“I am Queen Mary” statue in Copenhagen – discomfort prompting a ‘learning cycle’

Written by Ed Campbell

I am Queen Mary
“I am Queen Mary” statue, Copenhagen | Image: CC-BY-SA Ed Campbell

Dawdling down the Langelinie Boulevard at the harbour of Copenhagen, still feeling guilty because of my disinterest in the famous Little Mermaid statue, my eye is drawn to a monstrous structure in front of the Danish West Indian warehouse. I approach what I am soon to learn is the “I am Queen Mary” statue – an enormous sculpture of a woman with a cane bill in the one hand and a torch in the other. To my left, a large group of tourists are relishing an older, copper replica of Michelangelo’s David. To my right are two tourists looking at Queen Mary with tilted heads, frowning. Soon they leave without as much as a cell phone photo.

“I am Queen Mary” could signify a lot to many people, one potential meaning being prominent: she is not another marble, copper, gold or plaster sculpture – Queen Mary wants to be seen. Her skin is the deep charcoal colour of the Nordic seas, her gaze is alive and scrutinising. She sits while you stand. However, with the statue being in conversation with a replica of David within this space, oddly separated from each other by the architecture, it feels like there is a lot to be communicated, but the seemingly cryptic nature of the space, without many linguistic clues to guide the viewer, makes this hard to do.

Being the eternally optimistic educationist, I got the feeling that the statue’s positioning within this space wants to disrupt the normal practice of taking a souvenir-like picture for our benign repertoire of famous statues, and then moving on. She wants you to be uncomfortable, she wants you to reflect, to stand still, to learn something.

The discomfort experienced by many confused passersby could potentially offset a ‘learning cycle’: this discomfort is a difficulty in meaning-making, possibly prompting learning, which enables a multimodal analysis, leading to meaning-making, leading to further learning, as I will show below. Indeed, the fact that things are not explained through language within this space has the potential to initiate deep learning. And just a superficial glance at the discourse surrounding this statue illuminates why she wants us to learn more:

The statue was conceived and sculpted by La Vaughn Belle and Jeannette Ehlers, two black female artists, to raise awareness of Denmark’s colonial impact, specifically in the Caribbean. The statue was unveiled on 31 March 2018 and is the first statue of a black woman – and female leader – in Denmark. It is a statue of Mary Thomas, often called ‘Queen Mary’, a leader during the Fireburn labour riot in 1878 on the island of St. Croix in the Danish West Indies. She was arrested and tried for arson and looting during the uprising. She obtained mythical status for her fight against unfair treatment of black workers after slavery was abolished.

With just this snippet of historical background, it becomes easier to engage in a multimodal analysis of the statue in relation to the space, which could open up pathways for further learning, sometimes even about subjects traditionally beyond history and visual arts:

  • Queen Mary’s gaze is directed at the docks, where ships carrying slaves from the Danish West Indies often dropped anchor
  • She is constructed from coated polystyrene, enabling her arms to move slightly in the wind – in stark contrast with the rigid copper used in the making of the David replica. This makes her seem more alive and ‘fluid’ (like the seas). She can change shape for she represents herself and numerous other women
  • Juxtaposed to David, the plaque at Queen Mary’s feet gives her a voice – she is not merely called “Queen Mary”, but “I am Queen Mary”. She is the first statue that can speak, because she has to tell you her story
  • Through oxidation, David’s copper material has been rendered green over the years, signifying ‘the past’, whereas Queen Mary has been covered in sealants and paint, providing a water-like texture, while creating an impenetrable surface that cannot easily discolour (see https://bit.ly/2wG1cyY for more detail). She will remain fresh and new as the struggle for black female empowerment continues generation after generation
  • The soft drone from a nearby steel pannist is strongly connected to Queen Mary’s narrative, with the steelpan’s association with Trinidad and Tobago of the West Indies in the Caribbean and it being played in a non-Western scale (the Pythagorean scale). She exceeds the visual mode, powerfully attracting the surrounding music to her story
  • There exists an indexicality to other Queen Marys in history – uncannily often women in power who had to endure great prejudices while standing up for what they believed in. She is however simultaneously contrasted to the statues of Queen Mary II of England and Mary, Queen of Scots – two older, traditional statues in Europe – through the difference in the materials used, texture, colour and the fact that she is sitting down (a signification of authority often employed in Mayan sculpture), to name just a few instances. Solidarity is balanced with her individual agency.
  • Lastly, Queen Mary’s ‘hybrid’ appearance was realised through merging two kinds of practices often seen as disparate: traditional sculpture and practices involving new digital technologies – images of the two artists were fused together using cutting edge software, enabling a 3D print out of a model used during production. Queen Mary is the past, present and future at once.

All of the modes interacting together within the space, along with the learning the initial discomfort of the statue prompts work together to communicate a rich tapestry of meanings that catapults “I am Queen Mary” ahead of thousands of commemorative statues found all over the world. She will protest against being forgotten for eternity.

How do you make meaning of the “I am Queen Mary Statue” (have a look at the official website for more information)? Are there any other artworks/phenomena she reminds you of? Feel free to leave a comment.

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