There are many ways in which people of different social, economic, political, religious and ethnic backgrounds have been engaged in place-making in Northern Ireland. This fascinating process has been explored by a growing number of lecturers, students and postdoctoral researchers at QUB (Komarova and Svašek 2018).
On Monday 29th March, the Indian Community Centre Belfast will reflect on their place-making activities in Belfast at a virtual event organised by PEACE IV Culture Café. The event will take place during Holi, showcasing Indian dance performances by the South Asian Dance Academy and a demonstration of Rangoli art. This is an opportunity to learn more about the politics and poetics of belonging in ethnically-diverse Belfast, hearing local voices. For more information and registration: https://www.belfastcity.gov.uk/Events/Culture-Cafe-The-Indian-Community
The delight of stepping into a warm bath after a long, busy day. A sense of intense relaxation. Do all migrants feel like that when they open a book written in their own language? Words and phrases so familiar, echoes of childhood: ‘kloddertjes’, ‘klontjes’, ‘een spookachtig moment’.
I hardly ever read Dutch literature these days, but find Portret van een heer (Portrait of a Gentleman), hidden behind another book on a top shelf in my office at home. Forgotten, dusty, waiting to be read. I grab it and study its design. The back cover presents a black-and-white picture of the author Tommy Wieringa. He looks over his left shoulder into the distance, a waterscape behind him. When I stretch the book far open, his painted likeness on the front cover stares at his photographed self.
But wait a minute, I recognise the style of the portrait. I’m sure, it must be by the Austrian artist Egon Schiele. I recently explored his life history when writing a chapter on a museum in Český Krumlov, the Egon Schiele Art Centrum, (Svašek 2019). I remember reading that Schiele died in 1918 of the Spanish Flu. As the Coronavirus pandemic was still ahead of us, I did not pay much attention to the cause of his death. But one thing is clear: the person depicted in the painting is not Tommy Wieringa, who is Dutch and was born in 1967.
Curious, I open the book and soon discover that the uncanny resemblance of writer and painter is the main focus of the first story. In the story, Wieringa recalls how he first learnt about the portrait when a friend, who had seen it displayed in Museum Belvedere in Vienna, sent him a postcard of the work, describing his encounter with an Austrian ‘Wieringa’ as ‘beangstigend’ (frightening). The author himself was also shocked, seeing his mirror image. ‘Zelfs het puntje op zijn schedel was identiek!’ (even the pointed shape of his skull was identical).
In the rest of the story, the Dutch author writes about his journey to Austria and the Czech Republic, in search for the man in the portrait. The model turns out to be Victor Ritter von Bauer, a once wealthy landowner who was born in 1876 and inherited many acres of land and a lucrative sugar refinery from his ancestors. He was an energetic aristocrat, one of the first Austrians to fly a plane and a keen traveller who wrote about his travels to the Pacific in Eine Reise auf der Insel Sawaii. After the break-up of the Habsburg Empire in 1918, he lost most of his properties due to land reforms and Masaryk’s nationalisation policy. He died in 1939 and was buried in the chapel near Kunín Palace, an impressive eighteenth century baroque building still in his ownership at the time of his death.
In Portret van een heer, Wieringa visits the Palace, today a museum. Tellingly, he is welcomed by a soft-spoken caretaker who, in awe of Wieringa’s familiar physique, welcomes him with the solemn words: ‘the lord of the castle has returned’.
Unable to travel to the Czech Republic, I find Kunín Palace after I’ve landed the tiny dangling Google figure on the digital map. I do this a lot, these days of lockdown, grabbing the little person by her collar and dropping her to either start an adventure, or investigate some local details for my research. So, I’m in – a few virtual steps, and there it is. Indeed impressive.
I also visit the Palace’s website, and read about its history, it was built in Habsburg times. This reminds me of that pile of research materials in the corner of my office: numerous books and copies of nineteen-century newspapers that I made in historical archives in Prague last year. One of the newspapers is Národní Listy, a Czech nationalist daily newspaper that propagated Czech cultural revival. One is from 1 July 1912, and reports the unveiling of a monument in Prague, a huge statue of the historian and political thinker František Palacký. Palacký’s vision of Czech nationhood inspired generations of nineteenth and twentieth century artists and intellectuals. He is often called ‘the father of the nation’.
I wonder what Victor Ritter von Bauer would have thought about Palacký’s revolutionary ideas. In Portret van een Heer, I read that toward the end of his life, von Bauer gave lectures in Vienna, London and Paris about history and politics, and published Zentraleuropa: Ein lebendiger Organismus in 1936. In the book, he reflects on the cultural histories of Central European nations, and the title refers to the region as ‘a lively organism’. I should try to get my hands on the book.
So here we go, unexpectedly the Dutch travel story has taken me back to work, just when Reading week ends.
On 7 June 2020, angry protesters, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, pulled down the Edward Colston monument in Bristol. Objections to the depiction of someone who had been involved in the Atlantic slave trade had been made as early as 1920, but had become increasingly strong from the 1990s onward. At the time of its toppling, plans to add a plaque with information about Colston’s controversial background were being discussed by the Bristol City Council. While to some, the toppling of the statue was a victory after many years of protest, others, including Home Secretary Priti Patel, denounced it as an act of vandalism. London-based artist Marc Quinn, by contrast, saw the iconoclastic act as an opportunity to side with the protesters. On 15 July 2020, without Bristol City Council’s permission, he placed a depiction of the Black Lives Matter activist Jen Reid on the plinth. Within a few hours, the Council carefully removed it.
The events in Bristol show that attacks on public statues and artistic interventions can send out strong political messages, calling for societal change and the re-evaluation of past events. As Øivind Fuglerud, Kjersti Larsen and Marina Prusac-Lindhagen argue in the forthcoming book, Negotiating Memory from the Romans to the Twenty-First Century: Damnatio Memoriae, this is a widespread phenomenon. The editors use the term ‘Damnatio Memoriae’ not only to refer to its original meaning, (a modern Latin term for a practice in Ancient Rome whereby those in power posthumously erased widely known individuals from official history), but also to draw attention to the ways in which the production, destruction and in some cases re-production of material artefacts has been used to evaluate past events. In the case of Bristol, both statues will be put on display in a museum setting. Together with Black Lives Matter placards and personal accounts by people who participated in the protest, the exhibition will engage audiences in current debates about slavery, colonialism and racism.
Colston’s memorial will be kept in the state it was in when retrieved from the harbour: damaged and covered with graffiti. According to John Finch, Head of Culture at the City Council, museums need to ‘respond and engage with social issues and current concerns’, so the exhibition will recontextualise the work, presenting a narrative of racial inequality from a present-day, critical perspective.
It seems highly unlikely that Colston’s statue will ever be re-installed on its pedestal in Bristol’s city centre. But how sure are we about that?
As digital photographs and film footage of the falling statue started circulating on the Internet, I was reminded of a photograph, taken in 1918, of another toppled monument. In this case, it was a sandstone Baroque victory column, created by the seventeenth century Bohemian sculptor Jan Jiří Bendl, and pulled down by Czech nationalist radicals, not long after the establishment of independent Czecholosvakia. The sixteen meter tall column carried a statue of the Virgin Mary, and had been erected in 1650 in Prague to commemorate the 1648 victory of the Habsburg army over invading Swedish troops.
The destruction of the Marian Column was a highly symbolic act that marked the start of a new political era. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Czech revivalists had already begun to perceive the column as a symbol of political, cultural and religious oppression. The region had been under Habsburg rule for many centuries. A large monument for the church reformer and martyr Jan Hus, unveiled in 1915 on Old Town Square, reflected the new understanding of the past. Hus, who was burnt at the stake for anti-Catholic heresy in 1415, was anachronistically regarded as Czech national martyr.
The toppling of the Marian column was not approved by all citizens. As Cynthia Paces notes in Prague Panoramas: National Memory and Sacred Space in the Twentieth Century, various organisations, including the Charles-Ferdinand University and the art assotiation Mánes, accused the radical nationalists of pseudopatriotic sentiments, and objected to the destruction of what they saw as a high-quality baroque work of art that had embellished the city centre for 332 years. Prague City Council decided, however, to side with the protesters and sent the remains of the broken statue to the Lapidarium of the National Museum, presenting them as relics of a bygone political era.
One might think that that was the end of the story. In May 1990, however, a group of heritage supporters and representatives of the Catholic Church established The Society of the Recovery of the Marian Column and started to call for the return of the monument. In November 1993, the Society placed a plaque on Old Town Square that read ‘Here stood and will stand again The Marian Column of Old Town Square’ (Figure 1). The words ‘will stand again’ were soon cemented over by protesters (Figure 2).
This did not, however, discourage members of the Society. In 1996, they commissioned the sculptor and restorer Petr Váňa to create a full-size replica of the monument. Váňa travelled to India to source sandstone and completed the copy of the Virgin Mary statue in 2003. It was temporarily placed in the Church of Our Lady before Týn. As the work progressed, and the Society tried to convince the City Council that the monument should be erected, numerous proponents and opponents made passionate public statements. In an interview with radio Prague in 2013, the architect Zdeněk Lukeš explained that the Marian Column should return because it had been a ‘very important monument from a historical point of view … a wonderful example of Baroque art’. Others argued that the column would draw the attention to a relatively unknown moment in Bohemian history, namely the Swedish invasion, or that it was important not to boil down Catholicism to oppression. According to art historian Ludvík Hlaváček, the planned resurrection was an uninspiring, revisionist gesture that would not add any aesthetic or historical value to the already crowded square.
I am glad that we managed to bring the column to Prague by boat so that people could see it with their own eyes. I also invited all the deputies to whom I explained the story of the statue and what it would look like. Before that, everyone was talking about something no one had seen, and it was assumed that it didn’t even exist.
Perhaps the original sculptor, Jan Jiří Bendl, would have agreed that the work itself had persuasive power. From an anthropological perspective, however, objects and works of art gain meaning and impact in specific social and political contexts, as they are interpreted in specific ways.
Work on the re-erection of the victory column started on 15th February, and was completed during the quiet days of the Coronavirus Pandemic lockdown. Because of the quarantine, I was not able to travel to Prague photograph the process, so asked a friend, the artist Tadeáš Kotrbá, to send me a photograph of the reinstalled monument (Figure 3). It seems to, once again, have been built for eternity.
Art historian Hlaváček was still underimpressed. When I asked him for his opinion, he wrote that:
It was nonsense to place the column on the square, but they voted for it for populist reasons. I was there yesterday to see it. The square looks now overcrowded, both materially and ideologically. People still talk about Catholicism and Protestantism, as if it has some relevance today. So far, four angels are missing that were part of the original work, which probably shows the difference between Baroque and contemporary sculptural language.
Returning to the question whether the statue of Edward Colston will ever reappear on its pedestal, the history of the Marian Column suggests that the answers can only be: we don’t know. The column was destroyed more than three centuries after its construction. A replica appeared 112 years after its disappearance. In that time period, unforeseeable political transformations occurred: The Second World War, the Cold War, the Velvet Revolution, the rise of populism, and so on.
Who knows what will happen in 112 years time in Bristol, and for that matter: in the world at large? 2132 is a long time away.
This is the largest gathering of anthropologists in Europe and we look forward to welcoming everyone to Belfast for what we hope will be a great experience! This is also a great opportunity for colleagues and students to engage with anthropologists located in different countries, and specialising in a wide variety of topics.
At the start of lockdown, having to miss out on life drawing sessions and driven by ongoing research into transnational family dynamics, communication technology and emotions (Svašek 2007; 2010; 2011; 2012; 2018; 2020), I started using Skype and WhatsApp to paint relatives and friends in their home environments. I am a migrant myself, who moved in 1998 from the Netherlands to Northern Ireland to take up a position as anthropology lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast. The act of painting across distance does not only offer the opportunity to spend time with distant people, but can also be used as innovative research method, resulting in insightful conversation and visual outcomes that can evoke further comments and exchanges. In addition, the material outcomes can be gifted and recontextualised in all kinds of displays, and create a new visual world that captures the affective movement between different locations.
2007 ‘Emotions and Globalisation’, theme issue for Identities. Global Studies in Culture and Power (eds M Svašek and Z. Skrbiš).
2010Who Cares? Emotional Interaction, Support and Ageing in Transnational Families. Report for Changing Ageing Partnership, Belfast: Queens University Belfast.
2011 ‘Who Cares. Families and Feelings in Movement’ In: Robin Cohen and Gunvor Jonsson. (eds) Migration and Culture. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, Pp 89-106.
2012Emotions and Human Mobility. Ethnographies of Movement. London: Routledge. (ed. M. Svašek).
2018 ‘Ageing Kin, Proximity and Distance. Translocal Relatedness as Affective Practice and Movement’, in: Röttger-Rössler, Birgitt and Jan Slaby (eds) Affect in Relation. Families, Places, Technologies. Essays on Affectivity and Subject Formation in the 21th Century. London. Routledge.
Since the lockdown two weeks ago, I have made a few new friends. I meet them on my early morning walks, or late in the afternoon, when the sun hangs low in the sky. They live within a two-mile radius of my house, but it is only now, at this time of enforced isolation, that they have managed to draw my attention.
My best new pal is round and colourful – a splash of orange contrasts with a layer of green algae. I first spotted her about ten days ago as I slowly walked past the Marina. It was getting dark and her bright skin flashed against the blue-grey background.
I stared. She floated quietly, her shadow a silent companion.
The next morning, I returned and sought her out. The surface of the water was now eerily still. She looked at me, mocking. ‘I know’, I said, I can’t get to you, the water is too deep’. She waited in silence.
‘But you have your limitations too’, I added, ‘there is a world down there that you cannot reach’.
Two days later, I checked up on her once again. She was waiting impatiently, close to the shore, moving up-down-up-down on tiny waves. ‘You’re right, she said, and briefly paused. ‘But overcoming distance has been your problem, not mine’.
The short story reflects my interest in the affective dynamics of people and things, a topic that I have explored in various writings (see for example, Komarova and Svašek 2018; Svašek 2012, 2016 2019, forthcoming; Svašek and Meyer 2016). Its perspective builds on the framework of transit, transition and transformation that I developed in Moving Subjects, Moving Objects. Transnationalism, Cultural Production and Emotions (Svašek 2012). The book investigated how mobile human beings experience and project notions of self and sociality as they produce and use specific material objects, and analyses how the meanings, values and efficacy of the objects change. In other work, I have argued that human and non-human phenomena exist as dynamic affective relations, as forces with impact in multiple modes and directions. Artefacts, in other words, can forcefully enter the life worlds of individuals, for example when a person falls over a chair, or a bright colour catches the eye of a passer-by. The impact is often related to culturally specific expectations. Different consumer groups can feel bedazzled by expensive jewellery, the latest I-phone, or a work by a famous artist. A statue of Ganesh or Mary can evoke strong feelings of devotion and hope.
Material objects, however, are not human beings. While it is useful to consider the workings of physical and material intensities within a single analytical framework, a distinction between human and non-human actants must be maintained. After all, things have a quality that mortal bodies lack: they can survive their makers. In addition, the creation, alteration, removal, and destruction of artefacts relies on human activity.
The story blurs this boundary between human and object agency. I did not choose to animate the buoy because I heard it speak, or because I imagined a voice when taking the photographs. Its female appearance and her spoken words emerged as I was writing.
The narrative twist, evoking human-like presence, intended to express a sense of longing for company at the time of the pandemic. It also explored the ways in which I am newly attuning to a familiar landscape, as the lockdown situation has forced me to walk the same walk, day in, day out, without a chance to meet up face-to-face, with friends and colleagues.
The writing process seems to be a third partner in the emerging affective field.
Komarova, M. and M. Svašek
(eds) 2018 Ethnographies
of Movement, Sociality and Space. Place-making in the New Northern Ireland Oxford:
— 2012 Affective
Moves: Transit, Transition and Transformation. In: Moving Subjects, Moving Objects. Transnationalism, Cultural Production
and Emotions. (ed.M. Svašek). Oxford: Berghahn. Pp 1-40.
— 2018 ‘Ageing
Kin, Proximity and Distance. Translocal Relatedness as Affective Practice and
Movement’, in: Röttger-Rössler, Birgitt and Jan Slaby (eds) Affect
in Relation. Families, Places, Technologies. Essays on Affectivity and Subject
Formation in the 21th Century. London. Routledge.
— 2019 ‘Affective Arrangements: Managing Czech Art,
Marginality and Cultural Difference,’ in Durrer, Victoria and Henze, Raphaela Managing Culture: Reflecting on Exchange in
Global Times. Palgrave Macmillan.
— forthcoming ‘(Memories of) Monuments in the Czech Landscape:
Creation, Destruction, and the Affective Stirrings of People and Things’ in Negotiating
Memories from the Romans to the Twenty-first Century: Damnatio Memoriae,
edited by Ø. Fuglerud, K. Larsen and M.
Prusac-Lindhagen. New York: Routledge.
and B. Meyer 2016 Creativity
in Transition. Politics and Aesthetics of Cultural Production across the Globe.