Monumentalism and Representation of Women across monuments : Erasure and the Subliminal Impact

An ‘imagined identity’ which had the opportunity to make humans out of us all, chose to ‘stand erect’, literally. Declaring openly in 1890, Germany’s Otto Bismarck himself said the following while considering the figure of Germania as the monumental symbol for the United Germany. “I don’t find the figure of Germania appropriate. A female being with a sword in such a defiant pose is some-what unnatural. Every officer would agree with me. A male figure, a mercenary or an old German Kaiser would have been more appropriate.”

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While this led to his own image with a sword becoming the image for this imagined nation, the Bismarck Towers that followed, walked into similar patterns of erecting towers, essentially phallic symbols which were larger than life, in shape and size as an attempt to use scale as a form of intimidation and reverence.

With phallic figures, statues and monuments all over the world from London, Washington to Jaipur in India, towers, and obelisks and statues marking male figures in open stances of power are what construe of a lot of monuments we see in the world today. The obelisk, which as a structure originated from Egypt is a long pointed four-sided shaft, the uppermost portion of which forms a pyramid. The word ‘obelisk’ literally means ‘Baal’s shaft’ or Baal’s organ of reproduction. Whether of Osiris, Baal, or fertility in general, it was a representation of fatherhood and patriarchy.

Examples range from the Washington Tower to the Empire State building that Valerie Briginshaw infact cited as a symbol of American pride and “the ultimate sign of American phallic power”.

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What does a monument speak? And how does the intention differ from the impact they have eventually? Be it the Bismarck towers or the Charlottesville Confederate Statue, the conflict lay in the vast difference between the intent and the impact they had after they were built respectively.

With an immense amount of focus on the visual and material reminders; and evidence of the male domination spread so far and wide across the world, the other dimension of it also can be a blatant disregard of acknowledging or wanting to display any women figures with any amount of power or structure. The enormity of this erasure is spread across art forms. Not only in monuments but art, in general, has a problem of a whitewashed aesthetic where definitions of what makes good art are based upon the fragility and beauty depicted in the historical context. As a result, the image and identity and the vocabulary of what it means to be a woman can be pointed towards a destroyed representation.
Most of the art and monuments that have created our identities largely reflect how the society required women to adopt either a traditional female role around which the real identity somehow had to be worked around or a traditional ‘rebellious, feminist’ role which still challenges the so-called norms of female identity.
As bell hooks speaks so eloquently in her book Black looks, “Opening a magazine or book, turning on the television set, watching a film, or looking at photographs in public spaces, we are most likely to see images of black people that reinforce and reinscribe white supremacy. Those images may be constructed by white people who have not divested of racism, or by people of color black people who may see the world through the lens of white supremacy-internalized racism”, this quote can very well be true for the constructed image of women through history. Images shown and constructed throughout history are often through a ‘white male gaze’, with internalized sexism strewn across the way bodies are built and held together to the kind of expressions and outfits we see that are considered ‘desirable’. Roxanne Baker in a speech at the Platypus’ Fourth Annual European Conference said, “The fight for women’s emancipation is inextricably tied up with the fight for human emancipation, that is, with the struggle to end class society and all the forms of social oppression that it generates”.
“There is a direct and abiding connection between the maintenance of white supremacist patriarchy in this society and the institutionalization via mass media of specific images, representations of race, of blackness that support and maintain the oppression, exploitation, and overall domination of all black people.”
While defining something that was an important reminder of our history, which is one of the functions of a monument, I believe there is a massive misconstruction of the female identity through actually building elements of weakness, fragility, so-called beauty to just plain erasure and reluctance to actually acknowledge any depth or add dimensions to what it means to be a woman. Though instances of women and their contribution are finally coming up, movements like #MeToo and Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette are finally speaking about women in history and representation, monumentalism has played an extensive role in symbolically and subliminally making women feel small, unrepresented and invisible in certain cases.

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There are only so many monuments capturing any form or a multi-dimension woman found. Some I can recall are the Immigrant Mother or The Valiant Five in Canada, The only depiction of female monumentalism in India I see as the statue of Raani Laxmibai, whose overall depiction is very similar in character to Joan of Arc. The portraiture of what it means to be female through history has been a very skewed version viewed only through men in positions of power. The female identity that has been fleshed out for us hardly ever captures intersectional identities; And if they do it is often in a reductive, distorted manner.

What do we do with monuments which are symbols and actual manifestations of oppression and violence? Do we tear them down like the Charlottesville incident or the Cecil Rhodes statue at Oxford or maybe start creatively re-writing the actual pasts of women throughout history? Do we make the monuments of men and only men smaller in size, build women the same size? How do we go forth to creating a representation of what it meant to be a woman in history through monumentalism? What can be a form of constructive inclusion?

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