Ashleigh Deosaran

I. The Danger

Caution tape is something with which we, Trinbagonians, have become intimately familiar. We see it fluttering across the front page, sprawled onto our screens, stretched out around our homes. “CAUTION CAUTION CAUTION CAUTION,” ripples its way through our lives so often it has almost become mundane. That is, until recently, when this familiarity was unsettled by the material’s overnight appearance on a public statue in Port-of-Spain.[1] The blood-red tape formed the shape of an X on the figure’s chest, then climbed up to wrap around his neck, warning “DANGER DANGER DANGER DANGER…

The statue, a bronze sculpture of Christopher Columbus installed in 1881, had come under renewed scrutiny as #BlackLivesMatter protestors around the world vandalized and destroyed their own Columbuses, along with other colonizers, confederates, slavers, and supremacists, whose likenesses had littered public space for years. Regarding our Columbus, entangled in the tape by a local chapter of anonymous activists, I felt moved. Their appropriation of a symbol of law enforcement in postcolonial Trinidad felt radical. If the tape is synonymous with crime and police presence, what kind of readings might this co-optation generate? Superficially, we might read: “DANGER, this is a criminal.” But Columbus was well within his legal rights when he led the expeditions to our shores and abetted the attempted-genocide of Indigenous Caribbean communities. Instead, I read: “DANGER, this is History.” 

Perhaps this was why some of my compatriots were offended; they did not see a subversive intervention, but an attack on their ‘History’. In a letter, UTT professor Kumar Mahabir argued that “despite the horrendous history of Columbus, his statue represents a tangible historical link to the [sic] Europe, Africa and Asia since 1498.”[2] Mahabir denounced what he believed was an “Afrocentric agenda” and “fascist, extremist and warring campaign to remove the Columbus statue.”[3] He decried the caution tape intervention, referencing Trinidad’s anti-vandalism laws. His diatribe failed to acknowledge, as author Corey Gilkes later responded, that these laws were “created for social containment of subjected people considered ‘naturally’ inclined to criminal behavior.”[4] Hence the tragic irony: the anti-vandalism laws Mahabir so ardently cited derive from the same legislature that safeguarded colonizers and criminalized their victims. Columbus’ bronze is preserved and protected by the same brutal regime that condemned Ornella Greaves to be fatally gunned down by local law enforcement while at a protest near her home.[5]

Many of us witnessed anti-brutality protests in quarantine, while unencumbered by monotonous routines and trivial distractions. We had an unprecedented opportunity to grapple with the reality that Caribbean countries needn’t have a white majority to uphold neocolonial, supremacist systems.[6] Yet, some Trinbagonians retreated into denial and defensiveness. Willfully ignorant of ongoing class warfare and racial division, they vilified local activists and blamed Greaves for her killer’s actions, as though standing with her neighbors and bearing witness to their pleas warranted a bullet. And, like Mahabir, they saw Columbus’ statue as a national treasure, part of our immutable origin story. In their objections to rewriting canonical ‘History,’ they did not acknowledge that the story of this land was already underway when Columbus himself overwrote its Indigenous name, said to be Iere.[7]

Our national identity is predicated on disrupted stories and diabolical myths. We still cling to myths of colonization as a ‘civilizing’ and ‘enriching’ endeavor. We are schooled in myths of our intellectual and creative inferiority to the West. The architectures within which we live and labor are buttressed by these myths. We have seen that when the frail bandage of our fifty-eight-year-old independence is peeled back, we find our flesh to be putrefied. The cavernous wound that Columbus, the monarchs, and their militias left is festering beneath, oozing out as nationalist illogic, congenital self-hatred, and compulsive colonial apologism. 

II: Intervention

How might we begin to decontaminate our oldest, deepest wound? Dismantling the mythomania of public monuments is a worthy start. Using these statues, we can challenge people to disinvest from the typical ‘History’ of our nations and think critically about the hegemony it maintains. The defacement of Trinidad’s Columbus demonstrated that the arts are capable of sparking contentious but necessary conversations about publicly-glorified figures. Activating an existing public artwork can, according to art historian Veerle Poupeye, constitute a kind of “creative iconoclasm.”[8] Creative iconoclasts appropriate the statue’s materiality to excavate and accentuate neglected memories from the margins. There are several examples of incisive interventions by artists that unsettle the dominant ‘History’ of famous figures and re-center the perspectives it attempts to erase. Most importantly, interventions help us to imagine against the legacy we’ve inherited and seek other means with which to craft the future.

The Cloaking of the statue Ponce de Leon at the Torch of Friendship on Biscayne Blvd, Miami, Florida, (2019), dye-sublimation print on spandex fabric and wood structure, 7 x 3 x 4 ft. Photo by Zachary Balber, Courtesy of Fringe Projects Miami.

In one recent example, Dominican-American artist Joiri Minaya enshrouded two public statues in Miami, Florida with printed fabric. Her intervention, The Cloaking (2019), targeted statues of Juan Ponce de Léon and Christopher Columbus, wrapping them in floral textiles. [9] In an interview with art historian Marsha Pearce, Minaya explains that the botanic illustrations referenced in her prints recall colonial practices of categorizing and consuming nature, laying the groundwork for today’s exploitation of Caribbean resources and land.[10]However, the plants featured on her tropical patterns were used to combat colonial forces; Manchineel produced the poison that killed Ponce, while Castor was used by enslaved people for healing and traditional spiritual practices.[11] The plants are evidence of anti-colonial epistemologies pioneered by Indigenous and Black communities. Thus, Minaya appropriates a “colonial tool” of organizing and visualizing nature to “[highlight] stories of resistance and resilience.”[12]

Detail of Manchineel pattern design by Joiri Minaya, 2019.

In another public art intervention, Ewan Atkinson’s Neighbourhood Project calls attention to sites in his native Barbados by projecting images onto them.[13] In Starman Visits (2009), a mysterious character is projected onto the statue of Horatio Nelson, a British colonial admiral, located in Bridgetown. Starman is a visually arresting, five-pointed figure of light that spans buildings or hovers above landscapes in Atkinson’s nighttime photographs. Starman is described by the artist as “not native to the area…a builder at heart” and “purported thief.”[14] In Atkinson’s photograph of the projection, a constellation of purple, red, and white stars dot the statue’s chest in a burst of emancipatory radiance. Nelson’s features are lost in a sea of starlight, the details of his face and body unreadable in the image. Starman overwhelms and supersedes the stone underneath, his illuminated legs stretch past Nelsons’ and down to the pedestal. The visual and conceptual productions of Starman coalesce to overwrite Nelson’s, gripping imaginations long after the sun rises and the mysterious character disappears.

Ewan Atkinson. Untitled (Statue) from “Starman Visits”, 2009
Ewan Atkinson. Untitled (Empire) from “Starman Visits”, 2009

Public statues also depict famous figures in the field of science, like that of J. Marion Sims in New York City. Dr. Sims, a late-19th century gynecologist, conducted agonizing experimental surgeries—many of which failed, caused immense pain, and were performed in front of audiences—on enslaved women without anesthesia.[15] In his Patriots series (2018), Guyanese-Scottish artist Hew Locke photographed Sims’ statue and collaged it with metal embellishments, filigree, beads, chains, cowrie shells, and other materials to explore how exploitative methods used by the scientist overshadow his achievements. Skulls are prominent, along with the Staff of Asclepius, a symbol of the medical field. By conflating symbols of death and healing, Locke highlights the torment Sims inflicted in the process of his discoveries. The figure of a Black woman, Anarcha, emerges in gold-plating. Her image is based on a painting of her and Dr. Sims, the only known representation of the Black women behind Sims’ practice, as he used white women’s’ bodies to formally present his findings, in yet another case of historical whitewashing.[16] Locke complicates the image of Sims by re-inserting representations of those who not only suffered at his hands but whose names, faces, and voices were erased from his version of history.[17]

J. Marion Sims, Central Park, from the Patriots series (2018), c-type photograph with mixed media, 72 x 48 ins. Courtesy of Hew Locke and P·P·O·W, New York

Sasha Huber, Agassiz Down Under, poster series, 42 x 60 cm, (2015).

Swiss artist Sasha Huber also highlights the harmful legacy of a prominent 19th-century scientist, Louis Agassiz, who pioneered the racist, pseudoscientific dogma that would become foundational tenets of Nazi eugenics and apartheid. Informed by her Haitian roots, Huber’s postcolonial practice includes a prolific series that exposes Agassiz’s legacy.[18] As an immigrant and professor at Harvard University, Agassiz brought his beliefs to the US, where a generation of scientists—and the field itself—would be influenced by his xenophobic teachings.[19] For the exhibition Agassiz Down Under (2015), Huber used an image of Agassiz’s statue to create a series of takeaway posters.[20] During an earthquake in 1906, the statue had fallen head-first off a building and was embedded upside down in the concrete below, where it was photographed. Huber captioned the black-and-white image with information on contemporary US police violence and neofascism, as well as Agassiz’s history. The poster draws parallels between his influence on American academia and contemporary manifestations of racially-motivated violence. Ongoing anti-Black brutality is rooted in the historic formalization and naturalization of racial difference, established over centuries by scientists like Agassiz. Huber’s plural, recurrent interventions unpack the present-day consequences of the systematic, scientifically-sanctioned dehumanization of Black people. 

III: Banishment

The above-mentioned projects conceal public statues while exposing histories and perspectives that are not readily apparent. In Joiri Minaya’s work, Columbus and Ponce’s effigies become unrecognizable, amorphous shapes, while the botanical epistemologies used to subvert colonial control are visibly memorialized. Comparable to Minaya’s fabric, Ewan Atkinson’s Starman projection implodes Nelson’s figure with light and mythology, paradoxically drawing our attention to and from his history simultaneously. J. Marion Sims’ statue is also overwhelmed by Hew Locke’s collaged materials. The newly refashioned statue references the doctor’s malpractice and the enslaved Black women central to his discoveries. Sasha Huber’s posters prominently feature an image of Louis Agassiz in which he is unrecognizable, his face buried underground. Like Locke, she re-contextualizes the statue by centering those who have been harmed by Agassiz’s legacy. All of these interventions destabilize the dominance and veracity of ‘monumental’ histories. They co-opt hyper-visible historical figures and shift our gaze to the unseen. By monopolizing our attention, these artists have highlighted the truths excluded from and obscured by public monuments. 

While public art interventions can temporarily center historically-marginalized perspectives, what happens when they are no longer created? Will the monuments be allowed to remain in public, proclaiming the unopposed white lies of ‘History’? Despite their successful reorientations, the interventions are undercut by the statues’ apparent intransigence, anchored in place by ongoing state-sanctioned preservation. Even when re-framed, the ostensible permanence of the monuments is imbricated with insinuations of fixed power and an indelible ‘History’. As such, the statues cannot be allowed to remain on their pedestals indefinitely. They should be banished from public space. As a reminder of how glorified they have been, the statues could be photographed in order to create a useful archive of images that can facilitate future interventions. As we have seen, artists have used photographs as documentation of and mechanisms for interventions. The images can memorialize the statues’ inaugural placements after they have been removed.[21]

In the new necropolis, we will revive living memories which have too-long been abandoned while ghostly deceptions are religiously preserved. With every project—readings, wakes, counter-narratives, ceremonies, exhibitions, performances, lectures, and more—we will remember against ‘History,’ slowly and painfully eroding its hold. 

If 2020 is any indication, public parks (and other outdoor greenspaces) will only become more imperative to our collective well-being in the future. Communities of Black and Indigenous people, who have been doubly-plagued by the pandemic and state violence, should not be confronted by the violence of these statues on their daily commutes, taking a walk, or playing with their children. Of course, not all people of color are offended by the statues; as previously-noted, some Trinidadians disagree that the statue of Columbus in Port-of-Spain should be relocated. However, we cannot continue ignoring calls for its removal, especially by Native peoples. Our disregard for the Indigenous community’s requests perpetuates a long, grievous history of silencing and erasure.[22] We must listen to the cries of those who experience not only historical trauma, but also ongoing structural discrimination, especially if they are in the minority.[23] The modus operandi of public space must begin with a simple mantra: do no harm

IV: The Necropolis

Simply banishing statues of dead colonizers cannot dismantle the myths at its core. As such, these monuments should be collectively relocated to a new site, deposed from their pedestals, and put back on display with more nuanced and fluid framings. There, they can be used as platforms from which a new wave of consciousness might be launched. I share concerns about moving them to museums, which, despite brilliant contributions by radical artists, curators, and historians, continue to reinforce the colonial and imperial foundations on which they were built.[24] Unlike many art institutions, which have alienated visitors of color as well as those from working-class backgrounds, this new space should not further marginalize, patronize, stereotype, or scorn the general public. It should welcome all members of the community and be as accessible as possible.

I propose the specific designation of a new necropolis wherein the challenge of reflection and relearning can be met head-on. It will be a place of mourning, re-memorialization, meditation, and unbecoming, a cemetery in which the phantoms of colonizers can be properly exorcized from the Caribbean psyche. Hence, a compromise between ongoing public displays and removal to private, inaccessible institutions: a semi-public art space. In this newly-allotted space, viewers can elect to confront the statues, acknowledging that traumatic memories from fraught histories may be triggered. Knowing this going in, they can prepare themselves mentally and emotionally for an overdue historical overhaul. The statues could continue to serve as platforms for creative interventions, not only by visual artists, but also poets, activists, community members, and educators. Through open calls and new commissions, varied perspectives can be drawn from local cultural workers and scholars, fostering reparative, creative, and interdisciplinary approaches to decolonizing history. When the time comes that these interventions are no longer being produced, the statues should cease to be actively preserved or prominently displayed.

Ideally, the new necropolis will reorient the history of the land itself. There is hardly any stretch of land in the Caribbean without some horrendous history of subjugation, death, and destruction. However, tropes of tropical paradise continue to overshadow the dark histories of the land in service of tourism and other neoliberal exploits in the region. In Trinidad, for example, the Lopinot estate is a heritage site advertised as a must-see for tourists. It lies at the foothills of the three-peaked Northern Range that inspired this land’s inaugural historical erasure, Columbus’ renaming of Iere. The estate is named after Charles Joseph Comte Lopinot, a French soldier who fought alongside the British in Haiti against iconic revolutionary, Toussaint L’Ouverture. After fleeing Port-au-Prince, Lopinot settled in Trinidad in 1800, where he was given land as reparations by the British. According to historian Claudius Fergus, not only was this land seized from an existing Indigenous community, but it was also used to establish a cocoa plantation by re-enslaving Black people who fled Haiti after they were legally emancipated. Fergus emphasizes that the story of Count Lopinot and his estate have been romanticized to an absurd degree:

For over 200 years, artists, anthropologists, historians, writers, poets and curators [of Lopinot estate] have propagated a glorious but false portrait of Compte de Lopinot as a loving, benevolent slave master, while stereotyping the Africans…as sheepishly docile, subservient and loyal to their enslaver… Many of the writers were slave owners and received substantial payments…Yet, against such prejudiced accounts, our first generation of post-colonial anthropologists and social historians simply resurrected the contemporary portraits of slavery and recycled them as authentic colonial narratives.[25]

This fable of a peaceful plantation filled with passive slaves led by a kind patriarch has been debunked by historians like Fergus, but the narrative prevails. Though legend has it that Lopinot himself haunts the grounds, the ongoing whitewashing of this stolen land—on which Black people were trafficked, oppressed, and slaughtered—is surely the more ominous specter. This boneyard—already echoing with the fury the of the re-enslaved—is as much an ode to colonial falsehood as Columbus’s statue. That is precisely why the estate must be reclaimed as a new hub for reparative history-making. 

In the new necropolis, we will revive living memories which have too long been abandoned while ghostly deceptions are religiously preserved. With every project—readings, wakes, counter-narratives, ceremonies, exhibitions, performances, lectures, and more—we will remember against ‘History,’ slowly and painfully eroding its hold. This space will be a new funeral plot for the old guard of ‘History,’ where previously-prominent statues will be buried by an avalanche of radical interventions. When enough time has passed, it will provide fertile ground for history-makers to continue sowing living, growing, mutating stories of their own. Then, the necropolis itself will be buried, and we will begin anew. 

[1] Sharlene Ram­per­sad, “Columbus Statue Defaced,” Trinidad and Tobago Guardian, June 16, 2020.

[2] Kumar Mahabir, “Black Power Agenda Threatens National Treasures.” Letters to the Editor. Wired868, June 25, 2020. 

[3] Ibid.

[4]  Corey Gilkes, “Colonial Monuments Carry Offensive Symbolism.” Letters to the Editor. Wired868, June 25, 2020. 

[5] The Chief of Police has denied allegations against his officers although eyewitnesses and video footage appear to contradict his statement. As of writing, no police officer has been indicted for Greaves’ murder and investigations are reportedly ongoing. For more context on the colonial-era law enforcement system in Trinidad and Tobago, see Johannah-Rae Reyes and Levi Gahman, “Hot Spots and Kill Shots in the (Post)Colonial State.” ROAR Magazine. August 1, 2020.

[6] A recent Supreme Court ruling in Jamaica, for example, upheld a school’s order that a child must cut her dreadlocs (styled for self-expression, not as part of her religion). It concluded that “The objective of creating a more controlled hygienic environment is important to the proper order and effective learning at the school and does not prevent the claimant from enjoying religious freedom.” Virgo v. Board of Management of Kensington Primary School, [2020] JMFC Full 6, Friday, July 31, 2020. While the ruling does not preclude Rasta children from attending schools, it harkens back to archaic stereotypes of Black hair being intrinsically ‘unhygienic’ or ‘unkempt.’ Hlonipha Mokoena, “From slavery to colonialism and school rules: a history of myths about black hair,” July 31, 2016.  

[7] Christo Adonis and Dr. Jo-Anne S. Ferreira. “Amerindian Languages in Trinidad and Tobago”. STAN. The University of The West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad & Tobago.

[8] Veerle Poupeye. “Creative Iconoclasm: What To Do With Those Colonial Monuments? – Part 1.” Personal Blog. June 10, 2020.

[9] See T.D. Allman’s “Ponce de Len, Exposed.” for more on the Leon. New York Times, 2 Apr. 2013, p. A23(L).

[10] Marsha Pearce and Joiri Minaya, “The Relevance of Making Art,” Quarantine and Art Webpage. July 29, 2020.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Atkinson, Ewan. “The Neighbourhood Project.” Artist Website.

[14] Ibid.

[15] It was a commonly-held belief that Black people felt less pain than whites. Versions of this myth still covertly pervade the field of medicine today. See Tonya Russell’s “Racism in Care Leads to Health Disparities, Doctors and Other Experts Say as They Push for Change,” July 11, 2020. Washington Post

[16] Their ordeals went unacknowledged for over a century until activists like Harriet A. Washington and Viola Plummer drew attention to the issue. See Shankar Vedantam and Maggie Penman, “Remembering Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey: The Mothers of Modern Gynecology.” National Public Radio. Also see Washington’s “Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present.” Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2008.

[17] That version, “The story of my life”, published in 1888, is a prime example of how limited, biased historical ‘evidence’ leads to the whitewashing of problematic legacies. 

[18] Huber is part of the campaign, Demounting Louis Agassiz, which is committed to removing his name from a mountain in the Southern Alps. It is spearheaded by historian and activist Hans Fässler. See Hans Fässler (Translated from German by Billi Bierling), “Time to Change the Mountain Named after a Racist,” SWI, June 16, 2016. 

[19] Christoph Irmscher, “Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science.” Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.

[20] Sasha Huber, “Agassiz Down Under Posters,” Artist Website, 2015.

[21] It was recently announced that the statue of Nelson in Bridgetown will be taken down. The statue of Sims was taken down from Central Park just weeks after Locke snapped his photographs. Nadia Sayej, “J Marion Sims: Controversial Statue Taken down but Debate Still Rages,” The Guardian, April 21, 2018.

[22] Caribbean people have notoriously perpetuated the colonial myth that the Indigenous communities on our shores were wiped out. See Melanie J. Newton’s “Returns to a Native Land: Indigeneity and Decolonization in the Anglophone Caribbean,” Small Axe 17, no. 2 (July 26, 2013): 108–22. 

[23] It should be noted that there is also disagreement within Trinidadian indigenous communities about the statue. Trinidadian Indigenous peoples are internally-diverse and hold a variety of perspectives. See Ryan Hamilton-Davis “First Peoples Clash,” Trinidad and Tobago Newsday, October 12, 2018.

[24] Kelli Morgan, “To Bear Witness: Real Talk about White Supremacy Culture in Art Museums Today,” Indianapolis Recorder Newspaper, June 23, 2020.

[25] See parts one and two of Fergus’ account for a full history of how Lopinot’s legacy has been whitewashed by estate proprietors. “From Romance to Reality: Why We Deserve the Truth about Compte de Lopinot and His ‘Contented Slaves.’” Wired868, October 9, 2018. 

Anchor image: The Cloaking of the statue of Christopher Columbus behind the Bayfront Park Amphitheatre, Miami, Florida, (2019), dye-sublimation print on spandex fabric and wood structure, 12 x 5 x 5 ft. Photo by Zachary Balber, Courtesy of Fringe Projects Miami.

Ashleigh Deosaran (b.1992, Trinidad and Tobago) is a multidisciplinary artist and writer. Her work has been published and exhibited in the U.S. and the Caribbean. She earned a B.A. in Fine Arts & Psychology from Pace University (’16), an M.A. in Modern Art: Critical and Curatorial Studies from Columbia University (’19), and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Art History at Northwestern University. She researches contemporary Latinx art with a focus on the Anglophone Caribbean, through the lenses of critical theory, decolonial thought, and gender/sexuality studies. She is currently featured in the Pace University Alumni Exhibition, Sights Unseen, curated by Barbara Friedman.