Arts & Culture

Granite, Marble, Pulp: Challenging Colonial Monuments Through Contemporary Art

With reporting contributions by Siona Wadhawan

Art by Felipe Lopez

Sebastián de Belalcázar, Christopher Columbus, Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada. A globe, a sword, a horse. Each on an otherwise empty pedestal, just barely recognizable to those who know the places to which they refer. This is a drawing of three massive men who loom over Colombia, some of its history’s most recognizable icons, but someone has removed its subjects. 

SMFA graduate student Felipe Lopez is the one responsible for their removal.

“I set out to see where exactly did that [typically monumental] image come from and what made it powerful. If it was the image itself—the sculpture, well then, let’s work only with the pedestal, the recipient of all that power,” Lopez said.

Hailing from Colombia, Lopez has spent the last few years of his career focusing on monuments’ effects on public memory and the global tensions rising around their presence or removal. His latest series “Where Is Our Power?” works to challenge not only the images and ideologies behind historical monuments, but also their materiality. Lopez hones in on imagery tangential to the figures in these monuments—their pedestals most obviously, but also their horses, props, and even shadows—and uses them to craft surreal installations using handmade paper and precise graphite drawings, often extending onto the wall. Ranging in scale from two-inch miniatures to several-foot-high wall drawings, the works are understated—almost blending into the white walls of any gallery or studio they stand in. 

Regarding his process, Lopez said, “If something important to monumentality is uniqueness, then let’s start talking about repetition. If it’s something that has to be immense, let’s talk about miniaturizing. Monuments tend to be something permanent. How can I turn [them] into something ephemeral, using different media like embossing, or transfer? [It follows] the same line of questioning about power.” 

The power held by these traditional grandiose monuments can be overwhelming. SMFA professor and art historian Eulogio Guzmán described how monuments can become “a symbol of what the government [projects] upon as the official history.” This amplification of officially sanctioned narratives complicates monuments and says just as much about those who erect the monuments as those to whom they are dedicated. This complication has led to controversy around the ultimate fate of colonial monuments—should they stay, as proof of the manufacturing of that historical narrative? Be amended by plaques? Be destroyed? Replaced? Relocated or recontextualized? One response, which Lopez speaks to in his practice, is the concept of “para-monuments” and “counter-monuments.” These are two parallel methods of addressing concerns around existing monuments and potential future forms of public memory.

A para-monument, as defined by Professors Michaela Melián and Nora Sternfeld of University of Fine Arts of Hamburg, “appropriates the form and discourse of powerful monuments in order to turn these properties against them,”. Typified by works like “Monument for strangers and refugees” by artist Olu Oguibe, para-monuments take traditional forms—in this case, an obelisk chiseled with golden text—but recontextualize them to question the status quo rather than uphold it. The work honors no singular hero, nor a specific historical event. Rather, its engraving—reading “I was a stranger and you took me in,” in German, English, Arabic, and Turkish—calls for solidarity with past and future refugees of Germany. Despite its traditionalist form, Oguibe’s monument was deeply controversial when it was installed in Kassel during Documenta 14, with one municipal official calling it “ideologically polarizing, distorted art.” 

Counter-monuments take an extra step, with a more combative approach that fundamentally questions the materiality and messaging of traditional monument-making as a whole by using “absence, transience, [and] even invisibility.” In San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, the empty pedestals that once hosted statues of controversial figures like Francis Scott Key, Ulysses S. Grant, and Junipero Serra, serve in and of themselves as counter-monuments, an effect only strengthened by the recent addition of Dana King’s “Monumental Reckoning.” The piece consists of 350 sculptures around the periphery of the large pedestal which once housed a statue of anti-abolitionist Francis Scott Key. The figures are sculpted in steel and vinyl tubing in an abstract style inspired by African folk art. Referred to by King collectively as “the ancestors,” they represent the first Africans kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1619

In his own practice, Lopez responds to these traditions of recontextualization by imbuing his own representations with meaning through specific material choices. Although he started off the series with drawings, he soon felt the medium didn’t convey the issue properly and shifted towards papermaking. 

He explained, “[Papermaking] felt like the way I could start to draw parallels between the material and those feelings about ephemerality or lasting, soft or hard, those dualities.” He intentionally chooses materials like abaca, a plant related to bananas and hemp, as it was used to make many elements in European ships, including rope. In choosing these materials for his paper sculptures, Lopez draws further connections from these colonial imports to the similarly imposed adulation of the era’s violent leaders. 

These forward-thinking methodologies are incredibly valuable in considering both the future and the past of monumental works of public art, where opinions can be deeply divisive. As recently as 2020, protesters around the US destroyed statues of Christopher Columbus—including decapitating the statues and throwing them into lakes—in response to the still-present effects of colonial violence.

“I think this discourse [around monuments] is going to keep happening everywhere. Images will keep misrepresenting people, being seen as unjust. I feel like it’s important to keep coming at it. It’s not only about the images as sculptures, but also what’s our relationship to the images, how do we use them to speak to our identity?” Lopez said. 

In many ways, the US has been slow on the uptake. Guzmán noted counter-monuments have “been a trend for some time” throughout Latin America, since the rise in state violence across the continent in the 1960s. “It’s not at all surprising that the shift went from these heroic monuments to essentially more abstract, contemplative, almost anti-monuments, so to speak, that really were more about trying to become almost an essence, like repositories for collective mourning,” he said. 

In this way, public works like the “Memorial to Victims of Violence” in Mexico not only break away from the typical Western neoclassical style associated with colonial monuments, but also reject their imposed historical narratives by shifting agency over to the public. Created in response to disappearances and political crimes by various political forces in the country, the monument is composed of several textured steel walls marked with names. Acknowledging the ongoing nature of these issues, the memorial is explicitly considered to be in perpetual construction—chalk is provided for passers-by to add names of recent victims, or write messages for those they’ve lost. Guzmán described the experience of interacting with it as a form of ritual, “because of the nature of the surfacing itself, the metal as it corrodes, it creates a sort of weeping texturing, this poetic kind of lament that is taking place.”

This shift towards community consciousness guides Lopez’s next steps as he approaches the end of his Master of Fine Arts and as such, his time at Tufts. “It’s in my mind to see how this can become something which includes a community within a public space, which I feel should be the real function of a monument, or para-monument,” Lopez said of his own work. As for the broader controversy around colonial monuments, he said, “I think we can face these problems in terms of re-signification first, because the fact that they were there in the first place speaks to a history that we do not want to continue. It’s not the idea of history that should be perpetuated, but it’s important to know it was there and that from there we were able to change the narrative.”