One of my lasting memories from this summer is an instructional graphic by activist group Decolonize This Place on how to tear down a monument. The post, which Instagram later censored, explains the physics of removing a tall, heavy object. “For every 10 feet of monument, you’ll need 40+ people.” These types of monuments are easy to go after: obelisks, sculptures, oversized statues. But what do we do with the monuments that cannot be torn down? The ones embedded into the landscape of our city and the mythology of our country?
ABSCONDED, conceived and performed by Dragonfly/Robin Laverne Wilson/Miss Justice Jester, offers a solution: interaction. Started in September of this year and supported by the Hemispheric Institute of Performance & Politics and Grace Exhibition Space, ABSCONDED marks national holidays (Labor Day, Election Day, etc.) with tours that offer counter histories. In each iteration, Dragonfly traces a path through a New York City neighborhood and unearths its forgotten legacies with her own body. She performs as a statue of Ona Maria Judge Staines, a woman who escaped slavery at age 22. Judge was held captive by the Washington family, and fled the President’s House for a chance at freedom. She remained a fugitive for the rest of her life. Dressed in a plaster-covered period dress and covered in white paint, Dragonfly drags a wagon through the streets of New York that reads: Ona Judge, 1773–1848, Forgotten Founding Mother.
The most recent performance on November 3 bore the title “#EjectionDay2020.” At the start of the show, the crowd scattered and shifted about. Audience members and curious passersby mixed at a distance as we all waited, for the performance, and the election results. “Ejection” felt too hopeful for a time when our national mood hung in the balance. On the other hand, the procession format of the piece was fitting for the pandemic. Our walk was part funeral march, part protest, and part COVID-conscious performance.
“#EjectionDay2020” began at the site of Seneca Village1—Manhattan’s first prominent community of Black landowners—near 85th and Central Park West. Ona Judge stood in a clearing covered by a lavender sheet. The audience filtered closer as she harnessed the singular suspense of a still, standing body. Figurative monuments are out of style for the most part, but the sight of Judge leaning into the wind brought back a sense of their archaic power. A life-like sculpture can draw you into an interaction without blinking an eye.
Eventually, a member of the tech crew removed the sheet to unveil this new monument. The plaque-wagon beside Ona started to play music, and she parted the crowd to walk slowly through Central Park. Snippets of voice recordings mixed in with the score: “A silent slave is not liked by masters or overseers”; “I am free because I am a fugitive, and I am a fugitive because I am not free.”
In one sense, ABSCONDED is a meditation on archiving. Throughout the performance, Ona was surrounded by cameras—multiple iPhones live streaming from different angles, a photographer, and the relentless documentation from bystanders looking for artsy social media content. Dragonfly not only mobilized a historical archive, she performed the creation of a new one.
The show even left traces on the city. A thin stream of red paint poured out of the front of Ona’s wagon, marking the path of the performance. The wandering line connected each site to the next as we walked across the Upper West Side. Each time Ona stopped, a puddle of bloody paint marked the spot. Red stained the shoes of everyone who followed her path.
Based on the program notes, I expected to witness violent confrontations with white supremacist history, but the performance proved mostly tender. Ona paused frequently to interact with passing children and trees, pooling paint at random points on the sidewalk. A deep moment of catharsis came when she approached the statue of Frederick Douglass at the New-York Historical Society. Leaving her plaque on the sidewalk, Ona made her way up a set of stairs to the platform where Douglas stood. She placed her hand on his cheek, then his heart, and finally embraced him, resting her head against his chest. I saw layers of New York City history become visible as she flickered between identities: street performer, fugitive, youth, statue.
The performance wore on, and it became clear that this was not about the story of Ona Judge. Like most monuments, Dragonfly embodied a perspective instead of a person. It was the attitude of labeling Lincoln Center as a memorial to the lost neighborhood of San Juan Hill.2 Or the position of getting stopped by a security guard and edged off the premises. Ona took the interaction in stride, but it was uncanny to watch history repeat itself. Once again, she was no longer welcome on the property.
Why are monuments so easy to hate? For me, it’s something about their claim to permanence. A monument takes something slippery like memory and tries to form a fixed point of view. At a time when our country is desperately failing to deal with its own past, statues celebrating colonizers are a convenient scapegoat. Yet the most insidious monuments are the ones that hide: the buildings, parks, and avenues that celebrate one history by burying another. ABSCONDED breathed life into our forgotten past, and in that sense, it was monumental.
- The neighborhood was especially significant because owning property gave men the right to vote. In 1857, the New York City government seized the land under eminent domain and razed the neighborhood to create Central Park.
- San Juan Hill was a primarily Black and Puerto Rican neighborhood and home to jazz musicians James P. Johnson and Thelonious Monk. In 1949, Robert Moses evicted the residents and demolished the tenements to build Lincoln Center.