A Brief History of Monuments
Abd Allāh al-Manṣūr ibn Muḥammad, the founder of the Abbasid Caliphate and the ancient city of Baghdad, conceived of his new seat of government as a vast walled, circular fortification. Before it was erected, Al-Mansur ordered his army of labourers to dig a trench, tracing as such the intended city's circular foundations. Oil was poured into the trench, set alight while Al-Mansur then watched the blazing spectacle from a vantage point overlooking the great river Tigris.
“Who knows what hallucinatory visions of power arose from that shimmering circle of flames?” wrote Ken Hollings, author of Destroy All Monsters.
In Dubai for four giant undulating towers, reminiscent of flickering candle flames, emerge out of the haze as mirages on the desert plains, casting both light and shadows over the as yet incomplete US$ 25 billion Lagoons development below.
Thousands of kilometres away, the towers of America’s capitalist monument, Las Vegas, ripple in the heat: Caesar's Palace, the Excalibur, the Imperial Palace, the MGM Grand, the great pyramid of Luxor––a postmodern simulacrum of Egyptian monumentality deeply etched into the American desert.
In 1886 Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, a French sculptor symbolised the USA in the form of the Statue of Liberty as a torch-holder capable of lighting up the world. But holding a torch does not exclude being blind; Liberty has her back to New York City. “It's so beautiful. The lights come on and the stars come out and it sways. It's like Flash Gordon riding into space.” Andy Warhol once said, looking out over New York not towards the Statue of Liberty but in the direction of the Empire State Building, which he notoriously monumentalised as an eight-hour hard-on in his 1964 film, Empire.
Monuments, it would seem don't require grandeur, merely the drama of light.
In August 1989, Saddam Hussein constructed the Victory Arch––two gigantic arms, modelled upon his own, bursting forth from the ground and clutching crossed gleaming silver scimitars, cast from the steel of Iraqi weapons that had been melt down. “The ground bursts open,” said Saddam, “and from it springs the arm carrying the burning sword that represents power and determination.”
23 years later a statue comprising of 50 towering steel columns rose out of the dirt outside a small town in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Designed to commemorate Nelson Mandela’s arrest, its vertical bars designating both imprisonment and freedom: “The structure radiates like a burst of light, which symbolises the political uprising of many people and solidarity,” says the monument’s designer, Marco Cianfanelli.
In January 2014, the South Africa government demanded that the sculptors who built the nine-metre tall sculpture and costing some eight million Rand of Nelson Mandela in Pretoria remove the tiny sculpted rabbit they had secretly tucked inside one of Mandela’s bronze ears. Andre Prinsloo and Ruhan Janse van Vuuren claimed they added the bronze bunny as a discreet signature. But what if the rabbit represented reality? What if it was really there, tucked in the former president's auditory canal, perched on its haunches with its one floppy ear, whispering secrets and advice to the world’s greatest leader?
Mandela is by no means alone. Michelangelo’s statue The Dying Slave, created between 1613 and 1616 for the tomb of Pope Julius II, features an ape hidden behind it. Apes symbolise sin. Was Michelangelo confessing to the sexual nature of this swooning, ecstatic male nude? Or, perhaps hinting that Pope Julius was a man of base passions?
In his short story, “Propaganda by Monuments”, South African author Ivan Vladislavic imagines a scenario in which a Johannesburg shebeen owner secures one of Russia's colossal “surplus” statues of Lenin to adorn his premises. The story ends with the shebeen owner visiting the gigantic bronze head of the South African prime minister J.G. Strijdom in Pretoria. Standing at a distance, staring at the giant teetering head poised on a tiny pedestal that somehow seems to defy the laws of gravity, Khumalo begins “to see how, but not necessarily why, the impossible came to pass”.
In the early 1980s, the Chilean poet Raul Zurita hired planes to sky-write passages from his poem, The New Life, over Manhattan. “Originally, we tried to do it in Santiago with the Chilean Air Force,” said Zurita, “because I thought if the same guys who bombed Salvador Allende's presidential palace and installed Augusto Pinochet are capable of writing a poem in the sky, then it would prove that art would be capable of changing the world.”
Later Zurita carved the phrase Ni Pena Ni Miedo [Without Pain Or Fear] into Chile’s Atacama Desert. The poem can still be seen today because children from the neighbouring town bring shovels into the desert so as to turn the sand from which the individual letters were formed.
The crowds who flooded Paradise Square in Iraq on April 9 2004 to watch the toppling of the most famous statue of Saddam Hussein felt little solidarity with the US troops responsible. They protested when a soldier draped a US flag over Saddam’s face and roared with approval when the old Iraqi flag replaced it. The monument was but one of the many Baath-era icons destroyed: murals were defaced, statues torn down, monuments decimated as the American “shock and awe” blitzkrieg launched more than 504 cruise missiles across Iraq’s skies.
For the spectator, watching on TV at home, a cruise missile is nothing but a burning point of light in the night sky. But as the missile nears its target, its nose-mounted camera transmits a live, broadcast-quality image of the impact. The instant it impacts is also the moment in which the camera goes off air. The very act of memorialising becomes an act of forgetting.
“Cities,” Hollings writes, “carry within them the blueprints of their own ruins.”
In the summer of 1999, Mohamed Atta, who later became one of the ringleaders of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York, defended a master’s thesis that critiqued the introduction of Western-style skyscrapers in the Middle East and called for the return of the “Islamic-Oriental city”. What if 9/11 was as much a matter of architectural criticism, of architectural activism, as it was of religious terrorism?
Two gigantic erect sarcophagi stand outside Bamiyan in Afghanistan, emptied like graves since March 2000 when the Taliban dynamited the monumental statues of the Buddhas, which had stood there for more than fifteen hundred years. Nothing remains of these colossal sculptures but an all-pervading dust.
At first the Taliban who moved into the area avoided the Buddhas. Long used as arms dumps, they were believed to be booby-trapped. “Cursed,” said the Taliban. Finally they attacked one with heavy weaponry. Buddha lost a leg but remained standing. In the end dynamite and rockets were used. One villager watching the destruction said, “If Buddha can’t survive, how will I?”
In a dry, sun-baked landscape, an army of men work silently. A small-walled house, made of hardened mud bricks, comes crashing down. Stone, mud, clay: patiently, one by one, they demolish the old Sufi shrines in Timbuktu. The task seems never ending. As the author Teju Cole reminds us: “It takes a lot of work to silence silent objects.”
Combattant Mboua Massock has spent a decade campaigning to tear down a colonial era statue depicting a French Marshal, still standing in Douala after more than 50 years of independence.
“There are hardly any statues that do not seek to turn back time,” tweets Achille Mbembe. “Colonial effigies testify to this mute genealogy.” Long-lasting domination, it seems, leaves inscriptions on the spaces of dwelling of subjects, as well as indelible traces in their imaginary.
Tired of demanding action, Massock finally took matters into his own hands in 2001. Armed with a weight, he repeatedly smashed the French Marshal’s effigy in the face. But the Marshal was cast in bronze and only his nose suffered, so that now it appears out of joint.
Time is out of joint in the Congolese writer Sony Labou Tansi’s 1979 novel Life and a Half. In the book an imaginary nation is haunted by the ghostly presence of its dead leader who refuses to die. The new autocratic regime attempts to silence him through a trial by fire. Monuments and works of art are burned. Tons and tons of books. In the end, the censors burn everything they lay eyes on because they didn't have time to read (and most of them can’t read).
Can a book be a monument? A year before his death, Labou Tansi in L’autre monde said: “I do not know what cracks in the edifice, what holds, what leaves, what remains, what pouts, what lies, what betrays... I want the edifice. Whether it spurts into the sky, each word being a stone, a mark in the monument, endless labyrinths, that is what creating is.”
Time is also out of joint in South Africa. Since the end of white supremacy in 1994, the official names of places have hardly changed––cities, townships, squares, boulevards, and avenues have kept their old names. Even today, one can head to one's office via Verwoerd Avenue, named after the architect of apartheid, then go out to dine in a restaurant situated on John Vorster Boulevard and drive along Louis Botha Avenue.
In his body of work Balumuka [Ambush] (2010), the Angolan artist Kiluanji Kia Henda photographs an open-air transit zone in Luanda, one that has metaphorically and physically become a cemetery for numerous monuments that have throughout history found their way into pillars across the country. Amidst the occupants of this graveyard of history is a statue of Queen Nzinga Mbande who ruled Angola in the 1600s––she stands sternly in the enclosed yard, ironically juxtaposed against some of the main figures of colonialism, including Luis Vaz de Camões, Dom Afonso Henriques and Pedro Ànvadres Cabral. Colonial monuments in African cities “represent […] the very anti-model of how a community might relate to its dead,” says Achille Mbembe. He proposes:
In every African country we establish a careful inventory of all colonial statues and monuments. These we shall collect in a single park, which will serve as a museum for generations to come. This Pan-African park-cum-museum will serve as colonialism’s symbolic grave on our continent. Once we have performed this burial, let us […] promise never again to erect statues to anyone at all. Instead, let us build everywhere libraries, theatres, cultural centres––all the things that from this day forward will nourish tomorrow’s creative growth.
Back in Douala, a monument to liberty spurts into the sky. Unlike its counterpart in New York, this statue of Liberty is built out of a labyrinth of discarded objects: old tires, mufflers, rusted conveyor belts, broken light bulbs. “Liberty is not something that can be imposed or expected to last,” its creator, Joseph Francis Sumegne explains. “It is a precarious thing, a product of constant assemblage, of the most heterogeneous elements––and yet, it holds the world aloft.”
On May 25, 2006, Angola launched the Icarus 13, the world’s first space mission to the sun. According to the astronauts, the sun (like Warhol’s Vegas), “has the most beautiful night”. Their journey is documented by the artist Kiluanji Kia Henda in another of his works, Icarus 13 (2008). Henda’s images for the project are in fact state buildings in Luanda. To portray the Icarus 13 spacecraft, Henda shot a photograph of António Agostinho Neto's incomplete Russian-built mausoleum in Luanda . The “Astronomy Observatory” is another unfinished structure, this time a cinema from the colonial era; and the setting of the launching scene is actually an image from celebrations that erupted when Angola’s national football team qualified for the 2006 World Cup.
Near the beaches of Luanda, the Russians are building a grand mausoleum to honour the remains of the Comrade President. It is 1980, a year after Neto’s death. In the city people are whispering: houses, they say, will be exploded to make space for the mausoleum, and everyone will have to leave. Could the children of Luanda steal the Russians’ dynamite and save their homes, asks the Angolan author Ondjaki in his new novel, Granma Nineteen and the Soviet's Secret?
The African Union’s new conference and office complex has been built on the site of Ethiopia’s former central prison, officially called Akaki, but known in Ethiopia as Alem Bekagn or “farewell to the world”. As such it is also a cemetery. In France, Jean Baudrillard tells us that all the monuments are mausoleums: the Pyramid, the Arche de Triomphe, the Orsay Museum, the Grande Bibliotheque, cenotaph of culture. And this is not to mention the Revolution, a monument in and of itself, as Louis Mermaz tells us: “The Revolution is not on the agenda in France today because the great Revolution has already taken place.”
There are, it seems, two types of forgetting: either through slow or violent eradication of memory, or via the advancement of spectacle, the passing of historical space into the space of propaganda and advertising.
“There is nothing in this world as invisible as a monument,” Robert Musil famously wrote, exhorting monuments to “try a little harder, as we must all do nowadays!”
The Mansudae Art Studio is a North Korean organisation primarily dedicated to the idolisation of the Eternal President of the Republic through public works. Since the 1970s, it has also been constructing major monuments, statues, and governmental buildings in countries across Africa, including Senegal, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Angola, Rwanda, Ethiopia, DRC, Tanzania, Mali and Chad.
In 2010 the company completed the 53m tall African Renaissance Monument commissioned by the Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade. Built on a hilltop outside Dakar, the towering statue provoked widespread protests. Critics described it as an “economic monster” and representative of the “macho sexism of African authoritarian rulers”. For the Korean providers labouring to complete these works at the Mansudae Art Studio, and many of them are graduates from the nation's top art academies, it is a utopian vision, based in the long tradition of Socialist Realism, that they hope will give voice to the dreams of the people of Africa.
Kinshasa’s single most quoted visual icon of modernity, an immense cement and steel tower––a monument to Patrice Lumumba––was erected in the Mobutu era and has been key to the political discourse under both Kabilas, father and son.
In September 1997, twenty years to the day after the black consciousness activist Steve Biko was murdered by agents of the apartheid state, President Nelson Mandela unveiled a bronze statue of Biko in East London. The statue was funded by Oscar-winners Denzel Washington and Kevin Kline, amongst others. Hollywood and the entertainment industry have a history of financing monuments. In September 1990 an archaeological expedition hunted down the remains of Ramses the Magnificent's palace; a monolithic movie set built in 1923 in preparation for Hollywood's first biblical epic, The Ten Commandments.
Back in 1956, its director Cecil B. De Mille expressed the hope that in a thousand years' time, the discovery of his film set would not lead scientists to the erroneous conclusion that Egyptian civilization extended all the way to North America.
In Tunisia, American tour operators now offer Star Wars “location spotting” of the science fiction monuments scattered in the deserts where four of the Star Wars series films were shot. A monumental Godzilla strikes a pose in Tokyo. The undisputed king of monster movies has always left a mark on the city’s skyline, returning again and again in countless feature films, he leaves it in ruins every time.
In 1997 pop star Michael Jackson donated the one of the nine 32 foot statues, built to promote his world tour, to the City of Johannesburg, who in a rare moment of humour placed it at Santarama Miniland, a run down miniature theme park built in 1973. Cast in military garb, fists clenched at his side, gazing off into the distance Jackson now looms, like a forgotten ANC MK cadre awaiting the command to invade the run down miniature apartheid era Joburg below him.
Presentation held at Future Memories Conference, Addis Ababa, 16 September 2014.
COLE, Teju: “Break it Down.” In: The New Inquiry, 3 July 2012. http://thenewinquiry.com/blogs/dtake/break-it-down/ (15.1.2015).
Empire, Andy Warhol, 1964, 16mm, 485’.
HOLLINGS, Ken: Destroy All Monsters. London 2001.
LABOU TANSI, Sony: Life and a Half. English translation by Alison Dundy. Bloomington 2011. (La vie et demie, 1979).
LABOU TANSI, Sony: L’autre monde. Textes inédits. Paris 1997.
MBEMBE, Achille: Critique de la raison nègre. Paris 2013.
MUSIL, Robert: Nachlass zu Lebzeiten. Zürich 1936. (Posthumous Papers of a Living Author Posthumous Papers of a Living Author)
ONDJAKI: Granma Nineteen and the Soviet's Secret. English translation by Stephen Henigham. Windsor 2014. (AvòDezanove e do Segredo Soviético, 2008).
The Ten Commandments, Cecil B. De Mille, 1923, 35mm, 136’.
Star Wars, George Lucas, 6 episodes, 1977 ff.
VLADISLAVIC, Ivan: Propaganda by monuments and other stories. Cape Town 1996.