Today is Columbus Day for much of the United States, but there is a growing movement to rename the day — which celebrates the colonization of the Americas — Indigenous Peoples’ Day, in order to honor the Native American populations that were massacred and killed by Europeans. In commemoration, a protester took it upon themselves to mark one of the most glaring symbols of contemporary art excess and decadence — Maurizio Cattelan’s gold toilet named “America” (2016), installed at the Guggenheim Museum — with a “Decolonize This Place” sticker. Currently in residence at Artists Space, Decolonize This Place brings together various activist groups focused on indigenous rights, Palestinian solidarity, worker rights, and anti-gentrification work. On their exhibition page, the organizers of the space explain that it “prioritize[s] the presence and work of people of color and will be inclusive of queer, immigrant, and disabled participants — challenging the white supremacy that continues to characterize the economies and institutions of art.”
Hyperallergic tracked down the person who placed the sticker on Cattelan’s toilet to ask about their decision. “Cultural institutions have an obligation to the public as stakeholders to educate and display truthful and honorable representations of our collective history. The essence of the readymade calls for public engagement as critique and reappropriation of these bureaucratic systems. Social activism as art, if worth it’s weight in gold, can redefine what stands or falls to be culturally significant,” they responded and asked to remain anonymous. The toilet was not damaged by the action.
Decolonize This Place also released an “Open Letter on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, 2016” addressed to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, the New York City Council, and the Trustees of the American Museum of Natural History. The letter in its entirety reads:
Open Letter on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, 2016
To: Mayor de Blasio, New York City Council, and the Trustees of the American Museum of Natural History
Decolonize This Day
Many American cities have bowed to the obvious and renamed Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Why is New York not among them? There is no reason for holding out any longer. It’s time for the Mayor and City Council to stand on the right side of history. New York City sits on the territory of the Lenape, and over one hundred thousand Indigenous people live on this territory today—more than any other city in the United States! Let’s honor the rich legacy and achievements of Native Americans and discard the unsavory celebration of imperial conquest. This public holiday must be relaunched as an occasion to dignify our Indigenous brothers and sisters, it should no longer commemorate a figure widely associated with exploitation and enslavement.
Decolonize This Statue
The equestrian status of Theodore Roosevelt on Central Park West outside the American Museum of Natural History has often been cited as the most hated monument in New York City. It’s easy to see why. A stark embodiment of the white supremacy that Roosevelt himself espoused and promoted, the statue is an affront to all who pass it on entering the museum, but especially to African and Native Americans. Statuary is not forever, and a monument that appears to glorify racial hierarchies should be retired from public view. The international movement that began with the dismantling of Cecil Rhodes’ statue at the University of Cape Town, and escalated in this country with the removal of Confederate flags and generals from public display, has come to New York. The statue is city-owned, and it sits on Parks Department land. City Council members should all agree — it’s time to take Teddy down.
Decolonize This Museum
Why are indigenous cultural artifacts still in the American Museum of Natural History, while their Greek and Roman counterparts are housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art across the park? Because New York’s premier scientific museum continues to honor the bogus racial classification that assigned colonized peoples to the domain of Nature and the colonizers to the realm of Culture. It’s time to accept that The Hall of African Peoples does not belong in the same exhibition framework as The Akeley Hall of African Mammals, or that Indigenous cultures need to be presented in ways that are distinct from the display of fossils and meteorites. These arrangements should be reviewed and reconceived by representatives of the “exhibited” populations. Human remains, sacred things, and objects of power stolen from Indigenous peoples should be placed under the authority of the descendants. The American Museum of Natural History has long been an embarrassment to New Yorkers. It needs a serious renovation, to be undertaken by a diverse range of curators drawn from the populations featured in the museum.
NYC Stands with Standing Rock
Decolonize This Place
The group is collecting signatures on the open letter and will deliver it to the mayor’s office by the end of November. They are also planning an Anti-Columbus Day tour at the American Museum of Natural History today starting at 4pm.
Hyperallergic is participating in Decolonize This Place, providing a photocopier at Artists Space that can be used free of charge by artists, activists, and the community.