The King appeared at dawn with red hands and tears that seemed to scorch his eyes, pouring down his cheeks into his beard. ‘Racism’ and ‘blm’ were daubed in yellow on his horse’s flanks, and across his chest blazed a white-painted ‘Pardon’. In Brussels, Black Lives Matter protesters had gathered at the statue of Leopold II in the Place du Trône, demanding that at long last, it be taken down.
In Handsworth Songs, John Akomfrah’s 1986 film essay on similar protests in Birmingham, a line is uttered as if suspended in time: ‘There are no stories in the riots, only the ghosts of other stories.’ Last June, again, protesters summoned the ghosts of untold stories, saying their names, returning visibility to their spectral presences. We may picture these ghosts as an Aeschylean chorus, intoning Adrienne Rich’s verses in ‘What Kind of Times Are These’:
this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.footnote1
Everywhere, we are called to recognize the ghosts of our history and to reckon with our distinctive ways of making them disappear. In Belgium, the debate has unfolded on the sixtieth anniversary of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s independence from colonial rule, imbuing Leopold’s red-stained hands with particular significance.
The protests met with an array of responses. Some objected to the statues being removed without a public debate. Many argued that it would amount to erasing history.
How do we learn history, anyway? The commanding physical presence of a statue does not give it pedagogical power. Teaching demands curiosity, generosity and open-ended exploration. A monument dictates, blusters and imposes. In Art and Revolution, John Berger argued that sculpture has a social nature, which a culture biased towards the private and the atomized leads us to underestimate. ‘A static, three-dimensional structure filling or enclosing space’, a statue ‘appears to be totally opposed to the space that surrounds it.’ The immobile presence of the monumental figure translates into an implicit claim to continuity: ‘It will stand against time as it stands against space’. A statue is a purely metaphorical structure, Berger continued, whose sole function is ‘to use space in such a way that it confers meaning upon it.’ A monument endures, then, for so long as the culture recognizes this meaning. Social change, rather than the mere passing of time, causes statues to fall. Their overthrow is an acknowledgment that past assumptions no longer hold and that a new pledge must be made, crystallizing the present values which the society addresses to its future.
Concerns about the erasure of history should not be brushed aside. Instead, the statue of Leopold II may—in its location and material features—serve as a starting point for a historical inquiry into the practices and institutions of the colonial past, while the very persistence of imperial monuments in Brussels suggests threads of continuity running forward to the present, and opening up future forms of contestation.