A statue celebrating the life of Mary Thomas has become the first public monument of a black woman in Denmark's history. Danish artist Jeannette Ehlers and Virgin Islander artist La Vaughn Belle decided to collaborate to create the statue of the 19th century rebel, a work that 'challenges Denmark's forgotten colonial past', according to a statement.
Mary Thomas was — and still is — known as the 'Queen of the Fireburn' for the role she played as leader of the main labour revolt in the uprising of 1878, a major event in Denmark's colonial history. Workers rebelled on the Dutch-then-Danish colony island of St Croix (which now makes up part of the US Virgin Islands) due to conditions failing to improve, even after the abolition of slavery. As a result, plantations, shops, mills, and even houses were burnt down during this time of rebellion, which is locally known as 'the Fireburn', hence the reason for Thomas' nickname. Thomas was one of three 'queens' (as the locals later referred to them), as she worked along two other key female figures for the resistance. All three women were arrested as the rebels were suppressed, and they were sent to Denmark to serve their sentences.
The statue, named I Am Queen Mary, was erected to end of the centennial year marking Denmark's sale of their Caribbean islands to the United States, and is positioned near the West Indian Warehouse in Copenhagen, a place that once stored all products from the country's Caribbean colonies. Ehlers claims that 98 per cent of landmarks in Denmark celebrate white men, so the power of the work is a big step for the recognition of women in history, in particular women of colour.
“Who we are as a society is largely about who we remember ourselves to be. This project is about challenging Denmark’s collective memory and changing it,” Ehlers said. “So like the Queens of the Fireburn took action and fought against the oppressive colonial system, we are confronting present day’s racism and Eurocentrism by claiming a space for our narratives.”
Danish history aside, the statue itself is remarkable in its composition. The two artists used a 3D scanner to create a hybrid of their bodies, posing Mary in a seated position (inspired by the iconic photo of Black Panther Party founder Huey P. Newton), holding a torch in one hand, and a cane bill in the other. The artists said that it's “a reference to the resistance strategies used by the colonized in their struggles for freedom.”
Senior Research Curator at Denmark's National Gallery of Art, Henrik Holm, said: “Never before has a sculpture like this been erected on Danish soil. Now, Denmark is offered a sculpture that addresses the past. But it is also an artwork for the future.”
We can only be hopeful that other countries will begin to recognise aspects of their past that they've chosen to forget such as colonialism and slavery (Remember, whitewashed history is a thing, folks!), and finally celebrate those who resisted, those who made an impact, and those who sacrificed their lives for their people, their human rights, and for their freedom.