RICHMOND — The Monument Avenue statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, in its current graffitied state with overlaying condemnations of police violence and white supremacy, has been named the most influential work of protest art since World War II by The New York Times Style Magazine.
The list of 25 works released Thursday was assembled by artists, museum curators and magazine contributors and focused on visual art, with each participant asked about the works’ impact, endurance and meaning.
One called the Lee space “a reclaimed location.”
“There were projections on it, it became an activist site. The transformation of that space, to me, felt like exactly what protest art is,” said Catherine Opie, an artist and professor of photography at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“The day I was there, I had a big camera with me, so multiple families would ask me to take their portrait in front of the statue, which I would do with their cellphones — and just in that way, it became activated,” Opie said.
Another deemed it a “kaleidoscopic display of communal, collective action.”
“People who once avoided the statue now make pilgrimages to see what has become an emblem of the Black Lives Matter movement as well as a newly diverse public gathering space,” wrote Zoë Lescaze, an art critic for The New York Times.
In the midst of protests that lasted more than 100 days, eyes turned to the former capital of the Confederacy as the city saw its effigies of Confederates toppled and the headquarters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy lit on fire by protesters.
On July 1, Mayor Levar Stoney invoked emergency powers to remove the Confederate statues that protesters hadn’t already taken down.
Lee, the only state-owned statue on Monument Avenue, is embroiled in a lawsuit that bars its removal. The trial is set to begin Monday. At 61 feet tall, the bronze equestrian statue is the nation’s largest Confederate monument.
The statue is surrounded by a circle that has been informally renamed after Marcus-David Peters, a Virginia Commonwealth University graduate and high school teacher who was having a mental health crisis when a Richmond police officer fatally shot him. A sign with Peters’ name rests to the side of the general and is surrounded by a makeshift garden.
Projections coated the monuments with videos of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, with “BLM” flashed onto Lee’s horse. In the weeks following, the looping projections of Black faces lost to police violence — Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice and George Floyd among them — garnered national attention.
People began viewing it as a reclaimed space; a source of healing; what the monuments could be.
“Ever since the Civil War, there’s been a real attempt by white supremacists all over the country to reinsert and reinscribe white supremacy as the ideology and the visual culture of America,” said Dread Scott, an artist who focuses on the experiences of African Americans. “These statues are all over. ... But the way [Opie] is talking about people reclaiming those spaces and that being protest art is an interesting place to start.”
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