“We condemn, in the strongest possible terms, this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides…on many sides”
President of the United States, Donald Trump, responding to the Charlottesville attack, August 2017
The series of violent events that transpired in Charlottesville, Virginia in August of 2017 began with the decision by the city council to move a statue commemorating General E. Lee, commander of the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War.
Charlottesville is a small city in the center of Virginia, home to 50,000 residents, as well as the University of Virginia – a hub of liberalism in the heart of the state most devastated by the Civil War. It is a mere one hundred kilometers from Virginia’s capital, Richmond, previously the Confederacy capital, and just two hundred kilometers from the United Stated capital of Washington.
Charlottesville was selected as the venue of the alt-right rally, convened under the banner of “Unite the Right”, as this city was both small enough and “overly liberal”. The 93-year-old monument served as a trigger: a call to action that provided a broad enough cover for quite a number of radical right movements. The alt-right movement, having functioned thus far primarily through trolls working online and relying on the anonymity it secured them, suddenly manifested in physical form in white robes and bearing weapons, including neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members, and various white supremacists from every corner of the United States. They waved about Confederacy flags and swastikas, brandished burning torches, and marched together crying “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us”. At the peak of events, one woman was killed, and nineteen others injured during a vehicular attack. James Alex Fields, a 20-year-old from Ohio, sped forward to ram his car directly into the counter-protest group. The alt-right convention was considered the biggest in attendance of radical right members in decades, but the mass homicide by Fields managed to tear away the veneer of decency usually attributed to Southern heritage. The Charlottesville events marked the dawn of a new era – a time when white supremacist ideals now enjoy the endorsement of the leader of the free world.
In her solo exhibition – “Winnie (Real Daughter)” – Efrat Vital examines the charged and bleeding heritage of the United States’ Deep South. For over a year Vital traveled between Georgia and Virginia on a journey that began in 2012, in the latter days of Barak Obama’s first term, America’s first African-American president, long before anyone ever envisioned the possibility of Donald Trump succeeding him.
Her journey begins in Athens, Georgia, moves on to Lexington, Virginia – the burial site of the commander of the Confederate States Army, General Robert E. Lee. It continues to Lynchburg, near the place where General Lee surrendered to General Ulysses Grant of the Union Army, then Richmond (Confederate capital), then Charlottesville, among others. It ends in Arlington, previously the Lee family homestead, now the site of the National Cemetery, burial site of hundreds of thousands of American soldiers that gave their lives in service from the beginning of the Civil War till this day. In every city, Vital seeks the signs that memorialize Southern culture, and finds them in every corner in the form of almost identical monuments erected in their hundreds throughout towns and cities. Some may view them as emblems of local pride, and others experience them as an ongoing reminder of the fact that a heritage of racism is still alive and well. A reminder that this heritage throbs beneath the surface, and while the South lost the war, it still enjoys a parade of subsequent victories.
Vital’s gaze is that of a foreigner, she isn’t a local, and her only familiarity with the United States is one attained through media images, most particularly documentary photography and epic cinema– both of which were invented, to a great degree, during the American Civil War, the first major military conflict comprehensively photographed and documented.
Thus, Vital’s journey is that of a photographer on the trail of American documentary photography’s founding fathers – names that any student in the first class of an introduction to photography class would encounter. Moreover, she tracks the makers of the cinematic images that have become the hallmarks of our time and culture. “The Birth of a Nation”, the first American epic drama released in 1915 by D. W. Griffith, is the singular origin of the Hollywood gestalt, both in ideology and form, still in popular use today. However, this film is also a subject of controversy; while accepted as a pioneering and seminal masterwork, it is also brazenly racist, and its latter part, focusing on the reconstruction era after the war, presents African-Americans as savages that may only be “remedied” using tactics of the Ku Klux Klan.
Vital attempts to decipher the DNA of the South with patience and attentiveness, traveling from city to city, speaking with the residents, using photography. She peels away the thin coating of its proud image, its military valor, delving into the rhythms of the “Southern way”. Beneath, she finds the immoral Lost Cause, she finds the hidden racism, which would in time explode across the country in the name of that Southern lifestyle and “white history”.
“Normal Town” is a video work named for Normaltown, a neighborhood in Athens, Georgia, itself named for the State Normal School established in 1891 and formerly located there. This all-American neighborhood is not a typical residential area. Although appearing as the archetypical American town, with wooden houses boasting front porches beyond yards outlined in white picket fences, this land actually belongs to the University of Georgia, bought before the Civil War and once serving as a college for Confederate veterans. During World War II, the complex of buildings was used by the US Navy, and later served as its training campus. It is currently used by the University of Georgia to house various guests.
The story of this place is told through the voices of its local resident women, recalling with reverence the days in which the military college was active in the area. They make clear how much more vital the town was when the school was open, and how felt its presence in town life – specifically the appearance of men in uniform. The video show street signs still pointing to soldiers’ family residences, as well as a store windows displaying the Confederate States Army flag. In view of these, business signs bearing the name of the neighborhood – “Normal Hardware” or “Normal Salon” – make us viewers raise an eyebrow. Is everything here truly so normal? Every possible answer carries with it a slew of disturbing concerns.
The oldest building in the Normal campus is the Winnie Davis Hall, named for Varina (“Winnie”) Davis, youngest child of the only President of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis. Born in 1864, towards the end of the war, her birth was a ray of light during a period when all signs pointed to the certain downfall of the South.
Winnie was crowned the first “Daughter of the Confederacy”, the inspiration for the United Daughters of the Confederacy, an organization established in 1894 in Nashville, Tennessee, three decades after the war’s conclusion, to “commemorate the actions of Confederate soldiers”. Meaning, the UDC seeks to wage the battle over the memory and mythology that exonerates the Confederacy in historical consciousness.
The UDC became the most influential women’s organizations in the South during the latter 19th century and early 20th century. It focused mainly on the establishment of 1500 monuments, including statues, buildings and various institutions, main streets, plazas, public schools and public gardens all across the United States. This has been accomplished without procuring any voting rights or actively participating in institutional politics, but through driven efforts behind the scenes and taking direct action to establish monuments fait accompli in the public sphere.
The rationale for their cause is simple: whomever wins the fight over documentation, wins the war. And what documentation is more fixed and perpetual than that made in stone, meaning monuments? Clearly, these tributes draw significance from the past – and then re-endow history with significance. Monuments instruct us on how to interpret and remember important historical events, and their physical presence seems a declaration of -“We have always been here”.
A total of 397 statues commemorating the Confederacy were constructed in Virginia and Georgia, states visited by Vital. Obviously, these monuments, and all the others, were not always there. In fact, only a handful were erected during the early years of the UDC. The vast majority of statues established between the end of the war to the turn of the 20th century (1865-1900) were those that generally commemorated Southern fatalities. It is only in the 40-year span, throughout 1900-1940, under the Jim Crow laws establishing racial segregation and during the days of the Great Depression, that commemorative figures of Southern leaders began appearing. Many were erected even later, during the 1960s (an entire century after the war) as a counter-reaction to the civil rights movement gaining power throughout the United States. This fact also explains why so many were established specifically near local court buildings, so all that arriving at the halls of justice be made aware they will find there only white man’s justice.
We Are a Women’s Organization
There is something deceptive in the seemingly self-possessed tone of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a movement that waxes nostalgic over a conservative, white, Anglo-Saxon heritage and traditional gender roles, whereby women’s strength stems from their support of a strong man. Ostensibly, the activities of the UDC seem entirely innocuous: it has as its emblem old-fashioned conservativism representing a longing for an imagined past, a simpler time, a time of family values and ideals.
And yet, behind the soft image, this organization has spent over a century nurturing the myth of heroism – the heroism of the South, which despite its defeat still stands undisputed in the right of its cause, the truth of its motivation for entering the war, and even its past lifestyle. At the heart of this myth is the Lost Cause, fought for by hundreds of thousands, still just a handful against the legions against them, who rose as one to defend the South against the opposing forces invading from the North. The values they battled for (just as in any decent fairytale passed down to future generations) is quite simple: the men who went to war were fearless, having given their lives to ensure their freedom against Northern aggression, and slavery was a benevolent system to manage primitive savages now better off thanks to generous masters. Also, slavery was never the cause of war, and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation made later, four days prior to the assassination that took his life, merely a by-product of the war. And if slavery did not incite the war, what did? Neo-Confederates insist it was a war of independence and state rights, and thus many in the Southern states still call it the “War Between the States” or the “War of Northern Aggression”.
The video installation “We Are a Women’s Organization” is divided into three channels. In one, Vital encircles the various monuments in Virginia, her gaze lingering on the stone slabs etched with Confederate symbols – symbols that are pure emblems of white supremacy masked by patriotism, marking for many local residents a lifestyle they have upheld throughout generations (and the civil war was, in their eyes, a fight for that way of life, with slavery constituting a mere postscript).
In another video channel, Vital tracks an old man on the street. He is wearing a smart suit, walking erect with the support of a walker, smoking his cigarette as the cars pass by. He epitomizes the Southern gentleman, an allegory of the Lost Cause, a living sculpture of Robert E. Lee. There is something touching in seeing an older, well-groomed man standing so tall with his walker, demonstrating the contrast between the gentlemanly image and the vulnerability of the aging body. He declines any reliance on the walking aid, advancing slowly, opting to pick it up with both hands to rapidly cross the screen.
The third channel reveals no picture. Vital uses it to make audible the voices of the United Daughters of the Confederacy she interviewed. Here also, just as in “Normal Town”, Vital chooses not to present them. This may be interpreted as an ironic echo of the organization’s standard methods of action, whereby the women’s voices are loud and clear in the public sphere (and after recent events, heard stridently in US and also global media), but they take pains to remain invisible.
The Old South’s agents of memory toil hard for their men and their commemoration, but where do they themselves appear? The answer is simple: behind each and every statue of Robert E. Lee stands a “real daughter of the Confederacy”, who would insist that this monument cannot be a figure of animosity, but merely an homage to heritage. But really, what can be done with a legacy of pure malice? White supremacy is deeply rooted in the heart of America, both socially and culturally, and coloring it in hues of nobility, honor and nostalgia does not reverse the fact that in 1861, the year the war began, there were over four million people in the Southern states that were the property of others. History itself cannot be altered, even when we choose its romantic depiction over gleaning the lessons it teaches.
Et In Arcadia Ego
For years these monuments served as testaments that despite the surrender of the Southern armies, the American Civil War never truly ended. Those of white privilege paid occasional lip service to ideas of union and equal rights, but always held fast to their intended ignorance regarding anything too inconvenient to know. White privilege has taken care to hide behind the veils of organizations such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy, but now the real profile is beginning to emerge from that of the “real daughter”. That collective subconscious need no longer be cloaked in stone slabs and whitewashed discourse: the walls have been breached, and the path of advance cleared.
The array of Vital’s works in this exhibition concoct a potent reminder that Donald Trump is not the problem, but merely a symptom – and the problem itself is nothing new. Quite the reverse. It just crouched down in concealment behind a mask of union for decades. And now, much like any union that is only a cosmetic coverup over the essential rifts in society’s body, it is disintegrating inward.
The works of Efrat Vital provide us a glimpse into the moment before our current time. She succeeds in taking us back to see what had bided there all along: what present-day reality, masquerading as an idyllic past, was bubbling in the stone and waiting for its moment to erupt.
Ran Kasmy Ilan
*This reference also brings to mind the 1939 film “Gone with the Wind”, another example of how American cinema provides an ideological platform for the rewriting of history by the South. The film, a cinematic monument to an old world now lost, is the truest representation of the glory days of Hollywood glamor, a significant milestone in shaping the memory of the war for generations that never experienced it.