Renowned Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz’s newest creation is called Residential School and crafts a classroom with a lone Indigenous girl sitting at one of 14 desks — representing Canada, each province and territory — resting her head with a feather in her hand. Photos courtesy of Timothy Schmalz

Gerry Turcotte: Set in stone? Not the historical record

  • September 10, 2021

In the Book of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar summons the magicians, enchanters and sorcerers of his kingdom to explain a troubling dream he has had. In a test of their ability, he declines to tell them what he dreamt, but instead insists that they reveal it to him and put it into context. The Chaldeans respond that no one could do such a thing “except the gods,” prompting the king to issue a decree that all wise men be executed.

Fortunately for them, Daniel hears of this and comes to their aid, successfully revealing the king’s dream. “You were looking, O king, and lo! there was a great statue.” Daniel goes on to describe a figure with a head of fine gold, a chest of silver, thighs of bronze, with feet of clay and iron.

In a reading that is both politically astute and metaphorically exquisite, Daniel explains that the head of gold is the king himself, but that the rest of the statue represents the future generations that will come after Nebuchadnezzar and that will be inferior to him. As subsequent leaders take over with lesser skills, the kingdoms will become divided, with some strength represented by the iron, but weakness represented by the clay. In the end they will crumble into dust.

I have often thought of this passage as the debates have raged over the dismantling and toppling of statues. While we have been focused of late on recent vandalisms of figures that championed residential schools, with many commenting on how brutal and unacceptable this new form of protest is, the truth is that this public expression is long-standing and historic.

In the Bible, of course, there are numerous examples of false idols being erected and torn down. But we have seen this repeatedly throughout history, from Egyptian and Roman times through to the American War of Independence; from the Taliban’s destruction of the sixth-century Buddhas of Bamiyan to the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Firdos Square by U.S. forces.

We speak often of iconic images as though they are somehow sacred, when in fact they are merely emblems of those in power at a particular time. History, as they say, is written by the winners. When Americans toppled a statue of King George III in the 1700s, it was viewed as liberation from British imperialism. It had been built two years earlier as a thank-you for the king’s removal of a hated tax.

Heroes and villains are also viewed differently depending on which side of the battle you stand on. Mahatma Ghandi and Nelson Mandela have assumed almost universal status as peacemakers and modern-day champions of the oppressed. In their day, however, they were vilified and imprisoned by the powers that be.

The defacing of statues, therefore, is one small part of the continuous rewriting and revaluation of the historical record, an arguably inevitable impact of a community’s evolution. In ancient Rome there was actually a term for this — damnatio memoriae — where the goal was literally to erase any evidence that a person who had fallen out of favour had even existed. If they appeared on coins, their image was removed. Statues or frescoes were destroyed or painted over. Stalin, it was said, implemented this particular practice as well, erasing any record of those who opposed him during the Great Purge.

Some have argued that the removal of statues in contemporary times follows a similar misguided path and is harmful because of it. Some have suggested that rather than tearing down statues, counter-point statues should be erected. Rather than erasing the narrative, supplement it.

The truth, of course, is that it is easy to judge when the impact is distanced from our own reality. How would I feel, for example, if my oppressor were lionized in stone? If someone who was the engineer of my loved one’s suffering were celebrated in monuments before me?

Despite these valid reservations, my own view is that building and supplementing is always preferable to dismantling and cancelling, because the removal of an issue can leave it dormant and unaddressed. I have always found it better to confront uncomfortable histories than to pretend they didn’t exist, even if this means adding on to even controversial structures so that the fullest picture can be shown.

In the end I especially appreciate initiatives like the one from famed Canadian sculpture Timothy Schmalz whose sculptures adorn many churches and universities (including my own). Schmalz, as The Catholic Register reported, has put his major projects on hold to work on a new sculptural model entitled Residential School.

Schmalz’s sculpture shows a lone child surrounded by empty desks, “passing a secret note — in this case a feather — to another student, which is symbolic of her ancestry.” Schmalz recognizes the power of “visual images, especially sculptures” to move us at a deeper level.

In the end I can only hope that we continue to uncover and contextualize our complex histories so that our stories are fully told and so that we are never accused of having feet of clay.

(Turcotte is president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary.)

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