Coming to terms with our past

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Should the tragic events of our past be erased? How to develop the relationship with History for the development of a continuously improving society

The statue of Edward Colston after the events of June 7, 2020 Credit: Bristol City Council

The Past is studded with moments of evolution and progress that are condensed into a few epoch-making events intertwined with as many episodes that time has led to deem deplorable.

However, healing the wounds of History is not a simple and straightforward process: for example, is it better to keep controversial monuments or buildings such as the Palace of Italian Civilization (Rome), a symbol of authoritarian ideologies, or would it be better to remove them, creating a void on the trace of the past?

In order to answer this question, we have chosen to report three contemporary events that offer excellent examples of how it is possible to create a perspective on the past by interpreting works from a contemporary perspective through a continuous questioning of the foundations of our society.

The most recent example was also mentioned in our selection of articles in IN.TEMPO, our newsletter that comes out two Thursdays a month with insights and insights related to the Italian and international cultural sector (if you are curious* about our upcoming content, you can subscribe here).

Hannah Arendt’s trilingual inscription “No one has the right to obey” on the financial offices at Court Square Credit: City of Bolzano

The choice to citizens: display a work deemed controversial at museum

Following the events that occurred on June 7, 2020 during the Black Lives Matter protests , the We are bristol history commission was established to decide the consequences related to the statue of Edward Colston, one of the prominent figures in the slave trade.

Edward Colston’s statue was recovered and shown to the public digitally and in a temporary display at the M Shed museum, where people were invited to share their opinions on the fate of the statue and its pedestal on Colston Ave through a questionnaire.

What emerged from the survey-which can be seen in the report The Colston Statue: What Next? -shows today’s societal sentiment: most respondents want to see the statue displayed in the Bristol museum, but presented lying horizontally and with graffiti to remind them of past events.

Regarding the statue base, respondents agreed in its use for temporary artwork and on the affixing of a new plaque with the following description:

“On 13 November 1895, a statue of Edward Colston (1636 – 1721) was unveiled here celebrating him as a city benefactor. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, the celebration of Colston was increasingly challenged given his prominent role in the enslavement of African people. On 7 June 2020, the statue was pulled down during Black Lives Matter protests and rolled into the harbour. Following consultation with the city in 2021, the statue entered the collections of Bristol City Council’s museums.”

The Colston Statue: What Next?

Changing the location of the statue and allowing different generations to have a place to develop fruitful dialogue helps lay the foundation for a society that can improve itself in its continuous confrontation with the controversial events of the past.

In this way, different experiences and perspectives can be shared, developing greater empathy and mutual understanding, including sharing views on the city’s past, present and future.

Rex Whistler’s work The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats at the Tate Britain café Credit: Getty Images

The creation of site-specific works in dialogue with the past

Inside Tate Britain’s café there is a work entitled The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats, a large mural by Rex Whistler that dates from 1927 and depicts a panorama of hunting scenes in exotic locations around the world.

Although there is depiction of pleasant places, some sequences in the work include racist caricatures of the Chinese people and a depiction of a black child being kidnapped by his mother and enslaved (we had discussed this in the last newsletter in February).

In 2018, the museum had already added explanatory text acknowledging the racist images within the work. But in protests that arose in the summer of 2020, the issue resurfaced: a petition signed by 7,500 people called for its removal.

In December 2020, a working group called “The Rex Whistler Mural Discussions” was formed, consisting of five members, among whom the chair was Tate Britain director Alex Farquharson.

The group-through a series of discussions held throughout 2021-consulted with artists, art historians, cultural consultants, and civic representatives to explore possible options and understand how best to develop a fruitful dialogue with the past.

In mid-February 2022, thanks to a press release, Tate Britain announced the fate of the work: in order to tell the story of the changing society and its symbols, Tate Britain’s café will become an exhibition space, where Rex Whistler’s work will be joined by a site-specific installation created by a contemporary artist*.

The reinterpretation of the way the space has been experienced, where the work of contemporary artist* juxtaposes with the mural, will create a place open to dialogue, contextualizing the work of the past and showing the evolution of society through culture.

“As our future artists, archivists, curators, visitors and leaders, it was crucial that the next generation are part of this dialogue. They reflected deeply on the issues, and the challenges that lie ahead. Young people want to see museums take ownership of their difficult histories and explore how the past relates to our future. They want to be a part of a new way of presenting art which is porous, conversational, transparent and unfinished, which brings together different voices and presents opportunities for learning through critical and artistic exchange.”

Rachel Noel, Youth Programs Coordinator at the Tate Museum and co-chair of the Rex Whistler mural discussions.
Victory Monument, Bolzano Credit: FAI, Fondo per l’Ambiente Italiano

Defusing the architectural legacy of fascism: “no one has the right to obey”

Throughout Europe, monuments of fascist agit-prop are still visible today. In the city of Bolzano, for example, two structures related to the history between the 1920s and 1940s stand out.

In Court Square you can still see the Financial Offices building with a bas-relief of fifty-seven panels carved in marble, depicting the rise of Italian fascism, from the March on Rome to colonial conquests in Africa. In the center is depicted Mussolini on horseback, his right arm outstretched in a Roman salute with the famous phrase, “believe, obey, fight.”

The second is the Victory Monument, a striking white marble arch with columns carved in the shape of a fascio littorio, the symbol of the fascist movement. Along its frieze, a Latin inscription reads, “Here at the border of the homeland lay the banner. From this point on we educated others with language, law and culture.”

The city council since 2011 has been wondering how to develop a dialogue with these monuments in the city, which hold great importance artistically (examples of Italian rationalism), but are still a strong symbol of a past ideology.

According to Hannes Obermair, an Italian professor and historian at the University of Innsbruck involved in the search for a solution for the monuments in the city of Bozen/Bolzano, choosing to remove the monuments avoids addressing the complex layers of History and identity that create dissension in the present, while if one chooses to keep them without any changes, one risks normalizing fascist ideology.

In this regard, minimal interventions of great impact were chosen in order to develop a bridge between the past and the present.

For the Victory monument, an initial intervention was created, visible on one of the columns, through the affixing of an LED ring that symbolically suffuses the fascist rhetoric without harming the artistic integrity of the monument.

Next, in a crypt beneath the building, an exhibition route entitled “BZ ’18-’45 a monument | a city | two dictatorships” was constructed detailing Bolzano’s turbulent modern history, contextualizing the creation of the monument and exploring the debate surrounding it (the exhibition design can be explored in more detail here).

For the bas-relief on the financial offices, the Bozen provincial government decided to structure a competition of ideas for the transformation of the facade, appealing to all “artists and artists, architects and architects, historians and historians, and cultural workers and practitioners.”

The solution was to transform the frieze into a “place of remembrance,” capable of maintaining artistic integrity while neutralizing fascist rhetoric.

From the 486 projects submitted, that of artists Arnold Holzknecht and Michele Bernardi was selected. Their intervention, inaugurated in 2017, contrasts with the magniloquence of the frieze: above Hans Piffrader’s bas-relief, their LED installation features Hannah Arendt’s phrase “No one has the right to obey” in German, Italian, and Ladino, the three official languages of the region.

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