Ripple Effects

[Many thanks to Veerle Poupeye for bringing this item to our attention via Critical.Caribbean.Art.] Amalie Skovmøller and Mathias Danbolt (Kunstkritikk) write about the removal of the bust of Danish King Christian IX in the US Virgin Islands’s Emancipation Garden and its repercussions—ripple effects— for the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts and the Danish art scene.

On Thursday 12 November 2020, the Senate Rules and Judiciary Committee of the US Virgin Islands unanimously supported a proposed bill to remove the bronze bust of Danish King Christian IX (1818–1906) from its plinth in the centre of Emancipation Garden in the town of Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas.

After many years of debate, it appears that the royal portrait will give way to Freedom (1998) by the Ghanaian sculptor Bright Bimpong. Depicting a Black man blowing a conch shell while raising his arm with a cane knife, the bronze sculpture was first erected on the outskirts of the small memorial park in connection with the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the Danish West Indies colony on 3 July 1848.

Even though the park changed its name from Frederik’s Park to the Emancipation Garden in 1998, the bust of Christian IX remained enthroned in the centre of the gardens, a site where auctions of enslaved Africans were formerly held. As St. Thomas-based historian and community activist Michael Vante put it in the petition he started in 2019 to move the bust: “Of all the places this relic of the past could sit, it is troubling at best and sinister at worst, that the bust of King Christian IX casts the longest shadow in Emancipation Garden. When the sons and daughters of our diaspora are looking up in a park dedicated to their freedom, it is not their reflection they see towering above them but the face of their oppressor.”

Although slavery was officially abolished when Christian IX was crowned in 1863, he ruled Denmark during the great workers’ uprising in 1878 at St. Croix – often referred to as Fireburn – where Afro-Caribbean plantation workers rose up in protest against their slave-like working conditions. The bronze bust of Christian IX, cast after sculptor Vilhelm Bissen’s (1836–1913) marble bust from 1897, was installed three years after the king’s death, and at its unveiling in 1909 it became the first official memorial on the islands. 

The fact that Christian IX, who had never visited the colony himself, was celebrated in such a historically significant place in Charlotte Amalie says something about the symbolic political function of the royal portrait in Denmark’s transatlantic empire. As Vante stated to the St. Thomas Source, the desire to move the bust is not about “rejecting” Danish history, but rather about “correcting a historical narrative that centres a Danish king, and instead refocusing on and celebrating the narrative of our people’s role in the liberation and expansion of our Virgin Islands story.”

In Denmark, too, activists have recently tried to address and problematise a historical narrative by removing a bust of a Danish king. [. . .]

In 2019 Bright Bimpongs Freedom was permanently placed in front of Eigtveds Pakhus at the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Copenhagen. The sculpture was created in 1998 on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery and a gift to Denmark from the Virgin Islands. Photo: The Royal Library.

In the accompanying text, the activists explain that they threw the bust into the water “in solidarity with all the artists, students, and people all over the world who have had to live with the aftermath of Danish colonialism in the US Virgin Islands, India, Ghana, Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, and Denmark.”

[. . .] The media storm grew in fury after the head of the Institute for Art, Writing, and Research at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Katrine Dirckinck-Holmfeld, took full responsibility for the action, which she described as an “artistic happening.” [. . .]

It is too soon to say what actual impact the action will have on our understanding of Denmark’s colonial past or on the future of art education. After a month of discussion and debate, the bust affair has, regrettably, not yet managed to shift the focus away from Danish perspectives and narratives. The translocation of the bust of Christian IX on St. Thomas has, for instance, received little media attention in Denmark, even though this particular case adds important nuances to the discussion of the function of royal portraits in the transnational colonial memory culture. When politicians, museum directors, and others describe the action at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts as an attempt to “erase history,” with a capital H, it is important to take note of Vante’s reminder that a bust can never carry a collective history, but should rather be understood as a tool within the politics of memory. [. . .]

For full article, see https://kunstkritikk.com/ripple-effects/

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