Pulling down the statues of oppression

This is an Interview of Rob MacDonald, sculptor and creator of “Solidarity Park” in Catalunya and member of “Socialismo Revolutionario”, sister organisation of Xekinima in Spanish State. Interview by Natassa Argyraki.

During the BLM movement we saw the demolition of monuments of well-known slave traders and exploiters, such as the Statue of the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol. What kind of symbolism does the act of demolishing these monuments have for the movement?

I think the pulling down of these statues was an act of revolutionary art. Sometimes art is an obvious thing like a nice painting or a sad song but sometimes art is not so obvious. 

I believe art is fundamentally the moment when a human makes a decision to solve a problem, this is the creative moment. The core of an artistic work or action is the development of this with the need to express and/or tell a story. This work then can become symbolic either to an individual or collectively in a cultural way. 

These statues such as Colson and Columus were created to represent a story. The story of the victory of the oppressor. Colson himself was responsible for the transportation of 84,000 slaves. 20% that died en route. It is estimated by the guardian in total 1 million slaves died on the slave ships.  Any charity work Colson did after doesnt repair for what amounts to legal genocide.  

When this statue of Colson was pulled down it was then rolled down the street and dumped in the sea, Just as the slaves were dumped in the sea when they died aboard the ships.  This was a symbolic and very creative moment that balanced out history a bit. Then there was an attempt to replace the statue with one made in similar style but in the form of a BLM protester that had jumped on the empty plinth in the moment colson was toppled.  Of course the local government didn’t leave Colson in the sea which  would have been a fitting artistic expression itself. They also removed the replacement of a BLM protester.  This is important because the authorities are not neutral; they make the choices in favour of the establishment against the movement otherwise why not remove all statues that represent oppression?

These statues were erected originally for symbolic reasons to reinforce what these people stood for which was imperialism at its worst. As this is still something that happens today albeit  in different ways you can understand why elements of  the establishment act like they do. They only remove the other statues due to mass pressure, this is a key lesson for any movement.  

Some people argue that these statues represent  history therefore to pull down the statues denies us our collective cultural heritage good or bad. But there is something here these defenders of history conveniently leave out. History is a process that is connected to today. Wasnt George Flyodd murdered too…and without the mass international movement it would have also been legal murder….just like the slaves were. So history is not a  finished thing but part of today’s reality. 

We have to understand the symbols of these statues represent the ideological battles that take place in our society. The dominant ideology today is capitalism and its horrendous imperialistic past that these statues represent is still a factor today in the super exploitation of the world’s masses. The pulling down of a few of them and then the scores that were officially taken down or covered up represents a victory to the BLM movement and the social and class struggle that it represents. But only a victory in the battle, not of the whole war.

Ηave there been similar examples in history where various monuments have received the anger of the protesters? 

Yes. It’s very regular in uprisings, revolutions  and social conflicts that the symbols of oppression get attacked and destroyed. It was the case with Saddam Hussian in Iraq and Lenin statues in the fall of the soviet union are two fairly recent examples but it goes back to the beginning of human civilisation. 

The reason is that artistic symbols are powerful to us; they form deep cultural meaning for the oppressed and oppressor alike. Therefore they are central to any struggle. For a marxist you cannot see this issue outside of the class struggle. 

Isn’t pulling down these statues destroying art?

Whether or not we should target statues or art work in general is for me more of a tactical question in the fight against capitalism. Are these individual acts going to build the mass conscious in the struggle we need? I think the answer is it depends.

 In general I would be for the defence of all art works and would argue for re-replacement or repurposing. I would also focus on the need  for movements that organise, raise concrete programmes and ideas that encourage continued participation and not adventurous acts…. But sometimes you need to act to hit a blow to the enemy, none better than the symbolic statues that look at us every day on our way to work. 

There has been an interesting response in artistic terms with the BLM movement and  new status and monuments in general. There has been an explosion of George Floyd murals across the US and internationally,  his face like others before him has become the symbol of the movement. But there have been others like the erecting of a giant figure of a nurse wearing a mask in Latvia symbolising the role of these heroes in our lives today fighting the Coronavirus.

There has also been the putting of a cold war statue Lenin in Gelsenkirchen, Germany outside the offices of a small communist party. My first reaction to this was “brilliant”. Then I realised it was a big mistake. Lenin for starters I imagine would not have supported the making his image into such a symbol and especially not as it was done by the Stalinist regime which represented the degeneration of the new workers state in Russia which Lenin fought against in his last years. The glorification of leaders is something done by the church with Christ or as we have already mentioned by imperialistic capitalism proving its power. Glorification of leaders is a sign of illness in my opinion and we must move away from this form of monument in favour of collective monument building. 

Tell us how the monument Solidarity Park in Cataluña is being created.

Solidarity Park is a monument being made to the International brigadistas that were killed when the ship the “Ciudad de Barcelona”  was sunk in 1937 just off the coast of Malgrat de Mar, Catalunya in the spanish civil war.  This story has been hidden for over 80 years, firstly the victory of franco in the civil war and then by the transition period when the legacy of the civil war was brushed under the carpet. Now things are changing and a new generation wants to learn what happened. 

It’s true to say the memory of the civil war is still a fault line that runs through Spanish society today. Its legacy is reflected clearly in all struggles in Spanish society including the struggle for independence in Catalonia and women’s struggle just the latest examples. The question of historic memory is also a major political issue in itself. There are estimated to be 1200 mass graves still to be uncovered  The rise of the far right in many countries and now with VOX in Spain make the lessons and relevance of the International brigade are extremely valuable especially for the emerging BLM and anti racist movement.  

So when we started this monument project we had these things in mind, We wanted it to do more than be a lump of interesting rock that you might or might not read what it is about. We decided to make the project of participation and include people in its design, construction and above all in ownership.

This included the making of the central figures of the monument which are sixty brigadistas singing the internationale (which is what they did as they sank to their deaths). These figures were carved in the street, squares and festivals over a 2 year period. The purpose was symbolic but also an opportunity to again and again tell the story and discuss the role of the International Brigades and the relevance. Over 700 people were involved in carving the central figures of the monument. 

We also started a school project which was about learning the history, artistic creation  and designing part of the monument. This part of the project was a break though as really the civil war is not properly taught in Spanish schools.The younger generation want to know their grandparents history especially as it’s so relevant. The school  project has involved about 1000 students so far in many events. It has also gone international linking Catalunya students with students in Germany, Australia and sweden.

We have also involved 100s of other artists internationally and locally in exhibitions and festivals connected to the main project. The first phase of funding of 20K Euro also was crowd funded. There are many ways to tell a story like this and we continue to involve people.

All this means the creation of the monument is very long. 7 years so far since the first idea. The monument itself which is planned to be finished May 2021 it is only the backbone to the wider memory, cultural and  political project. In involving people and highlighting the politics we believe we are honoring the brigadistas as they would not want to be remembered as individuals but for the ideas they died for. 

In your opinion, what is the role of artists in the crisis of capitalism we are experiencing today?

Most artists do not earn their living from art and most give up their passion to pay the bills. Other artists are working in low paid second  jobs to support their art creation as they are compelled to be creative. If you are lucky enough to earn your living in the creative industry you normally have  no rights, no contracts and no finical stability.. 

Capitalism steals the creative energies of the working classes and gives us  the worst conditions of all, arts funding is always the first to be cut by austerity. Why because we will continue to produce art funded or not, paid or not!. Capitalism’s greedy way will exploit this free labour over and over again. 

The weakness of the artist is that although we often know the realities of capitalism we don’t organise enough as workers.  Many artists understand the need to be collective but we have little in collective organization beyond the projects and centres we do them in. So in the present crises of capitalism we need to up our game.

Art in its nature is new, fresh, revitalising and if genuine always revolutionary. These are things the workers movement really needs to grasp . So I say the artists need to turn to the workers movement,  and the workers movement need to turn to the artist. To combine the day to day collective struggle with the cultural struggle for creative freedom. In this way we make our political movement whole.

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