A Monumental Challenge to Danish History

The monument I Am Queen Mary forces the Danish public to realize they no longer have the stage of history to themselves, while its reception shows that colonial memory remains a battleground

Inauguration of I Am Queen Mary by La Vaughn Belle and Jeanette Ehlers, Copenhagen 2018. Photo: Sarah Giersing.

On March 31, 2017, the Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen delivered a much-anticipated speech in Christiansted, St. Croix on the US Virgin Islands, during the official Centennial Transfer Day program, commemorating the Danish divestment of its former colony to the US in 1917. Many expected he would use this opportunity to give an official apology for the country’s engagement in enslavement and colonization. But no apology was given. Instead, Løkke Rasmussen delivered a strikingly personal address, giving emphasis to the “unforgivable” nature of “the exploitation of men, women and children that took place under Danish flag”. He also highlighted the changing perceptions of colonial history in Denmark:

When I was a child – the popular Danish story about the West Indies, was a romantic one. Exotic islands. Peaceful coexistence. I even remember the tales of the Danish king, who was the first in the world to ban slave trade. A pioneer of humanity, we were told. A hero. But most of you were told and lived a different story. The true story. […] So when I search my heart. My mind. There is no doubt: The true heroes of the past are the men and women of the Virgin Islands who defied suppression. […] Men like General Buddhoe […] Fierce women like Queen Mary […] Despite overwhelming obstacles, their ideals of liberty, equality and dignity prevailed. Today, the people of Denmark and the people of the Virgin Islands share common historic bonds. Today, we share the same view of history. And today, we share the same heroes. And hopefully, we shall also share a bright future.

The Prime Minister is not alone in foregrounding the shift in Danish memory cultures of colonialism. Most of the events, exhibitions, publications, and seminars that engaged with colonial history in Denmark in 2017, were also more or less explicitly framed in opposition to the narrative of “innocent colonialism”, to use social memory researcher Astrid Nonbo Andersen’s phrase, that the Prime Minister referred to. Yet, these initiatives were with few notable exceptions, centered on rethinking Danish perspectives on colonial history. Few voices from the Virgin Islands were invited to contribute. If the Centennial marked a shift in Denmark’s relationship to its colonial past, it marked a willingness to discuss the depths of Denmark’s relationship with itself, more than its relationship with its former colony. The Prime Minister’s idealized description of sharing the same view of colonialism with Virgin Islanders, then, glosses over, if not dismisses, the highly contentious politics of memory at play in the Centennial.

Given the unequal share of space given to Virgin Islands’ perspectives on the colonial past in Denmark one is left to ask: who actually constitutes this collective “we” the Prime Minister refers to? And what does the act of “sharing” history and heroes really mean in our (post)colonial present?

Inauguration of I Am Queen Mary in Copenhagen March 31, 2018. Photo: Thorsten Altmann Krueger.

Fast forward to March 31, 2018, when the Virgin Islands’ artist La Vaughn Belle and the Danish artist Jeannette Ehlers revealed their groundbreaking monument I Am Queen Mary on the harbor front in Copenhagen. Their sculpture, and the global press frenzy generated, with headlines such as, “Denmark Unveils its First Public Monument to a Black Woman”, places the Prime Minister’s words into a welcome critical perspective.

The placement of a seven-meter-high statue of a Black woman in public space has rightfully been characterized as a landmark event, not only in Denmark but internationally. In light of the talk of “shared heroes”, the fact that the Danish press has spent a majority of their editorial space explaining who the historical figure of Mary Leticia Thomas is, and what the 1878 Fireburn labor revolt on St. Croix was all about, clearly suggest that this has been a heroine unknown to most Danes. The only reason that Danes are now urged to familiarize themselves with Queen Mary is due to the laborious work of two artists who has pushed this monument into the public sphere.

With a commanding height, I Am Queen Mary sits directly in front of the Danish West India warehouse on the harbor front in Copenhagen, a building which once stored goods from the enslavement trade. Just four hundred meters from the Royal Danish Family’s palace, Amalienborg, this Black Queen sits in a state of repose on a throne-like wicker peacock chair, which rests on 2 tons of corals shipped from St. Croix constructed to resemble a plinth and adorned with a plaque that simply reads “I Am Queen Mary: A Hybrid of Bodies, Nations and Narratives”. Her physical positioning not only gives emphasis to the warehouse’s function in the history of slavery. She also turns her back against the royal notion of Queendom in Denmark, and the white canon of European art history represented by the Royal Cast Collections housed today in the warehouse.

I Am Queen Mary is not simply an audacious monument, her audacity can also be read as a challenge to traditions of monumentality. Except for the name Queen Mary in the monument’s title, no textual description explains which historical figure the statue refers to. Her silent presence can be seen as a comment on the gendered privileging of monumental existences in public space in Denmark.

Bust of physicist Niels Bohr (foreground) and Elisabeth Toubro’s Monument for Inge Lehmann, 2017. Vor Frue Plads, Copenhagen.

Throughout Copenhagen exist countless statues of Kings and famous men, the most recent being Hans Pauli Olsen’s forthcoming six-meter high bronze statue of Christian IV in front of The Stock Exchange. In front of the University of Copenhagen’s main building, for example, rests six sculptural busts of Danish male scientists. The seventh, and only woman honored with a statue is Elisabeth Toubro’s 2017 bust of the seismologist Inge Lehmann. With a linear sketch of Lehmann’s face etched into the side of a stone block, this is the only bust that includes a descriptive text noting her achievements. When comparing Lehmann to the adjacent bust of physicist Niels Bohr, or I Am Queen Mary’s positioning next to the copy of Michelangelo’s David outside the West India Warehouse, the necessity for context with one and not the other speaks to a larger historical narrative of white men not needing their existence in public space explained or justified. The artists’s choice of not providing a description of Queen Mary’s importance on the actual sculpture can thus be read as a retort to the expectation that minoritized figures always need to explain their importance to the majority. If you don’t know who Queen Mary is, you might want to ask yourself why this is the case? Or perhaps, take the time visit the artists’ website providing in-depth contextualization of the sculpture, its symbols, and historical antecedents.

The Danish reception of I Am Queen Mary stands as a stark reminder that we clearly do not share the same view of the past because so many with stakes in this history have not had the same means of seeing or sharing it with an equitable perspective. This is evident when considering the different ways that Queen Mary has been remembered in Denmark and on the Virgin Islands.

The colonial records on the labor revolt in 1878 have for long been located in Denmark, following the removal of the colonial archives from the Virgin Islands in 1917. Yet, the lacking access to the archives’ colonial perspectives on Fireburn, has not led to the forgetting of Queen Mary on the Virgin Islands. Here she and the other three “Fiyahbun Queens” have been remembered and honored through embodied memory traditions including stories, songs, and performances. This critical gap in the politics of remembrance is where the potential for this monument takes shape. By engaging with the intersections of race, class and gender, I Am Queen Mary refutes any myth of a universal “we” that share the ways in which this complicated and painful past is lived, told, and commemorated.

3D Sketch of I Am Queen Mary. Photo: 3D Printhuset and Daviid Ranløv.

I Am Queen Mary has managed to center Black subjectivity within historic debates of colonial Denmark. The sculpture’s numerous symbolic references to the history of Black resistance have been highlighted by many commentators, including Yvette Brackman’s report in Kunstkritikk. Especially the citation of Black Panther Party leader Huey P. Newton’s famous pose in the peacock chair has been noted. Less focus has been given to the title references to the “I AM A MAN” sign used during the 1968 Sanitation Workers Strike in Memphis and the ending of Spike Lee’s 1992 film Malcolm X, where children throughout the world chant “I am Malcolm X”, to show how his spirit lives on today. I Am Queen Mary’s appropriation of iconic elements from Black history also reads as an intentional acknowledgement to Black women, and their lack of recognition, within resistance struggles throughout the African diaspora.

Few have yet to critically engage the aesthetics of I Am Queen Mary in a broader art historical context. Two exceptions are Politiken’s art critic Trine Ross and Weekendavisen’s Jacob Wamberg. Both see Queen Mary’s throne-like pose to represent a paradoxical continuation of Eurocentric traditions of monumentality. Ross even compares it to the seated statue of the former US president Abraham Lincoln on the Mall in Washington D.C. But this comparison completely ignores not only the material, contextual, and political aspects of Ehlers’s and Belle’s intervention, but also the visual signifiers of labor in the sculpture: Queen Mary’s bare feet, domestic clothing, head wrap, visibly worn sugarcane bill and wicker peacock chair – often found in working and middle-class homes throughout the Caribbean. Monumentalizing a body adorned in physical signifiers of plantation labor, I Am Queen Mary is sitting in literal defiance to that labor, while presenting herself with a certain regality that history has exclusively inscribed only to those who have enforced such labor. Additionally, though this throne-like style of positioning within public sculpture has existed since ancient Egypt, I Am Queen Mary mocks at the notion that someone sitting in a position of self-assertion can only be seen as a western construct. Regardless of whether the sculpture will be cast in bronze or not, the fact that the figure is made of polystyrene questions the sense of permanence often prescribed to these constructs.

Charles Taylor’s Leaflets from the Danish West Indies from 1888 contains these two sketches. One stating: “A Rebel”. The other stating: “Queen Mary”. Both images have been used interchangebly as representing Queen Mary.

 I Am Queen Mary‘s physical representation challenges ways of seeing history on multiple levels. A photograph of Queen Mary has yet to be discovered, though the first illustration of her was created by the English physician Charles Taylor in his 1888 text, Leaflets from the Danish West Indies. Taylor’s illustrations of Queen Mary resemble typical stereotyped caricatures of people of African descent during that time period. The crudeness of the drawing is further supported by his descriptions of Fireburn, as he identifies the rioters as “bands of Monsters” and a “legion of fiends than things human”. Yet, to this day, his representations still serve as the main point of reference.

A mythic-like hero in one location, and a “monster” in another, Belle and Ehlers disrupt the imaginings of Queen Mary by constructing a hybridized human body as an additional reference point. Created from a 3D scan of the artists’ bodies merged together, Ehlers’s Danish and Belle’s Crucian background reflects a multi-locational embodiment of this historic figure, who is represented in contradictory ways between these two locations. This humanizing element de-mythologizes Queen Mary’s past, while channeling her stance of resistance, dignity and defiance against racism and oppression in our present. Similar to Renee Cox’s re-embodiment of ancestral spirit in her photographic series Queen Nanny of the Maroons (2004-05), it is the animating force that Queen Mary represents that is being figured here, as the title’s identificatory declaration “I Am Queen Mary” indicates. The monument is as such gesturing towards the present and the future as much as towards the past.

Yet, reducing this identificatory call to a “celebration and endorsement of armed insurgency as a means to achieve political change”, as Nikolaj Bøgh writes in his commentary on POV, and that Wamberg worries about in Weekendavisen, is flawed. Bøgh’s description of this “monstrous figure”, as he calls it, reads as an ironic reenactment of Charles Taylor’s 1888 understanding of fight for justice as a mere act of violence. If Queen Mary is armed, as Bøgh suggests, it is the plantation owner who has armed her. His framing of the sculpture’s Black Panther Party-reference as evidence of the artists’ praising of violence, while conveniently leaving out the role of self-defense within the organizations practice, says more about his (de)politicized idea of resistance than the content and context of the sculpture.

The artists, Jeannette Ehlers and La Vaughn Belle, with the coral base for the I Am Queen Mary monument. Photo: Nikolaj Recke.

Many of the photographs circulated online of I Am Queen Mary only include the statue, cropping off the plinth on which it stands. But the coral base contributes in a central way to the project’s multi-layered references to oppressive Danish labor systems, as it offers an important relational and embodied connection to history. During colonization, enslaved Africans were sent into low tide to cut corals which would serve as foundations for colonial buildings on St. Croix. The coral foundations were literally whitewashed with burnt lime, making them invisible, in contrast to the often featured Danish-made bricks.

As opposed to being a hidden foundation for the construction of colonialism, Ehlers and Belle bring the corals forward. By transforming the corals into the object of representation along with the sculptures visibly Black skin, I Am Queen Mary directly confronts the whitewashing practices of art history and visual culture as represented by the statues within the Danish Royal Cast Collection.

When standing in front of I Am Queen Mary, the corals provide us with a sensuous level of intimacy. And through touch, their coarse texture provides reflection on those bare hands that cut the stones from the sea to help lay the economic ground for the modern kingdom of Denmark. Ignoring the base and only engaging with the figure risks replicating the process of erasure of the foundational role that the Virgin Islands play in this story.

In his speech at the inauguration of I Am Queen Mary research curator at the National Gallery of Denmark, Henrik Holm, stated that “it takes a statue like this to make forgetting less easy”. The presence of I Am Queen Mary in Copenhagen is certainly forcing the Danish public to take Queen Mary into the account of Danish history, and with her, the tradition of thinking that Danes can have the stage of history to themselves.

I Am Queen Mary offers an agonistic approach to the practice of sharing history different to the sugar-coated soundbites offered by the Danish Prime Minister. Challenging the Danish ways of seeing in such a monumental way, the statue forces us to negotiate the material effects and implications of shared views and the difficulties within equitable sharing. As such, I Am Queen Mary serves as both an aesthetic and contextual starting point for the process of acknowledging – and altering – the radical unequal conditions for seeing, talking, and being heard that organize our present.

La Vaughn Belle and Jeannette Ehlers, I Am Queen Mary, 2018. Photo: David Berg.