Jackson to LA: art and politics in the re- and de-contextualize of confederate monuments
LAXART, a LA-based art non-profit, plans to hand over the Jackson statue to two of the country's most influential African-American artists.
Charlottesville City Council appears set to accept a $50,000 offer from LAXART, a LA-based non-profit visual arts organization, for the Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson statue during business at its Monday, December 20 meeting. Indeed, there have been news reports in circulation saying it’s already a done deal. LAXART plans to curate an exhibition called MONUMENTS in the fall of 2023, hosted by the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art at the Geffen Gallery in LA. The offer, which was originally $100,000 for both the Jackson and Lee statues [note: the offer made a point of emphasizing that the money was "expressly" for removal cost, and reimbursement, and that "paying for such objects is tantamount to assigning them value, which we do not believe they have."], didn’t get a lot of attention in the local media, and when it did there wasn’t much detail, focused as they were on the Jefferson School's proposed "Swords in Ploughshares" project [you can donate to the project here], a local effort which involves melting down the bronze Lee statue and creating alternative pieces of art, an idea that got national attention even ahead of the unanimous early-morning City Council vote to accept the organization’s offer. Which is too bad. Because the LAXART project is a pretty cool one.
"While there are plenty of statues suited for understanding the Lost Cause," said the LAXART offer, "there are no statues better suited for symbolic transformation than Charlottesville Lee and Jackson bronzes. MONUMENTS will de- and re- contextualize the confederate monuments from the perspective of the present moment...in the wake of recent white supremacist extremism…the exhibition will confront the Lost Cause, framing it as an intentional rewriting of history which has acted as a highly effective propaganda campaign."
As LAXART's executive director, Hamza Walker, explained, the statues would be handed off for de- and re-contextualization to the artists Kara Walker (no relation) and Williams Pope.L., two of the most influential living African-American artist in the country. Hamza Walker, too, has been recognized and one of the most influential African-American curators in the country and was an early advocate of Kara Walker's work, some of which is in the National Gallery of Art's permanent African American Artists collection.
In 2017, the New Yorker's Andrea K. Scott wrote that Walker's most recent show reminded her of the "atrocities of Goya’s “Black Paintings,” along with the atrocities that happened last month in Charlottesville, and brings explicit allusions to current events into her pictures—from Trump and Ku Klux Klan goons to Trayvon Martin and riot-gear-clad police. The effect is that of the ghosts of future evil haunting the fresh hells of Walker’s more familiar, but no less ghoulish, antebellum cast of characters."
"Walker’s images can be so brutal in their depictions of violence and sex that Quentin Tarantino looks like Mister Rogers by comparison," Scott wrote. " What is new is her approach, which combines collage, oil stick, and sumi ink in works whose ambition and scale are in direct dialogue with centuries of art-historical titans."
This short interview with Walker as she walks around her Fons Americanus, a 40-foot high soaring fountain, which was installed in the Tate Museum's Turbine Hall in 2019, really captures what she is all about:
As for the startling visual and performance artist Williams Pope.L., the New York Times Martha Schwendener, reviewing Pope.L's retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 2020, wrote that the "stealth magic and gonzo tactics in these works invoke people who succeeded in some of the horrific historical narratives: captives who sneaked off slave ships; runaways and maroons; people who acted like ghosts to achieve their own freedom. Haunting public spaces and even his own museum retrospective is where the real enchantment of Pope.L’s work lies."
What's more, the MONUMENTS exhibit, the LAXART offer explained, will travel around the country for a year, include outreach to public school and colleges, include a scholarly publication, and afterward, because the works would be done by Walker and Pope L, possibly end up as permanent collections in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in D.C. or the Crystal Bridges in Bentonville, Arkansas.
That's some offer! Especially when you compare it to some of the others the city got.
In contrast, another offer for the Jackson statue exclusively -- and I'm not making this up -- is from a former circa-19th century mental health facility in Weston, West Virginia that is, remarkably, still called the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum and was operated as such until 1994. Today, tours of the building tout its "unique and progressive architecture," its history as a Union supply depot during the Civil War, and its "paranormal activity." Education tours, they say, don't shy away from discussions about the hospital's "disproportionate use of procedures like the TransOrbital Lobotomy on women and patients of color." Also, Weston is Stonewall Jackson's boyhood home. "Who better than us to take the responsibility to teach about racism," the TALA offer says, "than the community that raised him."
An offer from the Statuary Park at Gettysburg is not an offer at all, but rather a long and weird “explanation” about why they are declining to make an offer on the statues, including references to translations of Beowulf and the use of the term “filthy butcher” to describe General Grant. Another offer is from a guy in Texas who mailed in a hand-written note:
As Hamza Walker explained to NBC29 recently, while they’ll be happy to take the Jackson statue, he understood the desire to keep the Lee statue in Charlottesville.
“The people in Charlottesville, that’s who had to live under that statute,” Walker said. “So its fate should be, in that one in particular, decided by them.”
In fact, on Thursday the City of Baltimore, which had agreed to give four Confederate statues for Walker’s project, suddenly decided not to, though it’s unclear why.
Clearly, these statues have a particular power, one that the communities who have them have had to deal with, and one the Jefferson School's project will literally be wrestling with as they seek to transform the material essence of the Lee statue, around which so much turmoil and tragedy has revolved, into something else.
However, as recently reported, a complaint about the bidding process by those who would like to see the statues preserved continues to try and disrupt the process.
The Ratcliffe Foundation, which operates the Ellenbrook estate in Elk Garden, Virginia, the historic home of William Alexander Stuart, brother of Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, where they also maintain a museum, had offered to buy both the Lee and the Jackson statues for $50,000 so they could place them in a "historic, museum-like setting where they can be appropriately preserved, displayed, and contextualized in perpetuity. " The Foundation also promised to "accurately capture and depict" how and why the statues were erected and how and why they came down.
Shortly after the City Council vote, however, a lawyer for the Foundation, who had also represented the group who had tried to prevent the removal of the statues, wrote a formal protest letter claiming the bidding process was “disastrously arbitrary” and that it resulted in a “capricious, illegal award.”
While it's easy to dismiss the spirit of the complaint, the claims that procedure wasn't followed could prove to be more thorny. The Group claims the lack of having a city manager, interim city manager or designated manager for the solicitation at the time nullified the vote.
“Without executive leadership authorized to act, the city council should have postponed or canceled the orphaned solicitation,” the letter said. “Instead it fumbled along by inertia.”
Indeed, former City Manager Chip Boyles was heavily involved in the search process, and in crafting the RFP that went out, which outlines the involvement of the City Manager in the process. But shortly before the RFP was posted Boyles fired former Police Chief RaShall Brackney, and the ensuing fallout led to his resignation. Council quickly appointed Marc Woolley as interim City Manager, but a day before Woolley was scheduled to begin he withdrew from the position, creating confusion in city government.
During the last few minutes of a November 4 City Council meeting, and weeks after formal offers for the statues had been received, a public comment prompted Councilors to wonder about the process.
"What is our plan at this point about making decisions about statues?" Councilor Llyod Snook asked." Do we have a timeline? Do we have a schedule at this point?”
No one knew. At that point, the City had been operating for almost a week without a City Manager.
In the final minutes of the meeting, Charlottesville Tomorrow reported, " [Mayor] Walker mentioned that she guesses staff turnover in city hall is part of what’s impeding progress on deciding what to do with the two statues."
According to the RFP for statue bids, the City Manager was supposed to schedule a time to present the bid offers to City Council and was also charged with negotiating with the interested parties. Those things never happened. When a date was announced for a discussion on the bid proposals, according to reporting by Charlottesville Tomorrow, the agenda packet was made available on Thursday before the December 6 meeting. Council procedures say agenda packets must be made available on Wednesday before meetings.
Also, for some reason, the action item on the statue bid was the very last one on the agenda, meaning the discussion didn't come up until the final minutes of a very long meeting. And it didn’t end up being much of a discussion.
According to the New York Times, Jefferson School director Andrea Douglas was up watching the live stream of the meeting, hoping there would be a decision, but she finally assumed the vote was going to be postponed and went to bed. However, in the last few minutes of the meeting, as the NYT reported, "almost every resident who called in during the public comment portion expressed frustration that the officials had yet to decide the statue’s fate."
“How much more do you want to drag out the trauma that these statues represent?” one resident asked.
“I’m happy to vote on it tonight and just get it done with,” Councilman Michael Payne
“So is there a resolution?” Mayor Nikuyah Walker asked.
After Councilors voted unanimously to give the Lee statue to the Jefferson School, Douglas said she started getting texts. So she got up and poured herself a glass of wine.