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A life-size wooden sculpture of Melania Trump recently appeared on top of a tree pedestal on the green banks of the Sava river, close to the First Lady’s hometown in South Slovenia. Although it has been a local attraction since finished this past March, the sculpture captured the international media’s attention after it was officially inaugurated on Friday, July 5.
Created after an image of the First Lady from her husband’s inauguration in 2017, the sculpture is painted with powder blue to reflect the cashmere dress and gloves she wore for the event. Carved out a tree trunk, the First Lady’s sculpture appears to be waving towards her hometown of Sevnica.
The wooden statue, which bears little resemblance to Melania Trump, was sculpted with a chainsaw by a local pipe-layer and folk artist named Ales Zupevc, known as Max. Zupevc was commissioned to create the monument by the Berlin-based American artist Brad Downey, who features a video on the making of the sculpture titled “Melania” in his solo exhibition This Echo in Ljublijana. The film, the first of three parts, was previously shown in at Kunstraum Kreuzberg (Bethanien) in Berlin.
Downey, who’s been living in Europe for the last 20 years, felt the urge to intervene in American politics following the last elections. “Based on the current political situation, I felt the need to inject my voice in the US political dialogue,” he said in a phone conversation with Hyperallergic from Slovenia. “I decided to make a portrait of Melania because she’s a strange figure with an interesting life. I wanted to understand this figure.”
His interest in the first lady is rooted in the stark contradiction between her personal background and her husband’s anti-immigration policies. “Politicians always have two faces,” he said, “[Donald Trump] has Slovenian children and a first lady who doesn’t speak English as her first language.” That, according to Downey, speaks to some truth about the president, although he’s not sure if it’s a positive or negative one: “It could be a positive truth because there’s a level of humanity there, showing that life is nuanced with many grey areas … I thought it’s worth artistic investigation.”
Downey’s video is a more a portrait of Zupevc and life in rural Slovenia than a portrait of the First Lady. The artist specifically looked for an amateur sculptor from the area where the first lady was born. “I wanted a folk artist who falls in the tradition of Slovenian folk art but one who is not corrupted by academia … and [one who] comes from the same working-class which Melania came from.”
“I’ve never done a sculpture of a whole human figure,” Zupevc says in the video while carving out the sculpture. “Busts, yes … vultures, etc … but never a whole person.” Zupevc, who was born on the same day and month as Melania Trump, is fond of the first lady, but not of her husband. “She looks more modest,” he says, “I don’t like him [Donald Trump], I prefer her to him.” Zupevc never knew Melania, but he said he did some work for her father.
The sculpture was lambasted by social media users, some calling it “Smurfette” and a “disgrace.”
“I’ve never set out to make a sculpture that looks like Melania,” Downey said, adding that he did not interfere in the work except for dedicating its hight and offering Zupevc a picture of Melania from the inauguration day. “It could have looked a million different ways,” he said. Zupevc himself is proud of the work. “I’m pleased with myself having done it,” he says in the video. “No one has criticized me yet.”
When asked if the sculpture was meant to ridicule the First Lady, Downey said: “It’s not deliberately a satire. It’s a depiction of a politician, so it definitely has an observational quality. It’s a nuanced portrait of someone.”