On October 15, 2019, “I Am Queen Mary”, a human-scale monument memorializing resistance to Danish colonialism in the Caribbean and part of a transnational collaboration between artists La Vaughn Belle (U.S. Virgin Islands, Columbia ‘95, BCRW Artist-in-Residence) and Jeannette Ehlers (Denmark) will be installed at Barnard College. The sculpture sparks a number of important questions about public art, representations of black women, and the impacts of colonialism and slavery.
“It is a great honor to have ‘I Am Queen Mary’ installed at Barnard College,” says 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 insittution dedicated to relationships between social movements and feminist praxis,” Belle says, “Barnard is perfectly positioned to engage with this project in really exciting ways.”
Monica L. Miller, Associate Professor of English and Africana Studies at Barnard College, agrees. “As a professor of Africana Studies who walks through the space of Barnard Hall everyday, I am excited to think with this powerful statue of Queen Mary as I teach the literature and cultural history of the black diaspora,” she says. “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 re-animated 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 the Fireburn, the revolt involved burning most of the western town of Frederiksted in St. Croix and over 50 plantations in protest against the abusive conditions that continued to bind workers to the plantation system 30 years after slavery had been abolished in the Danish West Indes.
The sculpture’s base is comprised of coral stones excavated from Belle’s property in Christiansted, St. Croix and encased in plexiglass. Originally harvested from the ocean by enslaved Africans, the stones form the foundations of most colonial-era buildings and, in another 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.
“It is a project with multiple layers of symbols and histories,” says Belle. The statue of Queen Mary is a literal hybrid of the two artists’ bodies, working on a physical and representational level. “The project represents a bridge between bodies, nations, and narratives.”
The timing of the project is equally significant. 2017 marked the 100th anniversary of the sale and transfer of the islands now known as the U.S. Virgin Islands from Denmark to the United States. Ehlers says, “What’s unique about this sculpture is not only its size and thematics but that it was not commissioned. It is we, two artists, who are pushing into the public space.”
“We want to continue the conversation about colonialism beyond the centennial year, asking people to question their relationship to this history,” says Belle.
“I Am Queen Mary” also makes symbolic references to histories of Black resistance in modern history and their representations in culture. Mary Thomas’s pose, seated in a chair and holding a cane bill in one hand and a flaming torch in another, 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 santation workers strike in Memphis, Tennessee. It also recalls Spike Lee’s 1992 film “Malcolm X,” which ends with children around the world chanting, “I am Malcolm X.” Centering Mary Thomas, this statue acknowledges the historic erasure of Black women and their centrality to resistance struggles throughout the African diaspora.
The “I am Queen Mary” statue to be installed at Barnard College is a scale iteration of the original 23-foot monument, which is currently on view in front of the West Indian Warehouse in Copenhagen, Denmark. It has received international press coverage since its unveiling in March 2018, including features the BBC, New York Times, The Guardian, VICE and Le Monde. On long-term loan to the College, it will be on view in Barnard Hall and open to the public.
The College community will welcome the sculpture in a brief ceremony on Tuesday, October 15, 2019 at 6pm. There will be a public event scheduled early in the spring semester where 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.