Someone vandalized a sculpture of a pregnant black woman at the Copycat Building, scrawling "nigger" repeatedly across her belly, her arms, her chest, her legs—and the incident has become intertwined with the city's ongoing debate about the future of its Confederate monuments.
Here's what happened. This summer Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake formed a commission to consider the future of Baltimore's many Confederate monuments, including the statue of General Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson in the Wyman Park Dell. As commission members continued to debate the monuments' fates in a series of public meetings, one local artist and activist, Pablo Machioli, voiced his objection to the Lee-Jackson monument by quietly erecting his own counter-sculpture on Oct 29. That night, he placed his sculpture—a black woman with a pregnant belly, her fist raised in the air triumphantly—in front of the Lee-Jackson statue. Fellow activists, including Owen Silverman Andrews, who collected hundreds of signatures on a petition pushing for the removal of all Confederate statues in Baltimore, assisted Machioli.
The next day, Recreation and Parks Department staffers took Machioli's statue down.
They didn't destroy it, though, and Silverman Andrews was able to get it back; he brought it to the Copycat building where its creator, Machioli, is a resident artist. The sculpture was moved into a public walkway at the Guilford Avenue building that, with its residential apartments, artist studios, and gallery and performance spaces is considered a hub of the Baltimore arts scene.
Around 11 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 5, security cameras caught someone vandalizing the sculpture.
Members of La Bodega Collective, a group of about a dozen artists who run La Bodega Gallery, obtained security camera footage from Copycat staff, and they said it appears that a resident of the building is responsible for the racist vandalism. According to La Bodega's Facebook post about the incident, the not-yet-identified perpetrator is "about 5'6"-5'9" possibly blonde, possibly female, slight build."
"Someone would have had to enter through the front door, which was locked," Silverman Andrews told City Paper over the phone.
While the statue was installed over at Wyman Park Dell, people were encouraged to interact with it and write their responses on it. Most of the responses were positive, Silverman Andrews says, adding that it's "important to emphasize that this sculptural intervention was peaceful and positive, but sometimes doing peaceful and positive things brings out a lot of ugliness in response."
Artist Hoesy Corona, who lives in the Copycat and was the first to post an image of the defaced statue on Instagram, says that he's "never seen an artwork evoke this type of white supremacist brutality in an individual," and that whoever did it "was so full of hatred."
"As a longtime resident artist of color in the Copycat," Corona says, "I do not condone this kind of blatant racism in the building where I live and work."
Following the vandalism, artist Nakia Brown responded by posting poetry on a nearby wall, expressing her shock, sorrow, and anger at the statue's defacement. Someone tore the poem down and urinated on it, shortly after she put it up.
"They wrote that on me," says Brown, who often writes under the name Fire Angelou.
The following week, La Bodega Collective held community meetings on Nov. 10 and Nov. 12.
Tuesday's meeting was large and fairly diverse, while Thursday's was mostly white. In attendance was a small group of people of color, with Nakia Brown the only black person present—something that was openly acknowledged, and led to discussions of the Copycat's limited diversity.
The group established discussion guidelines such as "use 'I' statements" and "Build/create with love and care."
After discussion and exercises, people split up into groups based on racial identity, and later came back together to review their respective conclusions. Among the goals put forth was an initiative to create a "safe space" inside the bounds of the Copycat for marginalized members of the community as well as the creation of a "disorientation program" aimed at innoculating incoming MICA students who are "fresh off the farm" with better community sensibilities and sensitivities.
Beyond these longer-term goals, the group reached the consensus that they wished to draft a community statement on the incident, which they recently completed and shared with City Paper:
"We, La Bodega Collective, stand united in condemning the vandalism and hatred taken towards the statue, 'Madre Luz,' and the poetry response, 'I am the statue.' These were acts of anti-blackness and anti-womanhood.
We stand committed to the fight against bigotry and push for a respectfully inclusive community, for our comrades of Color, as well as future generations.
We will continue our work as an increasingly diverse collective; be it those who live and work here, or those with whom we collaborate. We hold ourselves accountable in this action towards equality.
Let this document stand as a testament that this movement does not, and will not, end with this statement. We have much work to do.
In Empathy. In Love. In Solidarity.
-La Bodega Collective"
Other artists have responded to the monument debate as well. Activist and artist Duane "Shorty" Davis placed one of his signature toilets affixed with a collage of political images in front of the Lee-Jackson Monument on Nov. 14 (specifically, it was his anti-Martin O'Malley toilet previously displayed at Creative Alliance's "The BIG Show" over the summer). By Sunday, the seat and top half of the toilet had been broken off and by Monday, the toilet was gone altogether. This was part of a larger ongoing protest by Davis, who also dropped a toilet off in front of the Baltimore Sun building on Monday as well as other locations across the city.
Meanwhile, the city will resume its discussion of the Confederate monuments when the special commission meets again on Dec. 15. It's not clear what role the legal protection of historical easements will play in deciding what happens to the memorials. The Maryland Department of Planning declined to "provide any legal interpretations" to City Paper regarding the historical easement which protects three of the four monuments under review by the Monuments Commission. But Public Information Officer John Coleman did point out some relevant details of the easement document which seem to indicate there is some flexibility in the range of possible outcomes.
There is a precedent for moving a monument, which is something many activists have recommended, though there is not a precedent for taking the monuments out of public view. According to Coleman, the easement which protects the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument (located in Bolton Hill), the Lee-Jackson Monument, and the Confederate Women of Maryland Monument (near the Johns Hopkins Homewood campus) "is a perpetual easement that covers the sculptures and their surrounding sites." Among the protections provided is a provision for public access which asserts that "[a]ll monuments are located in public areas, are accessible to the public and shall continue to be accessible to the public during the term of this Easement." Moreover, there is a provision precluding the city from altering the monuments "without the express written permission of the Director of the Trust".
Although the terms of the easement appear inflexible, Coleman pointed out that there is already a precedent set for relocation of monuments covered by the very same document which protects the three confederate monuments in question. The Poe Monument, which now resides on the University of Baltimore campus was moved there in 1983 from its original location in Wyman Park under the authority of a "relocation provision."
With at least the relocation of the monuments confirmed as a possibility, the converging course of the Monument Commission with the paths of local artists who have been actively volunteering their own works to replace Baltimore's Confederate-themed statuary seems all the more timely. There were even suggestions by some during the course of the Copycat community meetings that Machioli's statue should be delivered by truck to December's meeting of the Monument Commission.
Additional reporting by Rebekah Kirkman.