June 25, 2020
Notes
Refacing the Robert E. Lee Monument in Richmond

Refacing the Robert E. Lee Monument in Richmond

The gorgeous, colorful blanket of graffiti and the nighttime light projections have been magnificent in repudiating the statue and its history.

By Michael Shaw

 

The new skin, and the makeshift role as a backdrop and testament to this moment of racial awakening, has created quite the interlude as the Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond awaits its fate. The monument has become nothing short of an artistic magnet—literally a canvas to change. And with the festival atmosphere, the layering and the leveraging grows even more fantastic.

We’ve seen the monument host all types of performers and technological makeovers as a historical theater screen. Of all the treatments, though, this shot by Richmond photographer Scott Elmquist is really something special.

The old General is now the ironic captive of the playground hoops court, that space being one of the most artful and expressive platforms for African-Americans, specifically young Black men and boys. The court, and the aerial standoff depicted in the picture provides a dizzying number of empowering comparisons against the background of the statue, from the relative heights (“skying to the rim”), to the expression of authority (the “throw down”, or “the rejection”), to the more literal allusions:

A game of H-O-R-S-E, anyone?

Photo: Julia Rendleman/Reuters

Caption: Ballerinas Kennedy George, 14, and Ava Holloway, 14, pose in front of a monument of Confederate general Robert E. Lee after Virginia Governor Ralph Northam ordered its removal after widespread civil unrest following the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in Richmond, Virginia, U.S. June 5, 2020.

Earlier this month, photos of two Black ballerinas doing relevés and plies animated the statue. Like the basketball scene, those images were also wildly popular on social media. In the photo above, just the framing of the image without Lee atop undermines his legacy and his enshrinement. In his absence, the base becoming a singular platform for justifiable anger, with the graffiti, the classical poses, and the raised fists melding together in a confluence of creative expression and black empowerment.

Photo: John McDonnell/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Caption: The image of George Floyd along with the Black Lives Matter letters are projected on to the Robert E. Lee Statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond, VA on June 10, 2020.

Finally, light designer Dustin Klein, by way of his company, Videometry, has converted the statue into a public screen on which to project the image of George Floyd, as well as Black civil rights luminaries. (This grouping includes Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and W.E.B. DuBois. Here you can see Malcolm X, and Angela Davis and Martin Luther King.) Embracing the spirit of non-violent resistance, the projections both deface and reface the historical landscape.

There are other more serendipitous effects of the (re-)surfacing. Having cut a large figure in life, George Floyd has become monumental since his murder. Amplifying the cultural impact of the moment, the outline of the statue adorning the edges of his face evokes the pyramids (and the somehow lesser-known knowledge of great early Black civilizations, including the one in Egypt).

As for its destiny, the Lee statue has been ordered removed by Virginia’s governor, and its immediate status is in the hands of a judge. That is its physical fate I’m talking about. In the meantime, the visual refashioning of the monument has afforded a display of civic and racial creativity and pride that will also have some legacy. In the meantime, it has lent an impact that could never be matched in the same way by a replacement object, a grassy lawn, or a moment of action and a hole in the ground.

Photo: Scott Elmquist/@StyleWeekly  Caption: Boys play basketball on a makeshift court at the Robert E. Lee Monument, June 20, 2020.

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Michael Shaw
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