In 2018, Berlin-based US artist Brad Downey commissioned Slovenian artisan Ales “Maxi” Zupevc to create a sculpture of the First Lady of the United States, Melania Trump. It was the first time Zupevc had ever been asked to do something for a contemporary art context, as he’s normally commissioned by locals to create smaller carved items for personal or non-artistic use. The resulting sculpture, which was erected in Sevnica, just outside her birthplace, looks like a quirky tribute to the FLOTUS in a style that one could easily describe as folksy.
Downey’s initial interest in the sculpture stemmed from his own frustration with the policies of the Trump administration, so his decision to commission Zupevc seemed like a natural fit. “Basically, I thought that this is the type of man that [Melania Trump] may have grown up around [or] could have been a brother or a father,” he told Hyperallergic.
One of the peculiar things he’s found is how little connection Slovenians feel to the First Lady. While other local celebrities, like philosopher Slavoj Žižek, are embraced by locals, their thoughts on Mrs. Trump are less warm.
“So this was Yugoslavia when she was born,” he said, adding that she hasn’t maintained a connection to her roots. “She changed her name to an Austrian name and moved to Vienna and pretended to be an Austrian. So she also kind of abandoned her own culture in a way.” Her story isn’t unusual for ambitious individuals who escape poverty or a working-class background with an eye on reinventing themselves. It’s worth noting that her parents have since moved to the US and become American citizens as the result of “chain migration” policies that their son-in-law hates.
Local Slovenians, Downey says, have only been supportive of his project. The sculpture was erected on private land, which the artist says was offered by someone who seems to get a kick out of the work and the attention it has attracted. The project is also accompanied by a film to illuminate aspects of the initiative. Then, last July Fourth, the wooden sculpture was set ablaze — no, really. It has since been replaced by a bronze version commissioned by the artist based on the original.
This project lingers in my thoughts partly because it encapsulates the enigmatic and lie-infused reality of this particular First Lady. She and her staff perpetuated the idea that she was once a supermodel when she clearly wasn’t (the fashion world also ignored her during her time in the White House); she famously plagiarized from a Michelle Obama speech; people raised questions about her supposed fluency in fives languages; and she’s certainly not as helpless as some have assumed. She has also probably accomplished less than any other First Lady in recent memory: her “Be Best” COVID-19 initiative was dogged by critics who found many reasons to ridicule it, and people are already calling for her Rose Garden renovation to be reversed under the new administration.
Last fall, Downey quietly exhibited the burnt version of the sculpture at Allouche Gallery in New York while most of us stayed home obsessing over the election. It’s a peculiar but fitting monument to a figure who we’ll probably forget in the nearing future as we nurse our hangovers from a very long four years.