As the March 31, 2017 Centennial anniversary of the sale and transfer of the US Virgin Islands from Denmark to the United States approached the question of how to commemorate such as occasion arose. Various institutions began planning exhibitions, symposiums and celebrations on both sides of the Atlantic. In 2014 Danish researcher Helle Stenum began planning a "Warehouse to Warehouse" exhibition at the two storage houses in Denmark and St. Croix. This project would entail a simultaneous exhibition in both locations and would also include two commissioned monuments by artists La Vaughn Belle (VI) and Jeannette Ehlers (DK). This initial project, however, fell apart due to institutional changes and lack of funding, but it birthed what would be the eventual collaboration of Belle and Ehlers, whose work and careers operated on parallel trajectories and now had the perfect opportunity to intersect.
(Note: The demise of the "Warehouse to Warehouse" exhibition also led to the development of a film by Helle Stenum, "We Carry it Within Us". See website here and film here (available for viewing online until April 4, 2018).
A HyBrid of Bodies, Nations and Narratives
For over a decade both artists' work has centered on issues relating to colonialism and their proposals for the centennial monument reflected their unique approaches to these themes. Belle, often working with reinterpreting the material artifacts of colonialism, created a prototype entitled, "Trading Post", a sculpture of coral stones encased in plexiglass that were harvested from the ruins of historical buildings in Christiansted. These stones were cut from the ocean by enslaved Africans and formed the foundation of most of the colonial era buildings. Belle wanted to highlight and make visible this labor as the foundation of the wealth produced in the colonial enterprise. Ehlers, drawing from her performance and video based practice, worked with a promotional image that was created for a solo exhibition and highlighted her performance "Whip It Good". In this performance piece she whips black ash onto a large white canvas. In the poster image she draws on the iconic photograph of the leader of the Black Panther party, Huey P. Newton, seated in a peacock chair holding a rifle and a spear. Ehlers wanted to connect various resistance movements and center them in the figure of Queen Mary, one of the main leaders of the 1878 labor revolt in St. Croix, also known as the "Fireburn", and place her in front of the Danish West Indian warehouse in Copenhagen.
An intervention in this site would contrast the over 2000 white plaster casts of sculptures from Greek antiquity to the late Renaissance created to demonstrate the development of Western art in the Royal Cast collection, especially the two story sculpture of David by Michelangelo in the front of the building. After successfully securing funds in Denmark to realize this sculpture, Ehlers later invited Belle to collaborate on the project, combining not only their two sculptures, but their physical likenesses using 3D scanning technology, resulting in a hybrid of their bodies, nations and narratives in "I Am Queen Mary".
Embodying a hero: Connecting to the past, Present and Future
"I Am Queen Mary" takes as its point of departure the historical figure of Mary Thomas, an important leader of the ‘Fireburn’ labour revolt on St. Croix. The Fireburn began on October 1, 1878 as an uprising against the contractual servitude that continued to bind workers to the plantation system after the 1848 abolition of slavery in the former Danish West Indies. As its name suggests, this insurrection for better working and living conditions involved burning down most of Frederiksted town as well as sugar cane fields on a great number of St. Croix’s plantations. Along with Mary Thomas, the three women Axeline ‘Agnes’ Elizabeth Salomon, Matilde McBean and Susanna ‘Bottom Belly’ Abrahamsson led the largest labor revolt in Danish colonial history. They were arrested and sent to Denmark in 1882 to serve prison sentences in Christianshavn’s Women’s Prison. Their sentences were later commuted and they were returned to St. Croix. They are venerated in U.S. Virgin Islands cultural mythology as the Queens of the Fireburn. There are folksongs dedicated to Queen Mary and a highway named in her honor.
"I Am Queen Mary" speaks to many resistance movements and traditions. She anticipates the question "Who are you?" and in the African tradition of call-and-response announces her presence. By speaking her humanity into existence she stakes her claim on the site and reshapes the narrative for future generations.