I stood in front of the National Museum of the American Indian. There was a busy little street market in progress behind Bowling Green. A line of very young school children came out of the museum. It took me a while to sift through the history of this building and appreciate the beautiful irony in the deliberate placement of this museum here. This building, 1 Bowling Green, was a US Customs house when it was built in 1902 by Cass Gilbert. Before that there was a structure here, built in 1790, called the Government House. Although it was meant to be the executive mansion for George Washington, he never used it, since the capital shifted to Washington DC before the building was completed. The choice of location was deliberate: the Dutch Fort Amsterdam stood here before the English captured it and converted it to Fort George. The Dutch had famously bought Manhattan before locating their first port in the Americas here. I followed this history in my mind slowly as I walked around the structure. This was old ground, reused ironically.
Gilbert approached Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Daniel Chester French to help sculpt two groups of figures representing the four continents to stand in front of the building. Saint-Gaudens declined and French made the four huge marble sculptures called Four Continents which I now saw. Much has been written about them, their iconography and prejudices (“subliminal racism”, as the brochure for an ongoing exhibition of the works of French calls it) have been analyzed in detail.
The featured photo, and the one above, represents America, although the woman who personifies the continent is based on an European model. She sits upright, holding a lit torch in her hand, foot on the head of Quetzalcoatl. A man in a warrior’s head-dress leans on her shoulder, while she protects a boy rolling the wheel of progress on her left. A sheaf of corn, cacti, and an eagle on her right complete this ensemble.
The statue of Europe seemed to have some resemblance to old photos of Princess Diana. The photo above does not show the globe her left arm rests on. Nor does it show the old woman reading from a book behind her throne. What you can see are the Roman eagle, French’s version of the Elgin marbles on the throne, the crown, the armour and the cloak in Greek style. These are the two central figures.
The exoticism that lurks on the edges of the statue of America finds full reign in that of Asia. The woman with her eyes closed rests her feet on skulls and holds a statue of the Buddha in her lap as she seems to meditate. A tiger (or leopard) sits on her right, and a cross peeps over her shoulder. There is no imaginative space here for the continental empire of the Mauryas, the two-millennium long continuity of the Chinese civilization, or the Mongol Empire which birthed the modern world.
On Asia’s left are the huddled masses which the US once seemed to welcome: a boy, a man and a woman, possibly a family group. The meditating woman in the strange head-dress seems to be oblivious of them. It took me a while to notice the lotus flower in her right hand, with a snake twined around it. Sculpturally masterful, but overwhelming in its exoticism.
At the other corner is the even more dubious figure of Africa: imagined as Sleeping Beauty, half nude in the problematic trope whose most civilized description is “natural”. Her left arm rests on a sleeping lion, a representation of the then-current idea of Africa as a “savage continent”. The broken shield with the sun and asp reflects the main theme on the other side. Sleeping Africa’s right arm rests on a weathered head of the Sphinx: a representation of the ancient civilization of Egypt. Nok, Aksum, Mali, Kongo, Zimbabwe, Benin, Songhai and Carthage are not remembered in this figure, an amnesia that is fairly common even today.
French (1850-1931) was a popular and accomplished sculptor, and a man of his times. He argued that elements of the statues were added according to the emotional impact they would have. To the extent that our emotional response to art is learnt, his work was embedded in the culture of his times. He brought wonderful technical execution to this set of figures, almost baroque in the way they seem to move when viewed from different angles. The preservation of these artifacts coupled with the subtle irony of locating the National Museum of the American Indian inside this building is perhaps the most apt response that our times can have to the past.