Artists and Scholars Grapple with Southern Symbols in Louisville

Southern Symbols Symposium, Sonya Clark unraveling
Installation view of Sonya Clark’s Unraveling at the Speed Art Museum.

In conjunction with the exhibition “Southern Accent: Seeking the American South in Contemporary Art,” Louisville’s Speed Art Museum recently hosted the symposium Southern Symbols: Remembering Our Past and Envisioning Our Future. As the national debate over the legacy of Confederate monuments rages on, the Speed Art Museum provided a forum for a refreshingly open discussion of how we have memorialized history in the past and how we might memorialize it in the future, offering an opportunity for dialogue between scholars and artists who are attempting to deal with these issues in their own research and work.

In the symposium’s first session, which focused on the historical context of memorialization, Civil War historian W. Fitzhugh Brundage discussed how the memory of the Confederacy has been treated in North Carolina. Brundage, a professor at UNC Chapel Hill, has written widely on topics including racial violence and 19th-century socialist colonies in Georgia and Tennessee.  His presentation at the Southern Symbols symposium focused on how the utter military defeat of the Confederacy was transformed into the heroic “Lost Cause” narrative,  which cast the defeat as a trial from God that the South must endure on its way to true victory. From this perspective, losing the Civil War became an opportunity for Southerners to show their commitment to God.  With this convoluted ideology, the South could create monuments and memorials for the Confederate dead, honoring their sacrifice to this noble cause. Brundage noted recent positive changes regarding Southern memorials, such as the addition of African-American figures and the renaming of roads and schools that once bore the names of Confederate heroes, but he also stressed there is still much that needs to be done to remove symbols of oppression from public space.

Southern Symbols Symposium, Jessica Ingram
Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial Carving, 2006, from photographer Jessica Ingram’s series Road Through Midnight.

The symposium’s first session also included scholar Deidre Cooper Owens’s presentation on the historical legacy of James Marion Sims, who is considered the father of American gynecology. As a professor in the history department at Queens College, CUNY, Cooper Owens studies historical connections between race, gender, and medicine. Her research explores historical literature’s under-representation of the female slaves who were Sims’s patients and, following medical training, his nurses. Though Sims has been celebrated and memorialized, these women who were key to his accomplishments are largely ignored in a typical whitewashing of history. Owens called for a more complete history to be taught, one that includes the roles these women played. For example, in illustrations of Sims’s work, the women are shown as objects of experimentation, and often they are depicted as white women, not African-Americans. The education and training these women received was not common, Owens emphasized, and the role they played in developing the field of gynecology needs to be properly and accurately memorialized.

Known for her performative work Unraveling, in which she and viewers unravel a Confederate flag thread-by-thread, Richmond-based artist Sonya Clark concluded the symposium’s first session by speaking about how the dialogue created by the performance attempts to disentangle the tensions of the past. Clark completed Unraveling at the Speed Museum in October 2017.

Miranda Lash, the Speed Museum’s curator of contemporary art, led the panel discussion that served as the symposium’s second session. She invited Trinity University historian Jason Johnson to speak about German artist Gunter Demning’s Stumbling Stones, a project he began in 1992 to memorialize victims of the Holocaust. Germany did not have a national memorial to the Holocaust until 2005, when the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe opened in Berlin. While that memorial is symbolically significant, Johnson said it is actually the smaller, everyday memorials that have been more effective.  Stumbling Stones are small, brass bricks placed in the sidewalk outside the last known residence of a Holocaust victim. Each block is etched with the victim’s name, the date they were taken away, and the date they were murdered. Now numbering over 45,000, the markers can be found throughout Germany and surrounding European countries. Another everyday memorial Johnson noted is a scrolling marquee in a German train station that states the number of people who were deported by the Third Reich from that location. Johnson argues that these subtle yet constant reminders prevent tragedies such as Holocaust being forgotten or ignored.

Southern Symbols Symposium, Gunter Demnig Stumbling Blocks
Stolperstein (“stumbling block”) memorials created by German artist Gunter Demnig to commemorate Holocaust victims.

The panel also included artist Jessica Ingram, whose work is included in “Southern Accent”. On the subject of erasure, Ingram discussed her project Road Through Midnight: A Civil Rights  Memorial, for which she visited the unmarked sites of important, and often violent, events in the fight for Civil Rights. She would photograph the site and try to talk to individuals who may have experienced the event in order to create a written account but was often met with resistance: people didn’t want to dredge up the past and preferred the events be left alone and forgotten. According to Ingram, this erasure continues to oppress people because it denies the importance of, or even the existence of, these events.

Also on the panel was Guggenheim fellow Nari Ward, who spoke about a project he’s planning to commemorate the role of African-American jockeys in Louisville, Kentucky’s horse-racing industry. Ward’s first idea to design a counter-memorial to the Confederate monument in Louisville was shelved when the original monument was recently removed. His ultimate goal is to create a work where people “realize that things are not alright” but can still find a common space for exploration and discovery.

The symposium’s first two sessions were followed by Talking Circles facilitated by members of Spaulding University’s Community for Peace and Spiritual Renewal.  These were small group sessions where participants had the opportunity to share their own thoughts and reflections in a moderated setting. Everyone was welcome to participate, an no recordings or note taking were allowed in these sessions.

Southern Symbols Symposium, William Cordova
William Cordova, Silent Parade… or The Soul Rebels Band Vs. Robert E. Lee, 2014; still from single channel video.

In the symposium’s keynote lecture, Yale historian David W. Blight observed that we are living in a “memory boom,” where there is a very real struggle over what the symbols of the past mean and how they historical events should be memorialized.  Blight claimed that to fully memorialize the past we must try to understand not only history but also the present.  Often, he says, the United States does not understand its own historical tragedies.  Addressing various Civil War memorials, Blight demonstrated how the “Lost Cause” narrative refashioned Confederate donwfall as “the sacrifice made on the cross to redeem the country,” thereby making it a story of delayed victory and not defeat.

As American cities including Louisville itself begin a process of renaming streets and removing monuments, Blight stressed the importance of research and historical perspective.  Removal of a monument, he argued, should not mean the erasure of the historical record: something must be done to preserve the story, because history is watching.

Jennifer A. Fraley holds a Juris Doctorate and a PhD in Humanities. Her area of research focuses on monuments and memorials and their impact on cultural history. She is currently teaching at the University of Louisville.

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