When looking for monuments, most of the time we look up. But many artists have employed other strategies, from the ground up, to use concrete, bricks, or infrastructure to make their presence felt. Nicole Awai did just that. She is an artist and educator, born in Trinidad, based in NYC and Austin, where she teaches at the University of Austin. She was walking down the street and got hit with inspiration for a monument proposal poster that takes on the legacies of Columbus, colonialism, and the dialectic of exploration and exploitation.
“All of a sudden, I saw it. I saw this access grill point as in the shape of Columbus that said "Reclaimed Water" on it, and that had Columbus's name on the bottom.”
The result, Awai’s monument proposal, "Reclaimed Water CC’d," engages the question of what to do with the role of Columbus.
Awai’s "Reclaimed Water CC’d" is included in the High Line Joint Art Network’s New Monuments for New Cities.
In 2019, Monument Lab was research residents of New Monuments for New Cities and interviewed artists from each of its 5 partner cities – New York, Chicago, Austin, Houston, and Toronto – about monuments, memory, and public space.
Farber: Nicole Awai, welcome to the Monument Lab podcast.
Farber: It's great to have you. I want to start by having you describe your monument proposal for New Monuments for New Cities.
Awai: Okay. Well, it's interesting how this came about. When I was asked to do this project initially, I think I was a little confused. I had just been asked and had just executed something that seemed very, very similar for the New York Times. I was asked to sort of conceptualize or think about a monument that could replace Confederate monuments that had been recently removed by the New York Times for an op-art as opposed to an op-editorial—
Farber: This is the Monuments For a New Era?
Awai: Yes, and that's what made it a little confusing when they asked because it sounded like the same project really in essence. That project was myself, Dread Scott, Titus Kaphar, Kenya Robinson, Ariel Jackson, and Ekene Ijeoma. We proposed these suggestions for new monuments, a range of very interesting proposals that were very, very ... They were entertaining as well as sort of being on point.
Farber: And then you get a call from the High Line Network. Where did your mind go?
Awai: I think I was a little sort of confused because I saw it as first as the same project. And then I think while I thought about it longer, I realized that it wasn't exactly the same, or at least my thinking about it could be different. I think with the proposal for the New York Times, I was sort of really physically thinking of something to replace these things as opposed to more why these things need to be replaced or don't need to be replaced. I think once I started thinking about it sort of like in a bigger way, I saw it as a different project.
Farber: Can you describe your monument proposal and poster?
Awai: I think I need to kind of tell you a little bit about how it came about before I can sort of describe it because then it'll make more sense as to why I did what I did. I think once I understood that it wasn't quite the same project, and I started to think about it more holistically, not as sort of just a direct response to that whole Charlottesville incident, but really seeing it on a global scale. I think it started to resonate for me from the monument in Columbus Circle here in New York. At the time, the mayor was trying to decide whether that should be taken down or not, and me realizing that really this was an international discussion, that monuments to Columbus were being taken down or being considered to be taken down all over. There was one in Upstate New York, I think in Syracuse, that had been taken down. There was one in Minnesota that had been taken down, and there was a petition out to have it replaced with a monument of Prince, which I think was just fabulous. Even in Port of Spain, Trinidad where I'm from originally, there was discussions and arguments about taking down one of the Columbus statues there as well. So, it's really all over the Americas and all over the world, other sort of related discussions in South Africa around monuments to Rhodes in France. It's just all over. We're in this moment of sort of reconsidering things. What do these things mean? I think once I realized that, it became clearer to me that I needed to think about this in a much sort of bigger way. There are many sides to this conversation, to this argument of whether you remove things or not, whether you are erasing history or you're changing the history. I think with that in mind, it made it very simple for me. I was in Austin, and I was walking downtown just behind the newly constructed library downtown, beautiful library. I looked down on the ground, and I saw one of these, I guess, access grill points. On top of it, it said, "Reclaimed water." All of a sudden, idea popped into my head what my poster should be. This is a poster image, right? This is not actually a proposal for a monument. It has to be something that resonates as a poster image. All of a sudden, I saw it. I saw this access grill point as in the shape of Columbus that said "Reclaimed Water" on it, and that had Columbus's name on the bottom. So, I took a picture, and I just happened ... Actually, when I took it, the picture, and I went home, and I was looking at the picture, the other sort of crazy irony was that I was wearing my pair of Superga sneakers, which is a contemporary brand of Italian casual footwear. I'm like, "Oh, my God. This is just hysterical." I just saw it all there. I thought of a monument at our feet. A monument that didn't just resonate with the past, but I hoped with the present moment. Considering all of these arguments and the total history of what is going on, it just popped into my head. It sort of also recalled for me in the late '90s when we first had the protest against the Columbus holiday where we produced those posters. Remember the ones with the, "Wanted: Christopher Columbus for Crimes against Humanity," et cetera, et cetera? All of that just came into my head. There it was on the floor, the grill, and I sort of collaged the whole image sort of based on that photograph, but old-school, cut and paste, paint, collage. And that was how I came about with the poster.
Farber: You're describing this encounter of walking down the street, and in the poster, as you say, we see your feet as you look down. You're describing this kind of as a vision. When you were looking at this reclaimed water grate, was it the language of "reclaimed water"? Was it the shape and the vision of what you saw? How did you kind of make that jump from encountering this thing we walk over every day to a powerful monumental invention?
Awai: It was the words “reclaimed water." The reclaimed water spoke to everything for me. This idea of the way that we think of Columbus and the discovery of the New World, and sort of the expanse of the ocean that divided Europe from the New World and discovering the New World, and everything that was lost in those waters, including the human bodies in triangular trade, which is basically human trafficking. All of that, it just spoke to this whole idea around sort of a discovery and claiming and economy and capitalism and the reason why the Americas is the Americas. It just seems such a total phrase, "reclaimed water" and this idea of reclaiming these monuments now or re-informing them. It just completely came to mind when I saw those words.