Nicole Awai is an artist and educator, born in Trinidad and based in NYC and Austin, where she teaches at the University of Austin. Her monument proposal Reclaimed Water CC’d takes on the legacies of Columbus, colonialism, and the dialectic of exploration and exploitation.
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. Over the last six months, Monument Lab has been research residents of this project and we are speaking with 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.
Farber: I know that your proposal comes from a point of that it doesn't ever have to be built and there's a freedom to that. Of course, when I see it, I not only think that it's possible and I really want to see it happen, but there's a seriousness and a criticality, but it's also funny. How did you pick up on that as you were thinking through this proposal?
Awai: Yeah. For me, humor is important. We have to maintain. Humor is almost like a means to maintain order because we can't always be angry, upset, crying. So, we have to laugh, and I think humor also helps us sort of redirect us to a place of understanding and, once again, of connectedness and unity. The post is called Reclaim Water - CC'd, and that cc'd is Christopher Columbused as an action, the action of what Christopher Columbus' legacy has done to all of us in every way. But it's also a means for us to see both sides. I remember when people first started this protest against Columbus in the late 90s. I always thought about there's many sides to this and how people's perspectives would be different the way that you're hoping that Italian Americans don't see it as an attack on them. The Italian American contribution to American culture is huge. It's like, hey, even if we bring it down to pizza, what would our lives be without that? It's like there's so much that's there. It's not just this place of condemnation. So, I think humor is so important to see the sort of multiple sides of things. The cc, it also relates to this whole idea of time passing and technologies. CC is carbon copied, and then that term moved from that into the world of the internet and email when cc is still sort of copy. The idea of carbon copying, you're copying something, you're cc'd on an email. So, it also sort of spoke to the sense of time, and I was trying to make an image, something that will give the viewer this feeling of the past and the present, but also sort of transversing time as well.
Farber: As you were saying, we're in this moment of important contestation over symbols, especially those of Columbus and the work to remove Columbus monuments, to contest them, to think about other named sites. You found another way to deal with this critical question. How do you compare your provocation here with the other calls to remove, or successful efforts like the one I'm thinking in Los Angeles, the removal of an actual Christopher Columbus statue?
Awai: It's a process. It's a process of consideration. I think we probably have gone through this different stages of human history. I think all of this is necessary, removing things, keeping things, whatever makes us conscious of the moment. And we're in a moment of consciousness or being awoken. So, I think all of these sort of gestures are valid ones. Does that make sense?
Farber: Yeah, yeah. I have to say, I'm so taken with your poster. I think in part because there is, on one hand, the expectation that you look up to a monument, and on the other, there's a great tradition of critical artwork that demands that you figure out where you're standing, and you look down. That includes the Stumble Stone project in Germany and the rest of Europe, and other places that make you pause. I guess that I'm curious for you what it means to bring a figure with such a violent and loaded history down to the ground, and what it means to also create a place of encounter where you pause and think you're not just erasing and removing his name, but you're putting it in its place, so to speak. At least that's how I read it.
Awai: (Laughs.) I kind of question why monuments are always above our heads. It's questionable about who these figures were, why it's always this sense of wanting to emulate something. But human beings are complex, and it's not all fabulous. Most of the things that are in the sky that we have erected above our heads are really monuments to mediocrity and not excellence actually, not even just mediocrity to atrocities. But there's this idea of things being accessible at your feet. We do have at your feet monuments. They're all tombstones, or just graveyards, where we put our treasured dead. Actually, in a sense, is our greatest sort of tribute to people. So, it's interesting why we think it always has to be above our heads when it's really, I guess, where reality and where we're most connected is at our feet.
Farber: You have created a proposal that shows an encounter with your own feet as the artist and this Reclaimed Water Columbus. Your work has now been shown across the High Line Network, including in Austin, Texas, where you teach. Have you experienced your work in public space, or have you seen other people encounter this work?
Awai: It's funny. It's not so much that I've seen other people encounter it because I did see it when it was opened at Waller Creek in Austin. We sort of had an opening there. I did eventually see it at Buffalo Bayou, where they actually did beautiful... I guess you could use the word monumental kind of lightbox, sculptural presentations of it in beautiful field, park area across from the judicial building in Houston. But those weren't times where there were a lot of people around. I think maybe sort of the most salient encounter was probably when it was in the New York Times when they were announcing the project, and that people's response, oddly enough, and interestingly enough to the poster was wanting to know from me where was it on the High Line? They didn't get the whole idea of the High Line Network. They thought this was physically somewhere on the High Line, and they wanted to know when can they go see it, when is it going to be on the ground, I guess, the High Line, which actually is really great. They thought it was a picture of a thing that existed. I don't know if it should exist, but then that really told me that the poster was successful.
Farber: I guess to follow up on that, if you had the opportunity to realize this, is that something you'd be interested in, or is it really for the purpose of provocation or speculation? You asked if you should, and I'm wondering if you could, would you want to see this installed?
Awai: Yes, because I'm thinking about somebody happening upon it. I'm really intrigued with that idea of maybe it is up on the High Line, and somebody stumbles upon it, walks across it. Looks down, and all of a sudden it's there, this access grate in the shape of Columbus with the words "Reclaimed Water" on it. If it sort of awakens some of these thoughts in their heads as they stand next to it or on top of it, actually would be interesting. Besides its success as a poster, if people have that response to it in the physical world, that would be great.
Farber: In thinking about the word "reclaimed," you've presented it in one way around these harmful legacies of Columbus and the act of Columbusing and kind of taking that which is not and could not be yours. I also think about reclaiming as an important, powerful act.
Farber: When you're thinking about public spaces that are being reclaimed, what forces are people working against, and what kind of tactics or artistic means do you see people using to reclaim?
Awai: I always feel like I really don't know that much. As I said, these things were brought to me just within the last year or two. But then again, it's happened to all of us just within the last year or two. I don't know if there's been, besides my own sort of gestures, I don't have any sort of direct interaction with how people are even taking all of this in yet. Yeah. It's kind of a difficult question for me to answer. I feel like it's a little too big for me.
Farber: Are there ways for you that you aim to maybe not "reclaim," but are there ways that you find a relationship with public space and public memory, taking it away from what everyone's doing and thinking about how do you find your path, whether to claim or reclaim public space and public memory?
Awai: Here, let me maybe take a step back. As I said, I only come into sort of a consciousness of this fairly recently. But before the New York Times project, I made a work for a show called Alchemy at BRIC in Brooklyn. That piece actually sort of inspired the piece that I did for the article in the New York Times. It was Called Persistent Resistance Of The Liquid Land. I think it was all me listening and taking in all of these things that were going on about the taking down these monuments, Charlottesville that spring, that my idea for this show, for Alchemy ... Alchemy was really a show where the curators, who were Jenny Gerow and Elizabeth Ferrer at BRIC, we're really looking at the artwork of artists, women artists, who use sort of materials in unexpected ways. But I was really intrigued by sort of the idea of the alchemists, the science at the time. When you think of Medieval times, in a way, the alchemists and what they understood about alchemy, being able to have the power to transform materials into gold and silver, sort of the spiritual connection between spirituality and materiality and ourselves, in a sense was so wonderfully aspirational and empowering. When I thought of all of that and thought of the situation now with these monuments, it made me start to pay attention to public spaces, to these monuments in public spaces. For me, it was, I live near to Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and I walk through Prospect Park, oh my God, so many times. I just never pay attention to the monuments that are there. I think, at that time, it was early probably in January or February, I was walking in Prospect Park. The top of Prospect Park is Grand Army Plaza, and it was the first time I really looked at the Soldiers and Sailors Monument that I walk under all the time. I really paid attention to it and noticed this African American figure that was part of this assemblage sculpture. He was a very young African American man, but I could tell from the way he was dressed that he was probably one of the sailors. He was holding a gun, and he was sort of pushed near the ground. He just had this expression of such calm and confidence as if he was surveying the battlefield or whatever was coming, and he was just ready and poised and composed. He was the alchemist for me. He was the person who could transform and change things. He was sort of this feeling of empowerment in this moment of confusion and disappointment that we were all living in, and that I realize affected me more than I knew.
Farber: There's a phrase I love that you've written when talking about the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch in Prospect Park and what it meant to walk by it many times and then take that experience with you on the road as you worked. You've written, "He came with me, and he has been with me since." Could you talk a little bit more about that feeling?
Awai: I don't know. I think maybe it's sort of this idea of having avatars or having, something that's bigger than all of us that's part of us that strengthens us, that keeps us sort of connected as opposed to disconnected. That has nothing to do with race. It just has to do with humanity. I think that's more of it. I think in my artwork, I'm always looking for connectedness. I find it problematic that especially if you're an artist of color, they're always hurling the term identity onto you, as if you're questioning your identity. I know who I am. I've always known who I am. I'm not questioning my identity at all, but that's the thing that gets posited on us, as opposed to realizing everybody is dealing with issues of identity, all artists gain things that relate to their identity. Yeah, I'm always looking for the things that connect us, the way we occupy the physical world, and the way we are connected and interconnected, sort of the way materiality and our narrative histories and just our human existence, all of that is just, it's interconnected. It's not disconnected.
Farber: In thinking about those connections, you're an artist and person who operates across spaces. You were born in Trinidad. You live in Brooklyn, and you teach in Austin at the University of Texas. For you, what does public space look like in each of those places? Another way to maybe say this is, how do you operate across those spaces in ways that are meaningful to you?
Awai: If you talk about public space, maybe I think for me the way that I'm thinking about public space right now is where I feel safe, and being aware of where it's not safe. We're in a moment where, as a person of color, as a woman of African descent, I'm very aware of my safety and where I don't feel safe. I think moving between places like New York and Austin, and last year I was in New Orleans for a while doing the Joan Mitchell residency, just the way that black bodies are considered in all of these spaces and where we feel more safe as opposed to other places, I think that's really my consideration when I'm thinking about public space right now.
Farber: How do you think about that question of safety in relationship to Austin public spaces, public culture?
Awai: I think I'm just starting to really pay attention to public spaces when I'm in Austin now. Austin is a newer space for me still. I think the thing that I'm aware of in Austin is sort of the lack of diversity. I'm sort of used to so much more diversity in New York. There is not that much diversity in Austin, and maybe I feel much more conspicuous there than I do here. Yeah, that's the extent of sort of the things that I'm aware of when I'm there.
Farber: In a space like that where you feel more conspicuous, how do you make artwork? Or, does that affect your ability to make art?
Awai: I'm not making artwork out of doors. I make artwork indoors, so I don't know if that really affects the way that I make artwork. If you're talking about sort of like my mental space, my mental space might be a little bit different down there. I think that might be the difference. You know what I'm saying? More than my physical space.
Farber: You teach on a campus where several years ago a series of Confederate monuments were removed, and, as a result, the state legislature has been scrambling to figure out ways to protect other Confederate and racist symbols in public space. Is that something that's come up in your classes or just in your own experiences in walking the streets and seeing that clash between a changing of the symbols and also a kind of re-entrenchment of a racist order?
Awai: Well, actually, those monuments were only removed two years ago. It was the summer of 2017, and actually, I wasn't in Austin at the time. The university believes that the removal of those monuments were important. It didn't reflect the values of the university. So, that was the decision that they made. I don't know how many. Because it was removed in the middle of the summer, I don't know how many students were really aware of it. I wasn't. I was only aware of it last year they were gone actually.I think probably from my time in Austin, something that relates that sort of maybe speaks to this more, in downtown, the Capitol building, on the lawn of the capitol building ... The previous fall, they had placed a new monument to African American achievement on the lawn, and that monument was protested by, I guess that you would call them, well, white supremacist groups. They actually marched for the opening. They actually came, and they marched in ski masks I believe. I don't know. I didn't go. I stayed home that weekend.I actually live downtown in Austin not far from the Capitol, but other students went. Folks from the university went in support of the monument. But having sort of that interaction there like that really, really puts it front and center that in this moment, that the achievements of African Americans in Texas would not be celebrated, or would be sort of denounced in that way by any group is just ... It's just so disheartening and amazing to me.
Farber: This is a, a big question, so I say it knowing that ... there's this great sense of reinvention and also, yeah, as you said, these really profound clashes. Who can have a hand in shaping the present and therefore future of public space from your point of view?
Awai: Well, I just think it's public engagement. Being a citizen of any country is a huge responsibility, and I think what we forget is how important that is, right, and how actually it's bigger than we think. We keep expecting other people to do things for us, but as citizens, you have a responsibility. You have a responsibility to protect things, to protect our way of life, to protect democracy, to protect just civil behavior, or just to protect each other's safety. And I think we have forgotten that that is what it means to be a citizen. I think it's everybody's responsibility. I sort of bristle a little bit that people always want to turn to artists. I can do so much, yes, but it, all of a sudden, doesn't become our job to do that. The wonderful thing about art is that it can do those things, but I am very wary of people trying to create prescriptions for artists and art to do those things because then, in essence, it'll take away what the power of what art can do when all of a sudden, we have to answer to these sort of prescriptions. But I think it's everybody, and that's why this is a period of awakening, and it's consciousness. Consciousness is not always comfortable. Consciousness is not always safe. I've been shaken out of my bubble of whatever perceived safety I believe I have to realize that, no, it's not what I think it is. It's something that I always have to fight for, and I always have to protect for everybody, not just for myself.
Farber: Nicole Awai, thank you so much for this conversation and for your work.
Awai: Thank you for having me.