May 01, 2018

Source: Bigstock

Ernest Cole was a black South African living under apartheid in the 1960s. He was a photographer, intent on documenting the condition of blacks in his country. One of his most well-known works is a photo of black gold miners in an office, lined up naked against a wall, arms raised, preparing for a medical exam.

Cole died in 1990.

In 2013, a black sculptor from New Jersey, Hank Willis Thomas, decided to create a bronze sculpture of Cole’s naked-miners photo as part of a touring exhibition of his work in Johannesburg and Cape Town. Thomas was criticized by some South African art critics for “editing and imposing his own interpretation” of Cole’s photograph by cropping the image so that the nude men were only seen from the neck and shoulders up, thus eliminating the medical files at their feet and the office in which they were standing.

In 2015, Thomas’ sculpture was “repositioned” for U.S. audiences, presented at the prestigious Art Basel gallery in Miami as a “hands up, don’t shoot” statement against police violence. Art critics in Miami completely ignored the original context of the piece and the photograph from which it was taken.

And now it sits outside the lynching memorial, an attempt to link “hands up, don’t shoot” to American lynchings in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The whole thing plays out like a game of telephone. A photo of South African miners at a medical exam became a sculpture of South African miners with their hands raised in surrender, which became a sculpture of inner-city American black men asking cops not to shoot, which became a monument to the lynching of post–Civil War Southern blacks.

And down the chain, not a fuck was given about context.

Ironically, because of this history of distortion, the statue actually does represent the lynching memorial perfectly.

A good historical monument puts facts over propaganda. But this is not a good historical monument. It’s a partisan tool, a cudgel created to beat white America into seeking “redemption.” The Stryker brothers should have stuck to their original mandate. A couple of nice gibbon sanctuaries would have added something positive to the world…certainly more positive than a politicized mausoleum that exploits the memory of black people who were killed in the name of a racial agenda and exhumes their tortured corpses to do it all over again.

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