When Cecilia Y. Zhou ’22 imagines the possibilities of social justice, she thinks in images. “I think the things we see shape the way we think,” Zhou says. “Visuality and visibility matter.”
In June of this year, the Black Lives Matter movement reached a new level of international visibility in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd. The storm of activism that followed saturated our visual fields with new images: We bore witness to protest, violence, sorrow, and rage.
When I think of this period of national reckoning, in my mind’s eye, I see a photograph captured in my hometown of Charleston, S.C. It documents the removal of a statue of John C. Calhoun, a former vice president and an ardent defender of slavery, from its 115-foot tall pillar in the center of the city. In the early hours of the morning, the sharp silhouette of the bronze Calhoun and the crane hooked to his neck and shoulders is set against an orange sunrise. The image it conjured is unmistakable — it is that of a man hanging from a noose.
Over the past summer, as similar monuments honoring the likes of Robert E. Lee and Christopher Columbus were taken down or toppled across the country, Zhou grappled with the question of what we will put in their place. The Monument Project, which she co-founded with fellow Harvard student Kiana N. Rawji ’22, aims to answer that question.
The Monument Project launched on Instagram on Sept. 2. The page, run by a group of ten Harvard students, solicits and posts student art submissions in response to specific “design challenges.” For example, one challenge prompted participants to submit their interpretation of “a monument to the future.” These so-called monuments, however, are not the stuffy bronze-and-marble statues one might expect.
One post, for example, features a beaked papier-mâché mask which mimics those worn by medieval doctors during outbreaks of the bubonic plague. When creating the sculpture, Paul D. Tamburro ’21 intentionally chose newspaper clippings which highlighted the “historical undertones of the current moment and the feeling that history is repeating itself,” including headlines about the coronavirus pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the Trump administration. “I truly hope that this work will not become a real monument to the future, but I fear it may be unless something seriously changes,” Tamburro wrote in the post’s caption.
Another entry is a series of self portraits taken by Rawji herself entitled “both and.” In the photographs, she poses with shards of a broken mirror which reflect fragments of her face. The images are overlaid with lines from an original poem. Rawji says the series is meant to explore the concept of “living in contradiction,” particularly in terms of societal “fictions” like race and how these constructs can “be reclaimed and distorted by the person they’re meant to distort.” Rawji sees the question of contradiction as relevant to the conversation about future monuments and how they must “chart the path forward without erasing the past.”
Other responses were equally out-of-the box, including paintings, poems, and songs. Rawji says this loose definition of “monument” is intentional; the goal is “to be very inclusive and welcoming of innovation.” Similarly, Zhou points out that “contemporary artists constantly challenge the tradition of say, photography, of painting, of sculpture.” In her view, we should reconstitute what monuments are. They should be just as inventive as any other art form – perhaps even more so, because of their unique importance in capturing “the values and stories of people that should forever be held in public memory.”
The Monument Project is actually a revised incarnation of a Harvard-based art festival that Rawji and Zhou planned for the spring of 2021. The festival was to be called “Just Art” and would have featured the works of college students from around the Boston area. Rather than give up this plan entirely after the coronavirus outbreak, Rawji says she and her peers chose to use social media “to pursue that same goal of capturing that intersection between art and social justice.”
Thus, the Monument Project was refined and brought to reality. Although the project is currently Instagram-based, Rawji says the group hopes to grow “into a larger kind of artistic accelerator.” This could mean creating a more collaborative online platform, as well as expanding the project to other colleges and cities.
For now, she says, the Monument Project exists on social media as “a call for students to lay down the building blocks – creative works of any medium – that will help us eventually create, together, some collective, tangible monument or exhibit of monuments on campus in the future.” To those who run the Monument Project, Harvard seems to be an especially appropriate setting for the kind of inclusive, socially-aware artwork which the Monument Project encourages, especially given ongoing conversations about the institution’s historical ties to slavery and racism. Rawji points out that these ties are embedded “in the buildings and the spaces and the statues on campus.”
The Monument Project’s latest “design challenge” directly interrogates the way this problematic history presents itself in Harvard’s physical structures. Commissioned by Harvard College ¡TEATRO!, a Latinx performing arts organization, the challenge prompts students to consider the origins of Harvard’s Agassiz Theatre. The theatre’s namesake is Elizabeth Cady Agassiz, whose husband, Louis Aggasiz, was a propagator of scientific racism.
Submissions are encouraged to imagine what “antiracist theater” might look like, through architecture, dramatic performances, costume design — “any medium you can imagine,” Rawji says. ¡TEATRO!’s president, Ryan D. Morillo ’23, sees reimagining spaces like the Agassiz Theater as “essential for the growth of the Harvard community,” claiming that it “sends a message to the University that we students are very aware of its hurtful past and demand some type of change.”
Change of this kind could have far-reaching impacts, Zhou points out. “The actions that Harvard undertakes as an institution do have a ripple effect,” she says. At the least, Harvard can help “initiate and sustain a meaningful conversation about monuments and their place in society and their place in the project of justice.”
Zhou and Rawji say they’re monitoring interaction with the Monument Project’s Instagram page to determine their community impact. The reaction will help shape how the project will look moving forward. Regardless, its broader goal remains to “interrogate public memory” and to “cultivate public imagination,” Rawji says. In a world increasingly concerned with the destruction of unjust systems, she and her peers seek to envision monuments as visual testaments to not only where we come from, but where we hope to go.
— Staff writer Roey L. Leonardi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.