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A Brief History of Monuments

By Stacy Hardy

Abbasid Caliph Abu Ja’far al-Mansur, the founder of the ancient city of Baghdad, conceived of his new seat of government as a vast, walled, circular fortification. Before it was erected, Caliph ordered his army of labourers to dig a trench along the intended city’s circular foundations. Oil was poured into the trench and set alight. Caliph watched the blazing spectacle from a vantage point overlooking the great river Tigris.

‘Who knows what hallucinatory visions of power arose out of that shimmering circle of flames?’ wrote Ken Hollings, author of Destroy All Monsters.

In Dubai, 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 the United States’ capitalist monument, Las Vegas, ripple in the heat: Caesar’s Palace, the Excalibur, the Imperial Palace, the MGM Grand, and the great pyramid of Luxor – a postmodern simulacrum of Egyptian monumentality deeply etched into the US desert.

In 1886, Bartholdi, a French sculptor, symbolised the US as a torch capable of lighting up the world in the form of the Statue of Liberty. 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 said, looking out over New York not towards Liberty but to the Empire State Building, which he notoriously monumentalised as an eight-hour hard-on in his 1964 film, Empire.

Monuments, it seems, don’t require grandeur, merely the drama of light.

In August 1989, Saddam Hussein built 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 melted-down Iraqi weapons – ‘the burning sword of Qadisiyya’.

Twenty-three years later a statue comprising 50 towering steel columns rose out of the dirt outside a small town in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Built to commemorate Nelson Mandela’s arrest, its vertical bars represent both imprisonment and freedom: ‘The structure radiates like a burst of light, which symbolises the political uprising of many people and solidarity,’ says designer Marco Cianfanelli.

The crowds who flooded Paradise Square in Iraq on 9 April 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 defaced, statues torn down, monuments decimated as the US ‘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 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 moment of impact is also the moment at which the camera goes off air. The very act of memorialising becomes an act of forgetting.

‘Cities,’ Hollings writes, ‘carry within them the blueprints for their own ruins.’

Two gigantic sarcophagi stand outside Bamiyan in Afghanistan, emptied like graves since March 2000 when the Taliban pulverised the Buddha which had stood inside for more than 1,500 years. Nothing but dust remains.

The Taliban had initially 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 brought in. 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. It was begun last year and is still ongoing. As author Teju Coles 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 French Marshal Philippe Leclerc de Hautecloque, still standing in Douala, Cameroon 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 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 Leclerc’s effigy in the face. But Leclerc was cast in bronze and only his nose suffered, so that now it appears out of joint.

Time is out of joint in South Africa. Since the end of white supremacy in 1994, the official names of places have rarely changed – cities, townships, squares, boulevards, and avenues have kept the same 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.

On 25 May 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 artist Kiluanji Kia Hendu in his work, Propaganda by Monuments. Hendu’s images for the project are, in fact, state buildings in Luanda. To portray the Icarus 13 spacecraft, Hendu shot a photograph of an unfinished mausoleum built for a Russian socialist leader, which is rumoured to contain the remains of the first president of independent Angola.

In France, says Baudrillard, all the monuments are mausoleums: the Pyramid, the Arc, the Orsay Museum, and the Grand Bibliotheque, the cenotaph of culture,  not to mention the Revolution, a monument in and of itself. And Louis Mermaz reminds us: ‘The Revolution is not on the agenda in France today because the great Revolution had already taken place.’

There are, it seems, two types of forgetting: either through slow or violent eradication of memory or through the advancement of spectacle, the passing of historical space into the space of propaganda – advertising.

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 integral to the political discourse under Kabila father and son.

In September 1997, 20 years to the day that 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, among others.

Hollywood and the entertainment industry have a history of financing monuments.

In September 1990, an archaeological expedition hunted down the remains of Ramases 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. United States tour operators now offer Star Wars ‘location spotting’ of the science fiction monuments scattered in the deserts of Tunisia, where four of the Star Wars films were shot.

A monumental Godzilla strikes a pose in front of the Toho Hibiya Building (Hibiya Chanter) in Tokyo. The undisputed king of kaiju eiga has always left a mark on the city’s skyline – returning again and again in countless feature films, he leaves it in ruins everytime.

In 1997, pop star Michael Jackson donated 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, bandolier across his chest, fists clenched at his side, gazing off into the distance, Jackson now looms, like a forgotten MK cadre awaiting the command to invade the rundown miniature apartheid era Jo’burg below him.

Back in Doula, a monument to liberty spurts into the sky. Unlike its counterpart in New York, this Liberty is built from 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.’

 

Chronic + Chronic BooksThis piece originally featured in the Chronic (April 2013 edition), available here. Stories range from investigations into the business of moving corpses to the rhetoric of land theft and loss; from latent tensions between Africa’s most powerful nations to the soft power of the biggest satellite television provider; and from the unspoken history of Rushdie’s “word crimes” to the unwritten history of PAGAD. It also investigates crime writing in Nigeria, Kenya and India, takes score of the media’s muted response to the ‘artistry’ of the World’s No1 Test batsman, rocks to the new sound of Zambia’s Copper Belt and tells the story on one man’s mission to take down colonialism’s monumental history.

 

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