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A towering bronze statue of Christopher Columbus in Mexico City will be replaced with a new sculpture of an Indigenous woman, said Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum this weekend. The monument was removed from its prominent spot in the capital’s Paseo de la Reforma last October in advance of annual protests by Indigenous groups. Government officials said the work was removed for restoration, but acknowledged that it was “time to reflect on Columbus’s legacy.”
The controversial statue of the Italian colonizer will not go back on its pedestal. Instead, a new sculpture of an Olmec woman by Mexican artist Pedro Reyes will take its place. Sheinbaum made the announcement during a press conference on the International Day of the Indigenous Woman this Saturday, September 5.
“We owe it to them. We exist because of them,” she said. “It is the history of our country and our homeland.”
Around 15% of Mexico’s population is Indigenous. Last year, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) made a historic apology to the nation’s Mexica people for the violence inflicted on them by the Spanish during their conquest of the Aztec Empire in the 16th century. Despite promises by AMLO to improve the lives of Native Mexicans, however, the community continues to face poverty and other mounting challenges, particularly amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Statues of colonizers who subjected, by sword and by disease, the inhabitants of this and other continents, are coming down around the world,” Reyes told Hyperallergic. “It has taken us 500 years to to change the focus, and today we understand that it wasn’t a ‘discovery,’ it was an invasion.”
Reyes was inspired by the Nahuatl word tlalli, meaning Earth. “It’s such a beautiful word that it inspired me to create an allegory,” he said. “I asked myself: what form could this word take? Historically, representations of the Earth are feminine, and that’s why my sculpture is a woman.”
Taking as a point of departure the tradition of Olmec monumental sculpture, the finished work will also incorporate elements of La Venta art, including the heavy-lidded eyes and down-turned mouth of the “were-jaguar” motif.
Reyes’s piece is slated to go up on Día de la Raza, a celebration of diverse Latin American cultures observed by many Spanish-speaking countries on October 12, the day when Columbus arrived to the Americas in 1492.
Last year, amid historic demonstrations against police brutality and racial violence, statues of Columbus were among the numerous monuments that were knocked down, removed, or painted over around the world. Mexico’s statue of Columbus previously at Paseo de la Reforma, however, will not be stored or destroyed but relocated to Parque América, a small plaza in the city’s Polanco neighborhood.
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To do so before they have returned the Maqdala treasures and the Benin Bronzes and the Easter Island statues and the Maori heads, before a coherent set of precepts for decolonization has been articulated, would affirm the wrong principle.
“Everybody in Mesopotamia, as far as I understand it, believed in ghosts,” said Irving Finkel, a curator of the British Museum’s Middle Eastern department.