In the Politics of Performance module, which is run in conjunction with workshops co-hosted with Beyond Skin, students learn about performative politics across four broadly interlinked areas: (i) protest and empowerment; (ii) socially engaged arts practices, foregrounding identity claims that impact upon policy agendas; (iii) sonic and political imaginaries of creativity; and (iv) the arts as a space of engagement for healing and reconciliation.
As part of the assessed work, students produced a creative piece and a critical reflections upon some of the seven workshops. The creative elements of the module highlight students’ voices by profiling their work individually and in conjunction with a music producer who created a collaborative student rap piece which you can listen to herealong with the other student compositions.
Kathakali is a Hindu temple acting tradition, originating in Kerala, South India. The repertoire of Kathakali are the stories from sacred texts such as the Mahabharata and Ramayana. I was first mesmerised by Kathakali when I saw a performance in 1995, lasting a few hours. I understood then from the pre-performance talk that the actors told stories through the movement of their bodies including complex face often frenetic eye movements. It takes years to hone Kathakali skills. When the HAPP Experience Team organised a one-hour Kathakali workshop in February 2021, I had to take part.
Students and lecturers joined our workshop tutors, Kalamnadalam Vijayakumar (Vijay) and Kalamandalam Barbara Vijayakumar (Barbara) via a zoom link to their studio – a performance room with no embellishments, simple grey fabric lined the walls. Vijay was not dressed like the performer in Image 1 or Vijay himself in Image 2 below. Barbara explained that “when an actor is in full costume they are no longer human but a representation of divinity. For that reason an actor cannot give a workshop or demonstration in costume. The spoken word is considered the language of humans and the Mudras [Kathakali sign language] are the language of the gods. The journey from dressing room to the stage is considered sacred as if the actor is travelling from heaven to earth during this time the actor must not be spoken to” (pers. comm.). Dressing in a full Kathakali costume and make-up takes hours of preparation. Kathakali make up varies greatly depending on the character being performed (Images 1 and 2). The application of Kathakali make up skills takes years to master and Image 2 showcases just one instance of Barbara’s mastery.
Vijay and Barbara introduced us to Kathakali, providing a brief history of the sacred art form before we had the opportunity to learn a short performance from the master, Vijay. He explained that each word in a story has its own Mudra, Kathakali sign-language. However, unlike the sign-language that we may be familiar with to a greater or lesser extent, Kathakali signing is elaborate. Arms, legs, cheeks and jowls, eyebrows and of course the eyes convey a story’s words. During the workshop, Barbara disappeared off screen and gave us useful explanations about the movements made by Vijay throughout the session. After a short demonstration by Vijay, for example, she asked if he had acted as male or female character. We were further introduced to feminine and masculine variations in Kathakali as the actors need to embody female and male movements with clarity. Traditionally, only males perform Kathakali, although some women have started to perform in India. Barbara is the first female Kathakali make-up [Chutti] artist.
During the one-hour workshop, we were taught to perform the phrase I am sad because the wind destroyed my flowers. Hand, arm, leg and face gestures ranged from the delicate opening of the flower to the flailing arms representing gusts of wind. The accompanying rapid eye movements where, as Vijay demonstrated, seemingly impossible for us beginners. His eyeball dexterity demonstrated his many years of training and performing. On explanation, some of the movements, such as ‘flower’ were self-explanatory. Conversely, the simple word ‘because’ involved intricate hand movements which at first was difficult to perform. Nevertheless, I think we arrived at an amateur compromise.
During the Q&A session after the workshop, Vijay and Barbara commented on the various ways in which they have adapted workshops, performances and costume displays to different contexts and settings across the UK. From 2010 onwards, they have also worked with Maruška Svašek, Reader in Anthropology at Queen’s University Belfast, on several of their Heritage Lottery funded projects (see Svašek 2016, especially page 9-13).
After seeing Kathakali performed in India, I thought that one-hour would be insufficient to learn anything more than one or two performative elements. However, Vijay is an expert performer and teacher. He carefully and slowly demonstrated each movement. We followed, repeated and repeated again. As we moved from one movement to another, I worried that I would forget them. However, Vijaya’s teaching expertise ensured that the movements were understood – the physical movements and their meaning. While I did not perform to Vijay’s standard, I thought I was not too bad.
The Kathakali workshop was a welcome distraction from the usual words on my computer screen and the digital pile of papers to read. It was an hour of creative movement that differed to my allocated daily exercise around the now too familiar local spaces. The workshop flexed my mind as I reminisced about seeing Kathakali performed in India – a creative distraction to my academic and lockdown routine. Hopefully, soon, we will meet and engage with Kalamandalam Vijayakumar and Kalamandalam Barbara Vijayakumar in person. On their website Vijay enacts all the words used in the Kathakali acting tradition, and the video was filmed, edited and scripted by Barbara who also produced the voice over. The product of their combined forces is an impressive achievement.
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.