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Monuments, Movements, and the Photography of Jeff Thomas

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Jeff Thomas

Monuments, Movements, and the Photography of Jeff Thomas

This is part of Art Museum’s Virtual Spotlights, a deep dive into stories from our collections, exhibitions, and projects while our physical gallery spaces are temporarily inaccessible to the public.

Discussion with Mikinaak Migwans and Maria Hupfield, with Syrus Marcus Ware

Click on the images on the slide carousel to read more.

Mik: Aanii this is Mikinaak Migwans, I’m the Curator of Indigenous Art here at the Art Museum of the University of Toronto. First of all, I’d like to acknowledge that we are recording today – well, I’m recording today from Anishinaabe territory up on Point Grondine, Wiikwemikoong Unceded Territory. The Art Museum itself, and Toronto, are on the territories of the Mississauga Anishinaabeg and of course the Haudenosaunee, and the Hurons, who have been crossing this territory as well. This conversation is part of Virtual Spotlights, which is a deep dive into stories in the Art Museum of the University of Toronto’s exhibitions and collections. We publish audio essays, interviews, expanded digital archives and behind-the-scenes photos as part of Virtual Spotlights, and you can find these stories and content anytime on our website, at artmuseum.utoronto.ca. And we’d like to thank our funders, Canada Council for the Arts, Ontario Arts Council, and the Toronto Arts Council.

For this conversation, we’d like to approach the issue of monuments. The ways that monuments have become anchors for protests, and resistance to a colonial state (and a carceral state) that impinges on the lives of Black folks, of Indigenous folks, folks of colour. Activists and artists have been using monuments as sites for resistance, and to make visuals that illustrate what the struggle is about, for as long as there have been monuments. Recently, our attention has been drawn to certain monuments: In the States, monuments representing confederate war heroes and monuments representing, say, Teddy Roosevelt, or people who are considered American forefathers. In Canada, it’s no different. We have monuments to former slave owners, to people who are incredibly problematic, in the history of this country, for a lot of people. And those have become sites of resistance, and we would like to talk about a few of those today and discuss how artists and the cultural sector in general are being leaders in this movement.

So here with me talking today is Professor Maria Hupfield, from the University of Toronto Mississauga. Aanii Maria, thanks for joining me.

Maria: Aanii, it’s great to be here.

Mik: Maria is from Wasauksing First Nation, and she is a Professor of Indigenous Visual Studies. 

Maria: That’s right. I’m also a Canadian Research Chair in Transdisciplinary Indigenous Arts. And I’m cross-appointed between the Department of Visual Studies, and English and Drama.

Mik: Maria and I have known each other for a while. I believe we were introduced through museum research stuff? The Great Lakes Alliance for the Study of Aboriginal Arts and Culture (GRASAC). 

But I think we really started working together when were both in New York City, in and around 2017 [note: it was 2016], the Anti-Columbus Day protests and some of the movements centered around the American Museum of Natural History and that statue of Teddy Roosevelt. Which famously depicts what, I think, Andrea Smith would call the “three pillars of white supremacy,”[1] with the white American forefather at the pinnacle of an arrangement that includes the subordinate figures of an African man and a Native man – both anonymous and leading the reins, walking, as Teddy Roosevelt rides the horse. That statue and that location became the site for a lot of resistance, around Anti-Columbus Day, and trying to get Indigenous Peoples’ Day going. So Maria and I were working together on that, and a number of other Indigenous initiatives in the city, art-based. 

So I thought I’d invite her to talk about this issue of monuments. And I want to talk about it through a photo series, that a Haudenosaunee artists from close to home, here, has worked on over twenty years: Jeff Thomas. So I want to work with his photo series to talk about the kind of logics that are at work in the monuments, that he explores. And the options we have for intervening in those narratives. So… I don’t know, Maria. Let’s talk about these images first? I think I sent them to you, eh.

Maria: I have them right in front of me.

Mik: 

Amazing. The first one I want to talk about, in Jeff’s photo series of the monuments, is “Samuel de Champlain Monument, Orillia, Ontario,” from 2001. As well as his “Joseph Brant Monument, Brantford,” from 1999. This whole series I thought was really an important way to talk about interventions on monuments. Because it is, a photo series that is an intervention. We’re familiar by now, in this digital age, with what the camera, and what the act of framing does to, say, monuments. Right? It’s re-framing it. It’s talking about it in a critical way. Because what he’s doing is, he’s looking at all these monuments across the country, looking at monuments that depict historical figures from Canadian, American, imperial histories, and he’s reframing them in a way that makes it clear how these monuments are arranged. In the first one, the Samuel de Champlain monument, you have Samuel de Champlain [note: just out of sight above the pictured arrangement] above everyone else. He’s taking the peak position. Below him are two Native men, presumably guides – anonymous. Not based on actual people. And by looking at these photographs that he’s taken – from a human-eye view, and in a series – you can start to see how all of them operate. I think, with the Joseph Brant monument as well, you can see it, where he’s up on this giant pedestal with all these figures around him and below him, such that Indianness becomes something that is part of a dominion, or something that is owned, subordinate to or underneath these larger institutions.

 

And again, Jeff Thomas went down to New York City, and one of his photographs is of the Teddy Roosevelt monument, and that’s the photograph titled, “Teddy, Indian and a Slave, American Museum of Natural History, New York City,” from 2002. 

So those are the three images I wanted to start out talking about together. The ways that these monuments have become the site of cultural critique recently.

Maria: 

Yes, those are some good Canadian examples, and Jeffery Thomas is definitely the person who, when I think of monuments and Indigenous content… that’s the go-to person, for sure!

Mik: 

I’m especially interested in his work because of his larger project. He’s looking for the “missing Indian,” right? So he’s going around, and through photography, he’s looking at all these public spaces. He’s looking for, like, “where am I in this? Where is my family? Where are the Native people whose land this is?” And ultimately his point is that they have been disappeared from all this. It’s not that they’re not there; it’s that they’ve been disappeared. And you can be disappeared in different ways, eh. One of his points is that you can either be totally absent from a landscape. And so one of his photographic series is about landscapes, where Indians are missing. And he intervenes on that [narrative of disappearance] by introducing… a nice little Indian figure, in the form of a child’s toy. The figure of a chief. So there’s “Peace Chief” and “War Chief”, and he goes around and introduces these figures into otherwise Indian-free landscapes. Which I love. The other [series] that he does, he goes around, and does portraits of his son Bear. Known today as Bear Witness. So he goes around photographing him in urban spaces, to show that presence. 

I think that that leads really nicely into the Monuments series, because he’s showing that there are different kinds of disappearance. There’s different kinds of rendering someone invisible and not-present. One of those ways is by making them anonymous – by introducing ‘the Indian’ as a symbol of something else. So we are also ‘disappeared’ when we are made to signify something else, in this case, land, and dominion over it. Because what’s happening in all these images, in all these monuments, as he’s showing us through this series, is not only the Indian in a subordinate position, but the Indian representing land, representing authority over the land. And that they are under the dominion of the figures at the peak of the monuments. Anyway, that’s what I’m reading through the monuments here.

Maria: 

Absolutely. And there’s nothing more perfect than a monument to be thinking of all of those things – hierarchy, power, the way that it really clearly lays out who is in charge of what. What that power is. Right down to, when we look at the other figures, we are looking at subjects that are unnamed, that are dehumanized, interchangeable. We don’t get the sense of specificity or strength or equality in this dynamic that is presented in this very fixed way.

And also, that it points to a body. An individual person. It celebrates individuality as opposed to Nations of people, or Land. You know, it’s interesting, when you talk about the way that the Land is seen as a body, as a physical body… It’s another way to think about, how do you claim ownership over – and how do you think through – that relationship? That’s a point I think I’d like to come back to. That idea of land-and-body. Because what we’re also seeing here, in this power dynamic, are men. A very gendered representation, as well.

Mik: 

Yeah, absolutely. The monumental body as a male body. So this is a struggle of bodies. And I think that this movement now, that is protesting the statues and trying to intervene on the statues… this is also an issue of bodies that have been displaced. The protesters, in the ways that they assemble in public spaces, and put themselves in that space – this is a way of them showing what’s important. Making visible a site of conflict and a site of power. So these are bodies that the protesters are saying should matter, and don’t matter to the state, as much as they should. Black lives and Black bodies matter. Indigenous lives, Indigenous bodies… all of these things matter. And that, in the current state of things, they don’t matter as much as these statues. As much as property, or as much as these institutions, these systems that oppress us. And [the protesters] make this visible in the ways they intervene on the statue, and in the ways they force the state to respond to them. So, some of the strategies I want to talk about are putting paint on the statues. Covering them up. Just, intervening on these statues, and the response it provokes. So we were talking with Syrus Marcus Ware earlier on, and we’ll share some of what he spoke about.

Syrus: 

I’m Syrus, I’m an activist and an artist, and an organizer with BLM [Black Lives Matter]. The movement to defund the police, and to defund and abolish prisons, is a global movement that has spread, growing from planted seeds, planted over five hundred years of resistance. But absolutely, very actively in Canada, for at least the last forty or fifty years. It’s a very active abolition movement that has been pushing for change in that area. And now we find ourselves in a moment where, first, because of the pandemic, there was this rapid decarceration that started to happen, because of COVID. In the prison system it was spreading like wildfire. And then, with the revolution kicking off in June – and I think we are in a revolutionary moment – you saw this rapid uptake of public space in a new way. I have seen here in Toronto, marches with five, six thousand people, ten thousand people. There’s been lots of different kinds of art-based interventions. We painted a 7500 square-foot mural in front of police headquarters, in bright pink, that said “Defund the Police,” working with eighty artists and activists, and that was a beautiful, peaceful demonstration. 

And then, of course, we most recently did a peaceful demonstration involving putting paint onto these statues or monuments to slavery and colonialism. We were trying to call out these racist monuments that take up so much – so much! – public space in Tkaronto. But also make the connections to the largest monument to slavery and colonialism, arguably, on Turtle Island and Inuit Nunangat, which is the police and prison system. It is absolutely a monument to slavery that should be abolished, and a monument to colonialism. Because of course, as we know, the policing system started in order to clear the land of Indigenous people, and in order to ensure that Black people stayed enslaved under a slave labour – that absolutely did happen here in Canada. So we did this peaceful protest, where we had a whole bunch of artists gather with us, paint was applied and thrown around, there were messages of disarm, dismantle, defund and abolish spray painted around. And what we saw, for a peaceful art-based intervention, that would have worn off with the rain and weather, we saw the police come down extremely hard. Extremely hard. As a way of cracking down on organizing around ‘Defund’, they chose to make this moment an example, and they cracked down very hard. They kettled us, and then they ended up arresting three attendees at the protest, and of course laying charges.

The bodies of the people assembled there, and the bodies of the people they were able to grab and detain, mattered less than the cold – not alive! – concrete of a dead white colonizer, who has contributed terrible atrocities. In the case of Ryerson, of course, being the architect of the Residential School System, which then got replicated in South Africa, and resulted in millions of African people being brutalized over generations, through the Apartheid regime. Sir John A. MacDonald, of course, being violently genocidal against Indigenous communities. He was pro-slavery, he was anti-Black, he is definitely not somebody we want to be celebrating. He actively tried to starve entire communities. And then lastly, that bizarre statue of Kind Edward VII, which was taken down in India because it was such a symbol of colonial violence and colonial rule. And people took it down and said, we don’t want this in our communities. And instead, through private interest, it was brought here, similar to the Queen Victoria statue, which was brought here through private interest after it was taken down elsewhere. So we have a statue problem in Toronto.

Everybody was asking what kind of world they wanted to emerge out into after COVID. Everybody was reading and resting and gathering themselves, and collecting themselves and getting ready and getting organized, while we had that period in the early part of the pandemic. And people came out with fire when Regis Korchinski-Paquet was killed, when George Floyd was killed. When Chantel Moore was killed, on the east coast. People came out with such fire because they are ready to say, enough! Enough of this violence! Enough of this shite supremacy! And the monuments are the symbols of the state’s endorsement of white supremacy.

Mik: 

Especially what he had to say was that, when you make a mark on these statues, when you try to touch those statues, these sanctified bodies, when you try to put paint on them or try to take them down, especially… the carceral state will come down on you, in such a way that it’s clear. Those modes of power are made clear. As soon as you touch or interfere in property, then that somehow is a criminal act. And it makes clear this idea that in this white supremacist scheme, those bodies, those patriarchal structures, are worth more, matter more, than the people that the police, the state and this society are supposed to protect. Right?

Maria:

Mhmm.

Mik: 

So this is why I wanted to talk about protesting, especially. So I think that Jeff Thomas’ photographs show us one way of intervening in this [colonial] narrative, and that’s through the reframing act of photographing, and putting these photographs in a series. And putting another presence in there, to fill the space and fill the void, and say, “no, there are actual Native bodies and lives that are here, it’s not just yours.” I think another way is putting paint on a statue. Taking it down, even. And making it the center of actions and protests and assemblies of bodies that are there to counter that whole narrative. 

So, maybe we can talk about some of those protests, that we’ve been part of, and that we’ve been witnessing recently? Should we start with… the one in New York City, Maria?

Maria: 

Yeah, we can go back to that… 

You know, I’m still really thinking about this idea of paint and skin, and covering, and the transgression… The act of touch. And with Jeffery Thomas, with his work. I keep going back to that work with Bear, with his son. Because he returned, and it was over time that we’re seeing Bear, the physicality of his body, the reality of it, the humanity of it, the kinship of it. The relationship that he has with his child [is put] right there in front of that statue, and what that means generationally. We’re also seeing Bear as a child, but we see him grow up and change. And we see that in contrast with that statue, its permanency in contrast to the physicality of a body. And anyway, I think that’s something that’s really humanizing and really urgent. And it’s another form of this idea of resistance, through that physicality, saying, “Here I am. I’m here. Witnessing.” 

So it’s that attempt to rename and remove. So here is an artist who also, through their name, their own recognition of their career, is also bringing a witness to all of that as well. So I just wanted to go back to that. Like, what if we think about, rather than monumentalizing, you know, architecture and these other kinds of forms of presence in the space, if we go back to thinking about land and body and our direct relation with each other. That’s so significant.

Mik:

For sure.

Maria: 

So but let’s carry on, carry on to why this is so significant, and that action that kind of drew us  together. New York.

Mik:

Yes. Okay it’s storytime, right?

So. This was back in… this was 2017, right? [note: it was 2016] and we were, I believe, I was working with NYC Stands With Standing Rock (shout out!) at the time. And this idea of Indigenous resistance was really the forefront of that time. Idle No More had been really on my mind in the part of my life in the years leading up to that. And then at that moment in New York City, where we were organizing against these incursions on Indigenous land – which are, again, incursions on Indigenous bodies by the state. When they’re building a pipeline across our lands and poisoning those waters, that is an incursion on Indigenous bodies, on the ability to stay alive. So with that in mind… 

We were connecting with other struggles in New York City via #DecolonizeThisPlace who I learned a lot from in terms of connecting different struggles, and connecting with what was happening on the ground with different communities, connecting that and facilitating those relationships, and really helping us talk with each other. So they were helping us connect with the Black Lives Matter movement, with the BDS [Boycott, Divest, Sanctions] movement and the movement for global labor and things like this. Really specific. I think they were coming from a context of post- “Occupy.” Remember the Occupy movement, all over the states and New York especially, where it was it was very much, I think, framed as a class based protest against Wall Street and against this idea of global capital. And it was a sort of a class-based lens for that struggle.

These protesters, these guys from Decolonize This Place, came out of that, after that they were like they were trying to think about how to do better this and they wanted to talk about specific struggles and they wanted to connect those struggles. And they wanted to make it instead about a struggle against white supremacy and a struggle against global capital in a way that comes from a grassroots place and comes from the struggles that are on the ground. So we were connecting with those guys. And at that moment it all really coalesced around this one image in New York City on the west side of Central Park: This figure of Teddy Roosevelt astride a horse. Proud and going forward into the future, you know. And beside him on one side, the image of this African man, an anonymous African man, represented only by his clothing and I guess by its features. And on his other side an Indigenous man, wearing the headdress of course, again walking on the ground and leading the reins. Leading Teddy Roosevelt. 

This really crystallized the kind power dynamics that all of us were trying to make visible to people, right? Because part of these movements is – and these were art movements, I think, as much as protest movements – they’re trying to make visible to people what it is, this kind of structure at work in the world, that needs to be protested. And they’re trying to do actions that demonstrated, that intervened on the statues in a visual way, and made a visual to help people see what was happening. That statue became a building block, a foundation stone for that whole movement. And it was also… We were going to do it on what, in the States, is called Columbus Day, and what many cities have started to adopt as Indigenous Peoples Day, including like Chicago and all over the place. We were trying to get the museum to join us and be one of the leaders in this cultural movement. Because museums have done that. Cultural institutions have been leaders in this kind of social justice push for equality.

Um… They weren’t super into it. If you remember, (Maria), they weren’t super into it. They were, I guess, wanting to…  Well, they said, “Oh, we’ll put a plaque on it.” Okay. 

We were like, “Well. You’re gonna help us anyway.”

The first action that we did – and it’s become a recurring yearly thing. The first action, we were trying to make it a multi-sited thing within the museum itself. So while there was the action going on outside, that kind of central thing where all the struggles came together and we were gathering on the statute… Before that there was a number of actions within the museum itself where different cultural groups were locating their, kind of, the logics of their struggles, in the cultural halls. Because the [American] Museum of Natural History is not only home to all these like… botanical, ethno-botanical, and kind of archaeological histories. It’s home to all the cultures that didn’t make it to the Guggenheim and the Metropolitan Museums across the park, right. So this is a cultural house as well. So Maria and I were in the Hall of Woodlands Indians. A good place to be. A little outdated. I think there’s a lot of lightbulbs out? There is a lot of stuff that shouldn’t be in there?

So we had a small action first. We were occupying that space, where there is a number of sacred objects, a number of Midewiwin objects that should not be there, that have been out for a really long time, that are exhausted and need some care. And so we did kind of a caring action that was about reconnecting with these objects, in a way that kind of tried to show people that, “It’s not for your eyes. It’s ours. It’s something that should be private.”

You want to reminisce a little, there, Maria?

Maria: 

Sure I’d love to. I mean, you’re taking me back, way back. I just remember getting this… I don’t remember if it was a call or email but I got a message from you saying, “I’m gonna be at the museum, can you come and sing with me.”

And I was like, “Sure, absolutely, whatever you need. I’m there, I’m there absolutely.”

So I show up. You know, we have tickets we get in. And we’re in there. And we put up this fabric to cover over some of the display cases. And we, you know, we sing. We sing in the space. And so it was this moment where an unsuspecting audience (but also maybe people who were there for the event, to witness the action) were coming through. We had some peers kind of block off a section so we’d have our own privacy and our own space as we wanted it. I think we brought some banners. And then we sang. And we sang with our backs to the audience, so we were singing back to these objects that were in the display cases. To show that, it’s not meant for the public. And you know not a way that – and I remember talking about it – not in a way to activate them but in a way to let them know we were there, right, and to hold that space together. 

And what really struck me about that was how, you know, there’s nothing to prevent us at any time from going in there and doing that, right? Like, who has access and doesn’t have access. So that whole history of objects, and collecting, and who gets them. And who, you know, how you can participate with them, and who has access to culture. All of those things kind of came to the forefront. But it was quite the moment to be in this Woodland section. But as Woodland people, you know, in New York, in the city, where people just don’t think there’s any Native people at all, right. There’s a total erasure. And to just physically be there and have presence and to hold space, felt so powerful. 

And then at the same time near the entrance is this huge monument outside, right, that greets people. And I think often what happens when you see a monument like that is, you know, if you’re a curious sort you might be like, “who is that,” and you might read the plaque or the label. But so often when you go by these spaces and these objects, they just kind of stay present. But yet they are there as this force. But they’re not always… They’re very quiet. They’re kind of absorbing. And it really reminds me of the way that supremacy exists, right? Like, it’s all around us. It’s this force. People aren’t naming it; they’re not talking about it. But it’s these reminders, constantly, of: “Know your place, know where you are.” They really carry a lot of authority. So, it was just curious to be inside this space of knowledge, with objects, and then of course, right at the front before you even go in, is this monument that’s reminding you of exactly what’s going on. Right?

Mik:

Absolutely. I think it was Donna Haraway[2] or Mieke Bal [3] or both of them, that had done critiques, done analyses of the organization of the cultural halls [in the American Museum of Natural History] in relation to the natural history halls, and of the architecture of the museum and the ways that that teaches you something. It teaches museum-goers something about their place in the world. There’s a large (a huge) literature on museums as spaces where this kind of, like, public ritual is enacted. What kind of citizen you are. Where you fit in the world. And what the world looks like.

And so all of those actions, all those things are inside a museum. And so by going in and behaving in a way counter to that kind of… that kind of script, that teaches you to behave, almost like you’re in a church or something, right? Like, to be quiet, to look with your eyes, to pretend you’re not a body in a space that’s full of ancestral beings. So by going in… And one of the things, I remember now, some of the strategies that we were using, that you reminded me of: One was the cloth that we used to cover those things, to give them some privacy. To show that they should be respected. So the cloth covering them was one strategy, another was singing, was filling the space with the voices, right? Another was turning away from people but as a way of showing them that visual access was – for that moment, at least – was being denied. And of course having our allies there forming a human barricade with their bodies, in order to give us a little space there. I think it was really important. 

Maria: 

Totally, totally. And just so real, and so direct and immediate. In contrast to this, you know, the idea of a building, of a monument, of a fixed figure – there we were with our own kind of agency and humanity and gathering and a very powerful way. I think the power of bodies to organize is super. And to come together and to celebrate, to share. The other thing that really stands out about that particular time, was the way that there were… there are a lot of Indigenous people in New York but we don’t often get together or gather. You know? So when there is a chance… So here we were, and it wasn’t an exhibition or an academic thing, or you know, it wasn’t going out for an evening. It really was, “We’re going to get together and we’re going to sing and we’re gonna be together and we’re just going to kind of sit in this place.” And that was another kind of knowing and relating that kind of brought us back to, “Yeah this is why we’re here.”

Mik: 

It’s important, yeah, it’s important to be together.

Maria: 

Totally, this is really what it’s about, right. It’s about us as people. It’s about protecting our rights. It’s about being together and caring for each other. Yeah.

Mik: 

Absolutely. And it was really powerful to go from that incredibly intimate encounter, in that own small little spot in the museum, knowing that there were other actions going on where different communities were finding the place where they were represented (or misrepresented) and engaging with that discourse in a different way. And it was sort of… We were calling it the Anti-Columbus Day Tour, so it was conceptualized as this series of actions within the museum that people could go and witness, to see people, how they’re interacting with each other. And so then afterwards we all would all come together and move outside, toward this symbol [the Teddy Roosevelt statue] that was… It became this kind of symbol of our collective struggle, or what we are struggling against, right. So we all gather together, all these people, from where they were doing different actions in different parts of the museum, and we went outside.

We decided to use a parachute. We wanted to cover up that whole statue. Just erase it. We used a grey parachute to get up and over it. 

It was a struggle too, to get that thing up and over. I remember standing there watching them, just, in anxiety for the protesters who were holding the sticks. I was worried they were going to get arrested too. We wanted this to be a non arrest-able action, right. We were planning this, we were like, we want this to be able to be something where families, where people, can come out and be together. So at this time it wasn’t planned to be something that would force movement from the police in response. But it was tense. And there were so many… They anticipated that we were coming, and there were so many police there. There were so many, standing around the edges and guarding the façade and guarding the institution against us.

Which in itself was an interesting way of making visible what was happening here, right. 

Those dynamics in the system really come into play when you do make a mark on the statues. That’s what we were avoiding the first time, but there have been actions, on the Teddy Roosevelt monument especially, in the 70s and in subsequent protests for Anti-Columbus Day, where paint has been applied to the statue. This is a really common way of intervening on the statue, okay. So the statue of, I believe, Edward Colston who was thrown into a river, there [in Bristol, England], first it was marked with paint. In Toronto, they marked it with pink paint, which I thought was brilliant. Usually it’s red paint, I guess to symbolize blood. But they used pink paint. Brilliant.

But as soon as you touch that statue itself, as soon as you try to intervene on that body – which is not a body, it’s not a life – the police will crack down on you. That is a criminal act, right. So in the case of the protest in Toronto, that became an arrestable action and I believe it was Jenna Reid and some of her collaborators who were arrested for that action.

So putting paint again on the statue – that’s another strategy of intervening, and it’s one with very visible and very very interesting consequences.

Maria:

Right. There’s something about that act as well that brings it down to another level, right. It kind of grounds it back to the human level, and that a person did that. But at the same time… Yeah. I’m thinking about in Belfast (Northern Ireland), going there, and how for each monument… you know, you see these beautiful silver, gorgeous rings in the middle of the square, in Cornmarket, and then people say, “Oh yeah we call those the Onion Rings.” 

Mik: 

What!

Maria:

Right? “We’re gonna meet at the Onion Rings.” So it was a way – no matter what these public monuments were – a way to really remind, and bring them down to this other level, with these very everyday references. So I think there’s, you know, another kind of way, a similar tactic in the naming of them. And not letting those habits have that kind of power over you as well. So it’s interesting to see the different ways that people have been utilizing them. Or how they’ve been approaching it. 

I mean I feel like the conversation that was happening at the time [of the Anti-Columbus Day protests in New York]… You know it was very problematic, returning to that, they had just been working on resurfacing or something, or protecting that Columbus Day monument as well, down by Columbus Circle (New York) so that had been closed.

Mik: 

Oh yeah.

Maria:

So there was a lot going on in New York around at that time. And it was curious because even though it was so clear, so clear what the issues were with these items yet there was still such resistance. Like, it was so… “Okay well maybe we’ll make it eventually…” But the move was to make a committee to talk about it like. This idea of a committee. It was like, how hard it is to take it down? And now they see what’s happening. So crazy that people were not able, or they thought that they just couldn’t take it down. The conversation was, “Well it’s history. We have to keep history there.” But as we know, the way… You know, there’s different versions of history. The moment when the statue goes up, there’s that moment. But then there’s the retelling, and what is held onto as we move forward. 

And so it’s just, you know… If a monument can go up, they can also go down. Right? We can kind of catch up with the times and think about that. And what’s so significant to me around the removal of a monument or statue like this is it’s more than a symbolic action. Like it really does – if we’re thinking about everything it entails – it really does signify change, and it shows a commitment, and it shows a follow-through. That we are looking at real legitimate change and that was something that, at that time, we were asking of the museum. We didn’t just want a label changed, right. We wanted to shift everything. 

And so that’s something they were saying they’re interested in. But that really requires steps and action, right? And we know what those are so it’s not such a leap to just kind of do it. So that’s how strong the power is, right. To move beyond… What does it mean to move beyond a certain symbolic change, or a gesture to appease people, to keep them quiet, right. To kind of move past it, and continue to steamroll thing with this other way. And what does it mean to actually break it.

But I did love the Decolonize This Place [protest], in the way that we were really looking at bringing people together around solidarity. So solidarity, and visual presence, and unifying and having that strength, and not feeling alone. And I think that that was ongoing work and tireless work, and people really stepping up for that and calling for it and naming it, and really being useful in their approach for sure.

Mik: 

Yeah that’s something syrus was speaking to as well, in his talking about that Nuit Blanche artwork, that was about being there in public space and intervening on the statue. But it was about filling the space with voices. And they had… And about a celebratory presence; about being there in the space in a way that shows the vitality there. That shows that we are all there. That fills the space with that which it has been empty of, which is Black and Brown bodies. Bodies that have been erased – that are being erased – through being made into symbols, or by being actually disappeared by it through arrest and through incarceration. 

By being here in resistance – that’s what protest, and gathering, and assembly has been about.

Syrus:

Funnily enough, I was in… I did a project right, right there! [Note: for Nuit Blanche Toronto.] Right where that meridian is, right in front of that John A. MacDonald statue. And we—

Mik:

Did you?

Syrus:

Yeah! It was called Won’t Back Down and it created this sort of, dance floor revolution space, a  revolutionary zone, where we had DJs all night long, we had speakers from different organizing groups talking. We had, kind of like, it was a re-imagining of this rally that had happened when we took over at the police headquarters. So in 2016, we took over police headquarters and made a tent city and it lasted for fifteen days, or three hundred hours. And for Won’t Back Down, it had been basically a year and a little bit since the tent city and so it was sort of a remembering of elements of tent city, as a way of keeping revolutionary action in the conversation. And so during tent city we had had a rally with DJs and speakers, and so for Won’t Back Down we had sort of a dance floor / revolution / rally space where there were DJs and performers. And then at dawn… And there was a banner that Josh Vettivelu had created that said something along the lines of, “We have never expected the state to protect us.” And we put that right in front of John A. MacDonald. And it was a floor banner. And then I had created banners of all these different people who had been killed by the police – banners for Jermaine Carby, Abdirahman Abdi, Andrew Loku – all of these, you know, mostly Black and Indigenous people who had been killed by the police. 

And then at dawn, Black organizers who had been involved in the tent city protest gathered at 5AM. We had at these banners that I had created, that said, “We Will Win,” – which is one of the key messages that we were using at the time, which comes from an Assata Shakur quote. And we marched backwards for five blocks, back to police headquarters as if we were walking backwards in time, and then we held a sharing circle on the ground, on the banners in front of police headquarters, talking about what tent city had meant to us, and we made it into a recording. Anyways, that was what we did. 

I was always told my work was too overt, you know – too political. And I think that what has happened over the last twenty years is, of course, the tide has definitely turned on that one.  And I think there is much more support for politically-based, and politically-motivated art-based activism, and activist-based art practices. And so there’s this entire community of artists who are politicized who are ready and engaged in the movement.

Mik: 

Actually, there was a virtual spotlight by my colleague, last time – Sarah did a good spotlight about the assembly bodies in space.

Okay, so that leads into what I wanted to talk about next, which is the institutional responses, or the, kind of, accepted ways that these institutions have taken… in response to these protests. So what have they done? One of things was, “Well, we’ll put a plaque on it.”

Who was syrus talking about that they were… um…

Maria: 

Ryerson!

Mik: 

Yeah! What was it that happened there?

Maria: 

Well, how problematic, you know, Ryerson is. And how they were moving towards not only changing the monument but even wanting to change the name of the institution. But how, now, in order to recognize this problematic figure and name that they were they put a plaque on the statue, right, saying that this is a problematic statue, and this is why. But yet the statue’s still there, right?

Mik: 

Right. I like syrus’ suggested fix or suggested way to make the plaque like, an actual intervention on the statue: You make it as big as the statue and you put it in front of the statue.

Syrus: 

Maybe that’s what the plaque needs to be. They need to be seven times bigger. The plaque needs to be so big that it’s like a construction hoarding, and instead of being beside the statue, it needs to be in front of the statue. Like a screen, like a divider that divides up the room so that you just put it right in front of the statue and then, if you want to, if you really want to see the statue, then you have to really work at it. You got to go around the plaque. You got to look, and try to get a vantage point. If that, then maybe I’d be on board with plaques.

They’re just the wrong size.

Maria: 

Exactly, so that it blocks out the statue, right.

Mik: 

So we could try that one next. So the plaque is one way. I guess it’s a kind of renaming. It’s kind of trying to reposition it to reframe what that statue does in that space. But does it really? Like, in terms of like how that monument holds the space. And as, again, as a body in space, that governs how others bodies relate to it, there. I don’t think the plaque would make it any less arrest-able, if someone got up and put that paint on there. You know. I don’t think that it’s changed the dynamics of the space.

Another way that institutions have been responding to these actions: Some of them have been removing the statues! Like, it has been a thing, taking down the statues. Sometimes it’s been the protesters who’ve had to do it themselves. But sometimes it has been the institution. So one example is the removal of the Sutton [correction: Sims] monument in New York. I think. I liked, in that instance, they removed the statue but kept the plinth that it had been on. And then, I like the use of the plaque there, because then the plaque says, “There used to be a monument here. This is what it was about.” That’s an acceptable way to use a plaque, yeah.

Maria: 

Exactly, then it’s showing follow-through right. Then it’s showing omission, and it’s being accountable, and it’s all those things that we want to see take place. I mean if we’re if we’re going to go so far as to say, “but we want to protect history,” or “it was a certain moment in history we don’t forget about it and we don’t want to erase it”… Well, it’s not to say the statue has to be destroyed. I mean, in some cases, maybe. But the statue can also be relocated into a museum where it has a context around it that helps people have an informed reading, versus being at the front of the entrance to a major institution. I mean, right? And I think that asking for a plaque to do that on its own is, it’s just, you know. It’s pretty weak tea as they say.

Mik: 

Yeah. Well, I remember the AMNH, another thing they did for the Teddy Roosevelt statue, they made an exhibition and did some programming around it, to try to educate the public about why the statue was there and what it actually did represent. So they had some critical voice on the inside there. But that also reflects another institutional response to demands for institutional and structural change. Usually the institution meets that with, “We don’t have the budget for it, but we can get Programming to do something about it.” So the programming and education department is usually the most cutting edge. Usually the people you want to go to, because they’re the ones who get, kind of, saddled with all the responsibility for making the institution kind of responsible.

Maria: 

Right. So it comes back to finances is what you’re saying. I mean. I’ve also, you know, there’s two other things I kind of want to point to, around thinking about the statues. One is the horse. I always think about the horse.

Mik: 

I forgot about the horse!

Maria: 

It’s not enough to implicate people but then they have to take an animal, right, and show it, show animals within this hierarchy of power and this hierarchy of place. That even the horse has to submit and hold up this positioning as well. Because I’m often trying to think, well, is there a way to take this apart and reassemble the components. And in no configuration am I ever kind of satisfied, unless it comes down to, like, really breaking things apart.

Mik: 

You’re reminding me too… The point has been made that that horse, it’s not a mare, or the kind that you’d usually, like, ride into battle or whatever. It’s a stallion and it’s got some very prominent genitalia to show you. But its representation of patriarchy as well is very pronounced.

Maria: 

Absolutely yes yes. Totally true.

Mik: 

And one other thing I wanted to talk about too, that you’re reminding you of, is our non-human kin. The position of the non-human in these arrangements, too. I think one of the reasons, as it turned out, that the parachute we were trying to get to cover the statue, we were being thwarted by the pigeon spikes on top of the statute. Which themselves are an intervention the statue. The museum would allow pigeon spikes to be put on top of there, so that no pigeons, no urban wildlife – unruly urban wildlife such as us OR pigeons – would be allowed to, you know, would get onto, would disrupt this arrangements of things.

So between us and the pigeons. We have been a pain in the ass for them I suppose.

Maria: 

That’s right. We have a lot of power. Power in our pigeons.

Okay just going back to Jeff Thomas. I don’t remember, was it the Champlain monument where they had the—

Mik: 

Nepean Point? Yeah.

Maria:

Yeah where they had the Iroquois, subservient figure, or scout. I think it was called the scout, right? Yes, like a Native scout that was kneeling by the figure. You mentioned earlier, the problematics around it. And so the solution was, “Well we remove it!” But in removing it, in Ottawa, they removed that figure. And then they placed him (even worse) they took him out of history and didn’t think about like re-situating, but rather, passively, located him into a park. So suddenly, like, the Native people get naturalized and equated with like, a beautiful park, right, to look at as this kind of aesthetic figure, in isolation. And so I think that there’s a number of other, when you look at that particular piece, I think that there were a number of layers to that work including a canoe and you know. So yeah, it’s just… The idea of relocating things is not always addressing the full situation, right.

Mik: 

Of course, yeah, I’m looking at that photo. He did that series about that Samuel… Samuel de Champlain monument in Ottawa. One of them is very tellingly titled, “Why Do Indians Always Have to Move? Samuel de Champlain Monument, Ottawa,” 2001. So like you said, that Champlain monument, which again, re-enacted, re-inscribed that hierarchy of this white explorer, this discoverer, who stands in for dominion over the land and labor of the others, who are positioned below him. So there is an Indian scout down there… 

And yeah. The other thing that institutions find acceptable to do when challenged on their monuments is locate the problem. “We found the problem and it’s the Indians. Right? There’s problematic figures, there’s that Indian man down there. So we’re going to fix the problem: We’re going to move the Indian.”

So again. We are the problem. 

And I remember, I think it was Barry Ace who was telling me about how, in moving that statue over there, they were trying… So, they were aware that it would be problematic to remove that Indian altogether. To disappear that Indian. Right?

Maria:

Right. 

Mik:

So when they moved him, they were like, “Oh we’re going to put it in an Indigenous garden, we’re going to contextualize it these other pieces.” That’s lovely. That the problem remains that Champlain remains. And he even remains… Well, my favorite detail about the Samuel de Champlain monument is that he’s holding up this astrolabe, but he’s holding it upside down. You’re supposed to dangle them. He’s holding it up, like it’s… So it’s very representative in a different kind of way. 

So let’s look for a moment at Jeff Thomas’ other two images of the same monument. In one of them he has filled the empty space where the where the Indian scout used to be with, in one of them, with Bear. Making a resistance gesture to counter Samuel de Champlain’s upside down astrolabe discovery gesture. And then the other one I like, as part of his “Indians on Tour: War Dancer at Samuel de Champlain monument,” of 2000, he replaces that space with this little war dancer toy figure, with his axe raised in a more of a more of a, uh… “skoden” gesture.

Oh my god, I do want to do a shout-out to what I think of as another kind of monumental intervention on public spaces… Whoever spray-painted “Skoden” on the Sudbury water tower, you are a fundamental part of this dialogue.

Mik: 

So I think maybe, if our conversation is coming to a close, if you want to share some of the good news from some of the results of our New York activities, there? Did you hear they’re going to take down that [Teddy Roosevelt] statue now?

Maria: 

Woohoo! Yeah!

Mik: 

Yeah, they’re going to take it down! They promised it. After the New York Monuments Commission, after all of that. It was in the wake of these particular protests, after these police brutality protests, and the Black Lives Matter protests that have targeted these specific statues.

That was the tipping point, apparently. Now they’ve promised! The American Museum of Natural History – the one who’s always been saying, “oh, it’s the city, it’s the city” – it has, they’ve said they’re going to get it taken down.

We did it.

Maria:

Well, now we’ll see what kind of follow-through, or what ends up replacing it. All of those, you know, good, meaty, juicy questions. 

Mik:

Oh my god, yeah, I would love to submit some things that could go there instead. I do predict that if they do end up taking out the two “problematic figures,” we might have to go get our kin. We’re going to have to go, I guess, take them somewhere.

Maria: 

Let’s rescue them.

Mik: 

Let’s rescue them. Amazing. Well thank you for joining me, Maria. It’s been an incredible journey and it’s been a really good talk.

Maria: 

Yeah, before we wrap it up there’s one more thing we have to mention. We cannot forget, we have to always come back to this. So, the last action that I can think of, that happened at the

[AMNH] museum, was the one that was led by the Indigenous Kinship Collective. To really look at the missing and murdered. It was an action led by Regan De Loggans. It was also with Seeding Sovereignty. All kinds of Indigenous kin came together around the monument and in that case they weren’t using paint but they used red fabric to throw over the monument in every which way. Just to really recognize the missing and the disappeared and the bodies. And the omission that happens around Native women, queer, trans, girls, two-spirit, within, you know, when we’re thinking of supremacy. 

But I just wanted to go back to that. And then as well, the work of an icon: so, Rebecca Belmore. The performance work that she does to really resist, and in opposition to so many structures like this. Working outside of the institution. The piece that she did called “Talking to our mother. Big speaker, right? The big speaker where she went out and took it across country so people could speak through it and amplify, just to talk to the land. And so anyway, I think there’s a lot of gestures and a lot of work like that. Artists and curators and all kinds of folks who are creating models that are showing that this is not the only way. That we need to move forward. That there’s other possibilities and other imaginings.

Mihnaak: 

Amazing, yes, thanks for bringing us back to those. So we can close off with our kin. Our kin who are doing all of these actions, and being together, and making it possible to be together and be alive into the present day – into the future!

Okay, that’s it, miigwech.

Maria: 

Miigwech. Baamaapii.

Mihnaak: 

Baamaapii.

 

NOTES

[1] Andrea Smith, “Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy: Rethinking Women of Color Organizing,” in Color of Violence: The INCITE! Anthology, edited by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2016), 66-73.

[2] Donna Haraway, “Teddy Bear Patriarchy: Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden, New York City, 1908-1936,” Social Text 11 (Winter 1984-85): 20-64.

[3] Mieke Bal, “Telling, Showing, Showing Off,” Critical Inquiry 18, 3 (Spring 1992): 556-594.