Curating Robert E. Lee

Robert E. Lee statue, Emancipation Park, Charlottesville, Virginia

Theoretically, I believe that historical artifacts – representing our most profound and cruel moments – should remain in public view so we can learn from the past, but I am in favor of the removal of Confederate statues because they are inciting violence – not dialogue – about the terrible state of race relations in the US.

I support the removal for two major reasons:

  1. The statue of Robert E. Lee doesn’t teach us anything about him as a person, his leadership in the Confederacy, or his legacy. To be fair, I think it is difficult for statues like this to inspire curiosity. As you see his 26’ statue in Emancipation Park, the inscription simply says, ‘Robert Edward Lee; 1807; 1870.’ There is not any content or context. If it is not supplying this, outside its artistic merit (which I believe is negligible), does it really matter if it’s there or not? Don’t most of us normally walk past statues like this thinking – hey, there’s another dude on horseback.
  2. The statue of Robert E. Lee lacks the context to present a well-rounded conversation about the Civil War. The only way I can justify seeing statues like this remain is if they are contextualized with other points of view. And this is where the roles of artists, curators, and museums become so very important. We can take a work of art – like the statue of Robert E. Lee – and surround it with alternate narratives. If the Confederate loyalists (for lack of a better term) are interested in cultural preservation, let’s do that. Let’s show all that is beautiful and wrong about the South leading up to the Civil War. It is in this venue that the statue becomes important and worthy of the public eye. This is why using public space as an opportunity for inclusivity is an essential and fundamental part of societies that are pledged to plurality and equality.

In light of these thoughts, I have put together some images that I believe contextual the statue of Robert E. Lee and all the glory and shame he represents. A rightfully important figure in the history of the United States, Robert E. Lee must be viewed as part of his place and time, not an icon for hatred and violence.

Curatorial text

The first two statues below show contradictory notions of slave women. Kara Walker’s “The Marvelous Sugar Baby,” (left) created entirely of sugar at the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn,  is part sphinx with clawed fingers and proud stature but more visibly defined by stereotypical physical attributes that Walker uses throughout her works. John Bell’s “Daughter of Eve or American Slave” (1862, right) mimics classical Greek statuary proportions, giving the woman a look of wanton  vulnerability, aesthetically idealizing the path that has led her to servitude. These two statues provide a counterpoint to the political, masculine Lee, emphasizing the embodiment of slavery over the mastery of war.

Kara Walker’s “Fighting Dirty,” (2013) is part of a series of silhouette installations that combine the genteel beauty of the South alongside the violence of slavery. In the image below, a woman smelling flowers shares the stage with graphic images of sex and brutality. In her works, Walker synthesizes polarities found within antebellum rhetoric, pointing out the distinction between the cultural refinement of the plantation home and the horrors of the nearby slave quarters.

“Fighting Dirty,” Kara Walker, 2013

The complexity of the political and social status of slaves was discussed in newspapers in political cartoons like that surrounding the Dred Scott decision (1856), and in photography where white and light colored children were used for raising money for African American educational facilities.

Lastly, some Southern artists and writers asserted that, in many cases, the conditions for slaves were not as horrible as was claimed, as is evidenced in this image by Edward Williams Clay where slaves are participating in a dance.

Edward Williams Clay

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