In the wake of the death of George Floyd, the toppling of statues of slave-traders and imperialists from San Francisco to Cape Town has opened up new conversations about the-past-in-the-present. Whom do we hold up as examples of what our society stands for? Whom do we honour with the privilege of being remembered? Whom do we forget?
Some years ago, I was invited to speak to the Ethiopian community in London on the occasion of the anniversary of the Battle of Adwa. Adwa was to Ethiopia rather like what the wars of the first half of the twentieth century were to Britain. Both were defining moments in the assertion of modern nationhood; both involved great killing; both have attained, for the people who are heirs to those conflicts, a sort of mythological status.
Right now Ethiopians are engaged in a new collective reckoning of their past, and of their identity in the present, which is part of this global moment of reflection. A statue of Menelik II of Shewa, the king who led Ethiopian forces against the invading Italians at Adwa, has become newly visible, for some, as a symbol of oppression. This has to do not with Menelik as the architect of the Adwa victory, but with what he did afterwards: the wars of conquest that he waged against neighbouring peoples in the Horn of Africa, which pushed the boundaries of the state he controlled far to the south, east, and west of Shewa, more or less to where Ethiopia’s borders lie today.
Defenders of the statue of Menelik, which stands outside St George’s Cathedral in Addis Ababa, may hold all of this up as honourable — as a necessary part of state-building, and as a service to future generations. Or they might maintain that they wish to see him comemmorated for what he did to keep the Italians out of Ethiopia, while conceding that it was wrong of him to subordinate previously independent peoples to his rule.
This move of honouring part of someone’s legacy, while at the same time acknowledging crimes or atrocities they committed, is easy to do in words, but hard to do in statuary. Could a gifted sculptor bring out multiple sides of a character, multiple aspects of a person? Perhaps, but such nuances might be easy to miss. What you usually get is a sculpture that says simply, “Here I am.” “I belong in this place.” And in asserting so emphatically that some-one belongs, we also send a message that others don’t.