Alpha and Omega of Our Athens Nostalgia: R is for Redden

You were obsessed with the caryatid that Lord Elgin stole from the Erechtheion temple on the Acropolis, when you read the tales of the five remaining figures weeping for their lost sister in Johanna Hanink’s book The Classical Debt. You even paid her a visit, after Athens, in the British Museum, and it was only then that you realized she was not alone, but was joined by a column stolen from the same temple. When you saw Tracey Rose’s reddened columns at the EMST, named Tower #1 Caryatid #1: Made for Hoerikwaggo (2017), you were embarrassed to be ignorant of this story of colonial displacement and violence. You had to discover later how Table Mountain’s indigenous Khoisan name Hoerikwaggo had been displaced by the earliest Dutch settlers to Cape Town. You also learned of Rose’s earlier work Venus Baartman (2001), in which she plays the role of the Khoisan woman, the ‘Hottentot Venus’, brought to Europe in 1810 and displayed as a side-show attraction. Oblivious to all of this, you saw in the three white columns of the EMST reddened by Rose (maybe there were more) the emphasis Hanink had put on the racialized whitewashing of ancient sculpture as part of the imposition of the Classical ideal onto Greece. You knew that there were probably traces of red paint on the stolen caryatid, but that the British had eradicated any trace of color with their ‘cleaning’ and ‘conservation’ efforts, their red-faced embarrassment over which being one reason they will not return her (or the Parthenon marbles). You wondered if Rose knew Vitruvius’ tale of the name ‘caryatid’, about the women enslaved by Athenians from the Peloponnesian city Caryas for colluding with the Persians, who were memorialized in stone ‘enslaved forever as a lesson’. How many other bloody stories of sexist and racist violence must we weep over for their whitewashing as lessons?

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