Traditionally carved of stone, wood, or cast in metal, plaster, and more, busts are a timeless and global aesthetic form. Focusing on the head, neck, and torso, the bust captures an individual’s most distinctive physical characteristics, memorializing the subject for posterity. Unlike a painting or photograph, a bust occupies physical space much as we do. A hard substance becomes human – animate, moving, turning, and emoting. To encounter a bust is to travel through time: to share physical space with another.
Busts are charged, treasured cultural objects, demanding the viewer ask difficult questions. Who is being represented and how? In what context are they being represented? How does the bust fit within broader trends of representation in a culture? Who should be remembered and how? Busts ask all of these questions, in a deeply challenging, materially rich form. These are, but a few good reasons, why contemporary artists are reconsidering the bust.
One bust in particular holds the attention of the art world and pop culture alike: Nefertiti. We felt equally bewitched by her gaze and have anointed her one of our Queens (in the company of the creative force, Georgia O'Keeffe). This bust of Nefertiti is held by the Minneapolis Institute of Art, which is a reproduction of the treasured 3,500 year-old Egyptian antiquity. The original bust, in the collection of the Neues Museum in Berlin, is one of Germany’s most visited attractions, and a source of ongoing dispute and accusations of cultural plunder. Each bust has its own provenance that requires careful consideration.
It’s an extraordinary time to consider the global history of the bust, in particular as the United States reckons with manifestations of racism and white supremacy in public monuments across the country. In New York City, as one example, the American Museum of Natural History has decided to remove a monument to Theodore Roosevelt in which the former President rides horseback flanked by a subservient Native American and African. Along Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, once the capital of the Confederacy, demonstrators recently toppled a statue of Jefferson Davis, which has stood as an overt symbol of white supremacy since 1907.
The problem we face is one of public memory. How do we remember our ugliest histories – our inheritance of systemic racism, slavery, colonialism, war, and oppression? How are these histories marked by monuments, including busts, in public space and in public institutions? Busts are a kind of monument – a monument to an individual at a certain time, in a culture with all of its embedded values.
In this moment of rumination, we’re introducing our first bust sticker to further conversation about public monuments and representation in culture. At times in How to Apply, we’ll feature activities that are centered on craft and process. Here we would like to propose an activity in the form of a provocation: look in your surroundings – across your city, in your streetscapes and public spaces – and ask yourself, who do you see? Who is being represented and who is under-represented? Who is doing the representing? What stories do these objects tell? Take pictures of these public monuments and examine their provenance. Share with us what you’ve learned, how you’ve been challenged, and ultimately, what busts and public monuments would you like to see in your community & why?