On March 31st, 2018, the day of the 100th anniversary of the sale and transfer of the US Virgin Islands from Denmark to the United States, Denmark got its first public monument of a black woman.
“I Am Queen Mary” is a 23-foot-tall sculpture of Mary Thomas, one of the three leading figures of the Fireburn, the largest labor revolt in Danish colonial history, which took place on October 1, 1878 on St. Croix. According to history, the revolt started when a worker named Henry Trotman was injured after some confrontations in Frederiksted. Three women who became known as Queen Mary, Queen Agnes and Queen Mathilda led the rebellion and with their fights managed to achieve some improvements for laborers, including higher pay. The three queens were arrested and served part of their sentence in Christianshavn women’s prison in Copenhagen.
The artists behind the awe-inspiring sculpture, Jeannette Ehlers and La Vaughn Belle, wanted to create an artwork that would always remind Danes of their colonial past and the people who fought against it. “The project represents a bridge between the two countries. 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,” Belle explains.
Queen Mary is portrayed holding a torch in one hand and a cane bill, which was used to cut sugar cane, on the other. Ehlers and Belle chose these two items in order to symbolize the resistance strategies the colonized used in their fights for freedom. Also, the seated pose is a reference to the 1967 photograph of the founder of the Black Panther Party Huey P. Newton. Finally, the artists have stated that the plinth on which Queen’s Mary chair stands incorporates coral cut from the ocean by enslaved Africans gathered from ruins of the foundations of historic buildings on St. Croix.
“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,” Henrik Holm, Senior Research Curator at the National Gallery of Art said in a statement. “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.”
The “I Am Queen Mary” statue has been placed in front of Copenhagen’s West Indian Warehouse, the building that was once used for storing sugar, rum and other products collected in the Danish colonies in the Caribbean.
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