When Robert E. Lee died in 1870, a memorial association was formed in the City of New Orleans. After six years had passed, the association raised an amazing $36,400 – during the throes of Reconstruction – to construct a monument. The world-famous New York-based sculptor Alexander Doyle (who studied in Bergamo, Rome, and Florence) was commissioned, and it was installed at Tivoli Circle – renamed Lee Circle – in 1884. The statue was placed atop a granite pedestal consisting of a 60 foot column. The statue itself is 16.5 feet high and made of bronze. Attendees at the dedication included Jefferson Davis, two daughters of General Lee, and former Confederate general P.G.T. Beauregard.
Monuments such as these also memorialized the many common soldiers whose bodies were never recovered for burial, or who lie strewn across battlefields in unknown, unmarked, or even mass graves. The postwar monuments provided solace for survivors and healing between the regions as monuments to the dead of both sides in the war were erected as the veterans were dying off. The Lee statue was a rare early monument erected during the post-war federal occupation of Louisiana.
In time, Lee Circle and the monument became an important landmark and meeting point for locals, especially for Mardi Gras parades. The Circle stands at basically the intersection of the Garden District, the French Quarter, and the Central Business District. The statue became iconic to the landscape of the city. The monument made the National Register in 1991, and in 2011, New Orleans Magazine declared it one of the most important statues in the city (along with another striking Doyle piece, the equestrian statue of P.G.T. Beauregard).
Six years later, after 133 years, the monument was declared “racist” and removed, being placed in a shed in a city junkyard where it remains – along with three other historical monuments (including Doyle’s Beauregard) hidden to this day.
The column remains in place with nothing on it.
On January 22, 2022, a new statue was erected at the ground level of the pedestal where it will remain for several months. It was executed by another New York sculptor named Simone Leigh. The statue is entitled “Sentinel (Mami Wata)” and it “takes the diversity of African cultures in New Orleans as a starting point, evoking African folklore and spiritualities.” The statue is supposedly an African idol, described as a “water spirit or deity.” The deity is sometimes associated with lust and prostitution. This representation is a nude female form wrapped by a snake with the unique and unusual element of having a head shaped like a spoon.
Yes, a spoon:
“The ceremonial spoon form of the sculpture references a symbol of status in Zulu culture, so honored in New Orleans,” according to the exhibition. “Leigh’s sculpture holds forms of knowledge that have been passed down through spiritual and masking traditions of the city and beyond, wherein masking signifies transformation, not simply concealment.”
Rather than locate it on the top of the sixty foot pedestal, it sits on the ground. It is claimed that this was intentional:
“Not looming over people but rather emerging from among us,” the exhibition statement said. “This constellation de-centers whiteness and the legacies of colonialism, renewing access to knowledge and culture that has been suppressed by the falsehoods of white supremacy.”
Of course, that may just be a flowery way of saying that they lacked the know-how and the money to hoist it to the top of the six-story column.
At any rate, this is a fitting symbol of New New Orleans: a crime-ridden, violent, impoverished, drug-invested, culturally-debased, infrastructure-ruined, politically-destroyed and corrupted city, a shell of its former historical greatness. The naked woman with the head of a spoon is wrapped by a serpent, calling to mind Eve and the original sin of mankind, a primitive hot-mess of a superstitious idol, representing the decay of civilization, culture, art, history, and craftsmanship.
This is a fitting display of public art that fits in with the city’s other offerings, such as electrical boxes painted in what appears to be finger paint, often with depictions that look like stick figures, or a large scrap-heap of junk bicycles painted white and piled on one another, and murals that are indistinguishable from the seedy graffiti and rat-infested blight that dot the landscape where majestic statues once stood in manicured public spaces.