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Denmark’s First Public Monument to a Black Woman Celebrates a 19th-Century Freedom Fighter

“I Am Queen Mary,” installed in Copenhagen, was inspired by Mary Thomas, who led a major uprising on the former Danish colony of St. Croix.

La Vaughn Belle and Jeannette Ehlers, “I Am Queen Mary” (2018, photo by Nick Furbo courtesy of the artists)

Over the weekend, Denmark received its first-ever public monument to a black woman, a regal statue intended to address the country’s history as a colonial power. “I Am Queen Mary,” installed in Copenhagen, was inspired by Mary Thomas, a 19th-century freedom fighter who led a major uprising on St. Croix, one of the Virgin Islands that was then part of the Danish West Indies. It’s a hybrid portrait of its two artists, La Vaughn Belle, who grew up in the Virgin Islands, and Jeannette Ehlers, who is based in Copenhagen. Painted entirely black, and rising nearly 23 feet on a hefty pedestal, the seated figure is a notable and striking addition to a city in which the vast majority of public statues represent white men.

Jeannette Ehlers and La Vaughn Belle with the work-in-progress “I Am Queen Mary” (photo by Nikolaj Recke)

The statue’s unveiling on Saturday, March 31 marked 101 years since Transfer Day, when Denmark sold St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. John to the United States for $25 million. The European country never fully acknowledged its colonialist past in the Caribbean; although the Danish government recognizes Denmark’s wrongful role in the slave trade, it has never formally apologized for it.

“For the last 101 years Denmark has been awkwardly trying to forget its colonial past and participation in the slave trade,” Belle told Hyperallergic. “At the inauguration of ‘I Am Queen Mary,’ a representative from one of the canal tour companies said to me that it is normally quite difficult to talk about the colonial history, but that our sculpture makes it impossible now not to. This was definitely one of the goals we had for this project — a complete disruption in the Danish national narrative and consciousness.”

Under the Danish Crown, the islands served as a stop in the triangle trade, in which slaves from West Africa were sent to work on plantations. Although the transatlantic slave trade was officially prohibited in 1792, it ceased in 1803; slavery was not abolished until almost half a century later. Former slaves also remained plantation laborers, and their living conditions barely improved.

The persistence of unjust and unfair conditions led to the rebellion in October of 1878, led by Mary Thomas, Axeline Elizabeth Salomon, and Mathilda McBean — each known as “Queen.” The uprising led to the burning of over 50 plantations, giving name to what is known as the Fireburn riots, the largest labor revolt in Danish colonial history. Thomas was eventually arrested and tried, and in 1882 she was transferred to Copenhagen for imprisonment.

Unveiling of “I Am Queen Mary” (photo by David Berg)

“I Am Queen Mary” sits about a mile north of the women’s prison where Thomas resided for five years (she served the remainder of her sentence in St. Croix), outside the former Vestindisk Pakhus, or West India Warehouse. Resting in a throne-like seat, the figure’s stance is modeled after an iconic photograph of Huey P. Newton, which shows the Black Panther Party leader seated in a rattan peacock chair, grasping a rifle and a spear. The reference, Ehlers and Belle say, is intended to connect various resistance movements; in their vision, they have substituted those weapons for a torch and a knife used to cut sugar cane. Incorporated into the monument’s massive pedestal are pieces of coral, originally cut from the ocean by enslaved Africans, that Belle gathered from the ruins of historic buildings on St. Croix.

The statue is supported by The National Gallery of Denmark and ActionAid Denmark, an international organization that works to eradicate global poverty and injustice. Already, its installation in such a public setting (notably, near a copy of Michelangelo’s David) has stirred dialogue over Danish colonialism — which, although an unsavory and difficult past, is part of the national story. “The public reaction has been amazing, especially the reaction of people of African descent here in Denmark and in other parts of the diaspora,” Ehlers told Hyperallergic. “The sculpture is a physical manifestation of all of our struggles against the effects of colonialism.”

La Vaughn Belle and Jeannette Ehlers, “I Am Queen Mary” (2018) (photo by Nick Furbo)
Prototype of “I Am Queen Mary,” exhibited at the Copenhagen Workers’ Museum (photo by Jeannette Ehlers)
“I Am Queen Mary” receiving finishing touches (photo by Nikolaj Recke)
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