that follow, the image of the colossal monument I am Queen Mary spreads like wildfire. The New York Times and several other news outlets have already written about her as though her eternal bronze representation already graces the Danish harbor just across from the Royal Opera House and a short walk away from the Royal Theatre.

I Queen Mary’s dignified arrival on the Danish harbor is long overdue, but her presence disturbs the national narrative of public sculpture up until now. She exposes an abyss of neglect. One that stretches from West Africa to Denmark to the former Danish West Indies to the ongoing colonial relationship that the United States has with the Virgin Islands of the United States, as they are called today. In the Virgin Islands, residents are U.S. citizens but cannot cast electoral votes for the president of the U.S., and citizens from the islands cannot elect voting members of Congress.

While at the moment the Queen is still transitioning into economic strength, her image has already been made eternal by the media. A dream would be to have four permanent I am Queen Mary monuments that stand as proud sirens commemorating the struggle for freedom and social justice and marking the historical locations­­­ of the Danish transatlantic slave trade in Accra in Ghana, Frederiksted in United States Virgin Islands, Copenhagen in Denmark, and Washington, DC. Reconnecting the routes of injustice and nurturing freedom and dignity.

For the time being, I am Queen is convincingly positioned. The base is made to be permanent, and with the proper support and funding the complete memorial could become everlasting.

Inauguration of the I Am Queen Mary monument by La Vaughn Belle and Jeannette Ehlers on March 31, 2018. Photo: Sarah Giersing.