These Artists Just Created the First Sculpture of A Black Woman in Denmark

These Artists Just Created the First Sculpture

of A Black Woman in Denmark

Along the promenade of Copenhagen’s harbor sits the Little Mermaid, a bronze sculpture based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale of the same title. Although known worldwide, this sculpture is among the iconic statues that symbolize a city. Like the Statue of Liberty for New York or the Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, the Little Mermaid has become a part of the national narrative. On March 31, 2018 we are introducing another sculpture into the city of Copenhagen, one that we hope will reshape this narrative and challenge Denmark’s forgotten colonial past.

I Am Queen Mary

Our public art project entitled “I Am Queen Mary” will be erected on the tail end of the 100th year anniversary of the sale and transfer of the Virgin Islands from Denmark to the United States. The sculpture will be placed in front of the West Indian Warehouse that was built in the eighteenth century to store goods produced in Denmark’s former Caribbean colonies. Denmark had colonies in the Caribbean for over 250 years and was a formidable participant in the slave trading that forced thousands of Africans to work on sugar plantations. Even after slavery was abolished in 1848 the conditions improved very little, prompting the largest labor revolt in Danish colonial history in 1878 known as the Fireburn. In this uprising a woman named Mary Thomas emerged as a leader. She was given the title “Queen” according to the African Caribbean custom of venerating women who were leaders in their communities. However, although Queen Mary is a legend, unlike the Little Mermaid, her story is not a fairytale. Instead, “I Am Queen Mary” represents a story of survival and resistance to the colonial regime.

Although Queen Mary is a legend, unlike the Little Mermaid, her story is not a fairytale. Instead, “I Am Queen Mary” represents a story of survival and resistance to the colonial regime.
It is unknown what Queen Mary actually looked like, but as with many icons we have projected our imagination unto her

Symbols of Resistance

It is unknown what Queen Mary actually looked like, but as with many icons we have projected our imagination unto her. As artists we created an allegorical representation of her in which the figure is a hybrid of our two bodies modelled using 3D scanning technology. In doing so we have created a new woman that can serve as a bridge between our bodies, nations and narratives. The torch and cane bill in each of her hands reference the weapons used by the colonized in their struggles for freedom. Her seated pose recalls the iconic 1967 photograph of Huey P. Newton, founder of the Black Panther Party. The plinth incorporates coral cut from the ocean by enslaved Africans gathered from ruins of the foundations of historic buildings on St. Croix. Together these symbols create a multilayered, new narrative that promotes the idea that whether enslaved or free the colonized were agents of their own humanity. They fought, they resisted in small and large ways that are often invisible and unaccounted for in the colonial records. They demanded that the colonial system acknowledge their humanity and to be honest, they didn’t always win.

The Rebel Queen

Queen Mary herself, along with the three other women that she fought with, were imprisoned for several years in Denmark for protesting against unacceptable living and working conditions. Many people died under those conditions. Some were worked to death or were killed for defying being worked to death. Their labor paid for an immense amount of wealth that was generated for the Danish kingdom which throughout time has encompassed colonised territories in Norway, Sweden, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland, and parts of India and Germany. Despite the vast effects of Denmark’s colonial impact in the Caribbean, there are currently no public monuments in Denmark that commemorate this legacy and provide a space for critical reflection. “I Am Queen Mary” will serve as a reminder to that history. Although she is on the way to the Little Mermaid, the most photographed statue in Denmark, she is not little at all. On the contrary, she is colossal, seven meters tall, just over two stories. Some might call her commanding and we hope that she will foster in those who engage with her a space to reckon not only with the past, but with how the impact of colonialism affects our current society. “I Am Queen Mary” asks that you think about what your relationship is to this history and how to you position yourself within this narrative.

When “I” Becomes “We”

We met for the first time ten years ago at an artist talk in Denmark and since then our work has continued on similar trajectories across the Atlantic. We have been passionate about history and have centered our practices on colonialism. In many ways it is because of our backgrounds, both results of the transAtlantic trade and process with varying degrees of European and African ancestry. We have both used our artistic practice as a way to challenge the narratives that have resulted from this epic colonial endeavor. However, we approach these issues from very different perspectives, using different methods and materials. In “I Am Queen Mary”, both our differences and similarities became strengths. With every decision we made together the project became stronger, whether it be from deciding what she held in her hands to deciding on her final title. “I Am Queen Mary” is a project that came out of two individual artists, but just like Queen Mary and the other women of the Fireburn labor revolt, we came together to work on making a change. We were not invited or commissioned to do this monument. We pushed into the public space and claimed it to transform the narrative around the colonial histories that impact all of us. And through that process we became “I Am Queen Mary”.

La Vaughn Belle & Jeannette Ehlers

La Vaughn Belle is a multidisciplinary artist from the Virgin Islands. Jeannette Ehlers is a video, photo and performance artist based in Copenhagen, Denmark.

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