Artists of “I Am Queen Mary”: Interview with La Vaughn Belle and Jeannette Ehlers

[Many thanks to Veerle Poupeye for bringing this item to our attention via Critical.Caribbean.Art.] La Vaughn Belle and Jeannette Ehlers are the founders of the “I Am Queen Mary” Monument – the first public monument of a black woman in Copenhagen, Denmark. Here are excerpts; read full interview at natfluence.

I Am Queen Mary” is an artist-driven project created by two black female artists from different sides of the Atlantic, but who are connected by the shared colonial history of Denmark of the U.S. Virgin Islands. The first temporary version of the monument, inaugurated in March 2018 in Copenhagen, generated a lot of attention, debate, and worldwide recognition.

Jeannette Ehlers is a Copenhagen-based artist of Danish and Trinidadian descent whose practice takes shape experimentally across photography, video, installation, sculpture, and performance. Ehlers’ work often makes use of self-representation and image manipulation to bring about decolonial hauntings and disruptions.

La Vaughn Belle makes visible the unremembered. She is a multi-disciplinary visual artist from the Virgin Islands whose work explores the material culture of coloniality. Her work presents countervisualities and narratives that challenge colonial hierarchies and invisibility.

What inspired you to create the ‘I Am Queen Mary’ Statue and what does it mean to you?

Jeannette Ehlers: Denmark was a colonizer of the Virgin Islands for around 250 years, ending with the sale of the Virgin Island from Denmark to the United States in 1917, without the consent from the people living on the islands. This part of our long-shared history needed to be illuminated.

In 2014 we were both contacted by Danish researcher and filmmaker Helle Stenum, who wanted to create an exhibition that would reconnect our histories through art for the centennial of the sale in 2017. She asked each of us to consider making a monument.

Due to a lack of funding, Helle Stenum had to cancel her initiative. However, each of us had been working on our respective ideas for a monument, and I had been fortunate to fundraise enough money for a temporary sculpture in Copenhagen.

We decided to collaborate on this, and we literally merged our projects, our bodies, our nations, and our narratives!

“I Am Queen Mary” is located on the harbor front in Copenhagen. As a public art project, it is a huge manifestation of Black presence in public space. We created a space that honors the legacy of the historical figure of Mary Thomas, an important leader of the “Fireburn” labor revolt on St. Croix.

The Fireburn began on October 1, 1878, as an uprising against the contractual servitude that continued to bind workers to the plantation system after the 1848 abolition of slavery in the former Danish West Indies. “I Am Queen Mary” speaks to many resistance movements and traditions.

She anticipates the question, “Who are you?” and in the African tradition of call-and-response, announces her presence. By speaking her humanity into existence, she stakes her claim on the site and reshapes the narrative for future generations. [. . .]

How do you conquer fear and overcome obstacles when things seem hopeless?

Jeannette Ehlers: To keep focusing and keep working.

La Vaughn Belle: I have a few strategies. I seek strength to conquer fear in knowing that Jeannette and I were brought together to work on this amazing project. That understanding inspires faith that we are not alone in seeing this through. We also literally called forth the spirit of a very powerful woman – Queen Mary – and all those who were a part of the Fireburn labor revolt on St. Croix in 1878.

When we think about what they endured and risked, it makes overcoming whatever obstacle we face now seem possible. I believe it is natural and normal to be afraid, but in making decisions that inspire fear, I begin to unpack them, examine where they come from, and examine the consequences of allowing them to stall my actions. If it is still necessary to move forward, I face the fears head-on and allow them to be fuel to carry me forward. [. . .]

For full interview and photos, see https://natfluence.com/interview/artists-of-i-am-queen-mary/

[Credits: Image of La Vaughn Belle and Jeannette Ehlers in front of wall: Carlos Alvarez | Images of Queen Mary in early afternoon light: David Berg.]

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