Another statue comes down …. Celebrating protest art

Stepping into His Shoes, East Capitol Street, Washington, DC — with and then without Barack Obama

Walking in my neighborhood a few years ago, I saw a tiny art installation. The piece was called “Stepping into His Shoes” and featured President Obama rising into Abraham Lincoln’s shoes. I loved it. What a great use of a 19th century fixture — a fire department call box — for a 21st century message. Again, my neighborhood came through with quirkiness and  public art.

Then a few days ago, I saw something disturbing. Obama was gone, forcibly removed from the art installation.  I immediately thought, “Why do people deface art?” That thought was followed by an important memory. I recalled my reaction to what I called embellishments to — not defacement of — the pedestal of the Robert E. Lee statue in my hometown.

Robert E. Lee statue, with embellishments, Monument Avenue, Richmond, VA

For over a century, that statue, unveiled in 1890, towered on its pristine white marble base over Richmond’s Monument Avenue. When George Floyd was murdered, I was supportive as graffiti grew on the pedestal in response.  For me, the addition of those thoughts not only contextualized the statue, but they also took away  any power it may once have held.

So, when the public art removal/change/embellishment aligns with my world view, it’s okay, but when it doesn’t, it’s defacement. Wow. I need to think about this.

The Lee statue was offensive to me because it celebrated the leadership of someone who chose to denigrate and subjugate my people.

I celebrated the Obama-Lincoln statue because it recognized the leadership of someone I admired. Obama was removed by someone who I suspect felt as much distaste for Obama as I felt for Lee.

Now what? Who becomes the arbiter of public art? What is built? What stays? What goes?

The same people as always. Those in power.

My understanding is that public art, art paid for with tax dollars, is typically approved by a panel of reviewers chosen by an appointed, or perhaps, elected official. Some group that is supposed to be representative of the sensibilities of the community makes the decision.

In the late 1800s, in Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, there was significant support for the erection of the Lee statue. His nephew was then Virginia’s governor and many wanted to celebrate Lee, the South, and Southern sentiments. It is reported that 100,000 people attended the unveiling of this 60-foot-tall statue.

I guess the lesson here is to ensure that the people in power in your community, share your values. Those values will be reflected in big issues, like how they vote on policies with deep and long-lasting impact and in the somewhat lesser decisions, like who is celebrated in public art.

Protestors rallying to remove Lee statue

And, when your values are not shared by those in power, it’s vital to remember your own power – the power to vote out those office holders and the power to organize a public outcry against what doesn’t align with your values and those of others in your community. That’s what happened in Richmond. The Lee statue was removed amid major public support, nationally and locally, for racial justice in public policy and in public art.

Wider view of the original fire call box art — “Stepping into His Shoes”
“Emancipation” located  in Lincoln Park, Washington, DC

Now, here’s the kicker. Unlike what I thought, “Stepping into his Shoes” is not public art, at least not as I described public art above.

A little research revealed that while some call box art in DC was approved by the DC Commission for the Arts and Humanities, a public agency, that was not the case with the art piece in my neighborhood.  No public dollars were used to create it nor was public input sought.  No? No, but it’s located on a public street — East Capitol — in a structure owned by the District — the vintage call box. Does that make it a form of public art?

I now know that “Stepping into His Shoes” is another example of  protest art, not public art as I had thought. When I saw the Obama-Lincoln statue originally, I only recognized their coupling as philosophical kindred. The art was saying much more, but I didn’t see that initially.

So, when a protestor removed Obama from the small art installation, I noticed. That person’s act caused me to look more closely. Not just kindred spirits, the statue had also been an artistic plea by a group called Fearless Girls 2020 to replace “Emancipation,” a statue of Lincoln located a few blocks away with a statue of Obama.

Did the removal of Obama deface the art, enrich it, or both? You decide.


“The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been concealed by the answers.” — James Baldwin

12 Replies to “Another statue comes down …. Celebrating protest art”

  1. Thx for your thoughtful research and challenging commentary. It resonated with my belief (somewhat tangential) that maximizing the percentage of voters voting for everyone from the dogcatcher to city council to president matters. And I do believe that if we maximize voters we can start approaching a more representative democracy.

  2. Wow, Tamara, this one was a mind-blower in many levels! Wish I could convene our little group TODAY to process your points together in this one. But for now, I’m going to sit with my morning coffee on this rainy Saturday morning, take it all in, and see where my own head goes with it. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Removal of Lee statue vs Obama statue does not compare, in my opinion. What did Lee stand for? What does Obama stand for? Enjoyed reading your piece. Food for thought. I’m from Richmond, too. Have your book. Knew Brucie and family. Rachel Elligan Clark

    1. Thanks for your comment. I understand your sentiment about the lack of comparison between the character of Obama and that of Lee. I was just trying to say, at the time, Lee was revered by thousands as Obama is today. Nonetheless, I really appreciate your position. Thanks again for commenting.

  4. Wow! I can totally follow your questioning and self-reflection on this one. And I recall your discussion of the visual symbolism in the rising from emancipation statue. I would also have been fine with leaving the concrete barriers around the circle on Monument as they contained some powerful art work, in my opinion. The statue HAD to go. But like you, it does make me think about the larger principles, especially when they don’t align with mine. The Baldwin quote is perfect.

  5. Tamara – thank you, for going several thoughts deeper and wider towards the answer. Loved it. Don

  6. The call box defacing harkens back to the Jim Crow era of statutes/ memorials long after the Civil war and the misrepresented “southern Pride and hate / segregation in the late 1800’s . no way that Obama /Lincoln symbolism in the call box compares to the racist animus Monument Row in Rchmond and other Southern Cities , college campuses, public parks etc. as well AS bldg. names and “dedications” to the sons of the South.whoever defaced the call box is racist , ignorant or both to say the least.

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