A Contested Chicago Monument to Native Americans Gets Caught in the Crossfire of Balkan Nationalisms

Responding to the pressing need for a public discussion about the city’s monumental sculpture following the summer of 2020, Chicago’s mayor Lori Lightfoot appointed 30 civic, arts, and community leaders to the newly founded Chicago Monuments Project. Recently, the project’s advisory committee began its work by releasing a list of 41 monuments that may present harmful or incomplete narratives about Chicago’s history. Many of them are incontrovertibly fascist and shockingly racist. Also included, for its “romanticized and reductive” representation of two equestrian Native Americans, is a work widely considered one of the most important works of Croatian art, “The Bowman and The Spearman,” sculpted by Ivan Meštrović for Chicago’s Grant Park in 1928. While the two bronzes are certainly stylized, by focusing only on their subject matter the Monuments Project obscures a more complicated narrative — one that implicates Chicago in the genocidal, interethnic violence that has plagued the Balkans region for over a century.

The Balkans, with their largely white population of Serbs, Bosniaks, Croats, and other South Slavs, are understandably absent from American public discourse on social justice. However, any discussion of “The Bowman and The Spearman” would be enriched by an understanding of the progressive, idealist politics behind the sculptor’s chosen style. Properly contextualized, the Meštrović monument might even assist the Chicago Monument Project’s aim of rejecting racial and ethnic supremacy, by speaking to an audience the city has all but ignored: the hundreds of thousands that make up Chicago’s enormous, deeply conservative, historically extremist Balkan diaspora.

Ivan Meštrović, “The Bowman” (1928) (photo by Mike Steele via Flickr)

Long before he would win the Grant Park commission, Ivan Meštrović (1883–1962) was a peasant boy tending sheep in the least developed corner of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the rugged Croatian hinterlands. A mere decade later, however, he was hailed by Rodin as one of the greatest living sculptors, his works exhibited alongside the likes of Klimt. “My people and I have always been considered barbaric, members of an inferior race,” Meštrović said, reflecting on the Western art world’s sudden interest in his epic sculptures of Balkan folk heroes; “That’s why I do not believe in European culture.” In fact, Meštrović successfully leveraged his international profile to aid the unification of Serbs, Croats, and other South Slavs into an independent nation of their own, which would emerge out of the rubble of WWI and come to be known as Yugoslavia.

Why did Meštrović choose two equestrian Native Americans for the commission, whose brief was to monumentalize “an American hero”? Scholars have argued that he related to Native Illinoisans’ struggle for survival amid the condescension of the big-city bourgeoisie who knew nothing about the land they were occupying. Of course, having grown up without even a primary education, Meštrović himself knew nothing about Native American history or culture; what he wanted to honor was the importance of presence on one’s native land.

To express this lifelong commitment to indigeneity — which he understood as a force binding together South Slavs regardless of religious or linguistic differences — he developed a signature style that distorted the body and minimized realistic markers of ethnicity. For him, stripping figures of identifiable ethnic features was anything but a refusal to engage with politics: Simplified and naked, his colossal folk heroes resisted being appropriated by just one of the newly unified Yugoslav peoples. To render figures ahistorical was not to deny their history, but to reorient the viewer’s gaze towards the future. This was the mindset from which the exaggerated forms of “The Bowman and The Spearman” emerged.

In hindsight, the promise of Meštrović’s form seems naïve, as does his belief that reason would prevail over interethnic differences in the Balkans. In fact, Meštrović would soon witness his beloved Croatia secede from Yugoslavia as an eager Nazi puppet state. After WWII, disillusioned by the failure of Tito’s restored, socialist Yugoslavia to deliver on promises of true equality, he immigrated to America and spent the rest of his life in relative isolation, teaching sculpture at Notre Dame.

Head of medieval hero Marko Kraljević, engraved on a 1963 stamp of Yugoslavia by Stanimir Babić, after a marble sculpture by Ivan Meštrović (photo via Wikimedia Commons, author unknown)

Many subsequent Balkan immigrants to Chicago have been deeply hostile to Meštrović’s idealistic view that South Slavs must overcome division and work together. For decades following the establishment of socialist Yugoslavia, Croat and Serb extremists longing for a restoration of the Nazi-era status quo cultivated some of their busiest terrorist cells in Chicago. To this day, a portrait of the Croat Nazi dictator Ante Pavelić is on public display on the wall of the otherwise benign Croatian Cultural Center. Following Yugoslavia’s collapse in the 1990s, Chicago also attracted war criminals fleeing prosecution. As recently as 2018, a Chicagoan was deported for failing to disclose that, as an officer of the Bosnian Serb army, he helped block the exits out of the Srebrenica area during the 1995 genocide.

Do the values young Meštrović had invested in the two bronzes push back against these fringe elements? Are new generations of Balkan Chicagoans being brought up to reject divisive nationalism? The answer is debatable. Last summer, a photo went viral on the Balkan internet. Taken just steps from the Grant Park monument, it showed a young, white family smiling at a Black Lives Matter rally, holding up a hand-painted sign with “END RACISM!” right above the nationalist cry “KOSOVO IS SERBIA.” The latter references Serbia’s continued claim over the breakaway region, whose majority-Albanian population endured ethnic cleansing by Serb forces in the 1990s. The disconnect between the two demands seemed lost on these protestors.

What would it mean to rid Chicago of Meštrović’s equestrians? Among other things, to those who commission oil paintings of Nazis and shield genocidaires, it could mean symbolic victory: Toppling the Yugoslav idealism represented by the statues would erase the last visible public trace of an alternative to their revisionist kind of nationalist fervor. In contrast, keeping the Meštrović monument would give Chicago an unparalleled opportunity to speak to its Balkan youth about reconciliation and tolerance in terms that are specific to their identities.

I support the demands of Chicago’s Native communities to have monuments that represent the richness and complexity of their experience. Nevertheless, I cannot help but to mourn the possibility of Meštrović’s statues going down. In a city where it often feels like the old wars never ended, I take pride in having our communities represented by the work of a man who at least tried to carve his way out of competing, toxic nationalisms. However, if the committee decides the time has come for “The Bowman and The Spearman to retire,” so be it. Nothing is more fleeting than a well-intentioned monument — just ask anyone in the Balkans.


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Author: Roko Rumora