By Martha Elias. Copenhagen, 7 April 2018, 23:31 p.m.
On 31 March 2018, the first giant sculpture of an African woman was unveiled on Danish soil. It is the first of its kind, on a public space in Copenhagen, and also in the country’s common consciousness. I AM QUEEN MARY is the name of the art piece, that embodies a titanic monument representing the Antigua-born rebel queen, Mary Leticia Thomas, who was primus motor of the Fireburn rebellion on the island of St. Croix in October 1878. With their work, the artists underline a historical momentum on the subject of Denmark’s colonial past, which opens up for a much needed soul-searching dialogue about a hidden side of Denmark’s history, while at the same time rescues the memory of the rebel, Mary Thomas, from oblivion.
A historic day in Copenhagen, when the Danish capital embraced a 7 meters high sculpture, which epically depicts a crucial and hidden lug of the Danish colonisation power, as well as its impotence. Moreover, the piece has been delivered in a huge format too. By the waterfront of the former West Indies Warehouse, unto which ships with sugar and rum from the colonies berthed, right there the monument stands in all its lucid splendour. This site embodies the history of The Danish West India Company, which on behalf of the monarch colonised the islands of St. Thomas in 1671, St. John in 1718 and St. Croix in 1733, after acquiring it from France. Since 1755, the Danish Crown itself took control over the islands, which remained part of the Danish national territory until the controversial sale of the islands to the United States in 1917. On 31 March, every year, transfer day is signalised. This is the day when the islands, and its people, where passed on from one colonial power to another. This year, as the centennial year of the transfer concludes, and exactly 101 years on, reminisces the date, where the islands were sold to the United States, and from then on changed name to Virgin Islands. A day of mixed feelings for many inhabitants of the islands, says the interdisciplinary artist, La Vaughn Belle, born in St. Croix, who along with Danish-Trinidadian artist Jeannette Ehlers, is behind the art project I AM QUEEN MARY, of which they tell it was incepted as an art project in 2014, the artists’ work was delivered on this very date, to the city of Copenhagen – and the world – and not as a commission, but as a common effort, as they had to raise the funds themselves.
This year, as the centennial year of the transfer concludes, and exactly 101 years on, reminisces the date, where the islands were sold to the United States, and from then on changed name to Virgin Islands. A day of mixed feelings for many inhabitants of the islands, says the interdisciplinary artist, La Vaughn Belle.
The impact when standing in front of I AM QUEEN MARY is best described with one word: breathlessness. Thereafter it is the aesthetic value of the art piece that captures the eye, its authority upon the public common space is impressive, while the actual Danish socio-political context she enters unto invites upon a time journey alongside the majestic, inscrutable piece. The sculpture’s structure is made in polystyrene, and is composed by several parts, after assembled , it has been covered with luminescent black spray painting that could easily match Rimfaxe, Odin’s mythological night-black horse. A headdress crowns her head, and her body is clothed by robes that refer to colonial times. The barefoot statue sits collected and looks unshakable – holding a historical symbol on each of her hands, i.e. a cane bill and a torch. From her seating position on the regal wicker chair placed on a massive plinth made of cement and coral stones, which date back to St. Croix’s colonial era, Queen Mary opens up for the long-awaited recognition of the significance of the Fireburn upheaval and its historical trace, which remains unmentioned in Danish history books. She looks straight ahead, just as collected, as pondering, and may seem as if she once again calls for action. There is a clear reference to Huey Newton’s iconic image, seated on a wicker chair. Newton was the founder of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s. At the same time there is a reference to visual artist and performer Ehlers’ theatre piece Into the Dark, performed in Copenhagen in 2017.
From her seating position on the regal wicker chair placed on a massive plinth made of cement and coral stones which date back to St. Croix’s colonial era, Queen Mary opens up for the long-awaited recognition of the significance of the Fireburn upheaval, and its historical trace, which remains unmentioned in Danish history books.
I AM QUEEN MARY, is a inter-weaved depiction of Mary Thomas, who arrived in St. Croix in 1860 to work as manual labour on one of the island’s plantations. In addition to Queen Mary – queen was a term used for influential, headstrong and socially engaged women labour workers on the plantations – there were three other queens, who lead the rebellion: Susanne Abrahamson, Agnes Elizabeth Salomon and Mathilde McBean. Together they organised the insurrection against inhumane working conditions, which even 30 years after slavery had been abolished officially, were still being enforced on the islands where everyday life was characterised by oppression and enslavement. Queen Mary was the main leader of the rebellion, raising against the colonial power to improve working conditions for her people, as she also set an agenda of fierce resistance against the Danish rulers, which in October 1878 ended up with the death of three Europeans and at least 100 plantation workers, while most of the island’s plantations burned to the ground. Queen Mary was first sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Thus, in 1882 she and her fellow rebel sisters were shipped to Copenhagen to serve their jail sentence in a local women’s prison at Christianhavn, which nowadays houses a bakery. In 1887, five years after their arrival, all four women were sent back to St. Croix. It is now 131 years since Queen Mary and the three other queens were sent back to the islands from Copenhagen, and as her statue is inaugurated, it is also 101 years since the islands’ were transferred from Denmark to the U.S.
The sculpture is located at the former West India Warehouse, which nowadays houses the Royal Casting Collection with over 2,500 plaster castings of primarily European classical works. Just to the left in front of the building’s main entrance stands Michelangelo’s upright, Eurocentric verdigris David Statue, who has now got his counterpart with I AM QUEEN MARY on the right handside of the building’s front. This is a monument whose panorama view looks as straight ahead as ethereal upon the horizon, from there she empowers and represents in a dichotomous way the actual rebellion, as well as the rebels’ entry into history via resurfacing from a hidden past through common memory. Since there were no pictures of Mary Thomas – but also because the concept was about reconciling narratives, nations and bodies from Denmark and the Virgin Islands – the two artists set themselves to merge their bodies using 3D technology, which resulted in the hybrid figure the sculpture embodies. The creative fusion also had the artistic function – as well as the intention – of creating human bridges across continents, history and time. Thus seeking reconciliation through a distinction between guilt and responsibility, crime and forgiveness, oblivion and soul-searching.
I AM QUEEN MARY is a monument whose panorama view looks as straight ahead, as ethereal upon the horizon. From there she empowers and represents in a dichotomous way the actual rebellion, as well as the rebels’ entry into history via resurfacing from a hidden past through common memory.
The piece of art fills in a wide gap in a Copenhagen, where several buildings around the sculpture’s current location in Toldbodgade – but also elsewhere in the metropolitan area and around the country – were built with revenues from slavery at first, and later by enslaved manual workers from the islands, whose descendants still fight for self-determination, recognition from an ignominious time, as well as against the deep traces of the failed power structures that colonialism’s blood-stained legacy seems to have left behind. The sculpture has a rotating axis that covers the creative, interdisciplinary and socio-political fields concurrently. Regarding the political emphasis, Ehlers says calmly, though certain: “Not all art is political. However, good art is always political” – with partial reference to both Toni Morrison and Harald Giersing.
I AM QUEEN MARY is a sculpture who seeks a permanent place casted in bronze in front of the West India Warehouse, right across the Danish Opera House and with her back turned away from Amalienborg, The Danish Royal Palace. The artists continue their firm intention to raise the necessary funds to accomplish this endeavour. On the other hand, the artist duo expresses an intention to embark on a twin piece to be placed on St. Croix which conceptually matches the work in Copenhagen, but that surely will be adapted to the natural and public spaces of St. Croix. Most important for the artists, however, is the need for an honest, profound and open-minded dialogue both in Denmark and on the Virgin Islands, for which this sculpture will hopefully pave the way.
Harsh, suggestive and sensual art, all in one single piece, which also raises awareness, unites paths and frames both history and narratives.