America’s Monuments, Reimagined for a More Just Future

With colonialist statues being toppled in America and beyond, T asked five artists to envision a different kind of memorial, one that embodies this moment of reckoning.

Credit...Ibrahim Mahama, “Dreams In-Between Dreams, 1909-1972,” 2020 © the artist. Altered image: Dennis Macdonald/Alamy Stock Photo

ACCORDING TO DATA compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center, some 100 monuments to Confederate generals and politicians have been removed from American public land since June 2015, when Dylann Roof, a then 21-year-old white supremacist, murdered nine Black parishioners in a mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., in a state that, at the time, still flew the Confederate flag over its capitol. More than a third of these monuments have been removed since May 25 of this year alone, when a Minnesota police officer named Derek Chauvin, who has been charged with second-degree murder, was caught on video kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, for more than eight minutes while Floyd pleaded for his life. (As a point of comparison, for the nearly 100 years between 1923 and 2015, only nine such monuments were removed.)

Many of these Confederate statues were erected throughout the South during the Jim Crow era at the beginning of the 20th century, or during the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. The debate surrounding their removal is not new, but it has intensified and widened in 2020. This year has seen some of the largest and most sustained civil rights actions of the last 50 years, as well as a president who continues to attract the support of extremist hate groups. As a result, the debate around public monuments has become a worldwide phenomenon. In the U.K., protesters in Bristol toppled a statue of the 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston and threw it into the harbor. In Antwerp, Belgium, a statue of King Leopold II, whose violent colonial rule over what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo is thought to have led to the death of millions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was removed in June.

There has already been significant work done toward reimagining monuments — both figurative and abstract — in the media and among elected officials. In 2018, the editor Erin E. Evans launched “The Black Monuments Project” on the website Mic, which envisioned an America in which our public monuments celebrated Black greatness rather than white oppression. In July of this year, the U.S. House of Representatives approved legislation to remove Confederate monuments from the Capitol building in D.C. and to replace a bust of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney — the author of the Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott decision, which ruled that the Constitution did not grant Black Americans citizenship — with one of Justice Thurgood Marshall, the Supreme Court’s first Black justice, who died in 1993. (The legislation still needs to be passed by the Senate and signed by the president in order to be enacted.)

Contemporary artists have also found themselves participating in this debate, such as Kehinde Wiley, whose 27-foot bronze statue, “Rumors of War” — depicting a Black man in jeans and a hoodie atop a rearing horse — was installed late last year in front of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, near Monument Avenue, which has long been a kind of public mausoleum for heroes of the Confederacy. It was in that spirit that T asked five artists, including the activist group and artistic collective Decolonize This Place, to imagine their own monument: It could be of anyone, or anything, and be placed anywhere (or replace anything). The works or concepts they created range from the explicit, such as Ibrahim Mahama’s statue of Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana, on the campus of Nkrumah’s alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, to the more theoretical, such as Tourmaline’s plans to turn the Rikers Island penitentiary complex into a pleasure garden. Collectively, they are an argument for rethinking the very idea of a monument itself: something that, instead of celebrating history, grapples with it — and then suggests a way to look forward, into a more just future.

Artist: Ibrahim Mahama

Project: A statue of Kwame Nkrumah (above)

Location: University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia

Replaces or Reclaims: Reimagines the statue of Nkrumah from his mausoleum in Accra, Ghana

NOW WORDS ARE bound and done, dreams and memories are one. Can memories inspire material changes within this world? It is important to remember the existing relationships within our shared histories in the world. After all, every life on this planet matters, so we have to remember the countless labor forces that have been built across the ages. It is also important to remember individuals who have dedicated their lives to the struggle and question of economic emancipation within the global capitalist system we inherited.

Kwame Nkrumah, arguably one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century and a Pan-Africanist, studied at the University of Pennsylvania before becoming the first president of Ghana and a founding member of the Organization of African Unity in 1963. His belief in creating a system that was designed to promote economic liberation across the African continent while working with the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War was very unpopular but had promise for rethinking systemic discrimination and injustice. Not much has changed since the coup that ousted him in 1966, but I believe he made both significant and fundamental contributions to rethinking social relations — an essential component of ensuring shared liberty, equality and fraternity.

This collage on paper combines archives and materials sourced online, using both text and imagery. It reimagines the statue of Nkrumah from the Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum in Accra, Ghana, within his alma mater, retracing paths and building new connections. His spirit embodies both the anticapitalist and anti-neocolonial agenda, and promises freedom and justice for all mankind, including every life and nonlife form. — Ibrahim Mahama, July 2020

Credit...Rindon Johnson, “Monument to the Multitudes Who Suffered and Suffer the Violent Establishment of the Global Economy,” 2020. Altered image: David Grossman/Alamy Stock Photo.

Artist: Rindon Johnson

Project: Returning Ancestral Land to the Oceti Sakowin

Location: South Dakota, Prospect Park, Brooklyn and Elsewhere

Replaces or Reclaims: The Black Hills mountain Range and Surrounding Area

WHEN I WAS ASKED to propose a monument, my first impulse was to sand away the faces on Mount Rushmore, but this form of reclamation reifies the violence of settler colonialism and dispossession. Instead of further altering the landscape, the Black Hills should be returned to the Oceti Sakowin — the proper name for the Great Sioux Nation — so that they, as the ancestral people of that land, could decide what to do about those faces. A gesture of this scale and magnitude is an act of intention. A monument must be redefined. A monument is an act of intention. By returning the Black Hills, the people of the United States would set the intention to change our government’s behavior toward Indigenous people and begin to implement large-scale acts of land secession and monetary reparations. In the vein of these gestures, we should ask ourselves daily: What future are we working toward?

So much healing needs to happen, so many lives must be acknowledged. As one individual, a Black American trans man, how could I suggest a single monument in solidarity with all people of the United States as we try to heal the impossibly deep wounds of hundreds of years of slavery, the genocide of Native Americans, the killing of BIPOC and trans people, mass economic injustice and the caging of children? If a monument is then an act of intention, I could create a series of monuments that would act as mirrors and frames for deep, constant contemplation. As we intend to grow and change over time, so too should our physical monuments. Our monuments can help us see how far we have come.

In keeping with this aspiration of intention, I chose materials that can exist harmoniously with a warming planet. Using carbon-capture technology to inject excess atmospheric carbon into volcanic basalt, I propose the creation of a series of large spherical boulders that will eventually grow moss, lichen, plants and flowers. These multivalent forms could be installed in many U.S. landscapes, as there is nowhere that white supremacy has not touched. With the placement of each of these carbon-sink stones, we could measure our own progress toward the creation of a more just society. Before a stone can be placed in a public setting, a concrete action must be taken. For example, funds could be distributed more fairly based on the needs of the community, a polluted marshland could be rehabilitated, detained children could rejoin their parents. With each act, the community sets a new course. White supremacy must be weeded out of our lives, our discourse and ways of being. We must name the violence against BIPOC, trans people and those wishing to immigrate to the United States. These atrocities must stop, and the stones will keep us accountable. Here is a stone placed in the lake at Prospect Park, Brooklyn, a marker of our collective intent. — Rindon Johnson, July 2020

Credit...Decolonize This Place, “The Struggle Continues,” 2020. Altered image: Massimo Salesi/

Artist: Decolonize This Place

Project: “The Struggle Continues”

Location: Columbus Circle, New York City

Replaces or Reclaims: 1892 Columbus Monument, Columbus Circle and Beyond

MONUMENTS TO figures like Christopher Columbus, George Washington and Theodore Roosevelt are symptoms of domination in the psychogeography of the city. The removal of monuments can unsettle power and impact the imagination, but it is never an end in and of itself. We should not forget that the felling of monuments in recent weeks has been the outcome of actions by popular movements rebelling against white supremacy and settler colonialism, whether the objects have been torn down by people themselves or by governments forced to preemptively remove them.

Professional artists, architects and urban policymakers are eager to fill the voids left behind by these removed monuments. In coming years, we can expect a whole genre of officially sanctioned “counter-monuments” to proliferate, some that will probably incorporate the remnants of the old, discredited monuments. But we are living at a moment in which radical art and ideas are easily co-opted by the powers that be as they scramble to contain the radical possibilities on the horizon. What use is a counter-monument if the underlying structures of oppression remain intact, including the ongoing occupation of stolen Indigenous land? Think, for example, of Mayor Bill de Blasio authorizing massive street murals reading “Black Lives Matter” in the face of calls to abolish the New York Police Department, members of which, we might add, continue to stand guard around hated monuments throughout the city like the column at Columbus Circle at 59th Street.

When we imagine a future for the most hated monuments of New York following their eventual removal, we do not think of a public art project (however creative or visionary) but rather of the deployment of the remnants in an escalating insurrectionary process, one in which the people will have torn them down and delivered them into a festive heap at what was once called Columbus Circle. We could imagine, for instance, a “Garden of Our Miseries,” in which the heroes of murder and empire decompose as so many ruins, providing a space of public reflection on the disastrous course of Western civilization. Stripped of their vertical, phallic power, the fragments of these columns and statues become the symbolic centerpiece and physical anchor for an organizing hub aiming to de-occupy the Upper West Side, from the Time Warner Center and Lincoln Center to the American Museum of Natural History, Central Park and the luxury condos that surround it.

Further north up Broadway, we imagine the de-occupation of that other great monument to Columbus, Columbia University, among the city’s largest landowners since it was founded as King’s College during British colonial times and an ongoing agent of mass displacement in West Harlem. We imagine university workers and neighborhood freedom fighters reclaiming that zone of the city, repurposing the ruins of empire for a new history of land, life and collective liberation. — Decolonize This Place, July 2020

Credit...Tourmaline, “Nanny Goat Hill Pleasure Gardens,” 2020. Altered image: Damon Winter/The New York Times.

Artist: Tourmaline

Project: “Nanny Goat Hill Pleasure Gardens”

Location: Rikers Island, New York City

Replaces or Reclaims: The Rikers Island prison complex

IN THE PLACE of Rikers Island — a living memorial to so much that we do not want or need — we are building the “Nanny Goat Hill Pleasure Gardens.”

The project draws upon two historic New York sites: Nanny Goat Hill, a rocky outcrop in Seneca Village, the autonomous community where Black and Irish people stayed together between 1825 and 1857 (when slavery was legal in the United States), and Black-owned pleasure gardens, havens on the periphery of Lower Manhattan where Black folks went to enjoy fresh air, alcohol and music in the 1820s. White-owned pleasure gardens, which existed throughout the 18th and 19th centuries and offered respite to white New Yorkers during the cholera outbreaks of 1832 and 1849, excluded Black patrons.

The “Nanny Goat Hill Pleasure Gardens” is a counter-monument that celebrates and amplifies the historic existence of Black space beyond ownership or sovereignty. It builds on a reciprocal relationship to the land that has, and continues, to exist. Even now, the garden at Rikers grows tall, orange Mexican sunflowers surrounded by butterflies on which opossums feed — proof that under captivity, Black people nevertheless come together to nourish ourselves.

The pleasure gardens may become many things: a sauna for queer and trans people to be naked in nature; a shelter for homeless survivors of intimate violence; a polycultural food source available for sustainable foraging; a bar. We won’t know until we assemble ourselves (with ramps, toilets and free food) and decide what we want by asking questions in the tradition of the freedom dreaming of the civil rights movement. For the time being, the hill provides flint to imagine a blueprint for possibility; it is a place that juts into waters of the unknown, from which we can better glimpse where we want to go, where we have traveled and what we are already growing. — Tourmaline, written with Thomas Lax, July 2020

Credit...Jennifer Odem, “Unearthed,” 2020. Altered still from video: Nexstar-WGNO, New Orleans/Getty Images.

Artist: Jennifer Odem

Project: An earthen mound in tribute to the Indigenous population of Louisiana

Location: Bayou St. John, New Orleans

Replaces or Reclaims: An equestrian statue of Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard

IN 2017, THE CITY of New Orleans removed four Confederate monuments, including a large equestrian statue of Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard. For over 100 years, this particular sculpture had occupied and defined a very significant location in the city. It stood at the foot of Esplanade Avenue at the entrance to City Park on the banks of Bayou St. John, originally called Bayouk Choupic. My work concerns the Indigenous peoples of Louisiana and the complex history of the bayou.

The layers of history at this site run deep. Before the French settlement of Louisiana in 1699, Native Americans lived along Bayou St. John and on the land that would become City Park. The bayou was part of an early trade route used by native tribes, including the Acolapissa, the Chapitoulas and the Houma. Soon after French explorers arrived in the lower Mississippi region, Indigenous peoples introduced them to the bayou as a short route connecting (with the help of a two-mile-long portage trail) Lake Pontchartrain to the Mississippi River. The Allard family acquired the land on Bayou St. John in the 1780s and built a plantation that served as a dairy farm, where enslaved people also grew corn and sugar cane.

The waterways have created a flow of human activity over the centuries. The gap between the past and present creates a place of transition and possibility. I have reimagined the site of the old statue, rendering an earthen mound in a place where native populations flourished. Visible geological strata reflect the longstanding presence of Indigenous people while the remnants of a monument are visible at the top of the mound, crumbled and eroded. If a plinth or foundation is analogous to unbending belief systems and structures, then this deteriorating structure reflects a breakdown of those systems and their underlying doctrines. I see this monument as a means of reclaiming the historic identity of the site, one that also nods to the incursion of the Confederate statue. — Jennifer Odem, July 2020

Produced by Zoë Lescaze. Photographs by David Chow. Prop styling by Haruko Hayakawa.