How do we deal with controversial monuments that are part of history?

While there were a variety of views, the consensus is a cooling-off period might be the best solution before reintroducing controversial works and explaining the context in which the art was created.

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Statues have been in the news a lot lately, not because they’re shining examples of public art displaying the best of humankind, but for the racist and colonial concepts they’ve come to symbolize.

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What to do with them, though: Should they be destroyed? Hidden from view in a dusty backroom of a museum somewhere?

A panel of local art experts tackled that question on Feb. 10 and, while there were a variety of views, the consensus was a cooling-off period might be the best solution before reintroducing controversial works and explaining the context in which the art was created.

“A Columbus statue, for example, needs to be put away for awhile,” said Angela Clarke, director and museum curator at the Italian Culture Centre Gallery and moderator of the public-art panel. “We need to acknowledge he was not a good person.

“I think there’s a lot of negotiation with that and we need to reflect on how we present these things thoughtfully.”

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It may surprise a lot of people that for years the PNE was home to a statue of a young Columbus, a gift from the Italian sailor’s hometown of Genoa called The Dreamer, until it was removed to storage early last year after several acts of vandalism and a threat to decapitate it.

Or how to explain to tourists milling around the statue of Gassy Jack at Maple Tree Square that the saloon keeper who gave his name to Gastown that, at age 40, he married a 12-year-old Indigenous girl who, after giving birth to a son, ran away at 15?

Or a bust of Benito Mussolini, the fascist dictator who was Adolf Hitler’s ally in the Second World War, that was once displayed at the Italian Cultural Centre.

It was that Mussolini bust by Charles Marega, an immigrant sculptor from Italy who anyone crossing the Lions Gate Bridge heading north will know of from the lions adorning the Stanley Park side of the bridge, that eventually wound-up leading to last week’s panel discussion.

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“It started as a celebration (of Marega), then became more of a roast, and then at the end it was a bit of an excoriation in a way because you’re starting with this figure who really brought a lot of dignity to the Italian community at a time when there was a lot of racism toward that community,” Clarke said. “Marega was this elegant, artistic figure who was commissioned to do all these amazing things and he was popular because he was bringing all these European ideas like Beaux-Arts here.

“As time has gone on, as much as we are staggered at how wide-ranging his influence was in public sculpture here in Vancouver, at the same time there’s so much that’s questionable about the things he did.”

For one, his very notion of what public art was for was diametrically opposed to what we consider its purpose is today, Clarke said. Marega’s idea was public art should represent the corporate culture of the city and that that is what people in the community not only expected, but also wanted public sculptures to reflect.

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“There was no sense of questioning the status quo and of course the lions on the bridge, as beautiful and majestic as they are, for an Indigenous person … ”

The bridge lions aren’t mountain lions, after all, they’re symbols of Britain and its aristocracy, and the peaks they’re named after had a name — Ch’ich’iyúy Elxwikn, the Twin Sisters — long, long before contact with Europeans.

But do we destroy the statues? Take them down and store them?

Panel members had several thoughts:

“There really shouldn’t be a blanket statement across the country, or across the province,” Ammar Mahimwalla said.

Mahimwalla now lives in Victoria but for five years until 2018 he was the special projects adviser with Vancouver Biennale.

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“My sense personally, using artwork for cultural monuments as learning tools is definitely important,” he said.

Growing up in India, a lot of colonial history was officially erased, practically overnight: Cities were renamed, statues were taken down and placed in “museum graveyards where nobody would really go visit them.”

“Which is worse in some cases,” he said, than keeping the art front-and-centre to remind people of what not to repeat.

[email protected]

twitter.com/gordmcintyre


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