Public Parking
A journal for storytelling, arguments, and discovery through tangential conversations.
Gestures of absolute helplessness
Monday, April 25, 2022 | Chigbo Arthur Anyaduba

Installation called Thin Red Line, 2009 by Rebecca Belmore. It consist of sixty-six men's suit jackets (various fabrics), sand, red thread with variable dimensions. Acquired by the National Gallery of Canada. Image courtesy Catriona Jeffries Gallery, Vancouver, and the artist. As an interpretation, the work suggests a visualization of western institutions, the power they wield (often invisible and nevertheless a felt force), the figures in those seats of power, the uniform they are often seen in as the common phrase goes "power suit" or "men in suits"  i.e. captins of industry,  a president, prime minister, a heroic figure, etc. Here their uniform, a signifer for the power they take up is circumvented. Their bodies are replaced by sand and stacked up in a trench-like shape like a combat defence blockade. The power these jackets point to are upended for something else. They become an oppositional wall; subverting its use and standing in as a shield for those it excercises its power onto. In some discourses around war and conflict, the phrase 'thin red line', suggests an access to kind of hysterical strength in times of battle to secure life and a future when it seems impossible. 

 

 

Noo was a fashion blogger until June 2020. Then she wrote a piece on the removal of the infamous statue of English enslaver Edward Colston by Black Lives Matter protesters in England. Someone popular shared her blog piece on Twitter. 

The viral blog post was her reaction to the language the media used in describing protesters’ removal of the statue. “They use words such as FALL, TOPPLE, DEFACE, TORN DOWN, TARGETED, VANDALIZE,” Noo wrote. 

“These words work to turn the real act and force of violence on its head. They signal that protesters’ removal of the statue is a violent act—not remedial. Even more pernicious is the underlying meaning suggested in these word choices. The language of toppling and falling is loaded with grotty double entendre. In addition to calling protesters violent, this language positions the statue as a sovereign authority and protesters as its subjects. Rhetorically speaking, pulling down the statue becomes an act of rebellion—an insurrection—by subjects seeking to overthrow the sovereign. Such a cheeky use of language!”   

So much has been written about media representations of the struggles of oppressed people that you get easily wearied reading any new thing. But when you read Noo’s post you were captivated by her idea that the language of media reports positioned colonial statues as sovereigns. It struck you that this language might inadvertently be describing a struggle against a condition of power exercised in excess. After all, besides their manifest presence in physical spaces marking land and time, statues appear to convey a sense of surplus presence. Their adamant visibility in the public sphere is a demonstration of power over physical and mental space. Could the protests against these colonial statues be coming from an equally tacit recognition of a condition of power so profoundly manifest, insuperable?  

Until June 2021 when you first met Noo at a virtual symposium organised by the University of Manitoba, you had never heard of her blog—The Look of Stories. By the time you met her she had published scores of articles in her series on statues, which she called Statues of Colonization. “You know, when I decided to do the series on statues, I thought I’d be out of topic by the fifth or so post. It’s unbelievable that months after I feel I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface,” Noo had said during her presentation. She still retained her original fashion blog name, The Look of Stories, which, as she originally intended it, meant that people’s clothing and appearance told incredible stories about them. For her series on statues, Noo captioned each post with: APPEARANCE IS ALL THE STORY THERE IS. 

 

 

At this point the chat was so flooded with posts you could barely keep up anymore. You tried to type out your comment on the conversation but felt exhausted and so deleted it.

 

 

It was the title of Noo’s panel that caught your attention and convinced you to attend: “A Heritage of Statues and BLM Protests.” There were three speakers on the panel:  history professor Dr. Pamela Brand, journalist Jordan White, and blogger Noo Gomba. 

The discussions seemed to go smoothly at first—by the standards of academic discussions. Each speaker was asked to talk about their own reactions to the protests and the removal of statues celebrating enslavers. Noo talked about the motivations impelling her shift from writing about fashion to statues and her plans to continue her series until there was “no statue of murderers and racists left standing.” You imagined that audience members might have cheered in agreement were the panel occurring in person. The panel format was a Zoom webinar and only the speakers could be seen or heard. Audience members could only participate through the Q&A and chat. 

Someone put in the chat: Go girl! 

Pamela said the statues had provided an important basis to hold critical conversations on history. “It’s important we recognize this moment in our history,” she said. “We have Black Lives Matter protests to thank.” Someone wrote in the chat: Thank you for this perspective. BLM is doing important work for all of us. A few other responses in the chat echoed similar encomiums of BLM and the professor’s insights.  

All the while, Noo put on a sardonic smile. As though she found the audience comments and the professors words ludicrous. 

Jordan said he thought removing the statues could potentially lead to historical amnesia and that it was important to keep history intact in some form. “We should be careful about removing the statues,” said Jordan. “The risk might be too consequential. We need to remember that these statues offer incredible opportunities to learn from history, as Dr. Brand said earlier. They’re a heritage of our shared pasts that we shouldn’t shy away from, which is what I think removing them will accomplish.” 

Great point! As a society we must not hide from our past, someone posted in the chat. We must begin this conversation here in Canada one statue at a time, someone else posted. 

“Where do I even begin?” Noo chuckled in response, still wearing the sardonic smile. “The histories these statues curate need to be erased. They’re fake histories by colonizers who told love stories of heroism about the atrocities they committed. These statues do not represent the past; instead, they represent the colonizer’s deliberate distortion of the past. They should be destroyed. There’s nothing useful to learn from them except the fact that their presence in our cities insults victims of the horrible crimes the statues are celebrating.” 

Pamela replied, “I can see the point Noo is making here, and I think it’s an important one. But I won’t go as far as saying there’s nothing to learn from the statues. We must be nuanced in the way we judge these things, including the controversial figures, some of whom invested significantly in philanthropy to the benefit of many people today.” 

Jordan agreed with Pamela too. At this point the chat was so flooded with posts you could barely keep up anymore. You tried to type out your comment on the conversation but felt exhausted and so deleted it. You felt the conversation was missing something crucial about the statue protests. Something not about history and its representation but more to do with the conditions of insurmountable colonial power. 

 

___

 

A few days after the symposium, Noo released a blog post titled HERITAGE PEOPLE, a reference to those protesting the removal of statues. You found Noo’s post exhilarating albeit somewhat sensational. The post was clearly her response to the symposium panel. In it Noo described heritage people as hypocrites and worshippers of ancestral idols. Her post was laden with sarcastic lines describing ‘heritage people’ as ridiculous enablers of colonialism. As you expected, the post went viral on Twitter. Some commenters began doing memes with choice lines from the post. You observed that many of the memes had images of white women with inscriptions such as “KAREN HERITAGE,” “Conversation Nancy.” There was equally harsh dismissal of Noo’s post accompanied by several counter memes with images of monkeys and African jungles. The predictable drama the post activated on Twitter convinced you of the condition of contemporary protests and struggles against racism and colonial violence. There seems to be something entertaining and carnivalesque about these protests, something aiming not exactly for freedom and significant change but for some kind of cathartic release. But release from what, exactly?

Yet you found the closing lines of Noo’s blog post to be profound: 

Those of us who understand the symbolic violence that these statues are designed to accomplish know that the statues are symbols of power and dominion. They have been used by colonists to consolidate their conquest and establish their presence in the spaces of their dominion. The statues celebrate the violence done to colonized and enslaved people and effectively work to distort the past. The statues are forged histories produced in the colonists’ attempt to represent the past through the stories they and their descendants continue to tell themselves and others about the past. Statues are not a heritage. They are shrines celebrating atrocity and genocide. They do not and cannot offer any constructive basis for holding conversations about the past. They must be understood for what they are, offensive and violent. They serve mainly to mythologize and monumentalize whiteness and the violence of white imperialism and colonization of the world.

 

 

 

 

Each slogan matched with a fitting image. All deployed as part of a social media protest carnival.

 

 

You met Noo in person for the first time on July 1. You accepted her invitation to meet at the Legislative Building to join a solidarity protest. You had been corresponding through email after you wrote to her to say her piece on Heritage People was a powerful response to her panel and that you agreed with her position. She wrote back saying it was only the beginning of a series she was doing on “the hypocrisies of social justice warriors” who often pretended to be on the side of victims but were by heart and deed reactionaries. 

Some people in the crowd pulled down Queen Victoria’s statue from the pedestal. It fell awkwardly on its back as the crowd cheered. At first the crowd appeared hesitant but soon moved decidedly once the ropes circled the Queen’s neck. Noo suggested you both move closer to see what was unfolding at the site of the fallen statue.

A man was standing on top of the statue’s belly holding a fist up in the air. He was wearing an orange t-shirt bearing text referring to the hundreds of bodies of Indigenous people discovered in unmarked graves: WE WERE CHILDREN ONCE! BRING THEM HOME! Some people were crying and holding hands together. Some others were exuberantly slamming red handprints all over the statue. A man kicked vigorously at the Queen’s head, which had been wrapped up with a red-stained Canadian flag. People cheered. 

Noo began taking pictures of the scene. She gave you her phone and asked for a few snapshots as she posed in front of the pulled-down statue. There were other people taking pictures with their phones. 

Noo dropped two placards she was carrying and posed first without them. She walked around the statue to allow you to get shots from several different angles. One time she dug her palm in a bowl of red paint on the ground, slapped the palm on the statue as you took the shots. “This is history happening here,” Noo said laughing. She raised one of the placards with the inscriptions: STOP CELEBRATING GENOCIDE! STOP HONOURING GENOCIDAIRES!!! EVERY CHILD MATTERS! After a few rounds with it, she raised the second placard: ANY TRUE RECONCILIATION MUST RECKON WITH RACISM! Then, she raised the two placards all at once. “These are for my blog,” Noo said. 

You imagined that some of these images would appear on Noo’s blog and other social media platforms. You imagined that Noo would use explosive descriptions like the ones accompanying memes made from her posts. Victoria Must Fall. History Before Our Very Eyes. Indigenous Lives Matter. Each slogan matched with a fitting image. All deployed as part of a social media protest carnival. Put in the service of mobilizing an iconic visual of protest, a viral pitch that could prospectively or retrospectively say something profound, something indelible about the time, the moment, the spirit of a struggle. 

Later when the police who had stood at a distance all along began to ruffle some people in the crowd, you told Noo it was time to leave. 

“So, what do you think about what we’ve just witnessed?” Noo asked when you were some good distance away from the protest scene. 

In your mind was a story you recently read about the demolition of a residential school on June 21 as part of National Indigenous Peoples Day celebration. Some survivors of the school and their families were invited to witness the demolition. It was expectedly an emotional affair. Many wept as they watched the stones collapse. In 2015, a similar act of demolition—albeit a symbolic demolition—was carried out at the St. Michael’s Residential School in Alert Bay, B.C. Some survivors even hurled stones at the building and celebrated as a part of the decrepit building was bulldozed. 

Some of the survivors at both events said afterwards that witnessing the demolition felt good and was a necessary process of healing because the building site harboured traumatic memories that they felt released from. One person said they felt released from a huge burden because they no longer had to constantly witness the site of their violation. There was a psychic feel to these forms of ceremonies of demolishment—something spiritual even. 

But it was what another survivor said that resonated more with you: Buildings did nothing to us; people did. We should be asking why we are now encouraged to turn on buildings and statues, but not on the people who have continued to cause us enormous harm

You told Noo you were also interested in that why. And you had a tentative theory for it: “When justice is no longer imaginable and a system of oppression has grown too powerful and confident that it can allow or even organize protests against itself; when victims are no longer able to envision or speculate a just and equitable future society where they can be treated with dignity; when tyranny has grown so immanent, so permanent, then people resort to the only gestures that ensure their struggle lives on: e.g., lashing out at statues and monuments. These are gestures of absolute helplessness.” 


Chigbo Arthur Anyaduba is an assistant professor and writer from Nigeria based in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Anyaduba is currently an editorial resident with Public Parking. This is his second piece of a four-part creative exploration with our publication. Look out for his upcoming contributions.

Editorial support by Luther Konadu and Emily Doucet.

Cover Image: Installation called Thin Red Line, 2009 by Rebecca Belmore. It consist of sixty-six men's suit jackets (various fabrics), sand, red thread with variable dimensions. Acquired by the National Gallery of Canada. Image courtesy Catriona Jeffries Gallery, Vancouver, and the artist. As an interpretation, the work suggests a visualization of western institutions, the power they wield (often invisible and nevertheless a felt force), the figures in those seats of power, the uniform they are often seen in as the common phrase goes "power suit" or "men in suits"  i.e. captins of industry,  a president, prime minister, a heroic figure, etc. Here their uniform, a signifer for the power they take up is circumvented. Their bodies are replaced by sand and stacked up in a trench-like shape like a combat defence blockade. The power these jackets point to are upended for something else. They become an oppositional wall; subverting its use and standing in as a shield for those it excercises its power onto. In some discourses around war and conflict, the phrase 'thin red line', suggests an access to kind of hysterical strength in times of battle to secure life and a future when it seems impossible.