Big Friendly’s best joke ever is about the Greek man who, through hard work and sweat becomes very wealthy and builds his mom a mansion. He asks her if there is anything she wants and she replies “statues”. He spares not an inch of space and covers the outside with concrete statues, the inside with marble statues, and even the carpark with iron horses. Then he asks her what she thinks and she says, “it’s lovely but where’s my statues?” He is confused and waves his hand the length and breadth of the landscape. She says, “no, man”, putting her thumb to her ear, and pinky to her mouth, “I want is-tat-you?”
As a kid I remember being bored out of my mind by statues. They were always a dull grey colour and the eyes were always terrible, blank and scary. Horses looked wrong, and the men (I don’t remember seeing any women) gave off a sense of power over things that irritated the natural rebel in me. As I got older I found the aesthetic of statues dull. They were the water colour still lives of the sculpture world.
But it was the years and years of attending the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown and seeing the 1820 Settlers Family sculpture protruding from the aloes, and decorating the dust alongside that huge 1820 Settler Monument (that apparently celebrates the arrival of English to the area – the irony) that alerted me to the singularity of history that monuments like statues portray. Here, an intrepid British family look out at the land they are about to make their home. They are just off the ship, in their British best. He, in huge top hat, holds books, while the girl child looks up adoringly at mother and father. What a gorgeous family.
And the message was (and still is) that they were coming to where nobody was. All the people that were actually there, in that place, were (and still are) invisible. As if they didn’t exist. They did not count as humans; as people.
Now imagine being a Xhosa person from exactly that place. Imagine seeing this distortion of history every single day of your life. Imagine looking at that representation of a family who stole the place of your family, your ancestors, your birthright. And, for one moment, imagine how that person would feel when you defend the right of that statue to be there, above the right of the one that isn’t there.
Here’s the deal. As far as I am concerned, there is only one way to keep statues that offend, tell half histories, and hurt, and that is to build, right next to them, the other side, the alternative vision, the silent voice. That is not going to happen. So, let’s tear them down.