Witness to the Lebanese Civil War

On 13 April 1975, the start of the Lebanese Civil War was sparked by an incident known as the Bus Massacre. Early morning skirmishes on the streets of Beirut – between guerrilla fighters linked to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and right-wing Lebanese Christian militiamen – escalated dramatically, as the indiscriminate shooting at a church congregation led to a retaliatory assault on a bus full of Palestinian men, women, and children. From the late 1950s, the Cold War had caused the disintegration of Lebanese civil society, as Western nations and Soviet-aligned Arab countries frequently intervened in the domestic conflict between rival religious groups. Ill-feeling resulting from the Bus Massacre pushed this tension to breaking point, and Lebanon rapidly spiralled into a fully-fledged civil war that would continue throughout the 1980s.

Working in the shadow of a vicious conflict that raged for almost 16 years and left one million people homeless, Lebanese artists were and continue to be affected powerfully by the country’s civil war. The tragic destruction of the capital city is epitomised for many in the broken, bullet-ridden remains of the Martyrs’ Monument. Completed by Italian sculptor Renato Marino Mazzacurati in 1960, the four-meter-high statue stands at the centre of Martyrs’ Square, so named after the Lebanese revolutionaries executed there by the Ottomans in 1916. During the civil war, this public space in the heart of downtown Beirut became the demarcation line that divided the city in half. Although restored in the late 1990s, the damage to the monument was preserved as a sign of the long years of suffering.

Beirut-born installation and video artist, Mona Hatoum, is just one of many artists who have produced work focusing on the Lebanese Civil War as a cathartic response to the havoc wrought on their homeland. Hatoum has returned to the image of the Martyrs’ Monument several times to commemorate the destruction of Lebanese arts and culture, as well as the psychological impact of the civil war on the Lebanese people. In 2008, she worked in collaboration with Iraq al Amir Women Cooperative Society to produce a small, simplified version of the monument in ceramics and stone. The following year, while she undertook a five-week residency in Beirut, Hatoum produced a second replica of the statue, this time a more faithful rendition in porcelain. Both sculptures feature the bullet holes and broken limbs of the mutilated bronze original and are entitled Witness, a word that personifies the Martyrs’ Monument as a silent witness to the civil war, and has its root in the Arabic word for ‘martyr’ (‘shahid’).

Hatoum’s return to the image demonstrates her interest in how the meaning of memorials changes over time, and also points to the effect of the civil war on her own sense of self, as an artist who identifies as Palestinian-British. In 2010, Hatoum used the title of the work for her homecoming solo exhibition at the Beirut Art Center.

Image: Renato Marino Mazzacurati, Martyrs’ Monument, 1960. Photographed in Martyrs’ Square, Beirut, by beirutmabitmoot.wordpress.com; Mona Hatoum, Witness, 2008. Ceramics and stone, 84 x 57 x 35 cm. The Khalid Shoman Collection; Mona Hatoum, Witness, 2009. Porcelain biscuit, 49 x 24.3 x 24.3 cm.

What & Where: The African Renaissance Monument, Built by North Korea

While visiting the Things Fall Apart exhibition (part of the recent “Red Africa” season) at Calvert 22 in London, I was intrigued by Onejoon Che’s model of the African Renaissance Monument. This was one of a series of models and photographs of African monuments on display by the South Korean artist. Firstly, I was struck by how closely the design for the monument mirrored Soviet statuary and monumental sculptures erected under other Communist regimes. Several examples have previously been featured on ESPIONART, such as the golden statue in Vieng Xay District, Laos and Choi Young-jeep’s Statue of Brothers at the War Memorial of Korea in Seoul. What led this statue to be built in Dakar, Senegal as recently as 2010? And then there was the small matter of the North Koreans. While the sculpture has been credited as being based on an idea of President Abdoulaye Wade and designed alternatively by Senegalese architect Pierre Goudiaby or  Romanian sculptor Virgil Magherusan, the object itself was built by a North Korean company called Mansudae Overseas Projects. I decided to investigate further.

Standing 49 metres tall and overlooking the Atlantic Ocean from a scenic hilltop, the African Renaissance Monument looks as though it has been in place for many years. The tallest statue in Africa, this imposing bronze effigy is of a scale and spirit that is rarely seen in 21st-century statuary (although China recently bucked the trend with a 32-metre high bust of a young Chairman Mao that was unveiled in 2009). But in fact the African Renaissance Monument is a very recent addition to the Senegalese landscape, with construction only beginning in 2008 and the formal dedication taking place on 4 April 2010, to commemorate 50 years of independence from France.

The statue consists of three full-length figures in deep bronze, that appear to depict an idealised African family group. On the left, a scantily-clad young woman leans against a rock, her head tilted back and her arms spread behind her in a submissive pose; in the middle, a muscular young man wearing nothing but a loincloth and a traditional kufi cap straddles the rock, his right arm around the girl’s waist, and a small child held aloft in his left hand; on the left, the naked child sits perched on the man’s shoulder and points westward towards the sea, with the direction of his arm completing the upward trajectory of the entire scene. All three figures stare upwards with determination, a common trope in Socialist Realism.
The statue was unveiled in front of 19 African heads of state, in recognition of its status as a symbol of the African Renaissance, a campaign for postcolonial African nations to work together to achieve success. President Wade announced that after “several centuries of imprisonment in the abyssal depths of ignorance, intolerance and racism,” the statue “brings to life our common destiny. Africa has arrived in the 21st century standing tall and more ready than ever to take its destiny into its hands”. Yet despite this utopian proclamation, riot police had to be deployed to control a protest by thousands of Senegalese citizens who denounced the use of US$27 million of public money to build the “horrible” statue. In a 92% Muslim country, the colossal display of naked flesh also provoked uproar. Some Senegalese opposition leaders even labelled the sculpture “Stalinist”, acknowledging its similarities to works such as Vera Mukhina’s iconic statue of the Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, first displayed at the Paris World’s Fair in 1937 and now once again erected in Moscow.

Also in attendance at the opening ceremony were representatives of North Korea. Mansudae Overseas Projects is the international division of Mansudae Art Studio, run by the North Korean government and responsible for numerous propaganda monuments across the secretive nation. In recent years, the Pyongyang-based company has produced a number of monuments across Africa celebrating independence from European colonial powers. Other works, also reproduced as models by Onejoon Che, include the bronze Three Dikgosi Monument that was unveiled in Gaborone, Botswana in 2005, and Heroes’ Acre, a war memorial erected in the Namibian capital of Windhoek. Other projects include a statue memorialising the 19th-century King Béhanzin, on display in Abomey, Benin. The involvement of North Korea in the construction of the African Renaissance Monument was previously explored in Frieze Magazine, while other statues built in Africa by Mansudae Overseas Projects can be seen in an article on Quartz.

It has been reported that as a reward for its involvement, North Korea was granted a large portion of state land in Senegal, meaning that a statue purported to celebrate freedom from colonisation has ironically resulted in yet another non-African nation securing land rights in Africa.

Images: Onejoon Che, Model of the African Renaissance Monument, 2014. Fibre-reinforced plastic. Courtesy the artist; African Renaissance Monument, 2010. Bronze, 49 metres. Dakar, Senegal; Vera Mukhina, Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, 1937. Stainless steel, 24.5 metres. Moscow, Russia.

Golden Statue for Laos’ Secret War

After years of French colonial rule, Laos was finally granted autonomy on 19 July 1949 before achieving independence in 1953. Yet its celebrations would be short-lived. Barely a fortnight afterwards a bitter civil war broke out which would divide the country for over two decades.

As the conflict rapidly became a high-stakes Cold War proxy war, the revolutionary communist group, Pathet Lao, and the Royal Lao Government both received extensive support from the rival superpowers. Yet as the Vietnam War become increasingly unpopular in the United States, the CIA’s activities in Laos became known as the ‘Secret War’.

After Communism emerged victorious in 1975, a memorial was erected in the city of Vieng Xai, a Pathet Lao stronghold during the war. The patriotic group statue blends various sculptural traditions and iconographies to riveting effect.

Vieng Xai Statue

Its bright gold finish mirrors much of the Buddhist statuary of Indochina, yet the message of peace is here subverted. The group contains the traditional Communist pairing of a female peasant and male worker, complete with the obligatory hammer and sickle. Yet here they are joined by a third figure of a soldier. While the peasant woman holds the popular Socialist Realist symbol of sheaves of corn, a shotgun is strapped to her back. The central figure brandishes a machine gun, while the grenades on the soldier’s belt increase the sense of menace.
Vieng Xai Statue 2

The soldier also stands with his foot propped on a bomb marked ‘USA’. This is a reminder of nine long years of US aerial bombardment, the heaviest bombing campaign in history, which scarred the country. Earlier this year the United States assigned $12 million towards the clearing of unexploded bombs in Laos, a not-so-secret legacy of the country’s sad history.

Image: Victory statue in Vieng Xay District, Lao People’s Democratic Republic. Top – Photo © 2013 David Coleman (HaveCameraWillTravel.com). Bottom – Courtesy Globloggersblog

Iraq’s Modernist Monument to the 14 July Revolution

On 14 July 1958 a secret military group of Arab nationalists, known as the Free Officers, staged a coup d’état in Iraq. The revolution aimed to eliminate the Hashemith monarchy and the last vestiges of British colonial rule in the country. During the coup 23-year-old King Faisal II and his family were assassinated, removing a key ally in the West’s attempts to combat Soviet influence in the Middle East. Following the pattern of so many post-revolutionary countries, the Republic of Iraq rapidly descended into a militarised state controlled by an oppressive regime, which gave rise to the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.

In 1959 the famous painter and sculptor Jawad Saleem was asked by the Iraqi government to design a monument to commemorate the 14 July Revolution. The El Haria (Liberty) Monument in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square is today one of the city’s most iconic landmarks and has overlooked many dramatic scenes during the republic’s turbulent history.

The frieze, which blends neo-classical design with modernist flair, comprises 25 human figures together with a horse and a bull, cast in bronze and welded together against a marble background. Although Saleem’s death in 1961 prevented his seeing the final construction, it remains a lasting tribute to Iraq’s history as a centre for modern art.

Images: Baghdad’s Tahrir Square by Ahmed Al Jrah

The Divided Brothers of the Korean War

On 25 June 1950 North Korea surprised its southern neighbour with a sudden invasion, sparking the start of the Korean War. As the United States entered the fray on the side of South Korea, while China lent support to its communist ally, a bloody battle ensued that lasted until 1953.

In 1994 the War Memorial of Korea opened in Seoul. As visitors approach they are greeted by the eye-catching Statue of Brothers by Choi Young-jeep. The 11-metre-high sculpture shows two soldiers in a desperate embrace as they stand on a split dome landscape. The nearby panel tells the fictional story of two brothers meeting in battle during the Korean War: the elder an officer of the Republic of Korea (South Korea); the younger a North Korean soldier. As they recognise their fraternal love and reconcile, the statue symbolises the desire of the two peoples of Korea for reunification, while the cracked dome represents their ongoing division.

However, the statue also has a more ominous and provocative meaning. The larger, older brother is armed while the younger brother appears defenceless and weak. While the personification of South Korea looks down with a heroic, determined expression, North Korea looks up with admiration and gratitude. The sculptor has described the South Korean soldier’s embrace as “forgiving”, further emphasising the statue’s alternative role of glorifying the inevitable defeat of communism and the victory of democracy.

Statue of Brothers

Images: Choi Young-jeep, Statue of Brothers, 1994. War Memorial of Korea, Seoul.

Uprising Against Hungary’s Sculpture

budapest 2In the words of then-Senator John F. Kennedy, ‘October 23, 1956 is a day that will live forever in the annals of free men and nations. It was a day of courage, conscience and triumph. No other day since history began has shown more clearly man’s eternally unquenchable desire to be free, whatever the odds against success, whatever the sacrifice required’. One of the most memorable events of that day, the first of the short-lived Hungarian Uprising, was the scene of revolutionaries ripping apart a loathed statue of Stalin in Budapest. By the end of the day only his boots were left, in which were planted a Hungarian flag.

50 years later, on the spot where the statue of Stalin had once stood, the Hungarian government unveiled the Monument of the 1956 Revolution. This formidable sculpture is made up of 1,956 steel posts, initially rusted and scattered randomly, before converging to form a highly-polished sharp wedge, intended to symbolise national unity and defiance against oppression.

Yet an artwork that should have brought the Hungarian people together instead provoked a rift, as the familiar Cold War battle between abstract and realist art was reawakened in 2006. Supporters of the monument speak warmly of its comparison to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, which also divided opinion when first opened but is now widely celebrated. But many veterans of the failed revolution, who suffered vicious reprisals after the Red Army finally overcame the street fighters on 10 November 1956, expressed their dislike for the abstract memorial and favoured a figurative scene of heroic revolutionaries. The debate is still very much alive today.


Images: Top – Destruction of statue of Stalin, Budapest, 23 October 1956, Courtesty BBC News; Bottom – Monument of the 1956 Revolution. Courtesy jaime.silva on Flickr