Following the protests of the Black Lives Matter movement, statues of figures with a controversial past have been defaced and/or toppled. Ultimately, this brings in radical change and making far more than a statement from the voices of those who have been so used to being silenced. Throughout history, we’ve seen the glories of different statue topplings and the deep messages behind them. One of which being the famous and symbolic toppling of the Sadam Hussein statue in 2003 which marked the end of the violent oppression to the Iraqi people. As more and more statues continue to be defaced or toppled, some people prefer to have them left alone, and see it as “a part of history”. Nonetheless, could this symbolic form of facing “our traumas of the past” be a crucial push for progressing into “our future”? Here’s why I think it could certainly be.
Statues and monuments are statements
Statements that hold power and meaning in society. Most are designed to appear timeless which hold universal meaning. The very idea of a monument being kept up meant mindsets and resources being spent to uphold a certain directive of whatever the figure represented.
We were taught that throughout history, the destruction of monuments or statues paved the way for an introduction of a new start. Christian crusaders at that time would destroy idols and statues that represented pagan Gods as they perceived them to be a representation of savagery, for instance. Fast forward some time later, the end of communism was eventually followed by the toppling of statues of Lenins or Stalins all across the former Soviet Union.
Yes, at the end of the day, taking down such monuments were not only a symbolic gesture that represented the belief of a majority – it also meant that a change was imminent. I rarely agree with Piers Morgan – in fact I never really click into anything that even involves him, but when he got into a heated debate with UK’s right wing politician Nigel Farage on Good Morning Britain, he brought up a very interesting argument in light of the Colston statue toppling in Bristol. It went along the lines of:
“Was Germany’s decision to take down statues and monuments of Adolf Hitler after World War II a right move?”
It was no surprise at all to find someone like Nigel Farage stuttering at such a question. But it was at this point that Piers brought up a question that I couldn’t stop thinking about every time I came across someone who would criticise the crowds of people toppling different statues around the world. We’ll never forget the atrocities committed in WWII, even with statues being taken down. But we’ll also never forget what removing a symbol of hate actually meant for the world.
In the span of a few weeks, the world saw the toppling of the Edward Colston statue in the UK, the defacing of the King Leopold II statue in Belgium, the beheading of the Christopher Columbus statue in the US, the defacing of the VoC linked Van Oldebarnevelt statue in Netherlands, and other renowned figures in respectful countries. And I personally think that it’s just in due time that we’ll be seeing even more added to the list, probably even rightfully so.
No matter how much the controversies of the past tries to be hidden or denied, it shouldn’t be something new to learn that all past empires and colonies of the past were built on very dodgy foundations. Bloodshed, slavery, and war amongst unfortunate people were the common cost that these empires of the past paid while they venture out in “establishing a civil world”.
As an Indonesian, we were taught about our rich and difficult history. The glories of the Majapahit empire, the struggles with being colonised by another country, and the political shifts that continue to influence how the Indonesian society acts to this very day. The Dutch society has long put the links with the VoC way behind and there’s a clear distinction between the VoC and the Netherlands as a country. However, no matter how far a country tries to distance itself from controversial pasts, it might not always work. The VoC linked Van Olderbanevelt statue for example, is just one of the other hundreds of VoC linked figure statues that continue to stand in the Netherlands today. On another fairly similar note, the controversial visuals on The Golden Coach that the Dutch royal family use has also been a topic of discussion.
The age of Iconoclasm
“Iconoclasm” is best defined as the social belief in the importance of abolishing icons or other monuments that represent a certain belief. As mentioned earlier, iconoclasm dates back to the very early ages when a change was imminent. What this suggests is that the monuments/icons we choose to have standing will always have power for as long as we continue to give it. On July 2nd 2020, US president Donald Trump tweeted a subtle warning in wake of the continued defacing of statues all over the country. “Lawlessness has been allowed to prevail. We’re not going to let it prevail any longer”.
Now if it all comes down to just either seeing it as “lawlessness” or a long overdue reaction finally happening – then I think it could certainly tell us a lot about where a person stands in how they see the past. Or future, for that matter. I’ll have to agree, it might be pointless to try and change the past. But by facing the horrors today – it might just help us cruise into a new future. One without the representation and symbolism that once celebrated the past we want to now leave behind.