The Architecture of Memory
The memorial, as an intersection of public art and political memory, has undergone a curious transformation in the last half-century. The cataclysmic events and crimes against humanity during the 20th century have challenged the very concept of the memorial, as has the widespread disillusionment with many of the ideas that have traditionally fuelled the creation of memorials-gods and saints, national destiny and martial glory, the march of progress and technology. No longer celebrating national ideals and triumphs with heroic, self-aggrandizing figurative icons, the modern memorial is employing new techniques to pose the question of how and why we remember. Because, despite the secular nature of current society, despite doubts that anything can still be commemorated in good faith, the need to remember and honour important and terrible events remains just as vital.
Architecture has historically been used and explored as an aide to memory in various ways, adept at creating immersive experiences that transcend those offered by the statue or sculptural monument. The question posed by these spaces is how we can do justice to complex histories and avoid the commodification of trauma. Memorials are often emotionally charged creations that physically represent and concretize individual and collective remembrance. To be meaningful and publicly engaging, the process of creating memorial spaces needs to be attuned to the social and cultural specificities of its place. Commemorations and memorials that ask for participation, and are able to evoke emotions in their participants, can pave the way to confront history and lead to truth and reconciliation. Of particular interest are countries facing up to the persecution of their own people, and how the legacies of racialized violence remaining today affect the process of memorialization.
Though memorials can act as conduits for empathy and experience, the creation of such a space requires a certain crystallization and inevitable distortion of collective memory - orchestrating who, what and how to remember. Does concretizing history in this manner actually displace and bury it? And, despite efforts by architects and designers to create sensitive, considered memorials, is the immutability of the building just too great a barrier to the flow and flux of memory?
Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery, Nantes
Krzysztof Wodiczko + Julian Bonder
This monument is one of the largest and most important memorials in the world devoted to the slave trade and its abolition. It is a solemn reminder of Nantes' history as the most active slave-trading port in 18th century France, paying tribute to those who struggled - and still struggle - against slavery in the world. In continental Europe, Nantes was the biggest beneficiary of the slave trade, deporting hundreds of thousands of Africans across the Atlantic. The memorial complex transforms the old docks and banks of the Loire into a space for remembrance, whose narrow chambers recall the confining barracks or hulls that held Africans captive during the Middle Passage.
Sited in a location symbolic of Nantes' port activities, it redirects traffic routes to place memory at the heart of the city. The transformation of a space which is currently 'empty' into a 'passageway' provides a link with the ground under the city of Nantes, on both sides, land and sea... In places, visitors will find themselves hemmed in by 20th century substructures, a feeling reminiscent of the extreme confinement experienced aboard the slave ships.
"We wanted a metaphorical and emotional reminder of the primarily historical, but also very current, struggle for the abolition of slavery. The lights and reflections on the river, the chosen materials, the mix of stones from the old quay, wood, the unfinished concrete... This slow immersion beneath the quays bears a universal message of solidarity and fraternity for future generations, while affirming the value of human rights."
- visual artist Krzysztof Wodiczko, and architect Julian Bonder
As a site of consciousness, the Memorial's cool demeanour masks the corporal, mental, emotional, and spiritual violence that was the European Slave Trade. There is no inherent sense of threat or anxiety evoked. It is a cerebral response to a phenomenon that was the single most devastating event suffered physically, socially and spiritually by Africans and their descendants. At the same time, it is precisely its pristine rationality that reveals the diabolic, cold, and calculating nature of an ugly, global reality that has endured longer than any other act of evil committed against any group of human beings, lasting over 400 years.
- Dowoti Désir, International Review of African American Art
The Memorial opened in March 2012 amid controversy, partly because the descendant community was not directly engaged and very few people of colour, if any, had input in the design and build process. Memory requires consensus; the voices of victims, their perspectives and priorities must be considered by the state or government, especially when a country has a troubling history and a proposed site of memorial, and the culture of those being memorialized, is the subject of contention. The Memorial's presence underscores existing tensions surrounding issues of race, multiculturalism, and Republicanism in a France that claims to be "one and indivisible." It is hoped the Memorial will generate continued debate and permit a new rapport between Afro-descendants and the West, particularly France and her relationships with the larger African community.
Since the 1990s, the people of Nantes, along with the town council, have actively sought to face their unpleasant history. For years, Nantes, like most European cities, resisted public acknowledgment of this history; descendants of slave traders as well as local businessmen and some politicians did not want it aired publicly. But local organizations, many representing people of colour primarily from the Caribbean, pressed for recognition. When officials declined, they commissioned a statue of a slave breaking his chains, which was placed on a quay near the port.
A few days later, the statue was desecrated, broken - opponents of the memorial had rewound the chains around the statue's ankles and broken off one of its arms, a reference to amputation being specified as a punishment for runaway slaves in the "Code Noir," the quasi-judicial document France issued in 1685 to govern the relationship between master and slave. The desecration was a turning point. Broad popular support then emerged for building a memorial that would reflect the city's involvement in the slave trade.
"The Memorial is not another act of contrition, but a genuine call to us all to remember past struggles in order to project ourselves into the future, fighting against all modern forms of slavery and denial of human rights in order to build a more united world."
- Jean-Marc Ayrault, Deputy Mayor of Nantes
Mereida Fajardo is an illustrator and comic artist from London currently studying for her degree in Illustration in Bristol, UK. Her practice focuses on experimental narratives and explorations of the comic medium, as well as themes of psychogeography and memory. She is one of Broken Frontier's Six Comic Artists to Watch for 2021 and her work has been featured in the WIP Comics anthologies.