(Photo: Nils Meilvang/Ritzau Scanpix via AP)
I Am Queen Mary, a human-scale monument memorializing resistance to Danish colonialism in the Caribbean, will be installed at Barnard College on Tuesday, October 15, 2019. The sculpture is part of a transnational collaboration between artists La Vaughn Belle and Jeannette Ehlers and is intended to spark important dialogues about public art, representations of black women, and the impacts of colonialism and slavery. Belle, originally from the U.S. Virgin Islands, is currently the BCRW Artist-in-Residence, and Ehlers is based in Copenhagen, Denmark.
“It is a great honor to share I Am Queen Mary with such a vibrant, intellectual, and politically engaged community,” said Ehlers. “The project aspires to create a space for black and brown people to see themselves in an empowering light, to inspire everyone to know more about the issues embedded in the sculpture, and to carry this knowledge with grace and compassion.”
“As an institution dedicated to relationships between social movements and feminist praxis, Barnard is perfectly positioned to engage with this project in really exciting ways,” said Belle, an Artist-in-Residence at the Barnard Center for Research on Women (BCRW) and a 1995 Columbia College graduate.
The I Am Queen Mary installation at Barnard is a scaled-down iteration of the original 23-foot monument, which debuted March 31, 2018, in front of the West Indian Warehouse in Copenhagen to mark the 100th anniversary of the sale and transfer of the Danish West Indies, now known as the U.S. Virgin Islands, from Denmark to the United States. The artists hope that the statue will continue the conversation about colonialism beyond the centennial year.
The project has received international press coverage since its unveiling, including features in The New York Times, The Guardian, VICE, and Le Monde, and on the BBC World News. On long-term loan to the College, the statue comes to Barnard courtesy of the artists and the Ford Foundation, which first commissioned and displayed the piece as part of the Radical Love exhibition at the Ford Foundation Gallery this summer. I Am Queen Mary will be on view in Barnard Hall and open to the public.
“I Am Queen Mary is a powerful work of art that I am proud to host in such a prominent place on campus," said Barnard president Sian Leah Beilock. “Its journey here — via an alumna at the Ford Foundation who commissioned this piece from one of our Artists-in-Residence for an exhibition exploring social justice — highlights the significant cultural contributions made by the Barnard community.”
Monica L. Miller, associate professor of English and Africana studies, is looking forward to the prospect of being inspired daily on her way to classes in Barnard Hall. “I am excited to think of this powerful statue of Queen Mary as I teach the literature and cultural history of the black diaspora,” she said. “The questions we are already asking about race, gender, sexuality, class, and nation, the politics of decolonization, art and memorials, among many other topics, will be reanimated and deepened with the presence of the Queen Mary statue.”
The sculpture features an allegorical representation of Mary Thomas, one of four women who, on October 1, 1878, led the largest labor revolt in Danish colonial history. Dubbed “Fireburn,” the rebellion involved burning most of the western town of Frederiksted in St. Croix, as well as sugarcane mills and fields on more than 50 of St. Croix’s plantations. The revolt was a protest against the contractual servitude that continued to bind workers to the plantation system and enabled the continuation of abusive and violent working conditions 30 years after slavery had been abolished in the Danish West Indies.
Although abusive working conditions continued after the revolt, it is remembered as a powerful statement about workers’ dignity and protest. Thomas and the three other resistance leaders, Axeline “Agnes” Elizabeth Salomon, Matilde McBean, and Susanna “Bottom Belly” Abrahamsson, are revered in U.S. Virgin Islands cultural mythology as the Queens of the Fireburn. Folk songs were dedicated to Queen Mary, and a highway was named in her honor. “Queen Mary” was not a posthumous title created by the artists but, according to Belle, “the title bestowed upon her by the people for her leadership.”
The sculpture’s base is composed of coral stones excavated from Belle’s property in Christiansted, St. Croix, and encased in plexiglass. Originally harvested from the ocean by enslaved Africans, such stones form the foundations of most colonial-era buildings and, in a metaphorical sense, the foundations of colonial wealth. Reconstructed as a plinth, the stones draw attention to the people whose lives and labor were systematically erased, as well as the hidden inner workings of colonization, making visible the colonial extraction and the colonizer’s debts to those who perished, survived, and resisted.
I Am Queen Mary also makes symbolic references to histories of black resistance in modern history and their representations in culture. Mary Thomas’ pose, seated in a chair and holding a cane bill in one hand and a flaming torch in the other, mirrors a famous photograph of Black Panther Party leader Huey P. Newton seated in a chair with a shotgun and a spear. The title of the work makes reference to the clarion call “I AM A MAN,” printed on protest placards in the infamous 1968 sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis, Tennessee, and recalls Spike Lee’s 1992 film Malcolm X, which ends with children around the world chanting, “I am Malcolm X.”
The statue’s location, Barnard Hall, was also the location of Malcolm X’s final speech, “The Black Revolution and its Effect upon the Negro of the Western Hemisphere,” on February 18, 1965, three days before his assassination.
The Barnard community will welcome the sculpture in a brief ceremony on Tuesday, October 15, 2019, at 6 p.m., attended by co-creator La Vaughn Belle and Lisa Kim ’96, director of the Ford Foundation Gallery. A public event will be scheduled early in the spring semester, during which the community can interact with the artists to discuss the important questions the sculpture raises about public art, representation, and the place of I Am Queen Mary at Barnard College.
About the Artists
La Vaughn Belle, BCRW Artist-in-Residence, is known for her work on colonialism in the Virgin Islands, its past relationship to Denmark, and its present one to the United States. A native of the U.S. Virgin Islands, her disciplines include painting, installation, photography, video, and public interventions. She has exhibited her work in the Caribbean, the U.S., and Europe in institutions such as El Museo del Barrio (New York), Casa de las Américas (Cuba), the Museum of the African Diaspora (San Francisco), and Christiansborg Palace (Denmark). Her art is in the collections of the National Photography Museum and the Vestsjælland Museum in Denmark. Her studio is in St. Croix.
Jeannette Ehlers is a video, photo, and performance artist based in Copenhagen, Denmark. Her work explores questions around ethnicity and identity and Denmark’s role as a slave nation, inspired by her Danish and Caribbean background. She has exhibited and performed in such institutions as LACE, Los Angeles; ARoS, Aarhus, Denmark; the Museum of Latin American Art, Los Angeles; the International Slavery Museum, Liverpool; El Museo del Barrio, New York; Autograph ABP, London; Nikolaj Copenhagen Contemporary Art Center, Copenhagen; and the Pérez Art Museum, Miami.