The exhibition MONUMENTality at the Getty Research Institute explores various paradigms of monumentality from antiquity to the present. With unexpected juxtapositions—such as photographs of “lines” (geoglyphs) created by the pre-literate Nazca civilization next to photographs of 1960s and ‘70s earthworks—the exhibition makes evident how every culture has recognized and striven for monumentality.
The concept of monumentality is usually associated with a singular monument: a structure formidable in size, emanating an aura of greatness. But monumentality, in the sense of power that demands public recognition, can also be achieved through sheer numbers and repeated multiplicity of forms. This was true of the tens of thousands of statues of Lenin that blanketed the Soviet Union at the time of its dissolution in 1991. It is true, too, of racist depictions of Black Americans that once formed a part of popular culture. The sculpture Dancing Minstrel III that greets visitors at the exhibition’s entrance highlights this aspect of monumentality while addressing the ubiquity of racist imagery in American visual culture.
Monuments rise and fall with regimes in power. Lenin’s iconic symbolism in the Soviet Union, for example, was established through his ubiquitous representation throughout public and private spaces. When Ukraine passed laws in 2015 outlawing communist symbols, the country set a deadline for dismantling the remainder of the 5,500 Lenin statues erected in the Soviet period.
A small group of Lenin sculptures on display in the exhibition suggests how ubiquity creates monumentality. Cast in bronze, carved in wood, and baked in porcelain, these Lenins were borrowed from The Wende Museum in Culver City—where you can find dozens more Lenins that once graced Soviet homes and offices. These sculptures contribute to The Wende’s mission to preserve and make available Cold War artifacts to inspire a broad understanding of the period, and explore its enduring legacy.
In authoritarian governments, legislation and official directives can make sweeping changes to public thinking. In democracies, social perceptions can be harder to overturn. MONUMENTality confronts this issue with a singular twelve-foot sculpture, Dancing Minstrel III, created by current Getty artist-in-residence Theaster Gates.
When we asked Gates to participate in the exhibition with a work that would speak to the current national debate on Confederate monuments, he responded instantly by suggesting his sculpture Dancing Minstrel. But, he added, for the Getty exhibition the sculpture would not be—as originally mounted—towering twelve feet in the air. It would instead be lying dismantled on the ground.
Now scattered in pieces across the white travertine floor of the Research Institute, this third-generation sculpture references a provocative and disturbing lineage in American history.
The Dancing Minstrel and Negrobilia
Gates’s sculpture takes its name from the so-called dancing minstrel, a small, animated blackface toy popular in the twentieth century. Created as an amusement to decorate parlors and entertain Americans of all ages, this small figure danced by means of an articulated body activated by a lever. In 2013 Gates acquired the toy, Dancing Minstrel I, as part of a collection of some 4,000 artifacts of “negrobilia” (as he refers to it)—racist memorabilia and tchotchkes that include Black and blackface figures, as well as antebellum and Jim Crow–era signs, documents, and ephemera.
The story of the amassing of this negrobilia collection has, to my art historian’s eye, an uncanny parallel with the expungement of Lenins from everyday life in the Soviet republics. It was formed over decades by an African American businessman, Edward J. Williams, who strove to take these racist stereotypes out of popular circulation while preserving them as historical documents. Though their iconography is profoundly different, in both cases images were actively removed from the public eye in an attempt to shape current thought.
Gates has stated that “archives, with their embedded histories and socio-political import, are significant material and conceptual grist for my practice.” In 2014 the artist installed his newly acquired archive of negrobilia in the Stony Island Arts Bank, a cultural resource center opened by the artist on Chicago’s predominantly African American South Side. In 2016 this archive was the conceptual resource for an exhibition at Kunsthaus Bregenz, Austria, dedicated to his work, Black Archive. Here the next iteration of the sculpture, which he created as Dancing Minstrel II, was installed as a larger-than-life bobblehead toy that danced with visitors who jumped on its gigantic lever.
Assuming monstrous proportions that reflect the degree to which racialized imagery has shaped the American psyche, the artwork’s design in Austria implicated the viewer in the construction and perpetuation of offensive stereotypes. In the Getty exhibition, where Dancing Minstrel III lies scattered as a disassembled totem of racism, visitors are encouraged to explore their own reactions and reflect on the current role of monuments, and race, in American culture.