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n July of 2020, Black Lives Matter (BLM) Toronto claimed responsibility for the pink paint splashed on three colonial monuments in Toronto. Three Black activists were arrested and charged with mischief under $5,000, a charge often associated with the destruction or damage of property (Sandals, 2020). The monuments in question were that of Egerton Ryerson, the “father” of the Residential School system in Canada (Figure 1); John A. MacDonald, the nation’s first Prime Minister (Figure 2); and the equestrian statue of King Edward VII, a British colonial monarch (Figure 3). Although this incident received widespread media attention, it is not an isolated event. “Artistic interventions on monuments have a long- and well-established history” notes an open letter entitled “Artists in Support of Black Lives” signed by more than 2,000 Canadian artists (Sandals, 2020). This particular intervention was not even the first large-scale painting action BLM-TO led in 2020, it was just the first to receive mass media and police attention. It stands with the many interventions of its kind that took place across Canada in the summer of 2020. From coast to coast Black and Indigenous activists interrupted the nation’s colonial narrative.
This pink painting action exists within a Black activist tradition of property and infrastructure destruction as a feature of fugitivity and abolitionist sentiment (King, 2019: 73). As part of a wider infrastructure of domination, colonial monuments serve to legitimize narratives of conquest and smooth over historical injustices as they work to uphold Canada’s settler colonial project (Gapps, 2021). Colonial monuments represent and enact the domination, elimination, and erasure of Black and Indigenous peoples on this land. As settler state-sanctioned statues, they work to recognize a singular account of history that is exclusionary to most and inclusionary only to some. The monuments, as infrastructure, play an active part in sedimenting colonial legacies in space. Michelle Murphy (2013) discusses the temporal concept of latency as a means by which the past becomes reactivated, creating a future that is already altered. Extending this concept to monuments, the violence and domination represented is thereby reactivated in space. One specific colonial past is memorialized, allowing it to live on and perpetuate a colonial futurity.
Colonial monuments operate as a part of a wider infrastructure of domination. They work to formally recognize and publicly celebrate a singular history that situates White bodies within Canada’s national narrative and includes Black and Indigenous bodies only through a colonial imaginary which visualizes narratives of enslavement and “savagery.” By materializing colonial legacies and marking histories in the city’s-built form, monuments create a mnemonic, aiding in the formation and sustainment of a colonial collective memory, life, and placemaking practice. As infrastructure, colonial monuments materialize coloniality and white supremacy in the city’s built form. Ruth Wilson Gilmore (2017: 238) understands infrastructures of feeling to materialize ideologies and actions that feelings enable or constrain. Through Black activism, these monuments cease being infrastructural vehicles of domination and become a method of transformation (Cowen, 2019). These interventions transform monuments from infrastructures of domination to infrastructures of feeling. The materiality of monuments, the way they are built into the city and impose upon urban space, physically builds the colonial narrative into the form of the city, contributing to the infrastructural injustices long faced by Black people on this land.
However, through their interventions, Black activists transcend an infrastructure responsible for perpetuating Canada’s colonial agenda, instead creating new possibilities for Black liberation and for Black life that thread through generations. Through artistic intervention, such as BLM-TO’s July 2020 painting action, Black activists are enacting alternative methods of memory-making and placemaking (James-Wilson, 2018). They are affecting a set of alternative place-making and narrative practices, thereby creating a Black infrastructure, one that not only creates a spatialized form of collective memory for Black experience but also establishes routes and connection throughout the Black diaspora (James-Wilson, 2018). These interventions are a fragment of the practices of refusal enacted by Black people throughout the Black Atlantic. By providing a Black alternative, artistic intervention becomes a method of aesthetic inquiry, as it visually calls into question the processes and structures that uphold coloniality as the norm (Chuh, 2019: 3). In the case of monuments, it visually implicates colonial monuments as part of an infrastructure of domination. Aesthetic inquiry turns the aesthetic on itself, as enacting artistic intervention subverts the ongoing and historical use of art in upholding the dominant power regime (Chuh, 2019: 21).
Tiffany Lethabo King (2019: 42) explains how for Black activists, the monument becomes a site for the destabilization of the colonial ideals that equate Blackness only to conquest and death. As a method of refusal, artistic interventions reclaim the visual as a spatial mnemonic, using this tool in service of protest and refusal. By visually interrupting the monument, the added aesthetic dimension interrupts the colonial narrative and creates one of liberation. As an alternative form of Black writing, these interventions question the notion of the normative, making space for something new or something else (King, 2019: 42). They create a visual language that exists outside of colonial normativity.
Artistic intervention on colonial monuments is a performance of refusal, making visible the historical and ongoing practices of nonacceptance that Black people have enacted (King, 2019: 40). The defacement of the statues works to visualize Black critique and revolt, becoming a method of colonial unknowing (King, 2019: 44). The viewer is invited to question the “official” histories upheld by the state and understand how Canada’s national narrative is not one of truth, but one of intentional emphasis (Sandals, 2020). By displaying an alternative to “official” history, Black activists are creating a terrain of struggle by which different futures are imagined. Through refusal, Black activists are asserting Black presence and Black histories in space. Through refusal, Black activists are negating the settler state’s legitimacy, authority, and imposed normativity, allowing for the possibility of living otherwise (Campt, 2019).
The continued interventions on colonial monuments highlight the infrastructural failures of this form of built heritage and collective memory. In response to these collective demonstrations of feeling we can ask: what is the way forward? What is next for infrastructural forms of public memory? Can these artistic interventions be understood as counter-monuments in and of themselves?
Counter-monuments challenge and denaturalize the viewer’s assumptions of history, reminding the viewer of the incomplete nature of “official” history (Becker, 2019). Counter-monuments work to reinsert marginalized voices and material traces of action into public space and challenge prevailing practices and theories of monumentality (Colangelo, 2019). Allowing for monuments to exist in their transformed disposition allows for the refusal, survival, and collective emotion of Black people, and other colonized peoples in Canada, to be memorialized in space. This memorialization not only highlights the presence of Black people in Canada but also underscores national processes of elimination and conquest. In Canada, much of this legacy of visual activism has been done within the Black community, in keeping with the Black activist tradition of property destruction and defacement as a form of abolition and fugitivity. The future of monuments and public memory is one of hybridity, inclusion, and truth. The future of monuments and public memory is one which is currently being (re)written by Black activists. Artistic interventions on colonial monuments transforms previously oppressive forms of infrastructure into questions of place, space, and belonging. This method of aesthetic inquiry requires the viewer to question Canada’s national narrative and to hear voices that have long been silenced.
Becker C J (2019) Confederate soldiers, Voodoo Queens, and Black Indians: Monuments and counter-monuments in New Orleans. De Arte, 54(2), 41–64.
Campt T (2019) Black visuality and the practice of refusal. Women and Performance. February 25.
Chuh K (2019) Chapter 1: Knowledge Under Cover. In The difference aesthetics makes: On the humanities after man. Duke University Press.
Chuh K (2019) In The difference aesthetics makes: On the humanities after man. introduction, Duke University Press.
Colangelo D (2019) We live here: Media Architecture as Critical Spatial Practice. Space and Culture, 24(4), 501–516.
Cowen D (2019). Following the infrastructures of empire: Notes on cities, Settler colonialism, and method. Urban Geography, 41(4), 469–486.
Gapps S (2021) Keep them, counter them or tear them down? statues, monuments and the smoothing over of historical injustices. History Australia, 18(4), 830–836.
Gilmore R W 2017 Abolition Geography and the Problem of Innocence. In Futures of Black Radicalism, G. T. Johnson and A. Loubin (Eds.). New York: Verso, 225–240.
James-Wilson S (2018) Roads, routes, and roots: The (im)possible spatial mnemonics of black infrastructure. Roads, Routes, And Roots: The (Im)Possible Spatial Mnemonics Of Black Infrastructure.
King T L (2019) Chapter 1: Defacing the Ceremony. In The Black Shoals: Offshore Formations of Black and Native Studies. essay, Duke University Press.
Murphy M (2013). Distributed Reproduction, Chemical Violence, and Latency. The Scholar and Feminist Online.
Sandals L (2020, July 24) Drop the charges and defund the police, says new artists' letter for black lives. Canadian Art.
Jane O’Brien Davis is a MSc. Planning student at the University of Toronto interested in heritage planning and public histories. Her research interrogates these themes through the insurgent planning work of Black grassroots organizers to explore how histories and narratives can be rewritten in space.