Douglas Todd: Renowned sculptor touts ‘shock’ rebuttal to, not destruction of, historical statues

Yet another piece on sculptures and monuments of historical figures, with a similar sensible take to Tom McMahon’s Enough with John A. Macdonald. Where Are the Indigenous Monuments?:

Since he sees himself as a creator rather than a destroyer, one of Canada’s most renowned sculptors says his heart is broken almost every time another supposedly permanent public statue is vandalized, beheaded or toppled.

Timothy Schmalz, whose large figurative pieces are on display from Rome to Vancouver, has an alternative idea, which he says might shock.

Schmalz is putting the final touches now on Monument of Oppression in his massive studio in St. Jacob’s, Ont., where he’s also created life-sized statues dedicated to women workers, asylum seekers, veterans, homeless people, miners, Samuel de Champlain and Indigenous and African visionaries, not to mention his musical icon, Gordon Lightfoot.
Detail from Timothy Schwarz’s bronze monument to migrants and asylum seekers, installed last year in St. Peter’s Square in Rome. (Handout)

The Monument of Oppression is made up of two hands stretching up from what looks like a prison cell in the ground. “It’s almost like the figures from the past are coming back and reaching out — and the oppressed are having visibility, and it’s a haunting visibility.”

Instead of demonstrators beheading a statue of Macdonald in Montreal in August, or Victoria City council surreptitiously removing another statue of him in 2018, Schmalz asks us to imagine erecting the Monument of Oppression adjacent to a likeness of Canada’s first prime minister, “with the hands going through the bars and reaching toward the statue.”

That, Schmalz suggests, is a more productive way of dealing with the multi-edged legacy of Macdonald, a dynamic Scotsman who both created the vision for the nation of Canada but also supported establishing residential schools dedicated in part to “Christianizing” Indigenous people.

Christopher Columbus, the Italian explorer associated with the “founding” of North and South America, also has a disputed history, which has led activists to recently haul down his statues.

Similar removals and debates have arisen over 19th–century B.C. Chief Justice Matthew Begbie, who had to sentence to death five Indigenous men that a jury had found guilty of murder, but who also learned Indigenous dialects, defended Chinese labourers and had strong friendships with many chiefs.

“Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying some Europeans weren’t brutal, say, 100 years ago and further back,” Schmalz said.

“Some early British settlers came to Canada and had this idea they had the real culture and the superior morality. It was actually called the White Man’s Burden. They looked around at the natives and thought, ‘Oh, we’ll make them good British subjects.’ You can acknowledge the settlers’ error and insensitivity.”

But the sculptor says our diverse society should not deal with the inevitable messiness of history by defacing or smashing, in 15 minutes, works of craftsmanship that skilled artists took years to complete.

“You can’t destroy the whole idea of history. Instead of removing it, you have to face it and learn from it. It’s very dangerous to condemn people from 100 and 200 years ago with the morality of today, which is evolving. By doing so you’re saying that our cultural past is absolutely evil. But that’s historically inaccurate and simply untrue.”

Schmalz emphasizes the value of having figurative public statues over more abstract ones, whose meanings are usually vague. He’s created a powerful series called The Homeless Jesus, depicting a shrouded figure sleeping on a bench, one of which is in Vancouver. And he’s currently sculpting a stunning piece, as big as a truck, dedicated to the victims of human trafficking.

Schmalz hopes the piece will serve as a commentary on how slavery, via human trafficking, continues today. Yet somehow, he laments, the modern-day travesty of forced labour, including for sex, is often ignored, unlike slavery of the past.

“I can’t think of one single nation of the world that did not practise slavery, including among Indigenous people. It was a universal thing.” If every historic statue that had some link to past slavery was destroyed, he said, we’d have to eliminate most of the monuments of Rome.

“Should we destroy the Colosseum because it was built by slave labour? We don’t want to just go around the world and destroy. Simply because someone might be sensitive or offended, you can’t edit out our whole history. You have to learn from it.”

Schmalz has worked for three decades as a sculptor, typically 14 hours a day. In addition to standing up for the craftsmanship of artists who creating public monuments, he worries that people who just want to tear them down are revealing their arrogance.

“You are assuming, if you were in that place in that specific time, that you would do something different.”

But, at age 50, he knows most people are simply creatures of their era, conforming to whatever happens to be the unexamined moral beliefs, good, bad and indifferent, of the dominant culture.

That’s why Schmalz reacts when people become devoted to censoring figures of the past. He thinks it’s healthier to focus on the future, and what he calls “finding the truth within specific cultures and philosophies.”

His life-sized piece portraying victims of human trafficking gets us responding to problems in the here and now. And Monument of Oppression forces us to think about how things that many celebrated have caused damage to others.

Destroying symbols from history is easy. But truth-finding, he knows, requires facing up to the moral complexity of the real world.

Source: Douglas Todd: Renowned sculptor touts ‘shock’ rebuttal to, not destruction of, historical statues

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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