USA, want to melt down 1924 statue of Robert Lee to make new work

From Charlottesville in the U.S., a proposal that would be inconceivable to many in Italy: a cultural center to which a 1924 bronze Robert Lee monument has been donated proposes to melt down the statue to create a new, inclusive one with the bronze from it.

For many, at least here in Italy, the proposal that, in the U.S., has been launched (and taken very seriously) for the Robert E. Lee monument in Charlottesville (not to be confused with the one in Richmond, which became one of the symbols of the Black Lives Matter movement’s protest in the summer of 2020) would be inconceivable. In fact, it has been proposed that the bronze monument be melted down to create a new work of art with the material that will be made from it. Before we get to that, however, it is necessary to go in order: the monument to Robert E. Lee, commander-in-chief of the Confederate forces during the American Civil War (one of the major figures in the Southern army), is a work created between 1917 and 1924, first by Henry Shrady (New York, 1871 - 1922), who left it unfinished as he disappeared before finishing it, and then by the Bolognese Leo Lentelli (Bologna, 1879 - Rome, 1961), who finished the sculpture in 1924 (it was unveiled on May 21 of that year). The work was commissioned by local philanthropist Goodloe McIntire, who wanted to install it in a park he founded (today’s Lee Park) and then donate it to the city. By 1996 the work had been listed as one of Virginia’s “Landmarks” (i.e., the state’s most important monuments), and in 1997 it became part of the National Register of Historic Places.

Early protests against the monument (Southern states at the time of the Civil War were opposed to the abolition of slavery, and thus depictions of characters associated with Southern forces are seen as symbols of slavery) occurred in 2016, when Charlottesville’s deputy mayor asked the city council to remove the work and change the name of the park in which it is located (Lee Park, precisely), claiming that the monument is disrespectful to a part of the city community. So it came to February 2017, with a vote in which a majority of the city council voted in favor of removing the statue (a legal dispute then ensued raised by the opponents, which ended in the spring of 2021 with the Virginia Supreme Court issuing a decision in favor of removal). The monument became the subject of loud protests following the violence that originated after the 2017 Charlottesville riots and then again during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. Finally, on July 10, 2021, the statue was eventually removed from its plinth. “Removing the statue,” said Mayor Nikuyah Walker, “is a small step toward the goal of helping Charlottesville, Virginia, and America stand up against those who are willing to destroy black people for financial gain.” The statue was placed in municipal storage and finally, last Tuesday, the city council decided to donate it to the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, a local African American cultural center, which would like to melt it down, however, and use the resulting bronze to create a new public artwork, the New York Times reported.

Many institutions moreover had come forward, vis-à-vis the Charlottesville City Council, to request the work. Among others were the Statuary Park in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; the LAXART center in Los Angeles, which requested the work in order to use it as the basis for a new contemporary artwork to be displayed in an exhibition curated by Hamza Walker and Kara Walker; and even a private individual, Frederick Gierisch, who offered ten thousand dollars to the Charlottesville City Council in order to install the statue of Robert Lee and another removed monument, that of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson, on his ranch in Texas. Financial offer also came from the Ratcliffe Foundation of Russell, Virginia, which put up fifty thousand dollars for both sculptures, plus the bases.

To merge the statue and create a new one, which must be inclusive according to the initiative’s promoters, a crowdfunding campaign has also been launched on Indiegogo, which to date has already raised nearly 18 thousand euros (out of a goal of about 440 thousand). “Help us transform a national symbol of white supremacy into a new work of art that will reflect racial justice and inclusion,” the campaign’s presentation reads. The idea, which the promoters call “innovative,” is to “melt down the Robert E. Lee statue that once stood in one of Charlottesville’s public parks and use the bronze to create a new work of public art. The artistic transformation will be informed by a six-month community engagement process in which Charlottesville residents can participate in forums to help determine how the social value of inclusion can be represented through art and public space. We will then commission an artist of national significance to work with our community to design and create new bronze sculptural art that we will publicly display in Charlottesville by 2026.” Promoters estimate that in all, the operation will cost $1.1 million, $590,000 of which has reportedly already been raised. The resources will be used for: “the transportation of the statue to a foundry and its transformation into bronze ingots; a six-month community engagement process led by UVA’s Institute for Engagement + Negotiation; the commissioning of a nationally recognized artist to work with the community in the design and creation of a new artwork; and a salaried project manager position at JSAAHC to oversee the project.”

Underlying this, the promoters explain, is the idea of wanting to “offer Charlottesville and the nation a chance to transform our trauma into a rebirth through art. We hope that this process can become a model for other communities, with the hope of healing from racial violence.” There is currently no word on where the new work will be placed or what form it will take. The intent of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center is to donate the new work to the city of Charlottesville, but it has already made it known that if it is rejected, a location outside the city area will be found. “Our goal,” said Andrea Douglas, director of the Heritage Center, in an interview with local newspaper Charlottesville Tomorrow, “is not to destroy an object, but it is to transform it. It’s using the same raw material as its original creation and creating something that is more representative of the supposed democratic values of this community, able to better include those voices that in 1920 had no capacity to engage in the artistic process. We also hope that those who believe these statues are important to their heritage will participate in a process that includes those voices. What we want is a process driven by this community.” Even, Douglas makes a comparison to what was happening in wartime: “Objects have always been used, especially in wartime, to make bells, or to make cannons, or to make anything else. So even in the context of artistic production, the notion of reusing raw materials is not antithetical to the process. Artists reuse all the time.”

“Seeing these objects as rare and therefore impossible to dispose of in this way,” Douglas went on to conclude, “actually doesn’t even respond to the idea of making art per se, because it’s all about evolution and experimentation, and responding to cultural spaces. What we are doing in the context of overall practice is not out of bounds. It’s not a shocking thing.” The mayor has not commented on the matter for now but, Charlottesville Tomorrow also reports, she reportedly said that “the idea sounds exciting.” Certainly, it is not an easy idea and one that will be much discussed.

Image: the monument in 2009. Photo Cville Dog

USA, want to melt down 1924 statue of Robert Lee to make new work
USA, want to melt down 1924 statue of Robert Lee to make new work

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