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Belgium Postcard: Fallen Statues And The Politics Of Public Aesthetics

Anti-racism and anti-colonial protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd raise new questions about how societies fill their public spaces.

Toppling down a statue of a Confederate general in Washington on June 19
Toppling down a statue of a Confederate general in Washington on June 19
Thierry Amougou


LEUVEN — Slavery may have been abolished in the United States in 1865, but George Floyd was killed as a slave in the same country in 2020. Likewise, even though Belgium no longer has colonies, "The spirit of colonization is still written in stone on every street corner," as lawmaker Kalvin Soiresse Njall of the Green Party recently argued.

Njall's statement highlights one of the major aspects of the decolonial issue, which is that reasoning, imaginations, practices, speeches and images can perpetuate colonial and slavery relations even after the official end of slavery and colonization.

In a world still comatose after COVID-19, the tragic death of George Floyd seems to be acting as an amplifier and accelerator for a civic awakening. People are breaking out of the lockdown period through political and activist mobilization in a fight against racism and other related discriminations. And among other things, completing both the abolition of slavery and decolonization requires the decolonization of public space.

People are thus turning their attention to the issue of what constitutes a "fair" public space, one that can no longer be reduced in its use to respect for the principles of continuity, neutrality and non-competition.

Given how cosmopolitan our societies are, the demand for justice through remembrance must be reflected in the aesthetics, iconography, functions and designations of public spaces. In a community where citizens have different histories, memories and origins, it's import that people don't feel hurt or offended by a public space that celebrates the executioners of their ancestors, or by the designation of roads, squares and avenues that exalt the names of figures synonymous with murder, violence and racism against certain citizens.

This brings up a democratic issue, that of the participatory and/or democratic production of the city, whose functional, memorial, historical, ecological, iconographic, social, economic and political dimensions can no longer be the result of the opinions of expert town planners, landscape designers and architects alone, but should also — and above all — be the product of a citizen-oriented public policy adopted through debate.

The demand for justice through remembrance must be reflected in the aesthetics, functions and designations of public spaces.

If a policeman who wears and represents the rule of law violates George Floyd's right to life in 2020, then the rule of law has yet to be perfected. Likewise, if a statue evokes memories for certain citizens of suffering, again, there's room for improving the rule of law. This new way of thinking about the rule of law requires not only the recognition that violence can sometimes be at the hands of police, but also that public spaces — by not respecting legacy of all citizens — are also a challenge to the rule of law.

It seems obvious therefore that there needs to be some kind of memorial justice in public spaces, as evidenced in the United States by the removal of statues depicting Confederate generals and Christopher Columbus, in the incident in England where protestors threw a statue of Edward Colston, a former slave trader, into the Bristol harbor.

Empty pedestal in Brussels on June 12 — Photo: Laurie Dieffembacq/Belga via ZUMA

In Belgium, a statue of King Leopold II was vandalized and removed by Antwerp authorities. Also, following a petition from students, a bust of the king was taken down from the University Square of Mons. Meanwhile, in France, people are debating the removal of a statue of Colbert, author of the abominable Code Noir, which defined the conditions of slavery in the French colonial empire.

Decolonization activists see these controversial historical figures as founders of the racism and inequality that continues to wreak havoc today. And since public space should be showcase for our collective values — our shared values — statues of such figures have no business being there. What people are challenging isn't history itself, but certain historical figures who contributed greatly to the discrimination and inequality that continue to structure today's world.

This moral purification of public spaces seems to maintain that there can be no lasting peace without a justice of remembrance. And yet, this inevitably leads to questions and conflict. Should the statues be simply cleared away? Or should the figures they represent be impartially inscribed with what they have done? Should the iconography and the designation of the public space be balanced by statues of women and men who fought against slavery and racism? Is this not the start of a new war of memories?

Statues of such figures have no business being there.

A public space in Brussels honoring Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is proof that a democracy can not only build a just public space, but in doing so improve itself in return. On April 23, 2018, the municipal council unanimously authorized the Patrice Lumumba Square on the 58th anniversary of the DRC's independence from Belgium. The postcolonial epistemology thus proves to be a great contribution to the deepening of democracy by using public space to examine both the values and figures of the country's past while also helping build positive empathy between citizens.

Once the diversity of eras, memories and opinions that make up the public space are revealed, a just and democratic public space seems to present itself as an instrument for deepening democracy. And it does so by redefining democracy as a dynamic and critical relationship between institutions that make use of lived experiences and backgrounds.

Having again become a critical lever for citizens thanks to the decolonial question, the question now is whether public space can be transformed into a tool for calling everyone to order not by imposing a certain status quo — with symbol's of history's victors — but by exalting our common values in order to find universal connection.

*Thierry Amougou is an economics professor at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium.

*This article was translated with permission of the author.

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