A report by Elisa McKay for The St John Source.
“I Am Queen Mary” is a transitional public art project created by LaVaughn Belle of the U.S. Virgin Islands and Jeannette Ehlers of Denmark – two artists connected by their shared Caribbean roots and colonial histories.
Now the artists responsible for the project are turning to the world to raise funds to make a more permanent version of the monument memorializing the impact of Denmark’s colonialism in the Caribbean and the people who fought against it.
The sculpture pays homage to Mary Thomas, known to history as Queen Mary, who led the Fireburn labor revolt on St. Croix in 1878. It made its debut in March 2018 in front of the West Indian warehouse in Copenhagen in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the sale and transfer of the Danish West Indies (now the U.S. Virgin Islands) to the United States.
In December 2020, a winter storm severely damaged the monument. The figure was removed and an augmented reality version of the sculpture was developed to hold space for the work and to activate new dialogues.
“New dialogues would capture the ideas of the fragility of the statue and the fragility of the history – those are the dynamics we want to see as permanent in the dialogue,” Belle said.
“The pose that we selected was the famous pose of Huey Newton, who was one of the leaders of the Black Panther Party, where he sits with a gun and a spear. We decided to recast ourselves not only as Black women but also into the legacy of Queen Mary. So there’s also layers of reenactment happening,” Belle said.
“We have merged our bodies to make a hybrid as a future woman, but it also draws on old traditions, not only European traditions but the ancient Egypt that created these huge sculptures sitting on cliffs. We’re drawing on African traditions also, which is really a very significant point,” Ehlers said.
The artists also said they pulled from African Caribbean traditions. Mary Thomas was one of the most popular leaders of Fireburn, the 1878 labor revolt protesting the slavery-like living and working conditions in the sugar plantations where most people were still employed. Before that revolt, she was already called queen. When she was arrested for her participation, the Danish authorities referred to her as “the one who is called queen.” That comes out of a long African and African Caribbean tradition of naming women – who are leaders in the community, who are strong women – as queens.
“The sculpture speaks to the aesthetics of this sugarcane worker with worker’s clothes and barefoot in a peacock chair, which is counter to the regality and power we associate with large sculptures, mostly of men,” Belle said. “We are connecting and creating the lore and legends of Mary Thomas. She was a fiery personality – a trickster.”
The title, “I Am Queen Mary,” also refers to the 1968 march of sanitation workers, who carried signs, “I am a Man,” declaring their rights. It makes reference to Huey Newton and also to the Black Lives Matter movement of today. It really broadens the project into the African Diaspora and Pan Africanism, Ehlers said.
Permanent permission has been given to the artists to create a bronze sculpture to replace the damaged one and its twin, to be erected on St. Croix. The cost to complete both is estimated at $1.5 million. The responsibility of the funding rests with the artists.
Sign up for the fundraiser that started Aug. 27 and will run through Oct. 2 on Indiegogo.
Information on the project is available on the “I Am Queen Mary” website.
Belle and Ehlers are raising funds to ensure the monument stays at the entrance to Copenhagen for generations to come. The campaign will leverage the visibility and resources generated by the existing monument in Copenhagen to secure the funds to make a “twin” to be erected on St. Croix, the artists said.
The crowdfunding campaign kicked off Friday at the opening exhibition of SMK, the National Gallery of Denmark. The exhibition, “After the Silence,” shows 100 artworks created by women around the globe. Belle and Ehlers were slated to speak during the exhibit about the progress of the “I Am Queen Mary” project. They will present their documentary and show their individual artwork.
Belle and Ehlers have collaborated with Huey P. Newton’s widow, Fredrika Newton, and apparel designer Rachel Konte, co-founders of the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation. Konte is the co-founder of the brand All Power to the People Project, LLC. Newton and Konte worked together in designing and producing the product line for the project.
At the end of a late-night call to the Source on St. Croix from Copenhagen on Wednesday, Belle and Ehlers were jovial and excited as they looked toward Friday’s Crowdfunding Campaign.
“We have been asked throughout the years, ‘What can we do, how can we help?’ We have seen the support of hundreds and millions of people nationally and internationally for our ‘I Am Queen Mary’ project since its debut in 2018. We look forward to their continued support with our funding,” the artists said.