“Who are you if you don’t have a memory?” asked La Vaughn Belle, CC ’95, TC ’99.
Belle, a multidisciplinary artist from the Virgin Islands, is this year’s Barnard Center for Research on Women’s current artist-in-residence—her work serves as the memory of a forgotten past that aims to foster conversation in the present. A Columbia alumna, Belle has returned to campus with a mission to spark conversation about the history of colonialism and resistance. Her partnered project, “I Am Queen Mary”—a lifesize sculpture of labor leader Mary Thomas—will be installed in Barnard Hall this Tuesday.
Belle’s work is inspired by her heritage and contributes to her goal of starting a conversation around the colonization of the Virgin Islands, a topic which she says is often overlooked.
“What deeply motivates me is the process of understanding, of … creating a counter-archive to who we are as Virgin Islanders and a counter-archive to the colonial visualities as well,” Belle said.
In addition to being Barnard’s artist-in-residence, Belle collaborates with other artists to prompt dialogue. Belle and Jeannette Ehlers, a Danish and Caribbean artist, joined forces to create “I Am Queen Mary,” which aims to immortalize Mary Thomas and her story of resistance.
Thomas, along with four other women, led the “Fireburn” labor riot on Oct. 1, 1878. The revolt was in response to the low wages, poor working conditions, and binding contracts that exploited laborers on St. Croix.
“I’m so excited to see all of the new narratives that can be generated by [“I Am Queen Mary”] being particularly at Columbia. I mean of course it’s significant that it is … a black female figure, that is one of the main components of this sculpture, and I think Barnard has some of the most amazing black feminist scholars, so I’m so curious to see how [the community] will engage with the sculpture. … I’m hoping that it will open up conversations around the colonial relationships with the United States,” Belle said.
The sculpture highlights intersectionality within art. According to the piece’s webpage, Belle’s work focuses on examining artifacts related to colonialism, while Ehlers’ work explores her heritage as a Danish and Caribbean woman. Together, the artists draw parallels between their unique backgrounds to research the widespread impact of colonialism.
“[The collaboration] pushed the sculpture to be the best it could be because we really had to sit and negotiate and figure out what would be the best for the sculpture. … We both had really different perspectives. … It was a complex and fulfilling experience,” Belle said, when asked about working with Ehlers on the project.
Belle is also working on “Neither Subject Nor Citizen,” a research initiative that explores the repercussions of the sale of the Virgin Islands to the United States, specifically the migration of Virgin Islanders and their fight for citizenship.
“I’m kind of researching that period and thinking about [it] as a really interesting metaphorical space to talk about our current situation as Virgin Islanders,” Belle said.
Belle’s work is a visual investigation of oppression, colonialism, and identity. These factors will be discussed by Belle herself at an opening ceremony that will accompany the unveiling of “I Am Queen Mary” on Tuesday, Oct. 15 at 6 p.m.