Denmark is celebrated today for it’s progressive culture and social governing, but you don’t have to flip back far in the nation’s story to read tales of rape, murder and pillaging. The vikings were, let’s face it, terrorists. But their story has been exported, commercialized and Disney’d up to the point that a professional American football team shares their namesake.
Another page from Denmark’s dark times not as well known is the slave trade. Before being sold to the United States one hundred years ago, the US Virgin Islands was a Danish colony constructed on the backs of African slaves.
Now in Copenhagen, Danes and tourists alike are being reminded of that cruel history by a towering 23-foot tall statue of Mary Thomas. Mary was a rebel queen that led the 1878 revolt against Danish colonial rule in the Caribbean. The statue paying tribute to her legacy is located just one mile from the prison she was housed in after being arrested, convicted and shipped across the Atlantic to Denmark.
The powerful piece is the creation of two women: Danish artist Jeannette Ehlers and Virgin Islands artist La Vaughn Belle. Ehlers says, “What’s unique about this sculpture is not only its size and thematics but that it was not commissioned. It is we, two artists, who are pushing into the public space.” The project represents a “bridge between the two countries,” Belle explains. “It’s a hybrid of our bodies, nations and narratives. It extends the conversation beyond the centennial year and gets people to really question what is their relationship to this history.”
Titled “I AM QUEEN MARY,” the statue is the country’s first public monument to a black woman. In the hands of the stoic figure are a cane bill and a torch, references to the “resistance strategies used by the colonized in their struggles for freedom,” a press release explains. And if the posing of the statue looks familiar, you’ve likely seen this iconic 1967 image of Black Panther Huey P. Newton which inspired the creative direction of the piece.
I Am Queen Mary occupies the waterfront by Copenhagen’s West Indian Warehouse that stored sugar, rum and other goods produced in Denmark’s former Caribbean colonies. It currently houses the Royal Cast Collection of over 2,000 white plaster casts of sculptures. If you plan on visiting Copenhagen, the statue is a must see.
“It takes a statue like this to make forgetting less easy. It takes a monument like this to fight against the silence, neglect, repression, and hatred,” says Henrik Holm, Senior Research Curator at the National Gallery of Art, “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.”