Emily Wilkerson shares an artist’s discovery and its implications for how we view history.
“What is the space that makes you you and me me? And what is that space between you and me?”
artist Ken Lum
“The River Between Us,” conceived by Marilu Knode, Executive Director of Laumeier Sculpture Park in St. Louis, and Joe Baker, former Executive Director of Longue Vue House and Gardens in New Orleans, was a collaboration between the two institutions in 2013. It centered around contemporary commissions that reflected upon the convoluted histories of the Mississippi River that connects New Orleans to St. Louis. In addition to contemporary art, historical works—culled from various collections in each city—traced histories of the peoples and landscapes along the river. The importance of one work, Ken Lum’s The Space Between Scott and Plessy, 2013, has reverberated beyond this exhibition. Situated in Longue Vue’s Main Hall, it consisted of a traditional bronze bust of Dred Scott atop a metal plinth inscribed with the words “Scott / St. Louis,” which faced an empty plinth approximately four feet away that read “Plessy / New Orleans.” Across the hall, a bronze bust of P.B.S. Pinchback sat atop a third pedestal, forming a triangle between the sculptures. It was not the same configuration of sculptures that had appeared in St. Louis just a few months before when the exhibition opened there. The third pedestal had been introduced in New Orleans, evidence of the meandering processes of how we both record and interpret history.
Lum, a Canadian artist of Chinese descent, had originally approached “The River Between Us” similar to many of his other projects, with the goal of uncovering “negative” histories—the points of view that are often left out, the side from which the story is not generally told. As he explained, “When I try to understand a place, I look at the history of those most oppressed.” The negative histories that Lum addressed here revolved around the court decisions against Dred Scott in St. Louis and Homer Plessy in New Orleans. Most are aware of these names and the landmark cases surrounding each, but what images come to mind when we think of them? Do we know the faces of these individuals as we know their legacies?
In cities like New Orleans and St. Louis, where Andrew Jackson’s statue in the French Quarter and the Gateway Arch commemorating Lewis and Clark take center stage as monuments, where does one find the homages to individuals such as Scott and Plessy and the risks they—and their supporters—took fighting for racial equality? Lum was taken aback and simultaneously drawn to the fact that there weren’t any monuments of these men styled in the same grand manner of many white conquerors.
Using existing portraits, Lum worked with a sculptor to intricately carve the three-quarter busts of Scott and Plessy. The clay sculptures were then cast in bronze and were first displayed outdoors in St. Louis, each monument surrounded by plants native to their respective cities. After putting the sculptures on view, Lum learned from the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation in New Orleans that the bust he created was, in fact, not Plessy. He had created a bust of P.B.S. Pinchback, a former governor of Louisiana and the United States’ first governor of African descent. Because Lum had culled multiple sources to find an image of Plessy, he was perplexed to find out that there are no extant photographs of him. Even today websites from BET to PBS return an image of Pinchback when you search for Plessy, an ongoing issue for the foundation, the families, and our understanding of these histories.
For most, this fact is hard to believe, and you might catch yourself mentally running through all of the common questions: Could it actually be that there is no photograph of Homer Plessy? People were using cameras more regularly in 1892, when he was arrested at Press and Royal Streets in New Orleans. And wouldn’t the local newspaper have documented some part of this action? For a case that was tried in the Supreme Court, how is there not documentation of this man? Perhaps there was a photograph someone came across, and, not understanding the gravity of one man’s actions, discarded it. Or maybe Plessy didn’t want to be pictured, representing instead the tremendous effort of the many individuals of the Crescent City Peace Alliance in this fight for equality, rather than himself as the lone individual.
At this moment, as we collectively consider our monuments in this city and cities throughout the country, Lum’s work and the questions about history, representation, and humility it contains are particularly fascinating. What purpose does a monument serve? Who gets to be represented? And for whom? As “The River Between Us” traveled to New Orleans from St. Louis, it was important for those of us collaborating on this exhibition (I was then Assistant Curator of Contemporary Exhibitions at Longue Vue) that all three individuals that became part of Lum’s work, however unintentionally, were represented. Their presence allowed for us to talk about the ways that Plessy had been erased from history and also to introduce a new story within the exhibition framework, that of Pinchback. In doing so, we hoped this work would become a call to more responsibly represent, share, and resource history—not only in an effort to honor those who have made sacrifices for a greater good, but also to encourage people to actively consider Lum’s question, “what is the space between you and me?”