Art or ideology? Some statues have hidden histories

By Aislinn Ní Chaoimh

Listening to senator Michael McDowell on Prime Time talking about the removal of the Shelbourne statues, you might get the impression that he is some progressive pushing for non-biased history and that he is even a supporter of the arts.

Taking down statues is not erasing history. Has anyone ever learnt history from looking at a statue alone? Statues and sculptures in public places are chosen (particularly during the British colonial era) by the ruling class to celebrate agents and ideals of colonialism and exploitation. These are not works of art that are chosen by the public and they do not reflect the principles and values of the public (the majority) though they occupy public spaces.

In this Irish Times article, John Ducie (former chairman of An Taisce) states that the statues have nothing to do with Black Lives Matter and ridicules those calling for them to be taken down for apparently not knowing their art history. He also goes on to say that they were made at a time when “everything Egyptian was so chic – especially the French take on it”.

Firstly, the plundering of another nation’s culture as a passing fashion is typical colonial fare. Secondly, this European ‘fashion’ for everything Egyptian is one way of describing a period following the French occupation of Egypt, followed a number of decades later by the British occupation. And of course, let’s not also forget that this ‘fashion’ extended to the widescale theft of Egyptian art and artefacts which still reside in museums across Europe today.

The statues are also very much in keeping with the 19th century imperialist fashion of othering and exoticising the peoples and nations that these colonial powers were invading. While the statues may not directly reference the Atlantic slave trade, they certainly are very much in keeping with the mentality that allowed for the abduction and enslavement of millions of people. In short, they represent the exploitation of millions under European imperialism and the ongoing racism faced by people of colour in this country and therefore have no place in our public spaces.

So, senator Michael McDowell, since history is so important to you, in this instance will you be advocating that the history of imperialism and colonialism on which the current capitalist system rests be taught in all schools? How about how statues like these came to be erected in our public spaces and what they actually represent? And surely, you will be advocating for better pay and conditions for those working in the arts?