The statue of Mary Thomas, a black queen from the Caribbean who revolted against the Danish has been erected in Copenhagen, Denmark. The 23 feet tall monumental public sculpture depicts Queen Mary crowned in a head wrap, seated on a wicker throne with a torch in one hand and a tool used to cut sugar cane in the other, with her feet barefoot. The torch and cane bill in each hand reference the resistance strategies used by the colonized in their struggles for freedom.
Two black female artists Jeannette Ehlers of Denmark and La Vaughn Belle of the Virgin Islands created the collaborative sculpture entitled I AM QUEEN MARY. Queen Mary is remembered for what is popularly called the 1878 Fireburn uprising.
The legacy of slavery and colonialism is still around us. When slavery was abolished in 1848, former slaves were conditioned by a new labour bill that they could change jobs only once a year. Three Queens from the Caribbean led a revolt against the Danish rule. One of the Queens was Mary Thomas.
Ehlers, one of the artists said, “What’s unique about this sculpture is not only its size and thematics but that it was not commissioned. It is we, two artists, who are pushing into the public space. A space in which 98% of the statues in Denmark are representing white males. So like the Queens of the Fireburn took action and fought against the oppressive colonial system, we are confronting present day’s racism and Eurocentrism by claiming a space for our narratives.”
Not many colonizers accept the fact that their actions of slavery and colonialism were adversely wrong. Just like many other Western and European countries, Denmark participated in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and sold the Virgin Islands to the U.S in 1917 for $25 million. Denmark was a colonial power in the West Indies for almost 250 years.
The project represents a “bridge between the two countries”, Belle explained, “It’s a hybrid of our bodies, nations and narratives. It extends the conversation beyond the centennial year and gets people to really question what their relationship to this history. Who we are as a society is largely about who we remember ourselves to be. This project is about challenging Denmark’s collective memory and changing it.”
The artists used 3D scanning technology to create the sculpture. The seated pose recalls the iconic 1967 photograph of Huey P. Newton, founder of the Black Panther Party. The plinth incorporates coral cut from the ocean by enslaved Africans gathered from ruins of the foundations of historic buildings on St. Croix. The statue stands a few miles from where Queen Mary was jailed.
The project creates a dialogue around the impact of colonialism and demonstrates how artists can be leaders in this conversation.
Henrik Holm, Senior Research Curator of the Royal Cast Collection, Staten Museum Kunst said, “It takes a monument like this to fight against the silence, neglect, repression, and hatred. It takes dedicated persons to work against the tide of the times – like those who broke their chains, like those who started the Fireburn and those who managed to get this monument in place to mark a path for a better future”.
“Never before has a sculpture like this been erected on Danish soil. Now, Denmark is offered a sculpture that addresses the past. But it is also an artwork for the future,” Holm added.