Historical statues: a story of power, of imperialism, of colonialism

Marc Lenot, Ivan Argote

Palavras-chave: colonialism; statues; public space; deconstruction; nature

Participação: presencial (Lenot) / on-line (Argote)

As we know well, historical statues narrate a story of power, of imperialism, of colonialism.

With people fighting against this historical narrative, various statues have been “cancelled” : toppled, defaced, removed, broken, pushed in the water, from Stalin in the 1990s until Colston in the Bristol Harbour two years ago. This has been a direct, radical, brutal way to destroy the imperial / colonial narrative of theses statues.

We would like to present here another form of counter-narrative, as it has been embodied in the work of the Colombian artist Iván Argote (Bogota, 1983), who is based in Paris (presently at Villa Medici in Rome). In his interventions on monuments, large-scale ephemeral and permanent public artworks, Iván Argote proposes new symbolic and political uses of public space.

Among other interventions, he has submerged in water a plaster bust of Bolivar until it dissolved; he has covered with mirrors a statue of Francesco de Oreliana (the “discoverer” of Amazonia) so that not only the statue becomes invisible, but it reflects the nature around it, giving it back its power over the colonial culture (a reminiscence of Robert Smithson’s mirror displacements); he has covered statues of Spanish Kings and conquistadores with native ponchos; he has carried all around Madrid a replica of Christopher Columbus’ statue, as if it had been removed from its column; he has broken a statue of George Washington in 11 pieces and transformed them in planters where local trees and flowers are growing.

In Paris recently he built a radical counter-narrative by posting on social media a partially fabricated video of the removal of the statue of Joseph Gallieni, a colonial general from the end of the XIXth century who was responsible for many massacres in Africa, Madagascar. This performance and video had such an impact in the social networks that the Mayor of Paris had to quickly issue a statement with photographic evidence that the statue was still in place. Unlike in the USA, UK and Latin America, no colonial statue has ever been taken away in metropolitan France.

This segment of Argote’s work has been sometimes described as “radical tenderness” : it is clearly a radical counter-narrative, questioning the display of power, specially of colonial power, but one that is not violent, not confrontational, using instead irony and emotions. Not brutal vandalism, but a critical and subtle deconstruction of the symbols of power.

Argote´s gesture is transgressive, his subversion of inviolable symbols of colonialism is radical, but at the same time tempered by his romantic humor and his sensibility to nature.

His aim is that one day this deconstruction of colonial statues become something ordinary, banal.

Noting that (like in metropolitan France) no colonial statues have ever been displaced in Portugal, we propose an hybrid presentation (in Portuguese) where the presenter, physically in the conference in Lisbon, will discuss Argote’s past work, while the artist, via zoom, will offer a performance bringing this subject closer to home, by questioning Portugal’s relationship with its colonial statues.


Iván Argote (Bogotá 1983, lives in Paris) is a Colombian artist and film director based in Paris. Through his sculptures, installations, films, and interventions, he questions our relationship with others, with power structures and belief systems. He develops strategies based on tenderness, affect and humor through which he generates critical approaches to dominant historical narratives. In his interventions on monuments, large-scale ephemeral and permanent public artworks, Iván Argote proposes new symbolic and political uses of public space. Argote studied graphic design, photography and new media at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Bogotá and holds an MFA from the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Art (ENSBA) in Paris. Iván Argote was recently nominated to the Prix Marcel Duchamp in Paris. As part of he will present an exhibition at Centre Pompidou in October 2021.